Posts Tagged ‘percussion’

Composer/Percussionist Olivia Kieffer Talks About Arranging and Performing

January 22, 2016

World premiere of William Susman’s Material Rhythms for percussion quartet performed by Reinhardt University’s Percussion Ensemble under the direction of Olivia Kieffer.

I recently asked composer/percussionist Olivia Kieffer to talk about her work on some of my percussion music. She and her ensemble, the Reinhardt University Percussion Ensemble, premiered my quartet Material Rhythms. She also arranged some of my piano music from the series Quiet Rhythms. -William Susman

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Before we met, Bill and I exchanged emails in preparation for the premiere of his percussion quartet “Material Rhythms”. One of the first pieces of his that I listened to was a recording of Francesco Di Fiore on piano playing “Prologue and Action 1” from Quiet Rhythms Book I.

Francesco Di Fiore performs Prologue and Action 1 from Quiet Rhythms in a film by Valeria Di Matteo.

I loved it so much, and was immediately taken by the beautiful ringing tones and thought how marvelous it would sound on vibraphones and marimbas. I asked Bill if I could arrange it for a keyboard quartet of 2 vibes and 2 marimbas, and he was on board!  I stayed up all night and arranged “Action” and sent it to Bill in the morning. He came back with excellent suggestions, and I let the arrangement sit for a good while.

When Bill came to Reinhardt to hear the Percussion Ensemble premiere Material Rhythms, he gave me the bound score of Quiet Rhythms, Book I. Once I had that, I was able to truly start translating the piano score into a living breathing keyboard quartet. Taking apart the notes and rhythms in each hand, sometimes keeping them the same and sometimes rearranging them,  and fitting them in creative ways to the range and tone of the keyboards was a lot of fun and a new experience for me.

Turns out this solo piano music fits beautifully and naturally on marimba and vibes. Since it is less Right-Hand/Left-Hand and more Hands-Working-Together, it is physically familiar for percussionists to play.

Prologue 1

Prologue 1 (excerpt) from Quiet Rhythms for piano

“Prologue 1” starts with ascending and descending 16ths, and introduces the hand-to-hand clavé.

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Prologue 1 (excerpt) from Quiet Rhythms arr. Olivia Kieffer

In “Action 1”, there is a constant clavé rhythm, which changes from 3/2 to 2/3 alongside the harmonic changes. It starts with a busier amount of pitches, then simplifies, then moves into big chords.

 

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Action 1 (excerpt) from Quiet Rhythms for piano

 

The clavé is notated in the piano score with beams that cover both staves, to make the pattern visually clear. I had to find an idiomatic way to notate this for percussionists which led me to figuring out a 4-mallet sticking that would naturally ascend like the “right hand” of the piano. Another idea was to use harder mallets in the right hand.

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Action 1 (excerpt) from Quiet Rhythms arr. by Olivia Kieffer

Letter D in Action 1 is the first time that all four parts are playing together, it’s the first time full chords appear, and is one of two spots where the vibraphones represent one hand and the marimbas the other. Though Prologue has slightly similar music in its last section; it is pianissimo and subtle. So it felt important to bring those Action 1 clavé chords in with a bang!

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Action 1, mm.84-96 from Quiet Rhythms arr. Olivia Kieffer

 

Below, is the original with the clavé chords entering at measure 89.

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Action 1, mm.85-96 from Quiet Rhythms for piano

 

In Material Rhythms, each movement has its own rhythmic patterns which are passed from instrument to instrument, player to player, in various combinations. The first 3 movements are Wood (2 blocks), Metal (3 metals), and Skin (2 drums). The last movement is a combination of all 3. This passing rhythmic material creates its own melodies, particularly in “Metal”. I cut pipes to be very close in pitch to each other (in relation to low-middle-high across the players), to create a sort of Balinese Gamelan, shimmery sound. “Metal” has constant 3s, and the rhythms come out from the melodies of the pipes, and the stark dynamic contrasts.

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III. Metal (excerpt) from Material Rhythms for percussion quartet

Something I love about Bill’s music is that he is a master of layering. This is something that can be discovered while listening to the music and also from studying the score. The depth of his music comes to life, though, when being played.  There are beautiful patterns which fit themselves into all the chords. Like a beloved book often returned to, and every time something new appears, so these layers are found over time by the performer. His music speaks for itself! He can create a pattern that is, in a single line, harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic. Quiet Rhythms is beautiful and uncomplicated, yet goes as deep as one is willing to take it. When the music speaks on its own, the details are fresh to see and to work with. -Olivia Kieffer

 

Writing for Percussionists

January 22, 2016

For many years, I have written music for percussionists. Their diverse musical backgrounds generally gives them a very open mind towards the new and contemporary.

My music tends to be highly energetic, groove-based, pop/world-influenced and grounded in modes. In other words, the sound world of jazz and rock, a world that most percussionists of American origin are familiar with due to playing in bands as well as high school and college music programs.

So, if you’re going to write new music today, you’re probably going to find percussionists welcoming you. It is worth noting that the first classical percussion literature written specifically for percussion ensemble begins with Edgard Varèse’s Ionisation (1929-31) a seminal 20th century piece. And, by the way, it’s highly energetic with grooves and world music influences.

Here is the opening to my percussion quartet Material Rhythms. The world influence in the opening measures are found in the 3-2 clavé pattern in the percussionist’s right mallet layered over a 2-3 clavé pattern in the left mallet.

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Material Rhythms for percussion quartet by William Susman, Section I. Wood

William Susman’s Material Rhythms for percussion quartet performed by Reinhardt University’s Percussion Ensemble under the direction of Olivia Kieffer.

 

AFRO-CUBAN CLAVÉ RHTYHM

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3-2 Clavé

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2-3 Clavé

Idiophones

November 14, 2009

 

The Central African Republic has many types of idiophones. These are instruments that vibrate without strings or a membrane. In Western music some types of idiophones may be a triangle, cymbal, or marimba. Many of the instruments mentioned by Simha Arom below have become an essential part of Afro-Cuban and Latin percussion. I heard all of these instruments performed by various ensembles while in Burkina Faso this past summer. Actually the clappers made out of metal blades were somewhat challenging to play and they had a powerful sound quality.

  • Metal blades used by the Pygmies as clappers
  • Single or double bells, with internal or external clappers.
  • Wooden slit drums used by the Banda and Manja in families of two to four at a time.
  • Gourd aka water drums found in Islamic groups
  • Xylophones with five to ten keys, some with gourd resonators and others with mobile keys that may be placed on the knees or in a hole in the ground.
  • Log drums (Mpyemo and Kaka)
  • Rattles, pellet bells, ankle and knee-jingles.

In Burkina Faso, (West Africa)  I saw dance troops, sometimes 10 – 20 dancers, moving in unison with knee-jingles to great dramatic effect.

  • Scrappers (Ubangi river-dwellers)
  • Sanza aka Mbira, Kalimba or thumb piano: metal or bamboo tongues attached to a resonator. Also very popular in Zimbabwe. Often tuned to a pentatonic scale and/or various micro-tuned subsets.

 

Tempo is the Only Constant

September 9, 2009
Excerpt from Susman's Pentateuch showing divisi polyphonic and polyrhythmic wind, brass, percussion and string sections with three choir groups of tenors and basses in 5ths below the soprano lead

Excerpt from Susman's Pentateuch showing divisi polyphonic and polyrhythmic wind, brass, percussion and string sections with three choir groups of tenors and basses in 5ths below the soprano lead

Thoughts on the Typology of Central African Music:

Melody in Central African music is determined by the tones of the language. As I mentioned in a previous blog Steve Reich uses this approach in his work Different Trains. Also the melodic line can be transposed allowing a wider range of intervals. Often the lines descend in the form of terraced movement resting on “successve levels”. (Arom, 19)

Tempo is the only constant. The speed of a piece of music never varies. Only melody, rhythm and instrumental patterns may change in a musical discourse.

There are different techniques of plurivocality or multi-part singing: Heterophony, overlapping and homophony. André Gide relates his impressions of a ‘tam-tam’ in 1928, “but imagine this tune yelled by a hundred persons not one of whom sings the exact note. It is like trying to make out the main line from a host of little strokes. The effect is prodigious and gives an impression of polyphony and of harmonic richness.”

Simha Arom aptly describes the features of this heterophony which I will delineate in a list:

  1. A melody whose outline is refracted by a kind of halo
  2. The voices are slightly unfocused
  3. Minute variants
  4. A coming and going of dissonances
  5. Overlapping between solo and chorus parts (Gide called this ‘brocading’)
  6. Often in the middle of this process a singer will sustain a single note thus creating an intermittent drone. (Arom, 21)

Homophony on the other hand is the most common form of multi-part singing. This form of plurivocality involves parallel movement of the voices. Typically they are in intervals of 4ths, 5ths and octaves. Often certain tribes are known for singing distinctly with these intervals as 8-5-4 tribes and some sing in 3rds. (Arom, 22)

In Pentateuch (1983) a grand divisi orchestra, choir and soprano work written when I was 23 (with influences from Ligeti and Xenakis) the three male choir groups sing for an extended period in 5ths. Each group takes its turn singing a phrase in 5ths while the soprano voice predominates above in a quasi call and response. My intent was to create a very raw, basic and forceful sound in the midst of a constellation of divisi polyphonic and polyrhythmic wind, brass, percussion and string sections.

Call and Response

September 5, 2009
A mosque on the main street in Ouahigouya, Burkina Faso with a speaker to broadcast the call of the Muezzin

A mosque on the main street in Ouahigouya, Burkina Faso with a loudspeaker to broadcast the call of the Muezzin

More on the Typology of African music

Continuing with a typology or characteristics of Central African music Simha Arom mentions that antiphonal and responsorial structures predominate.

Another characteristic I found fascinating are litanical songs. These pieces contain short melodic cells typically no more than four to five in a given song but usually two.

What gives a song originality is the way they treat the form of the phrases or melodic cells for example ABABABACCAB or,  AAA…BBB…CCC or, a litany and then a refrain or, a through-composed passage followed by a litany.  Lomax documented this formal structure in 1968.

As in medieval church music repetition is used to focus the mind or create greater intensity of thought on some specific idea or purpose. Repetition is a universal concept crossing over many cultures.

In call and response music the response is nearly always invariable where the antecedent can change and often does melodically because to change the words means to change the melody as tones are tied to language.

This call and response form also reminds me somewhat of Gospel music where a leader intones a story through a series of verses followed periodically by a chorus that declaims a recurring melodic and, or harmonic response.

Arom says that the formal structure is isoperiodic that is “The periodic structure is dependent on an extremely strict division of time into segments of equal duration, each segment possessing its own internal organization. The periodic unit is like the basic material of the musical structure, or a kind of mould.  Periodic units … can be subdivided into two or more melodic and/or rhythmic units. (Arom, 18)

Arom goes on to describe how vocal music is accompanied by a formula that organizes the melodic instruments and percussive instruments. For example thinking in western measurements you could have a sung strophe which takes 8 bars to complete accompanied by an instrumental melodic pattern with a “periodic unit” of 4-bars repeated twice and under that a percussive pattern of 2-bars repeated 4 times. Many popular songs in western music follow this formula.

In other words, “in a sung periodic unit of a given duration, the melodic instruments will follow a repetitive formula that is half the length, and the percussion a formula that is a quarter of the length.” (Arom, 19)

Below is a schematic I created showing a common exponential (8,4,2) formula for segmenting time into segments of equal duration and thus creating an “isoperiodic” structure.

Sung strophe:

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Melodic instruments:

|______________||_____________|

Percussion:

|______||______||______||______|