PERCUSSIVE RHYTHMS were one of the earliest forms of long-distance communications between primitive peoples. Wars were declared, victories announced, marriages and births celebrated, feasts and the location of animals that could nurture the tribes all passed through the air on the waves that sprang from hollowed-out logs, the earliest drums.
If we think about it, there has always been an instinctive need and understanding of syncopated rhythms. Even Samuel B. Morse, the famous American inventor who was also a painter, used the principle of percussive rhythms to carry significant ideas urgent to humanity--from communications among widespread members of the smallest social units to vital messages sent by one world figure to another regarding the structure of the world and human experience.
So expressive have composers found the percussive strain that dozens of instruments have been invented to carry their musical messages. "Drums" form a prominently known division "in the kitchen," as the percussion section in the orchestra is familiarly called. But keyboard instruments such as the xylophone, vibraphone, marimba, glockenspiel, piano and celesta vie for recognition as members of the percussion family, as do the "accessory instruments" such as cymbals, bells, gongs and wood blocks. The potential of this group has so stimulated the musical imagination that composers such as Lou Harrison have included as instruments such diverse objects as flowerpots, automobile brake drums, coffee cans and washtubs.
I have always been fascinated by the Futurist painter/composer Luigi Russolo (1885-1942) and his intunarumori, instruments he created to mirror his contemporary world in the sounds of Italy at the beginning of the 20th century. Inventions such as ronsatori (buzzer), crepitatori (crackler), scoppiatori (exploder) and ululatori (howler)--fraught with the bustle, humor and dynamism of contemporary life--became very, very real to me when I had the privilege to premiere Eugene Kurtz's "Logo" for clarinet solo, piano and percussion orchestra at the French Radio in 1979. The idea of a solo instrument playing in concert with an entire world of percussion instruments solidified my belief that the sound world of a modern composer could still maintain bridges to an inspired musical moment at the beginning of the 20th century. The tempo of ordinary life--the dynamics of the city and its excitement--are human constants, vibrantly alive. This idea prompted me to research other pieces written with percussion orchestra to present an entire concert, "The Concerto With Percussion Orchestra"--a total world with a unique perspective and vision.
I used Kurtz's "Logo" as the basis on which to build the idea. Kurtz's adolescence was filled with the intoxication of the music of Benny Goodman, and even though for the past 30 years he has lived and composed in France, "Logo" is his testament to the sounds that inspired him as he was growing up. American jazz rhythms and elements of "swing" are as much a part of his world as the elegance and harsh sophistication he garnered from the French.
Natural musical associations followed, resulting in the inclusion of Lou Harrison's Violin Concerto (1959) in the concert. Here too, as previously mentioned, Harrison embodies the sounds of his native environment--very close to the Futurist ideas of making music from everyday elements.
Nicolas Flagello's "Electra" for piano solo, harp, celesta and percussion orchestra is not only a beautiful piece but one that forces the audience to perceive the piano, a standard solo instrument, in a new way. Here the piano must be a soloist and distinguish itself not among strings and winds but among its "percussion peers," instruments of its own family.
Finally, my 1977 "Prelude to the Ballet 'Les Empreintes (The Imprints)' " for percussion trio, written for the Dance Theatre Susan Buirge in Paris, shows my own commitment as a composer to the expansion of the percussion repertoire. Beginning with two simple beats, the piece grows by continual duplication into a complex Rorschach in which every newly interjected rhythmic element leaves its own interpretation and imprint.
"The Concerto With Percussion Orchestra" will feature as its three soloists principal clarinetist Stephen Bates, concertmistress Lily Kramer and pianist Stephan Scaggiari, all of the New World Players Chamber Orchestra, in conjunction with a percussion orchestra headed by NWP's principal percussionist, Paul Edgar.
NWPCO, founded by Bates and me in 1980 and in residence at the National Academy of Sciences, is committed to presenting those 18th-, 19th- and 20th-century works as yet unknown to the Washington audience and specifically written for the chamber orchestra. Not only does the orchestra show as many facets as Proteus, the legendary Homeric figure who kept changing his form, but the chamber orchestra is constantly expanding its scope through innovative programming concepts. "The Concerto With Percussion Orchestra" is part of this philosophy in which every year we reach out more, into the uncharted musical past and the yet-to-be-recorded musical future. As Luigi Russolo said, "Thirty thousand diverse noises not by simple imitation, but by combination according to our imagination." I want this concert to excite the listeners so they feel part of a world where over 50 percussion instruments played together on the stage at one time do, in fact, stimulate that imagination. It is always my hope that my programs will lead each member of the audience to perceive that place revered by Russolo and sought by me--a place that is music's special province--that is, that plane where the stimulation of the mind and the fantasy are infinite.