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Percussionists move into the limelight

Colin Currie
Financial Times

By Laura Battle

You could call it a big bang theory. For centuries, percussionists laboured at the back of ensembles, adding rhythmical texture or climactic flourish to instrumental works but, more often than not, silently counting beats. As one disenchanted musician once put it, 90 per cent of the time he was bored to death and the other 10 per cent of the time he was scared to death.

During the mid-20th century, however, attitudes began to change and there followed the gradual emancipation of classical percussionists who sought a more conspicuous role. Over the past 30 years there has been an explosion of interest in percussion instruments: they have found prominence in new compositions and as soloists in their own right. There is now a growing belief that percussion, and percussionists, will come to define the musical landscape of the future.

There were many catalysts for this change – influential research into African music, for example – but the first percussion composition to grab public attention was Steve Reich’s “Drumming” from 1970-1971. This piece came to epitomise early minimalist cool, but Reich had been inspired to write it after a period of study at the University of Ghana with the drumming master Gideon Alorwoyie. The score consists of a relay of phased rhythms: tuned bongos give way to marimbas and female voices, which themselves blend seamlessly into glockenspiels, whistling and piccolos before all unite for a reverberating chorus. Performances of the work have been rare, which makes this month’s concert at the Royal Festival Hall by Scottish percussionist Colin Currie and his group rather special – so special, in fact, that the composer himself will bear witness.

“Percussionists all have different opinions about things but when it comes to Steve Reich we’re all on the same page,” Currie says. “He’s written so well for our instrument, he knows the colours and how to build amazing ensembles. ‘Drumming’ is an absolute masterpiece.”

Performances of the piece last, on average, around an hour, depending on repeats, and within this time the piece develops a crescendo of giddy optimism and an almost dream-like transcendence. “Often percussion is criticised for having surface effects without profundity but ‘Drumming’ can really choke you up, it’s very powerful.” In the early 1970s, Reich and his ensemble presented “Drumming” in a somewhat ritualistic fashion – reports tell of kaftans and long beards – but Currie will forego any attempt at extraneous effect: “We wouldn’t be seen dead playing that piece in kaftans!” he assures me.

In addition to “Drumming”, Currie will give another concert at the Southbank, titled “The Big Bash”, as part of the Imagine series for children. “None of the repertoire is hammy,” Currie says. “I’m going to play two Reich pieces, ‘Clapping’ and ‘Nagoya Marimbas’, but I’ll have more audience participation and go into some of the rhythms.” Currie explains how, as a child, he was charmed by the charisma and almost primitive physicality of percussionists. “A drummer is someone who coordinates a number of things,” he says. “The left hand is doing something, the right hand is doing something else, the feet are involved – and there’s something magical about that, like being a conjuror. The callisthenics of percussion is still something that interests me.” He also enthuses about the open-mindedness of children, who are often far more receptive than adults when faced with a challenging piece of music.

The percussion repertoire is, almost by definition, modern or contemporary. When the now renowned percussionist Evelyn Glennie began her career in the 1980s, she was one of the first professional soloists and the range of music was relatively limited. “[Glennie] premiered some of the first percussion concertos that achieved a high level of musical integrity and I think she really opened up the path for solo percussion,” Currie says.

Since then, however, leading composers including Philip Glass, Thea Musgrave, James MacMillan, Unsuk Chin and Mark Anthony Turnage have written percussion concertos, and percussion pieces are now frequently performed by the world’s top orchestras. Currie has had 12 concertos written especially for him and 10 of them have gone on to be played, sometimes dozens of times, after the initial premiere.

The knock-on effects of this phenomenon have now percolated through academic institutions: there has been a massive increase in young solo percussionists and there are a growing number of specialist ensembles round the world. Currie, who holds visiting professorships at the Royal Academy of Music and at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague, works closely with young musicians.

“It’s phenomenal. The standard has gone through the roof. You get people who have been frantically practising their marimbas since an early age but I’d say there’s now a plateau,” he says. “Percussionists are always worried about their technique and being the best at something and that’s such a mistake. What’s really needed is fresh ideas – collaborative thinkers and composers that will help us expand musically rather than technically.”

One key to the success of percussionists seems to be their capacity to involve a wide audience. As Currie points out, “What do all cultures have in common? Drums.” Another is their innate versatility. Currie has worked with all manner of musicians, including the Monteverdi Choir, the Labèque sisters, jazz trumpeter Kenny Wheeler and the beatboxer Shlomo (see above), and he has had to master a great range of individual instruments. As the conventional boundaries between musical genres dissolve, and cultural traditions become more porous, percussion seems to offer the ultimate medium for musical exchange. “I’m much more involved with the classical side of things,” Currie says, “but you will see percussionists performing in all sorts of different venues, and they could be the ones to watch out for.”