The first seven pieces on Percussion Discussion are compositions written for drumset and marimba, my two main instruments. There are other mallet percussion instruments, here and there – xylophone, glockenspiel and vibraphone – as well as some auxiliary percussion. To me, at least, full pieces for drums and mallets are fairly unique. While it’s quite possible there are other pieces that consist of just these instrument families, the only work I can think of that is quite similar is Neil Peart's excellent "Pieces of Eight", which was released as a sound supplement for Modern Drummer magazine back in 1987. It was not a direct influence on me to create my compositions, but listening to it now after composing upwards of 40 of these types of works, I can certainly see a direct correlation. Here I thought I was an original, but leave it to Mr. Peart to have perfected this genre all by his lonesome, with one amazing piece of music! I urge you to listen to his performance at You Tube. Generally, percussion albums are either fully Classical solo records or they feature a Percussion Ensemble. Most of these types of discs, don't feature contemporary drumset techniques and styles.
After I heard the first piece finished, I was quite happy with the combination! Armed with knowing that these two instruments worked well together, I set out to compose a bit more and expound not only on my ideas and performance, but also my composition skills.
It's difficult to pinpoint a straight up comparison, because I can't think of any groups that only feature drumset, marimba and percussion. Of course, many bands contain these instruments, but are of course complemented by many other traditional instruments. These percussion instruments are the ones I play, so this was my pallet to create. At the fear of the music sounding empty, I had to treat the marimba in some unconventional ways.
I began to look at the marimba in 3 sections as 3 different instruments. The low register was the bass, the middle register would act as the piano where I’d play 3 and 4 voiced chords and the upper register would act as a “lead” instrument, such as guitar or horn. I’d graduate the mallets accordingly. Of course, this was just a loose interpretation, but a good launching point for filling the sound and creating a complete composition.
All but one of the pieces was written on drumset first. Some might find that odd, but drums are my first love and instrument. I could write the melodies, harmonies, chord structures and any other pitch related notes after the groundwork was laid on the drumkit. As I got into the notes, perhaps it would trigger a slight change in the drum part, but for the most part, these pieces were conceived on the drumset.
Over the years, I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved with two incredibly creative groups – (plūv) and The Yeti Trio – both of which I'll eventually write about (and post audio clips) here at this site. In my private practice sessions, sometimes I would come up with grooves or ideas that didn’t fit either ensemble. Perhaps it was stylistically, or I had already used a similar idea with one or both of those bands. At the time these pieces were composed, neither band were fully active any longer, though neither fully defunct. While both groups were on a hiatus of sorts, my new ideas weren’t. These ideas didn’t really fit the other groups with whom I’ve worked and made a living. Not wanting these concepts to lie dormant, I decided if I want to use these grooves, I must write the music for them myself.
I see these pieces as more of a vehicle for my composing ideas rather than my performance skills. I think there are certain moments that surely present my playing level, but for the drumset, this is just a small piece of the pie. It is much easier for me to play more freely and relaxed when I’m backing up other musicians, rather than having to play exactly what is needed to fit underneath the mallet parts I am writing and playing. I generally use a sizzle cymbal, play tons of ghost notes, word paint and weave in and out of improvised solo lines from other instrumentalists, yet none of those concepts fit here. Sometimes it might feel a tad rigid, but it’s what served the composition best, to my ear.
There are certainly some stylings you will hear that are present in almost all of the tunes – odd meter, cross rhythms (esp. 5’s & 7’s!), flanged hi-hats during the bridge sections, harmonic dissonance, etc. The earlier compositions have a lot of “doubling” – whatever was played on the drumset, was essentially matched in rhythm on the marimba. As new pieces came to life, I tried to move away from that a bit and write melodies that soared on top of the drumset part, when applicable. As stated earlier, it’s easier for me to write more organic drumset parts to other instrumentalists’ interpretations, while with these pieces, it was easy to fall into the trap of making sure all the parts matched up seamlessly. For the most part, I think it’s an efficacious approach, as I was looking at this more from the standpoint of a composer, rather than performer. That said, I worked incredibly hard at making sure all of the performances were as top notch as I can make them. These compositions all fit together stylistically, but each have their own story and were written at different times.
The second half of the disc, is Classical in nature. At this time, I didn't plan on having a 2nd and (eventually) 3rd CD, so I wanted to include all facets of my drum and percussion playing. You can read entries on each of the percussion pieces, as well as the Classical portion, below.
It’s About Time
“It’s About Time,” was the first piece I ever composed for drumset and marimba. It began in January 1996 and, at that time, I didn’t really have any idea, concept or notion that it would eventually trigger a style and other pieces. In fact, it wasn’t even recorded until more than 7 years later!
I had major shoulder surgery in December of ’95 and when I was first able to go downstairs and play the drums again, the main groove to what became “It’s About Time,” was the very first thing I played. I had never played it or thought of it before. Even though it has an angular feel to it, the beat felt so organic to me. I just looped it over and over and over and couldn’t tell what time signature – or signatures! – it was in. Turns out it was a 4-bar phrase in 5/8, with the hi-hat opening every 4 beats.
When I was done reuniting with my drumkit, I went upstairs and banged out 5 haunting notes on the piano to match the main kick/snare groove. I also played a dissonant note to match the hi-hat in 4, which I affectionately refer to as a “water drip”! I had the idea to hear this on marimba along with the drums. Only problem was, I didn’t have a marimba at the time…
Fast-forward about 2 months and I was back living at Penn State – to play with (plūv) – and had access to the percussion rooms at the School of Music. By now, I had added other sections to the initial beat and arranged it in a tidy composition. It screamed Bill Bruford to me, as do most of the other pieces, which is no surprise as Mr. Bruford is a massive influence on me and I was listening to a ton of old Yes during this period.
I essentially doubled every drumset note on the marimba. At times, I thought this may be an immature approach to composing, but this was my first attempt at this sort of thing, and it seemed to work. (Eventually, I felt this was a rather smart approach and went back to it with no hesitations.)
I taped my drumset part at “The Plūv Pad,” where I practiced and would play marimba parts to the tape. Problem was there were multiple marimba parts going on at the same time and covered the entire range of the instrument. More of a problem was that it would be another 9 years or so until I learned how to use a 4-track, so I actually never got to hear the full piece as I was composing it!
Now, fast-forward to 2003. I was doing a lot of studio work with Eyal Levi and he needed me to record just a small composition of his. To make the session more worthwhile for both of us, I proposed he record the drumset part for “It’s About Time” and that we’d attempt to record marimba on top of it at a later time. This is exactly what we did.
We had a blast and it came out better than I could have ever imagined. I was thoroughly intrigued by the drumset/marimba combination and the possibilities for future pieces. My creative juices were overflowing and I started to go through old manuscripts, practice tapes and the corners of my mind that stored unused grooves, concepts and ideas I had come up with over the years.
Technical Notes – There’s a recurring 5-note lick. The A section is 5/8 with accents every 4 notes; this phrase repeats 3 times. The B section consists of cross 7’s and, I guess, has a Rush feel to it. The chorus is a slow 7 with a slow 5 at the end. The bridge is kinda nutty and is in both 5/8 and 6/8 at the same time, with a straight quarter note flange on the hi-hat. It sounds to me like an “evil carnival”! Harmonically speaking, there is a lot of dissonance – minor 2nd’s, major 7th’s, inverted tritones and fighting triads during the crazy bridge section.
About the Title – There is a double entendre at work here: There are multiple time signatures in this pieces, sometimes going on at the same time and it also took a whopping 7 years from the time I came up with the idea to the time it was recorded and I finally heard the whole thing together! “It’s About Time,” was conceived in New York, completed in Pennsylvania and recorded in Atlanta, Georgia. It sure was about time I got my first composition together!
This is my epic Latin tour-de-force. This piece about broke me. I hadn’t worked so hard on any piece of music in ages, perhaps ever. Eyal agreed it was the most challenging music he ever recorded. The amount of work I put into it really wore me down and I truly believed it would be my last composition because A) I didn’t have the time or strength to continue this process if it was always going to be this grueling, and B) I didn’t think I could ever top it.
I completely adore studying Latin, Afro-Cuban, West African and other world music on the drumset. I had come up with what I dubbed a “world beat samba” and used it in a Yeti composition. The intro to “Thelamba,” was a 2nd similar groove I had written. I obviously couldn’t use it in The Yeti Trio and it didn’t fit (plūv). I do use it with my jazz trio as the intro to the wonderful samba “The Real Guitarist,” but I felt this was still fair game for me to use for a solo composition.
I had a plethora of other cool latin grooves lying around that I knew I wouldn’t be able to play anywhere other than the practice room, so I chose some, dusted them off and pieced them together in a flowing fashion that would make for a good piece of music. I also wanted a section where I could play some drums and "blow some chops", as the saying goes!
There are many Latin drumming ideas, concepts and grooves that are present in “Thelamba”: samba, guaguanco, cascara, montuno, tumbao, son clave, rumba clave, left-foot clave, ago-go and songo.
Technical Notes – The intro and outro is a samba played on the toms; not a traditional samba with a ride pattern and left hand lines on the snare. The A section is guaguanco with a samba foot pattern and cascara on the cowbell. This was my first attempt at writing a melody that didn’t just double the drumset in rhythm. After the recurring rumba clave lick, it moves to the very latin-y B section. I love this groove! I’m playing an ago-go bell pattern on two different cowbells (high & low), left-foot clave on the hi-hat, tumbao on the bass drum and a left hand “melody” on the toms and cross-stick. The bridge section is a songo. The bass marimba tumbao is in tritones with the melody in Lydian mode. The choruses are kicks with drum fills. There are mirroring and foreshadowing drum fills throughout the piece, as well as time scales, double bass, groove fills and non-traditional sounds. During the outro, I play a bunch of auxiliary percussion instruments in attempt to emulate an African drum troupe. Those instruments are: cabasa, claves, guiro, ganza (shaker) and triangle.
About the Title – When I toured with Col. Bruce Hampton, he bestowed an honorable “Zambi” name upon me: Thelarmis J. Younkin. Without going into any details behind the meaning – or what the “J” stands for! – “Thelamba,” is simply a “Thelarmis Samba”.
The Loading Zone
"The Loading Zone", was the 3rd composition and really started to come to life as “Thelamba” was getting close to completion. My main drumkit contains 2 jam blocks, 2 cowbells and a “homemade” ice bell (a mix between a very large crotale and resonant brake drum). I would constantly mess around and come up with silly grooves incorporating these sounds and it would make me giggle. Once again, this piece was borne out of a Yeti groove. There was a pattern I would play that the rest of the band matched. It was brought to my attention that my jam blocks and cowbells comprised an Eb-flat minor chord. How cool! So I took a similar, but different pattern I had written using these sounds, along with my vaunted trash-hats and matched it up on the mallets. It had an industrial sound to me and a harder edge to it. Xylophone and glockenspiel are front and center as their respective timbres reflect the vibe of the piece and match up well with the blocks and bells. I thought of blowing a train whistle during the B section, but never did… (Please note that the drumset groove and all the bells/blocks are played at the same time!)
TLZ, clocks in at barely over 90 seconds, but everything I needed to say was in there – quality over quantity. One of the concepts I had floating around my head for quite some time, in regards to these percussion compositions of mine, was a solo marimba section. What better concept than an avant-garde movement in 5/8, at a slower tempo, to sandwich in between the “Bob The Carpenter” (plūv reference) sections?!
Technical Notes – The main sections are ABA form: 6 bars, 3 bars, 4 bars. The melody changes slightly for the B section, but the minimalist bass line remains the same throughout. The hi-hat openings are flanged with my foot, which freed up my hands to play the bells, blocks, trash hats and snare drum back beats. Everything is in 4/4 time, including the “rhythm” section that follows the main motif. The first half are cross 5’s, while the end are cross 7’s.
The avant-garde section isn’t completely random, as pretty much each 4-bar phrase follows the same – or similar – intervallic approach. The crescendo that leads back to the main section follows a metronomic formula back to the original tempo and is purposefully a half step away from the original key.
About the Title – The timbre of the bells, blocks, xylophone and glockenspiel give off this construction site type of vibe to me. But it’s a tricky pattern to play and requires a good deal of concentration. The cross 5 and 7 licks are advanced rhythms. The middle section has a modern classical sense about it. This combination of silliness and seriousness, along with the picture the timbre paints, had me thinking Frank Zappa, hence the title. “The Loading Zone,” is a tribute to his Central Scrutinizer character from Joe’s Garage, which states: “The white zone is for loading and unloading only. If you have to load or unload, go to the white zone. You’ll love it.” I sure hope you love “The Loading Zone”!
The main groove to Silver Point was written on drumset in Atlanta, probably around 1997. I had been studying a lot of Zappa, King Crimson, Indian music and other advanced rhythms, but this concept came from one of my hugest drumset influences – Billy Cobham. This groove is in the uncommon time signature of 17/16. I had learned about 16th-note based time signatures from the aforementioned Zappa cd Joe’s Garage, specifically Vinnie Colaiuta’s incredible drumming on the song “Keep it Greasy,” along with Arthur Barrow’s rock solid bass playing. I had even written a tune for (pluv) in 19/16. Cobham opens his 2nd solo album Crosswinds with the fantastic “Spanish Moss Suite,” which is in 17/16. I’ve come up with a few grooves in 17, but this was the first. I sang a melody along with it and longed for an electric bass player to play it with me in a slap style. It never happened.
Fast-forward a solid 8 years later. I was on tour in Canada driving around in a van. One of the band members’ cousins was along for the ride. He was a super nice guy and a drummer. Our conversation turned to drumming and odd-meter and this topic of 17/16 came up. I started thinking about my old groove and that slap bass line and it was then I knew I had to go for a forth with a fourth composition! In fact, I jotted down a bunch of notes north of the border and essentially fleshed out the entire layout of this piece. As soon as I got home from the tour, I went straight to work on finishing the drum part and writing the notes on marimba.
Technical Notes – One of the obvious trademarks in my compositional style is an opening lick, usually an odd grouping – that is repeated throughout the piece. “Silver Point,” is no different. I bookend two groups of cross 5’s, with a 7 sandwiched in the middle. Of course, this 5-7-5 pattern creates 17 16th notes. Chord qualities tend to be accentuated by the instruments’ natural timbre. Straight up major and minor chords, might sound a bit empty on the marimba, especially when it is the only pitched instrument in a piece of music. So I had to mess around with different types of suspended chords to capture the attention of the listener. For the main lick of this piece, I played root/fifth/octave, but placed a #4 in there, thusly creating a tritone and minor 2nd at the same time. I used this and the sus concept on future compositions, as well, and find the effect to be quite successful.
After the lick and main A sections are repeated, with slight variations, comes a multi-layered bridge. It’s in my favorite time signature of 7/8 and begins with just drums outlining the rhythm and melody to come. Different tonal centers and double bass drums ensue followed by a pretty Classical roll section which leads into dissonant harmonies before recapitulating the main theme and lick.
About the Title – When I was a kid growing up in NY, my family used to belong to a beach club in the summertime. I used to love going there every single day, more than anything. My favorite activity there was to play Paddleball, a sport that enjoys great popularity in the Northeast. The name of this summer haven was Silver Point Beach Club and our cabana was C-17. The A section of this piece is in 17/16 and revolves around the tonal center of the key of ‘C’, hence the song title: “Silver Point.”
This piece is very special to me and I love it a lot. It’s probably the most ‘fusion’ of the bunch and it’s mainly in 7, which is the time signature in which my heart beats. I was certainly not planning on composing this and as the wheels started to come off I felt that ‘dropping’ feeling inside, knowing it was going to be on the longer, epic side and closer to “Thelamba,” in regards to difficulty in putting together. It was too late; it had to come to life!
Technical Notes - Just about all of “Quechua Kitchen,” was new. The intro lick - which reappears throughout the composition - is cross 5's within a bar of 7/8. Thare are 7 1/8th notes in a bar of 7/8, meaning there are 14 16th notes. When you add a downbeat, there are now 15 notes. I played 3 groups of cross 5's, accenting the last note of each group, which means the end of the phrase ends on beat 1, the downbeat. This is an Indian rhythmic concept known as Tihai.
There’s this little bluesy lick I’ve always played when just futzing around on the marimba. I took the concept, changed around some notes and came up with the A section. That part is in 7/8 and the rolls that follow are in 6/8. I mark the difference on the drumset by changing colors from hi-hat to ride cymbal.
The B section is straight 7 and starts with fully diminished chords and cowbell in a quarter note pulse, which goes over the barline. It turns into a moving line involving diminished, minor and sus chords.
The C section is very fusion-y and shows more of my Billy Cobham influence. It is very ‘diddle’ oriented – inverted paradiddles, paradiddles, paradiddle-diddles. I played a similar groove in a Yeti piece, but that was in 9/8. I doubled the exact stickings from the drumset groove on mallets.
I wanted the timbre of this entire piece to be a bit harder and brighter, therefore I used staccato mallets in the high register of the marimba and played vibraphone for a sustained metallic tone.
For the bridge, I revisited the A section of changing meter between 7 & 6. But now there were full chords and melody lines. I can totally hear this being a horn section, and it also reminds me of Chick Corea.
Whereas in earlier compositions, I was working hard to write a melody that didn’t match up exactly with the drum pattern, now I was trying to come up with an improvised solo. Much to my surprise, it came together rather quickly. The bass line underneath took a bit longer and it turned out the simplest line with the least movement worked best! I doubled the solo on marimba and vibraphone, with the vibes being more prevalent in the mix.
There are then 4-bars of kicks/drum fills underneath ascending 4th’s that move up a step, per bar. This leads back into the original Tihai lick and runs through the form again.
About the Title – Quechua (pronounced: Keh-Schwa) Kitchen was named because of 2 major influences. The Quechua portion relates to the fusion-y C section. The groove may be Cobham based, but the main gist of that section, was influenced by one of my very favorite Zappa tunes, “Inca Roads.” Quechua, is a term for the Incan People. The main inspiration for this entire piece and the underlying reason I played vibes on it, is due to the undeniable influence of the incredible Bill Bruford piece “If You Can’t Stand The Heat…” The title, “Quechua Kitchen”, may sound like a Chinese Restaurant, but really it’s just the influence of Zappa and Bruford at play, mixed into the blender of my brain.
“Hamaika,” is certainly the weirdest piece I’ve ever composed, and that’s sayin’ something! It is also the only piece I composed on marimba first. I used to play these New Age-like arpeggios when messing around on the piano and wanted to come up with something that had a similar effect on the marimba. One of my favorite aspects in music is the concept of tension and release; it’s why I love rhythmic illusions, metric modulations, and cross rhythms so much. There are other ways to create that tension and what I did here, was to place a hectic and busy beat underneath a calm and pretty melody.
Technical Notes - This intro section is in 11/8. It starts off with solo 4-mallet marimba. The arpeggios are grouped 4, 4 & 3, thusly creating 11 1/8th notes per measure. The cycle moves up a fifth. After introducing both sets of chord changes, the drums come in. It’s kind of a funky, syncopated, driving fusion groove that you wouldn’t expect underneath the dulcet melody. This cycles through three times, before moving to the body of the piece, which is in the rare and difficult time signature of 11/16.
Double stops in fourths make up the moving melody with a pedal point in the bass. It’s grouped as cross-rhythms, but it is in the time signature, not against it. 5 groups of accents with a double at the end, creating 11 1/6th notes. This was born out of an exercise I came up with to practice the intro section in clusters!
It begins pianissimo and gradually builds over 11 bars (naturally!), before the drums enter. This whole piece is VERY influenced by King Crimson, circa their early 80’s period. Bill Bruford and Tony Levin would often play straight, simple 4/4 beats and patterns underneath Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew’s fighting cross-rhythms. When the drums enter, I play a straightforward "rock beat #1" groove. Of course, I’m in 11/16, so there’s a “Moveable 8” system at work here. It takes eight full bars for this to come back around, which works well for phrasing. I practiced like mad to a click track in 11/16 to make sure everything lined up perfectly. Talk about tension/release!
Everything modulates up a step for the next 6 bars and the drums now join the marimba and play in 11/16. I’m not yet done with the tension, as I now introduce cross rhythms to the equation. Groupings of 5’s & 7’s, over a 2-bar phrase, come next. Accents are on the hi-hat when the marimba is down a step, and on the bell of the ride, up a step. Drums then return to 11/16, with slightly busier bass drum patterns, before the entire section ends with a bookmark of the solo marimba, this time in an 11-bar diminuendo.
The intro makes a triumphant return; this time excluding the solo marimba section and coming straight in with the accompanying drumset part. There’s a Classical bridge section of rolls that immediately follows, then the whole body of the piece repeats. The end is solo marimba that cycles through 8 bars of the first chord changes and 6 of the next, before the 11-bar diminuendo to end the piece.
About the Title – As I mentioned before, this piece is completely influenced by King Crimson. From 1981-1984, they released 3 incredible studio records. If I remember correctly, I was watching a video from their 1982 Live “Beat” tour and I had to turn it off during the opening track – “Waiting Man” – and pick up my mallets, because I was so incredibly inspired. During this period, they had some really exotic song titles – “Matte Kudasai,” “Thela Hun Ginjeet,” “Sartori In Tangier” and “Nuages” – and I needed something befitting. “Hamaika,” is from the Basque language, and means “eleven” – the time signature of this piece. (I believe the “H” is silent.)
As I mentioned before I got into the song descriptions, even though the drumkit is my main instrument, the playing on this record does not fully represent my performance skills. I wanted to have at least one piece that was a tour-de-force for drums and this is it. There’s a full drum solo, underneath a busy vamp, that clocks in close to 3 minutes long! Besides the big solo, this piece contains Indian rhythmic concepts, linear drumming, fusion grooves, odd-meter, metric modulations and cross-rhythms. The entire piece is in 5/4.
Technical Notes – There are 4 main sections to this piece. The introduction is based on an Indian Classical rhythmic system called “Reduction,” which is essentially diminution. The note values are getting smaller each cycle and it feels as though the same rhythm is being repeated at a faster rate. It’s a 5-note grouping that starts in quarter notes, moves to dotted quarters, then to eighth notes, which fall on the e’s & a’s, finally culminating in 1/16th notes. The hi-hat steps quarter notes to give you a reference that the pulse remains constant.
I hadn’t realized this until well after I recorded the piece, but it’s an almost identical intro to a Vital Information song, called “Baton Rouge,” from their amazing 2004 cd, Come On In. I guess this shouldn’t surprise me, as Steve Smith is my favorite drummer, Vital Information is my favorite fusion group and that was my favorite song from that album! Then again, this is a standard rhythmic concept and exists for all to explore.
The main section is a linear groove, in the David Garibaldi vein. It’s a 2-bar phrase, which I, of course, cycle 5 times. The B-section is a fusion groove that I just started playing one day at my studio and didn’t realize it was in 5, at first. I enhance the accents with an Udu drum, which adds to both the Eastern flavor from the intro lick and aforementioned Vital Information record, on which Steve Smith plays two tracks on the clay pot instrument.
Now, comes the BIG drum solo! The marimba plays a busy vamp and I build a long solo over it, employing many different techniques and rhythmic ideas. After the solo, the entire beginning portion is repeated and the piece culminates with a Zappa-like ending of cross-rhythms.
About the Title – This one’s easy and obvious – the entire piece is in 5! It’s also a play on hi-fi and high-five.
Bach Cello Suites
When I was studying Classical Percussion at Penn State University, 4-mallet marimba was my main instrumental focus. It is quite common to perform music on marimba that was originally composed for other instruments. In fact, the cello suites are rather popular for a lot of instruments. Cello is my favorite non-percussion instrument and Bach is my favorite Classical composer. Not only did I perform the entire Suite III in college, but I also wrote a big paper on the cello suites, including historical information and a lot of musical analysis. On this recording, I include Preludes from 3 of the suites.
Suite III – C-Major
This is perhaps my favorite piece of music…ever! The entire suite is very dear to my heart and my favorite 8 bars of music conclude the first half and lead into the long dominant pedal point section. It’s fast and contains an unrelenting firing of 1/16th notes in 3 for almost the entire piece.
Suite IV – Eb-Major
To me, this is the most musical of the preludes. Please note that Bach referred to this specific prelude is as “Preludium.” This movement is in 4/4 and played in 1/8th notes. The first half contains leaping arpeggios that modulate constantly and complexly. The second half is like a series of short cadenzas that highlight Bach’s pure brilliance and musical genius. It is an absolute honor to perform this piece of music and include it here on this recording!
Suite II – D-Minor
This prelude is in 3 and mostly revolves around 1/16th notes. I play the first portion slower and increase the tempo when it modulates to the relative major. The first 3 notes of the piece – a d-minor arpeggiated triad – set the dark tone for this very lyrical piece. I couldn’t help moving around and making furrowed brow types of expressions while performing it. I felt like a cellist and singer at the same time. Hence, I take quite a lot of liberty varying the tempo throughout this movement. The brooding cadenza at the end gives way to the incredibly tension-building ending.
Musica de la Noche
2:53 (Audio is the full piece, as heard on Percussion Discussion)
2:51 (Audio is the full piece, as heard on Percussion Discussion)
This is my 20th century nocturne. I composed it on piano, over a period of several years. It took this long, because I only worked on it when I would visit family and sat down at my Dad's piano. So, I was only able to give a few minutes of attention to this work, a couple of times a year. Eventually, I bought a digital piano for my studio and finished the composition.
Nocturnes, by definition, are melancholy pieces, usually for piano, without fixed form. Done, done and done! Nocture, the word, translates to “Night Song”. As a naturally nocturnal and sentimental creature, this form suits me very well.
Even though nocturnes are generally short, and mine is no exception, I basically wrote this in 3 movements and, in general, the piece is rather episodic. As I played this on piano, I always heard a full symphony in my head. Bowed double basses, pizzicato strings, woodwinds, brass, harp, et al.
Many influences abound: Schumann, Bach, Debussy, Beethoven and Stravinsky, from the Classical side. I also hear Monk and Sun Ra, from the Jazz world. Joe Jackson, one of my all-time favorite musicians, played a large role in inspiring this piece of music.
As my percussion album was materializing, I was looking for a way to include this nocturne. In conversation with good friend and fellow classical musician Carl Culpepper, I learned that I could record Musica de la Noche on the piano and orchestrate it for a full symphony, using MIDI. As an acoustic instrumentalist and noted technophobe, I didn't know much about this. Carl recorded me playing the piano at my studio. I then brought that recording, and my orchestration ideas, to Randy Hoexter, the resident musical genius at the Atlanta Institute of Music, where Carl and I both teach.
Randy not only has an extensive Classical background, but he also has intimate knowledge of MIDI and a massive library of sounds from which to choose. I assigned every note I played on the piano to a symphonic instrument and Randy replaced the piano with these sounds. It was amazing being able to change the velocity with which a french horn player blows a note or a tympanist strikes the kettle drum. I feel as though we got a lot of authentic sounds in there and I was careful to make sure every assigned instrument was within the range and ability of that particular musical vehicle. Of course, in some spots it sounds a little fake, because...well, it is a fake orchestra! Or, as I like to say: a symphony!
I included both versions of my nocturne here, so you can hear the original piece of music in its natural state – me on the piano; and the fully orchestrated piece I heard in my inner ear.
I find the piece to be very programmatic and that is one reason I wanted to write an accompanying poem. I've been writing lyrics since I started playing the drumset, and consider it another “instrument” I play, and wanted this album to contain some of my verbal writing, as well. I hope to one day have Musica de la Noche choreographed for a few ballet dancers. If so, I will include video footage here at the website.
I'm most proud of Musica de la Noche, because it isn't based on drums and percussion. Sure, piano is part of the percussion family and there is a small presence of symphonic percussion on the orchestrated version, but for the most part, it is not drum oriented.
About The Title – Musica de la Noche, translates to “Music of the Night”, which is a pretty way of saying “Night Music”. In the corresponding poem, I was able to rhyme “noche” with “dolce”, which like its direct meaning, is a “pretty” word.
3-pc. Suite (Multiple Percussion)
What is “multiple percussion”? Well, it's basically what it sounds like – multiple percussion instruments that make up the timbres for a specific piece. When you study classical percussion in college, marimba is your “main” instrument and it is studied constantly, each semester, in your private lessons. However, there is another instrument that is your “other” main focus for that semester. (At least this was my college experience.)
Sometimes it was tympani, snare drum or even another keyboard instrument like vibes or xylophone. There's also “multiple percussion.” This can consist of any number of percussion instrument – toms, snares, tympani, cymbals & gongs and a host of “auxiliary” percussion instruments, such as: ratchet, castanets, triangle, tamborine, woodblock, et al.
In certain instances, it can feel (and sound) quite random and I didn't particularly take to this area of study quite that much. Another obstacle, was collecting all the instruments – plus hardware, tray tables, mallets, etc. - and practicing it all on a regular basis. I thought a lot of the pieces written for this type of instrumentation were reckless, in that they were random and some seemed to be difficult for the sake of being challenging. They weren't that...musical. But I always felt that they could be and I thought that with the right group of instruments, it could lead to a great deal of creativity. This intrigued me.
There was one book I studied out of, that had a collection of shorter compositions. I can't remember what this “method book for multiple percussion” was called, as I didn't own it, but I do remember liking a few of the etudes. Then, there's the very first concerto ever written for multiple percussion, by French composer Darius Milhaud, in 1929. I performed this at my senior recital with piano accompaniment. It's a tremendous work and easily the most memorable - and enjoyable - mutliple percussion piece I learned.
When I got to college, I was mainly a drumset player and snare drummer. I had done a little bit of tympani and learned scales on the marimba just in time to go on auditions. I discovered how difficult “toy” percussion instruments were – triangle, tambourine, castanets, guiro, etc. How beautiful a suspended cymbal could sound with the right touch. I really loved these instruments and wanted to focus on learning them, rather than playing these seemingly mindless, tedious and long multi-percussion pieces.
I asked my percussion professor if we could devise a new “additional” instrument to my mallet studies one semester: auxiliary percussion. He thought it was a great idea and I learned a ton that semester! He came up with parts for certain instruments from famous orchestral pieces and I would use them as the musical basis of my study. Not only was I learning specific techniques for these deceptively difficult instruments, but at the same time, I was learning very important parts for works you would perform in “real life.” Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade" and Dvorak's "Carneval" were two of the classics from which I learned.
Fast forward several years and I began thinking about a multi-percussion setup I could put together to help inspire creativity. The “station” I came up with was more like a drumset with slightly different timbres than normal drums, to be played standing up. 3 roto toms (as the rack toms), 2 timbales (as the floor tom), snare in the middle, converted floor tom to act as the bass drum and assortment of cymbals – splash, china, sizzle, suspended, dark. Maybe a cowbell and/or jamblock.
I generally play a 4 or 5 piece drumkit, so I've never had the 3 rack toms across, even though it's a dream of mine to have that setup. The 2nd floor tom, was never essential for me, but this setup was able to yield a lot of the tom melodies that were always swirling around my inner ear. This station didn't produce the results I was hoping; it was a bigger challenge to come up with something musical than I imagined.
Fast forward a few more years and I now have collected a nice library of auxiliary percussion instruments. I added 3 more stations to my creative setup and now things were finally starting to come together.
The 1st – and longest – movement of the 3-pc. Suite and the only one to involve all 4 stations. Fmeti, is spacey & ethereal and is setup to hear all the different sound effects of the instruments used. And there are a TON of instruments here.
Station 2, included cowbells and blocks.
Station 3, was overloaded with a plethora of auxiliary, toy and mouth percussion instruments. Vibraslap, ratchet, kokoriko, caixaixi, wooden shakers, metal ganzas, eggs, slide whistles, flex-i-tone, woodblock and more.
Station 4, included spring drums, a gong and a 4-ft. metal chainlink, that you would use for a bicycle lock!
This composition falls in-between improvised and composed. Once I got the stations in order, I came up with a basic outline. I needed to know where I was turning to next and what instruments had to be put down...without making any noise! In practicing, some rhythms became “written,” but there was still room for improvisation when recorded.
About The Title – In the fusion group The YETI Trio, we had something called “Fmeh.” This is the silly made up word that Brooks (keyboards) used when we would play very “out.” This avant-garde styling could be super loud and fast noise or it could be spacey and ethereal sound effect type stuff. I went for the latter here on the first movement of my percussion suite. I combined the words “fmeh” and “yeti”, hence the name. It is dedicated to both Brooks & Vaylor, from The YETI Trio.
This is the only movement that was fully composed and played to a click – at the very natural tempo marking of 120bpm. I also finally came up with the melodies I was always hoping for with this initial setup! I've heard comments that this sounds like everything from marching band to Joe Jackson. I was only going for a melodic composition on Station 1.
There are 2 main melody sections. The bass drum is introduced on the 2nd go-round of each theme. There are different fills for each section, a bridge and a melodic triplet chopsfest at the end, between the roto toms and timbales.
About the title – My buddy Jake came up with this title. It's no secret that I'm a HUGE baseball fan. A few years back, State College (Pennsylvania, where Penn State is) was getting a minor league team. There were names voted on, or you could come up with your own for submission. Jake came up with this brilliant name for the ballclub eventually known as the Spikes. Not only is Pennsylvania the “Keystone” state, but 2nd base on a baseball diamond is called the “Keystone” position. A “keystone,” is a piece that holds the other pieces in place and that's exactly what the 2nd movement does here!
0:40 (Audio is the full piece, as heard on Percussion Discussion)
I wanted the end of the album to be a massive firestorm of drums flying out of the speakers. It's just 40 seconds of chops flurrying aorund Station 1. Sometimes it reminds me of the short solos Billy Cobham would play as an intro to the songs on his solo records from the 70's, but that's not what I was going for. “Surround sound,” is the name used for multiple speaker setups and I thought it sounded cool turning it around.