The problem of percussion playing in western classical music has always been the same: no matter how diverse and artful our bags of toys and sounds, there has always been this sense of sitting on the outside looking in on the action. It is far more difficult to rest for 300 bars and then execute the perfect cymbal crash at exactly the right moment than most people would imagine. Still, many of us possessed a gnawing feeling that there was more to percussive life.
This marginal role for percussion playing seeped into the entire culture, to an extent that composing and presenting all-percussion music as John Cage did in the 1930’s was considered almost laughably novel. My ensemble Sō Percussion was partially founded to reverse this attitude. Strangely we — along with many others in our field and building on decades of work by others — succeeded in pushing it over. I now find that my soapbox about acceptance of rhythm and all-percussion music is unnecessary and even anachronistic when I talk to younger musicians.
Steve Reich’s music, and Drumming in particular, forms an important chapter of that story. For all of the glory, controversy, and cultural impact of “America’s Greatest Living Composer,” to us Reich is a fellow percussionist. As a student, I idolized him. As an adult, I shared a marimba with him on the second movement of Drumming on the same stage where David Tudor premiered Cage’s Silent Piece for 4’33”.
I became acquianted with resistance to his music right around the time I also first heard of it: as a student at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. Some of the faculty disliked the aesthetic of Reich’s music, but it was in that frothing way you dislike somebody whom you can’t ignore or escape. It was thoroughly confusing to me. I couldn’t imagine what was objectionable. That beginning of his string quartet Different Trains? Those are “paradiddles,” a pattern I have joyfully and diligently repeated on my practice pad since childhood. I could listen to their alternations and repetitions all day long. The idea that a music’s surface must constantly vary, or else it is mindless and artless repetition? Anybody who spends enough time trying to perfect even the simplest groove on a drumset knows that awareness of the space in between each beat, with all of the ways it can be pushed and pulled, can take a lifetime to perfect.
But at that time, at 18 years old, I wasn’t engaging in some kind of complex polemic. Everything about Reich’s music clicked with me: a groove maintained itself long enough to be felt, and then something changed and there was a new situation. It is really different than how Mozart uses rhythm, the “developing variation” that Schoenberg loved so much, but it was an equally valid approach.
It turns out that Reich also joyfully spent his younger years tapping out paradiddles, and so it really isn’t any surprise that I identified with it so strongly.
This article, about the last 50 years of the practice of Reich’s Drumming, is a percussion family story. It’s about how this piece made sense to many percussionists when they heard and tried it, and how it gave us an opportunity to develop different skills and a way of relating to each other. The 300 bars of rest were gone, and now instead we had a constanly pulsing, ceaselessly modulating groove and the mind-bending practice of phasing to carry us forward.
I will discuss and highlight the perspectives of percussionists who encountered and helped to disseminate Drumming after Russell and Steve Reich and Musicians put it out into the world. My account won’t be exhaustive. I will pause along the way to consider an issue as it emerges, and I will give more detailed accounts of stories I know better. What I am most insterested in is why a piece of music like this makes a difference in people’s lives, and how they transmit that interest to others.
Over the course of 50 podcast interviews during 2020-21, Josh Quillen talked with many percussionists about the position the piece occupied in their lives. What struck me in reviewing them is that the experience of learning Drumming seemed to become part of their DNA as musicians, whether or not they still performed it regularly.
In this sense it reminded me of the relationship many keyboard players have with the music of J.S. Bach. They can’t quite imagine how their fingers would relate to the instrument without it. They often remember the time in their lives when a certain Prelude from the WTC helped them through a technical challenge, or the first time as a child that they were assigned the iconic C major Prelude.
When we reflect upon practices we have learned from a teacher, we are talking about a permanent alteration of our minds and bodies. Whether it is explicit or not, we are also learning from somebody far in the past who we never met. As a percussionist, the very way in which you hit the drum, developed though your work with your early teachers, might have been invented 100 years ago or even further back.
Russell Hartenberger details percussion lineages through notable timpanists in his definitive book Performance Practice in the Music of Steve Reich. To follow one thread of this lineage, all of us in Sō Percussion studied with Robert van Sice. Although Van Sice is known as a marimba soloist, his concept of marimba sound is heavily influenced by having studyied with Cloyd Duff, the longtime timpanist under George Szell in the Cleveland Orchestra. Duff studied with Philadelphia Orchestra timpanist Oscar Schwar (first percussion teacher at Curtis), who studied with Heinemann, the timpanist of the Dresden Royal Opera in the nineneenth century. Is there something about the way I play which I owe to Herr Heinemann? Probably!
After 50 years, Drumming contains lineages in both its creation and dissemination. Reich himself even belongs directly in our percussion lineage, having studied percussion early on with Roland Kohloff, the former timpanist of the New York Philharmonic. The hand-patterning which makes the piece so satisfying to play comes directly from Reich’s childhood study of George Lawrence Stone’s masterful drumming treatise Stick Control with Kohloff. Kohloff studied with Saul Goodman, a lineage that goes back to Ernst Pfundt, Felix Mendelssohn’s timpanist in Leipzig during the time of Mendelssohn’s Bach revival…you get the picture.
Of course, another aspect of the lineage of Drumming is the influence of West African and specifically Ewe music on the structure of the piece. As of late 2020 Reich has revised his program notes for the piece to include more information about his sources and influences from Africa. Hartenberger painstakingly documents them in Performance Practice in the Music of Steve Reich. One part of this that is often lost in discussions of Drumming is the enormous influence that musicians like Hartenberger had on the genesis of the piece. At the time, he was pursuing a PhD in Ethnomusicology at Wesleyan, travelled to Ghana himself for instruction in Ewe drumming practices, and has devoted his life to incorporating knowledge of various non-western traditions from master teachers into his understanding of what it means to be a percussionist. In addition, there were no important antecedents in western classical music for an all-percussion work of this scale. Reich writes about the “confirmation” that he experienced from learning more about this music.
Drumming represents an abrupt shift in the aesthetics and expectations of percussion playing in western classical music. As such, it generated its own branches of percussion practice which have been disseminated and recombined over the last 50 years.
When I encountered Schick’s formulation in the Drumming at 50 interviews, I thought it perfectly captured what this process feels like over time. Usually, Sō Percussion is the Alpha group with a new piece of music. I completely agree with Schick that my main focus when premiering a new percussion quartet is to make sure the world’s first impression of it does justice to the piece and the composer. This is one of the biggest disconnects that often happens when classical musicians who play very old pieces premiere new music. They are used to tossing around small details to see if there is something new to say, to catch a moment of serendipity and insight. But the sheer unfamiliarity of a new work means that capturing the big picture of the work is much more important. They often become frustrated that they don’t have that time for obsession because they are wrapping their heads around so much new information. Getting to the spirit of a new piece as quickly as possible is a learned instinct. Conveying that spirit while drilling down as far as possible into the details usually creates that successful premiere.
Drumming is one of only a few pieces where we are one of those Beta groups in a “state of grace.” The two versions that already existed by Steve Reich and Musicians provided the piece with an unshakeable solidity which we could mess around with. We explicitly set out to do a few things differently, which I will cover in the next section. We hoped that our interpretive alterations would add to the legacy of the piece by showing different angles and colors of its nature.
Before the recently revised definitive score from Boosey and Hawkes, the piece made its way into musicians’ hands in a variety of ways. First, starting in 1976 Hartenberger regularly taught the piece by rote, first to his students in Toronto, and then at summer festivals and residency visits. These were the most direct lines of transmission over the 50 years. Here is Russell’s account of that line of dissemination:
It is difficult now to explain how many barriers there were before the widespread use of the internet in the early 2000’s to convey and codify a piece of music. I grew up at the tail end of a period where, if you wanted to learn about music like this, you usually needed to attend a conservatory with a good music library to gain greater exposure to what was out there.
In addition to this direct mode of transmission, there was a photocopy of Reich’s manuscript score that made its way around in percussion circles for years. This score had extensive notes explaining how the piece worked, but it was daunting to try to put the piece together without working with somebody who had played the piece.
Jim Culley explains how Percussion Group Cincinnati came to play Drumming Part One:
The first time PGC performed the piece for Reich, it was by happenstance that he was at one of their concerts. They were nervous about how he would react to their version, but he was very receptive to it.
The members of Third Coast Percussion all had different experiences in putting the piece together. Rob Dillon recalls his first attempt as a student:
Steve Schick describes his first encounter with Drumming:
Artists in the Beta generations of Drumming had a mixture of established practice and flexibility at their/our disposal. Sometimes, misunderstandings arose that became a bridge too far for Reich. When I asked him a few years ago about the newly prescribed elements in the recent Boosey score, he said that he’d heard bad performances of Drumming Part One that misinterpreted the amount of flexibility that is right for the piece. He wanted performers to get that the piece is meant to move forward, not devolve into a jam session (my words, he didn’t say this). I told him that we loved the creativity of the flexible elements. He said “you can still do them,” because he felt that we understood the intent behind them.
Colin Currie explains how his version of Drumming retains a distinctive character. I can attest from talking with Reich that he adores Currie’s version, which has a very different feel to it than Sō Percussion’s version does. For all of his reputation of being exacting and even obsessive, Reich believes that lasting works should be able to withstand different interpretive approaches.
It may turn out over time that there’s such a thing as a “New York” version (perhaps Sō Percussion’s faster, more mechanical approach), and maybe a European or UK version which focuses more on phrasing.
In my opinion, the score from Boosey, as well as the exhaustive documentation of the origins of the piece by Russell Hartenberger, ushers the piece into its Gamma phase. The time for creative misunderstandings and quirky interpretations of the piece has largely passed. Or at least, any newly quirky versions will be based on a clearly articulated knowledge of the practice of the piece and the composer’s intentions for it.
Sō Percussion’s version of Drumming evolved through its own path, eventually merging with the original practices of Steve Reich and Musicians and through frequent contact with the composer. We retained some differences that we liked, while we changed some things after comparing notes with Hartenberger and Reich.
The key link for us was Percussion Group Cincinnati’s trio version mentioned above. Founding member Doug Perkins, a student at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music before attending Yale for graduate school, had learned the piece from Jim Culley and the rest of the group. As a result, our first version of the piece was heavily, and in some ways erroneously dependent on a variation.
The trio version of Drumming Part One, which was highly successful, combined the parts of two “resultant” players into one. The only place this didn’t work was after the third player adds in the main pattern and phases, where there is one more round of resultant patterns. In a trio, you are done. There is nobody else to play any more resultants. So in PGC’s version, they would move ahead to the next section. When Sō Percussion first learned Drumming, we didn’t play the last resultant section of the first half even though we had enough people. Also, in the trio version all three members built up the rhythm from the beginning of the piece, while in Steve Reich and Musicians they always did it with two players. In our early version, all four players built up from the beginning.
In our first few years of existence, when we played the piece for musicians such as Bob Becker and for Reich himself, they helped us correct these practices, which made sense for PGC but weren’t optimal for a quartet. Like many other groups of our generation, we had the manuscript score. Doug Perkins also taught the piece by rote to the other members of the ensemble, who at that time were Jason Treuting, Todd Meehan, and Tim Feeney.
A musician’s identity in Drumming, especially in the first part, is often delineated by the role they fulfill in the piece. Each role captures a unique world of playing skills, most of which we learned for the first time.
The role types are often combined in one person’s part in different sections of the piece. So, while Josh Quillen is always the “rock” part and does the build-ups with me, I do build-ups, resultants, and phases. Jason only phases, and Eric does resultants and covers. Sometimes, a player’s personality determines a role they are drawn to, while other times the player grows into the role. In Sō Percussion’s case, our group turned over completely except for Jason between 2002-2008, so often each player who came in inherited a role based on who had left.
Josh Quillen has embraced the role of the “rock” to the extent that he plays it throughout the entire piece. Since Doug left the group, Jason has been the phasing specialist. I grew into doing more phasing roles in movement 1, and in movement 2 I’m the first phaser on marimbas, while on movement 3 Jason is.
As a Beta-generation group, the original version of the piece loomed large in our imaginations when we took on Drumming. We wanted to put a different spin on it, and also to reflect our then-youth and the energy we felt being in New York City in the early 2000’s. We were also enthralled with the idea that the gradual processes of Drumming should be as clean as possible, to the point where our version illuminated the mechanical aspects of it. We played it faster, and our time or groove feel leaned forward quite a bit compared to the original. This also reflected a style of playing that we had all synthesized as students at Yale with Robert Van Sice.
We made a few smaller changes as well. We turned our bongos so that the highest notes (C#) were at the outside of the setup rather than the inside. We thought it was fun for the audience to see those last notes added in at the climax of the movement closer to them. Starting in the late 2000’s, when Remo started making synthetic bongo heads with a realistic feel, we switched over so the drums would stay in tune more easily.
When we made our Cantaloupe Music recording in 2005, we wanted our version to stand out from the original. We recorded the entire piece, which requires nine percussionists, with the four members of the quartet at that time: me, Doug Perkins, Jason Treuting, and Lawson White. We overdubbed parts to get the full nine parts, embracing it as a fully studio recording. It is a perfect illustration of Schick’s formulation: this would not have made sense as a first recording of the piece, because so much of its character relies on the sense of a group being together.
We wanted to highlight the architectural aspects of the piece, so we kept it at exactly the same tempo the entire time (165 BPM). We used a click track and devised a way to ignore it during phases so that we could employ our normal push and pull during phasing, gradually returning to the click after locking back in. The resulting recording stands as a less expressive, almost “modernist ” version of it. One reviewer likened it to Pierre Boulez’ drier revisions of Stravinsky, and I always liked that. Now that we are older and have taken in more influence of the original version, we probably would never do it it this way again. But I’m proud of what we did at that moment.
In the broader music world, the history of Drumming begins with the rapturous reception of the whole piece in the New York City premieres of 1971. In the percussion world, Part One is done far more often than the entire piece, mostly because it is only a quartet (or trio). Many percussionists had life-changing experiences playing Part One and have never even performed the whole work. Sō Percussion has performed the entire piece about 25 times, but we have played Part One hundreds of times.
When composers ask us the ingredients to making successful, tourable percussion music, we tell them about the balance of logistics, duration of pieces, ease of setup, and many other mundane issues. Because Drumming was developed slowly with performers, it achieved a remarkable balance of these concerns. The four pairs of bongos plus their stands fit into two of our cases, and they account for 20 minutes of exciting music which basically never fails onstage.
I think it is appropriate to think of the history of interpretation of Drumming as two distinct pathways: Part One and the entire work.
Part One became a reliable showstopper for groups going back as far as when Percussion Group Cincinnati created their modified trio version in the 1980s. It was the core of a collaboration that Third Coast Percussion did with the Hubbard Street dance company in Chicago. Other groups like Amanda, Nexus, Kroumata, and Sō Percussion incorporated it onto mixed touring programs for decades without performing any of the other movements.
Until the 2000s, unless you were lucky enough to be one of Russell Hartenberger’s students in Toronto or to play Drumming at a summer festival, usually the best chance to experience it was when Steve Reich and Musicians were touring. Starting in 2005, Sō Percussion conducted our own touring residencies where we taught the entire piece at university percussion departments and at the Sō Percussion Summer Institute, which started in 2009.
After reading Russell Hartenberger’s book Performance Practice in the Music of Steve Reich, I texted my colleague Josh Quillen who had conducted all of the podcast interviews for the Drumming at 50 project. “No wonder the premiere of Drumming was a success — they had 67 rehearsals over the course of a year. How many pieces get that much work before a premiere?” There were many significant factors which influenced the excitement around those premieres in New York City in 1971, but undoubtedly this was one of them.
New music has always suffered from this deficit, which is one of the reasons why Sō Percussion’s approach to being an Alpha group with a new piece of music is to make sure that we capture and convey the spirit of the piece as quickly as possible. In recent years, I have heard versions of pieces by composers like Milton Babbit who have the same kind of time and dedication put into them as that first Drumming performance, and it always drastically influenced my opinion of the music. The complex pieces of mid-century modernists like Babbitt particularly had this issue, as the language they were using felt very new to performers at the time.
The genesis of Drumming was a process of rote learning and experimentation, and for 50 years Hartenberger has taught the piece to students and other groups entirely by rote. Sō Percussion has experimented with both rote learning and a combination of score preparation and rote. Even when we send music ahead of time, this piece never clicks until we are in the room together with the other players.
Many percussionists spend part of their education immersed in non-western practices. Josh Quillen has been playing steel drums since high school, and regularly travels to Trinidad and Tobago to work with Panorama bands. Sō Percussion went together in 2020 to play in Panorama. All of the bands learn their pieces orally together during rehearsals. At first, this process feels slow. As a musician heavily trained in playing off of scores, my first thought was “holy cow, this is going to take awhile.” It’s one thing to work out a transcription by yourself; it’s another entirely to teach eight different parts to a 140-piece orchestra note-by-note. But as the rehearsals picked up steam, as we repeated the smallest phrases over and over again, linking them to the larger sections, the patterns started to burrow deep into my hands and my memory. To this day, when I watch a video of the performance from Panorama 2020, I can anticipate every note, running my hands over the patterns even though I’ve played very little steel drums.
This characteristic of Drumming means that for groups and individuals who have played it, the experience and process of having done the piece is as important as whether they still play it regularly. There is a frequency and intensity required to get it right which stays with you.
When the recent Boosey and Hawkes score was being prepared, I advised them on the final explanatory texts. When they asked me how to indicate music stand placement, I insisted that they include a proviso that the percussionists have their patterns memorized. If any of the percussionists in Drumming didn’t know exactly what pattern they were about to play, it would mean that they hadn’t mastered only the first step of many that were required to give a decent performance.
The experience of repeating one pattern over and over again challenges your sense of what it means to really know a rhythm. Compounding this challenge, once different layers of the pattern on the same instruments with different downbeats are swirling about, you must shift around to different sensory apparati to make sense of it all. If you are accustomed to relying on your ears, they may become confused and lose the pattern among the melee. Often you will need to practice looking down at your hands to be assured of which pattern you hear is yours. Or, you will need to center yourself more in your body and the physical feeling of playing the rhythm on the instrument. You will need to know what the rhythm looks and feels like in your body just as much as what it sounds like.
In Sō Percussion, once we started performing the piece regularly (especially Part One), the performances themselves become part of a long process of discovery. Like Hartenberger indicated, we reached a point where the piece was unforgettable. And yet, we never tired of playing it. We would set small goals for digging deeper, improving the way we relate to each other and the minutiae we could pick out of the texture. Josh and Jason would take 20 minutes during a soundcheck to practice the same first phase from Part One that they’d already done 200 times. They would discuss how to elongate it, how to stay in the middle pattern longer, and how to keep the tempo up when syncing back together. We have long ago mastered it well enough to play without any rehearsal, but it still yields treasures each time we dig.
Phasing is one of the most distinctive techniques ever invented in musical performance. Reich only used it on a handful of pieces, and Drumming was the last. The end result of phasing is playing out of phase, which is distinctly different from the actual process of phasing and has occurred many times the world over in techniques like canon. In phasing, one player begins in unison with one other player, and gradually speeds up their tempo, creating a chaotic period of rhythmic dissonance which eventually resolves to them playing the same rhythm out of phase but interlocking in the same tempo with the original player. It could be considered a niche of a niche of a niche as far as specialized musical techniques are concerned, but the practice of phasing yields incredible benefits for the musicians who attempt it.
One of my most formative experiences as a musician was singing in a choral workshop with the great conductor Robert Shaw. I’ve thought many times over the years about one of the exercises he had the choir do to improve intonation. He would have the pianist play a note, and then the note a semitone above it (C to C#, for instance). Then he would start beating a tempo, and asked the choir to sing 16 pulses. We would begin on the first note and try as smoothly as possible to sing 16 pitches between those two half steps. This was extremely difficult to do, but it ripped open a space in your mind where you realized that there is a whole universe of pitches between those two half steps. But you were accustomed to thinking of them as the smallest, crunchiest distances possible.
Phasing is the exact rhythmic equivalent of this. First, by repeating the rhythm for a long time in sync with each other, you start to sense the smaller differences in your realization. Then, as you try to split away, your control of the rhythm is called into question. Most players (myself included) completely freak out the first few times they try this. The experience scrambles all the mechanisms and instincts you are used to employing to play together with other people. In order to master it, your mind must start to test out different ways to remain in control of the rhythm while the chaos is happening.
Phasing is a kind of test of your rhythmic stability, because it is intentionally unstable. It also reveals a deep realm of musical perception. The attempt at a perfectly smooth transition between the origin point and the arrival point is doomed to fail. But, as with the often-cited examples of out-of-sync windshield wipers or turn signals, our brains are ravenously pattern-seeking at all times. We are eager to perceive a moment where symmetry or synchrony has been achieved, and we are distinctly uncomfortable and yearning during the in-between period.
Very quickly, most groups realize that the process of phasing is a two-way street. We usually describe it as a dance between the “rock” part and the phaser, where the push and pull of the chaotic parts of the phase requires some negotiation.
One of the most common failures that happens in phasing is something we affectionally call “going around the horn.” It is one of the reasons why you need to develop a combination of aural, visual, and tactile strategies for phasing. Phasing has a kind of ESP quality, where the moment you think about doing it, you will tear all the way through it before you even know what has happened. It’s almost as if suggesting it to your mind too loudly will cause you to overshoot the mark and lose control. For that reason, players tend to break the stages of the phase up so that there are markers along the way to guide them. Hartenberger breaks the steps down in his book. I’ve sometimes thought of there being as many as seven stages, but it can be broken down to as few as three:
When Sō Percussion teaches Drumming, we teach players that they should practice both playing together and then jumping to the end point of the phase to get a better feel for where they are headed. Then we also emphasize that the phaser needs to know what it is going to look like when the phase is complete. Literally, where will the other persons hands be on the drums or keyboard when I have successfully completed the phase? The discipline that this generates completely changes the granularity with which you are able to perceive rhythm and groove.
So 50 Years of Drumming also means 50 Years of Phasing. In the percussion community, this strange and limited tool has become a way of developing the finest gradations of rhythmic awareness, which applies to any other kind of music we play. It’s something we never could have developed out of the traditional orchestral repertoire.
Since the phasing practice is so deep, we often forget that in Reich’s music, phasing is a means to an end and not the end itself. It leads us towards a resulting context that Reich would continue to mine for many decades in his subsequent work.
When I first encountered the concept of “resultant patterns,” we used the term interchangeably with the word “improvs.” We moved away from that term, because resultant patterns are the most abused and misunderstood concept in Drumming. In a piece which relies heavily on generosity of spirit and smoothly handing roles off, performances of Drumming Part One often get mired in endless, show-offy resultants. This was Reich’s primary motivation for prescribing them in the new score.
Resultant patterns are the pool of potentialities that exist once a phase is completed. New composite rhythms and melodies can be highlighted which cause the listener to shift their own perception around inside the total sound of the piece. The golden rule for performing successful resultants is to remain focused on the listener’s experience. Bring the repeating pattern up just above the level of the surrounding music, and sit with it long enough so that the listener has a chance to apprehend it. Then fade it down gradually so that the listener can keep hearing it in the overall sound even when it has disappeared.
One note about this: you will not always hear it done this way by experienced players. Sometimes it is done forcefully and with great punctuation. But a good general rule of thumb is to begin in this mode rather than coming out of the gates hot ready to do every lick you’ve practiced.
Most performers who are steeped in the oral tradition of Drumming know how to build our own resultant patterns and how to guide other performers to do the same. In general Reich condones this pedagogical practice among people who have done the piece with him. I will continue to encourage it when I am teaching the piece, but always within the perspective of the purpose they serve. This is the aspect of current practice which solidifies it most firmly into a “Gamma” phase of development.
There wouldn’t be any reason to have more than four resultants after any phase. It may seem like Drumming belongs to a style of music which could go on endlessly, but in reality the piece is quite eventful. There are about four dozen phases in the whole piece, with eight sections of resultant patterns. If the piece gets stuck for too long in any one place, it can’t evolve, and the beautiful upward sweep through the registers of the instruments stalls.
Players who create their own resultant patterns for Part One often have their own quirky methods for doing so. I could never wrap my head around the idea that the bongos were situated in an order that didn’t go left-to-right or vice versa. So I would notate the rhythm in the F-A-C-E spaces of staff paper as if the notes corresponded to the drums. This way I was more closely seeing on the page what my hands were doing, even though it didn’t match the pitches.
I would notate each composite pattern as a kind of counterpoint after each phase (Reich did a version of this in the original manuscript as well). Then I would compose out patterns by plucking them from the available notes. One note of caution: although the rhythm is symmetrical, the pitches are not! It is as important to know that the pitches you are playing exist in the composite pattern as it is for the rhythms. Reich cares a lot about pitch and harmony, as I learned at times when my instrument tuning wasn’t up to snuff.
Another concept I find effective with resultants is that less can be more. Several of my resultants are just a way of turning the implied downbeat around so the listener can hear the phased player’s part as the downbeat. Others are meant to throw the overall feel of the piece into 2 or 4, while we usually feel the rhythm in 3. If you think about perception and the richness of what you’ve been handed in the composition, it will steer you away from ego-driven decisions that draw the listener’s attention only on to you.
There are several examples of Beta-generation groups like Sō Percussion taking aspects of Reich’s music in different directions than he intended, such as the tuned slats of wood that we use for Music for Pieces of Wood. In general he has tolerated us doing things like this, but he doesn’t always like for them to become accepted new offshoots of practice. In that sense we seem to have some leeway because of how dedicated we are to his music. But it also seems likely that definitive Gamma versions of these practices will take hold and dominate the future interpretation of his work.
This quote of “meditation in motion” comes from Russell Hartenberger. Many percussionists who were interviewed for this project talked about the quality of attention that is required to perform Drumming, and how unique and challenging it is in this respect. It is extremely common while performing the piece to zone out and let your hands play on their own. It is then also extremely common to have a crisis of awareness where you suddenly know that your hands are playing on their own and that your shaky mind has the power to interrupt them at any time. In mindfulness terms your mind is “turning awareness upon itself.” The mind wonders what it is that knows that you are playing and who exactly is doing the playing.
In traditional mindfulness meditation, the breath is often used as an anchor. Breathing is in our body, but it also proceeds automatically even when we aren’t paying attention to it. So when our mind wanders, we return to the breath as both something we are doing and something which is just appearing. Playing Drumming is sort of like this. In traditional meditation, no matter how long your mind has wandered away from paying attention to the breath, you can return to it and notice that you’ve wandered. In Drumming, the consequences might be more dire, so you have to find somewhere for your mind to rest while doing its tasks.
I have found that I need to reconcile myself with a more pedestrian experience than the audience. If I zoom out too far and take in the broader musical universe, I lose track of my task very easily.
Although I maintain awareness of what the entire group is doing, I sing my pattern in my head and try to use each new downbeat as an opportunity to refocus. This means that a lot of micro tasks are happening in my head, but it helps me to not to get carried away in the swirl of patterns. When we teach this piece, we often encourage people to sing their pattern in their heads while playing to help them retain the distinctiveness of their part from the whole.
This is often the most difficult thing to convey to students. Most of us go into music because we shared in some ecstatic experience of music making that left us hungering for more. But every craft has tricks and habits which are meant to heighten the illusion and the experience of the art form for the audience or observer, and these things aren’t always fun to do. Drumming is enormously fun to play, but there is a seriousness to the effort that leaves the performer grappling with themselves throughout.
It is extremely common for even the most experienced players to get turned around in Drumming. In So Percussion, we have a practice of periodically nodding the group downbeat to each other to check in. We have to be careful not to play an accent on this downbeat so that the overall texture remains even, but we use any kind of visual communication necessary to stay in sync.
Many percussionists who were interviewed for this project remarked upon the musical community that Drumming creates onstage. There is an equality of parts and an interdependence that can be very moving. This was brought home to me the first time we ever performed this piece with Nexus and Steve Reich. The idea that I would end up on an instrument together with Steve, or Russell Hartenberger, or Bob Becker, and that we all have functionally the same tasks to do was a thrill. In real life, Steve was Steve Reich, Bob was the xylophone and tabla virtuoso whose classes I would have attended as a student, and Russell was the legendary percussionist who brought all of this music to life. As soon as rehearsal started, Steve was the guy counting intensely to himself to make sure he nailed his entrance, Russell was handing out the right sticks to everybody, and Bob was getting ready to lay down his pattern so everybody else could build on top of it.
Over and over again, the subjects of Josh’s interviews expressed concepts like “organic,” “a model of collaboration,” “an idealized community.” For many of us, it provided an outlet where we could get out of the orchestra section and negotiate groove together. The system of cuing and sequences of events required us to map our destination and improve our communication.
The thing that is so odd and compelling at the same time about Drumming is that there was nothing like it before and there has been nothing like it since, even in Reich’s own body of work. In the context of the percussion repertoire, we mostly had 5-10 minute pieces before Drumming, and aside from a few outliers by Xenakis, that’s still mostly what we had after Drumming until the 21st century. It is the last piece where he used phasing, and it remains the longest piece he ever composed. There was no sequel, no Drumming II. It was enormously influential, but at the same time not frequently imitated.
My colleagues and I have mulled over why a single piece of music deserves so much attention. Most of the percussionists who participated in the interviews for this piece speak about it not as a piece they once played, but as the initiation of a process that has been ongoing in their lives ever since. The relative blankness of the canvass that it presents to a performer encourages a lifetime of self-reflection and personal musical honesty. It represents a confluence of composition and community that is singular.