History of Drumming

Russell Hartenberger


For several years after its premiere in 1971, Drumming was played only by Steve Reich and Musicians. Reich’s hand-written score, published by Multiples, Inc. along with a two LP recording of the Town Hall concert, circulated in a sort of underground network, but it wasn’t until February 28, 1976, five years after its premiere, that Drumming was performed for the first time by a group of musicians who were not billed as “Steve Reich and Musicians.” 

Two concerts of Reich’s music were held in the Faculty of Music at the University of Toronto and were sponsored by New Music Concerts, the leading contemporary music organization in Canada at the time. The advertisement for these two “maxi-concerts” noted that the Reich works were “Toronto premieres of this controversial and world-renowned young American.” The concerts included works by Salvatore Martirano, who performed on his self-invented Sal-Mar Construction, described by Science Digest as “the world’s first composing machine,” and performances by Musica Elettronica Viva, an experimental improvisation ensemble. The members of MEV were: Garrett List, trombone; Frederick Rzewski, piano; Gregory Reeve, percussion; Richard Teitelbaum, Moog synthesizer; and special guest artist Roscoe Mitchell, saxophones.

New Music Concerts
Poster for New Music Concerts events, 1976
Poster courtesy of Bill Cahn

Robert Aitken, an internationally renowned flutist and composer, was the artistic director of New Music Concerts and persuaded Steve Reich to agree to these concerts. Reich traveled to Toronto and played his usual parts, and two singers from the Reich ensemble, Jay Clayton and Pamela Fraley, were brought in to sing the vocal parts in Drumming and Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices, and Organ. Bob Becker and I were joined by two of our colleagues in Nexus, Bill Cahn and Robin Engelman, to play the percussion parts along with four students from the University of Toronto, Allen Beard, David Kent, Jerry Ronson, and Rick Skol. The piccolo part was played by Robert Aitken. The Drumming concert was held in the evening and was preceded by an afternoon concert that featured Clapping Music, Music for Pieces of Wood, and Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices, and Organ. Clayton and Fraley were joined by Toronto singer, Billie Bridgeman for the matinee performance.

New Music Concerts Program
Program for Steve Reich concerts in Toronto, February 28, 1976
Program courtesy of Bill Cahn

Not only were these concerts of Reich’s works performed by some musicians from outside Steve Reich and Musicians, they were played on instruments other than those that had been used in every performance and recording up to that point. The three marimbas used in the Reich ensemble were Musser 3.0-octave, F3 to F6, student model marimbas with narrow, rosewood bars and with a remarkably good tone. The marimbas we planned to use in our Toronto performances were the standard 4.0-octave and 4.3-octave marimbas that most percussionists used at that time. Bob Becker and I knew that Reich tuned his marimbas to A = 440 and was very particular about it. The marimbas we intended to use were not tuned to this pitch, so we flew in Bill Youhass, a percussionist and instrument builder from Fall Creek Marimbas in Ithaca, NY, to tune the marimbas for the performance. We set up Youhass in my percussion studio at the university with a belt sander, and he proceeded to convert all three marimbas to identical A = 440 tunings. I owned two pairs of Latin Percussion bongos, the kind used in the Reich ensemble, and New Music Concerts purchased two more pairs so we could have the requisite four pairs needed in Drumming. The percussion department at the university owned three Musser glockenspiels, the kind we used in Reich’s group, and a Musser Pro-Vibe vibraphone, so we borrowed those instruments for the performances. Drumming was taught to the players by rote, the same way Reich conveyed his composition to members of his ensemble. This traditional way of teaching Drumming became the standard method used for disseminating the piece to the next generation of musicians. 


Nexus was formed in 1971, the same year as the composition and premieres of Drumming, so 2021 marks the 50th anniversary of both Drumming and Nexus. Bob Becker and I are original members of Nexus as well as early members of Steve Reich and Musicians. Garry Kvistad joined the Reich ensemble in 1980 and Nexus in 2002 further solidifying the connection between the two groups. Bill Cahn is a founding member of Nexus and has performed Reich’s music frequently, beginning with the concert in Toronto in 1976.

The first few years of Nexus concerts were free improvisations using our large collection of Western and non-Western percussion instruments. In 1975, we recorded an album of improvisations with flutist, Paul Horn. Later that same year, Nexus, along with flutist Robert Aitken, recorded an improvised soundtrack to the movie The Man Who Skied Down Everest, which won the Academy Award for Best Full-length Documentary in 1976.

Around the time of the Drumming concert in Toronto, we began to include composed pieces on our concerts, and Reich’s music soon became a standard part of the Nexus repertoire. Music for Pieces of Wood, Piano Phase on two marimbas, and Drumming, Part I were staples on our solo concerts, and we often combined with other percussion groups and student ensembles to play complete performances of Drumming. 

Nexus began touring internationally in the late 1970s. Our concerts included improvisations, works by Steve Reich, John Cage, Toru Takemitsu, ragtime music, and compositions and arrangements by Nexus members. Our first of many tours to the United Kingdom playing Reich’s compositions was in 1978, followed by a lengthier tour in 1982. In 1984, with support from the Canada Council for the Arts, we embarked on a four-month international tour premiering Reich’s music in Asia and Europe. 

Nexus 1984 International Tour Schedule
Nexus 1984 International Tour Schedule

Prior to this tour, Nexus joined with the French government and Laura Dean Dancers and Musicians to commission a work from Steve Reich. Originally planned as a quartet, the piece grew to include two keyboard parts. Nexus premiered the work in December of 1984 at the Centre Pompidou in Paris under the title Music for Percussion and Keyboards. The keyboard parts for the premiere were played by Canadian musicians, Paul Caston and Marc Widner. Reich revised the last movement of the piece in January of 1985 and shortened the title to Sextet. 

Music for Percussion and Keyboard
First page of Piano I part to Music for Percussion and Keyboards, later titled Sextet

For the next four decades, Nexus made trips to Australia, New Zealand, Asia, Europe, and South America as well as frequent tours throughout North America regularly performing the music of Steve Reich on concerts. The group was one of four percussion ensembles that commissioned Mallet Quartet in 2009. Nexus was inducted into the Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame in 1999 and was joined by Steve Reich in 2007.

Blackearth Percussion Group

As interest in percussion chamber music grew, other percussionists began to form ensembles.

The Blackearth Percussion Group was conceived by Garry Kvistad in 1971 and officially formed in 1972 and is acknowledged as the first full-time professional percussion ensemble in the United States. (Although all the members of Nexus are originally from the United States, the group is based in Toronto and is recognized as a Canadian ensemble.) Blackearth was inspired in part by Jan Williams’ New Percussion Quartet of Buffalo and named after a small farm town in central Wisconsin. Original members were Garry Kvistad, his brother Rick Kvistad, Allen Otte, Michael Udow, and Chris Braun. Members who joined in later years were James Baird, David Johnson, and Stacey Bowers. 

The group held residencies at the University of Illinois, Northern Illinois University, and the College-Conservatory of Music in Cincinnati. Blackearth performed 38 world premieres, gave 157 concerts in the United States, Canada, and Europe, made three recordings and commissioned many compositions. The group is credited with “rediscovering” John Cage’s Third Construction shortly after the manuscript was made public. Blackearth performed several concertos with orchestras, experimented with micro-tonal tuning systems, commissioned/premiered many works, was one of the first percussion groups to write and perform music of the minimalists, including Steve Reich’s Clapping Music, played arrangements of the ragtime music of George Hamilton Green, and developed several multi-media productions. 

Although Blackearth did not play Steve Reich’s compositions regularly on their concerts, three of the members are important figures in the dissemination of his music. Garry Kvistad figures prominently as a percussionist in Nexus and as a core member of Steve Reich and Musicians. Garry’s brother, Rick Kvistad, studied Balinese gamelan at the Center for World Music in Berkeley, California in 1974 along with Steve Reich, who was there studying gamelan and teaching his own music. Rick performed with Reich’s group at Berkeley and was later a key percussionist in a performance of Tehillim by the San Francisco Symphony conducted by composer John Adams in the late 1970s. Allen Otte is the third Blackearth member who was influential in the dissemination of Reich’s music. Otte arranged a trio version of Drumming, Part I that became a part of the repertoire of the three-member Percussion Group Cincinnati that emerged after the dissolution of Blackearth.

Blackearth Percussion Group LP cover for Opus One Records #22
L to R: Allen Otte, Michael Udow, Rick Kvistad, Garry Kvistad.
Photo courtesy of Garry Kvistad

Percussion Group Cincinnati

Percussion Group Cincinnati (PGC) was formed in 1979 by Allen Otte after the Blackearth Percussion Group disbanded. Original members of PGC were Otte, James Culley, and William Youhass. When Youhass left the group in 1985, his position was filled by Jack Brennan, who stayed for a year and a half. In 1987, Ben Toth replaced Brennan and performed with PGC until 1983 when he was replaced by current member, Rusty Burge. The group is the ensemble-in-residence at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.

PGC has more than 200 compositions in its repertoire, including almost three dozen by John Cage. Allen Otte’s trio version of Steve Reich’s Drumming, Part I became a regular part of the group’s repertoire. This was the version that PGC taught to Doug Perkins who in turn brought it to Sō Percussion when he became a founding member of that group in 1999. 

Percussion Group Cincinnati continues to champion music by contemporary composers. In the words of Dr. Eugene Novotney, “PGC’s founding principles have not changed since its inception in 1979. State-of-the-art performance of composed chamber music for percussion, accomplished with the most refined skills of classical orchestra percussion.” In 2017 Percussion Group Cincinnati was inducted into the Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame as the second percussion ensemble, after Nexus, to achieve that distinction.

Percussion Group Cincinnati: Russell Burge, Allen Otte, James Culley
Photo courtesy of Percussion Group Cincinnati

Slagwerk den Haag

The Netherlands is one of the first European countries to embrace the music of Steve Reich, and the percussion group Slagwerk den Haag (SDH) was at the forefront of this movement. In 1980, Wim Vos, the co-founder of SDH invited Bob Becker to visit The Hague and teach his ensemble the music of Steve Reich along with other percussion literature that was emerging in the percussion chamber music field. I asked Becker about his experience with SDH and these are his comments. 

“Wim Voss invited me to come to Holland to perform together with SDH, and to some extent to teach their students at the Royal Conservatory in Den Haag. I lived there for five months in 1980 and returned again several times in 1981 and ‘82. In a way I became a fifth member of the group, and we learned and performed a wide variety of repertoire. I don’t remember playing all of Drumming with them myself, although I did coach and perform Part I with the group on that first trip, as well as Music for Pieces of WoodThird Construction [John Cage], Under the Umbrella [Jo Kondo], Palta [Becker], Atenteben [Becker], some traditional African music from both Ghana and Uganda, and a lot of my George Hamilton Green ragtime xylophone arrangements. I think SDH was the first European group to perform Drumming, Part I, and they later coached the Amadinda Percussion Group on it. In fact, SDH later taught Amadinda Percussion Group the traditional Ugandan amadinda music that I had taught to SDH in Holland, and the hocketing technique became Amadinda’s signature speciality.

I did coach the first performance of Music for 18 Musicians in Holland (and probably by any non-SR&M group in Europe as far as I know), performed by SDH, some of their students, and other Dutch professional musicians. Steve Reich generously allowed us to copy his manuscript, which at the time was incomplete and unpublished. This was in 1981 I think, although it could have been ’82.  Wim Vos, and maybe others in the group, actually completed the score notation themselves by transcribing from the original SR&M recording. I believe theirs was the first completely notated version of Music for 18 Musicians, years before Marc Mellits started his work with Steve. They invented some original approaches to notation to accommodate the breath-related phrasing against the traditional metric repetition. I remember two performances of Music for 18 Musicians at that time, one in Den Haag at the Royal Conservatory, and one in Utrecht. Although I didn’t perform myself in the Den Haag concert, I played the vibes part in the Utrecht performance.

I think it’s probable that SDH organized and took part in the first complete performance of Drumming in Europe, but I don’t know that for certain, and I don’t have any documents to prove dates or other details. Holland was certainly in the lead in Europe with minimalist music in the late 1970s (I first met Louis Andriessen, Ton de Leeuw, and Henk de Vlieger while I was there with SDH.)

In addition to Wim Vos, the other original members of the Slagwerk den Haag, which was formed in 1977, were Fred Vogels, Willy Goudswaard, and Ger de Zeeuw. Younger players, mostly students of Wim at the Royal Conservatory in the Hague, joined the group in the late 1980s. They included Arnold Marinissen, Frans Leerdam, and Murk Jiskoot, who I believe are all still active in the Dutch new music scene. SDH made a series of really fine recordings in the early 1990s that included some of Steve’s music.”


The Amadinda Percussion Group was formed in 1984 in Budapest, Hungary by artistic director Zoltán Rácz. The group’s four members, Rácz, Károly Bojtos, Aurél Holló, and Zoltán Váczi, are all graduates of the Ferenc Liszt Academy of Music. The name amadinda (“sounding keys”) is taken from the name of a traditional twelve key xylophone from the Ganda people of central Uganda.  From the start Amadinda began performing works from the classical percussion repertoire and commissioning new works from composers. These initial goals were soon extended by three new elements: research of traditional percussion cultures, composition of new music by the members of the ensemble, and transcriptions of some great pieces from the history of classical music. This is an example of Amadinda playing traditional amadinda music from Uganda.

Amadinda on amadinda

In the early years of the group, Amadinda followed both Nexus and Steve Reich and Musicians on our European tours, attending our rehearsals and performances and listening to and learning Reich’s music. In May of 1988, both groups participated in the “PERCUSSION ’88 FESTIVAL” in London, England, and in 1993, Amadinda, Nexus, and Kroumata performed at the Budapest Spring Festival. Each group played separate concerts and joined together for a performance of Varése’s Ionisation.

Amadinda Kroumata Nexus program
Amadinda, Nexus, Kroumata at the Budapest Spring Festival, March, 1993
Program courtesy of Nexus Percussion

Amadinda has a close association with the music of three composers, György Ligeti, John Cage, and Steve Reich. In 2000, Ligeti composed Síppal, dobbal, nádihegedüvel for Amadinda and mezzo soprano Katalin Károlyi. One of Amadinda’s most significant recording endeavors is a six-disc series of the complete works for percussion instruments of John Cage, a project that spanned nearly twenty years. From the beginning of the ensemble, Amadinda has featured the music of Steve Reich on their concerts and recordings. In 2009, they premiered Reich’s Mallet Quartet, a work they co-commissioned with Nexus, Sō Percussion, and the Australian ensemble, Synergy.

Amadinda Reich Mallet Quartet
From L to R: Zoltán Rácz, Aurél Holló, Károly Bojtos, Steve Reich, Zoltán Váczi at the premiere of Mallet Quartet, December, 2009 at the Palace of Arts in Budapest, Hungary
Photo: Zsuzsa Petö, source: MüPa, courtesy of Amadinda


Kroumata is a Swedish percussion ensemble founded in 1978 in Stockholm. During the thirty years of their existence, Kroumata premiered over 200 works by many European composers, and recorded more than twenty albums. On June 6, 1997, Nexus was joined by Kroumata for a performance of “Drumming Complete” at the Ford Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto. The piccolo part at this performance was played by Dianne Aitken, daughter of Robert Aitken, and one of the singers was a young Barbara Hannigan. The next year Nexus and Kroumata performed together at the Stockholm International Percussion Festival.

Drumming with Nexus, Kroumata, and Barbara Hannigan, June, 1997
Program courtesy of Bill Cahn
Kroumata and Nexus at Stockholm International Percussion Festival, October 2, 1998
Photo courtesy of Kroumata

Barbara Hannigan

Barbara Hannigan, a native of Waverly, Nova Scotia, was a vocal student of Mary Morrison at the Faculty of Music at the University of Toronto in the 1990s. In addition to her vocal studies, she was a member of my West African drumming class at the university and also performed with many percussionists on their recitals. Barbara was a frequent guest vocalist with Nexus and toured with us singing (and dancing) in some of our ragtime novelty arrangements. One of these concerts is shown below in the program from a concert Nexus and Barbara gave with the Buffalo Philharmonic in 1994. Barbara was 23 years old and had just finished her undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto. The great xylophonist, Sammy Herman, attended the concert and is pictured here with Nexus and Barbara.

Buffalo Philharmonic April, 1994
Buffalo Philharmonic April, 1994
[L-R] Robin Engelman, Russell Hartenberger, Sammy Herman,
Barbara Hannigan, John Wyre, Bill Cahn, Bob Becker
Photo courtesy of Nexus Percussion
Buffalo Pops Barbara Hannigan
Program for Buffalo Philharmonic concert with Nexus and Barbara Hannigan, April, 1994
Program courtesy of Nexus Percussion

Barbara was an accomplished singer even in her undergraduate years, and she had a great sense of time and rhythm. I think her participation in West African drumming helped solidify her rhythmic sense and perhaps set the groundwork for her successful career as a contemporary music vocalist and a symphony orchestra conductor. I told Barbara recently that I have always thought of her as a percussionist who happens to sing and conduct. At any rate, her flexible vocal skills and impeccable time feel made her a perfect fit for Drumming. As part of the concert celebration for my retirement from the University of Toronto in April 2016, Barbara sent me a personal performance of John Cage’s Wonderful Widow of 18 Springs.

Barbara Hannigan
Erik Risberg and Barbara Hannigan performing John Cage’s Wonderful Widow of 18 Springs, April, 2016
Photo courtesy of Barbara Hannigan