Drumming at Midnight

During my forty-two years of teaching percussion at the University of Toronto, I scheduled performances of Drumming every few years so each cohort of students could have the experience of learning the piece by rote and performing it. One of the most memorable concerts was one that began at 11:00 PM on January 22, 2003. Our idea was to add to the hypnotic effect of the piece by performing it late at night so the performance would conclude around midnight. The Walter Hall auditorium was completely filled with an enthusiastic audience for this unusual experience. Jamie Drake, one of the percussion students at the time, and a performer in the concert, created this imaginative advertisement for the concert on a 36” bass drum head.

Drum head
Drumhead design: Jamie Drake
Photo: Joyce To

Drumming at PASIC

On November 18, 1982, a quartet of percussionists from Steve Reich and Musicians played Reich’s music for the first time at a Percussive Arts Society International Convention (PASIC). At the concert, which took place in Dallas, Texas, Steve Reich, Bob Becker, Glen Velez, and I played Drumming, Part III and Part I along with Clapping Music, Piano Phase on two marimbas, and Music for Pieces of Wood. It was another twenty years before a complete performance of Drumming was given at a PASIC.

Program from 1982 PASIC concert in Dallas, Texas
Program courtesy of Bill Cahn

On November 13, 2002, I organized a complete performance of Drumming at a PASIC that was held in Columbus, Ohio. This was the first time Drumming was presented in its entirety at PASIC. The percussionists were members of Nexus and percussion students from the University of Toronto. The two singers were Ainsley McNeany, a percussion student who was also an excellent vocalist, and Sonja Rasmussen, a singer who had performed the piece with the Reich ensemble and who happened to live in nearby Bloomington, Indiana. The piccolo player was Katherine Borst Jones, flute professor at the Ohio State University in Columbus. In 2007, Steve was honored with induction into the Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame. [See Lauren Vogel Weiss’s article in the Articles section of the DRUMMINGat50 website for details.]

Program for Drumming at PASIC, Nov. 13, 2002
Program courtesy of Bill Cahn

Steve Reich, Nexus, and Abraham Adzenyah

Abraham Adzenyah is a Fante master drummer from the Akan region of Ghana. He was a member of the Ghana National Dance Ensemble before he began a forty-six-year career on the faculty of Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut where Bob Becker and I studied with him in the 1970s. Adzenyah taught all of the members of Nexus music from Ghana and we performed concerts regularly with him for many years. In our performances, Nexus members played supporting drum parts in music from the Akan, Ewe, and Dagomba regions of Ghana while Adzenyah played the master drum parts and occasionally danced. 

One of the highlights of our concerts together was the World Drum Festival in 1986 organized by Nexus member John Wyre for Expo ’86 in Vancouver. This week-long festival featured 150 musicians from 23 percussion ensembles and 17 countries performing separately and together.

Play Video

World Drums concert at Expo ’86 in Vancouver, July, 1986
Photo courtesy of Nexus Percussion

In 1988, Adzenyah, Steve Gadd, and the Korean group Samulnori combined with Nexus in Japan for a concert billed as Super Percussion at Tokyo Music Joy. Steve Gadd joined Nexus on rope drums in The Downfall of Paris, and he contributed a memorable tap dance chorus to the ragtime piece Xylophonia. Steve also wrote Duke’s Lullaby, a work that he premiered with Nexus and Adzenyah at the festival.

Tokyo Music Joy Super Percussion

In 1996, the Art Projekt 96 festival in Copenhagen featured a marathon concert with Steve Reich and Musicians, Nexus, Abraham Adzenyah, Kronos, and the Paul Hillier Theatre of Voices. Barbara Hannigan joined Nexus as the soloist in Bob Becker’s Cryin’ Time, a piece she premiered in Toronto in 1994 and recorded in 1998. A recording of Barbara Hannigan singing Cryin’ Time can be heard on Bob Becker’s blog.

The Copenhagen concert also featured traditional Ghanaian pieces, Bambaya, Kundum, and Kpanlogo with Steve Reich joining the other percussionists on supporting drum parts.

Program for ArtProjekt 96 Festival in Copenhagen, 1996
Program courtesy of Bob Becker
L to R: Steve Reich, Bob Becker, Abraham Adzenyah, Russell Hartenberger,
Garry Kvistad, Tim Ferchen in Copenhagen, 1996
Photo courtesy of Nexus Percussion

Drumming at Banff

A few years ago, I was an artist in residence at the Banff Center in Alberta, Canada. Banff is nestled in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains and is a wonderful place to play and study music. I worked hard with a group of young students for a week teaching them Drumming and other Reich works, and also directing them in a class of West African drumming. It was a lot to absorb for the students who had never played any of this music before and they struggled to figure out how to play the intricate rhythms of both these kinds of music. Consequently, our rehearsals lasted all day and into the evening hours. On the morning of the last rehearsal before our concert, one of the students, Jonathan-James Eng, bounded into the rehearsal room with renewed enthusiasm and shouted, “I got it! I figured out what this all means! SUBDIVIDE AND CONQUER!” With one simple phrase, this young percussionist realized what he had to do to perform this music correctly, and with this phrase he provided me with a key to unlocking the mysteries of rhythm. My wife, Bonnie Sheckter, designed a banner with this phrase, and I hung it above the entrance to the percussion studio at the University of Toronto. It has become a motto of the studio and even found its way onto some of the percussion studio T-shirts. 

Subdivide and Conquer with border
Banner Design: Bonnie Sheckter
Photo: Joyce To

Drumming Symposium: 16 Drums

In 2016, I received a grant from the Jackman Humanities Institute to organize a symposium at the University of Toronto titled “Reich, Rhythm, and Repetition: Patterns in Music, Speech, and Science.” Nexus and Kathy Armstrong were joined by Stephen Morris, J. Tuzo Wilson Professor of Geophysics at the University of Toronto Department of Physics, to produce these collaborative events. Garry Kvistad presented two lectures titled “Pitch to Rhythm” during which he and I gave some of the first performances of Mallet Phase, a version of Reich’s Piano Phase that we played on instruments Garry created and tuned in just intonation. [Note: see my article titled Marimba Phase/Mallet Phase in the Articles section of the DRUMMINGat50 website for more detailed information.] Professor Morris’s lectures on the mathematics and acoustics of Chladni plates and patterns in nature (including icicles and ruts in dirt roads) were an ideal companion to our discussions and performances of Reich’s music.

Jackman Humanities Institute Symposium program, 2016

On one of the concerts, Nexus decided to play Drumming, Part I using sixteen bongos instead of the usual eight. This idea came to us during a recording session to find out what really happens in a phase in Drumming. [Note: See “What Really Happens in Drumming” in the Articles section of the DRUMMINGat50 website for details.] Bob Becker and I recorded the first phase in Drumming for analysis by Michael Schutz and his colleagues at the Maple Lab (Music Acoustics Perception LEarning) at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. In order to capture the attack on each bongo, Bob and I used individual sets of bongos rather than playing on the same instruments as is normally done in performances of Drumming. We realized that, not only was it easier to play when we had our own sets of bongos, but that the sound was much better. We decided to play the entire movement at this symposium concert on eight pairs of bongos to hear the sound difference. Our conclusion was that the sound was indeed much fuller, but that the problem of keeping twice the number of bongos in tune made this rendition problematic.

16 bongos
Bongo set-up for Nexus concert at the University of Toronto
Photo: Bonnie Sheckter
Bob Becker and Garry Kvistad tuning bongos
Photo: Bonnie Sheckter

TorQ Percussion

TorQ Percussion (Toronto Quartet) was formed in 2004 and its members are Richard Burrows, Adam Campbell, Jamie Drake, and Daniel Morphy, all graduates of the percussion program at the University of Toronto. In addition to their performances of classic percussion music on their concerts, TorQ is committed to developing and performing Canadian music, including their own compositions and arrangements. They are also strong advocates for music education and hold a TorQ Percussion Seminar each summer at different locations in Canada. I was a visiting artist at the TorQ seminars in Wolfville, Nova Scotia in 2013 and the Lunenburg Academy of Music Performance in Nova Scotia in 2019. At each of these seminars I prepared a performance of Drumming with the students who were joined by TorQ members in the final concerts. 


Nexus: Garry, Russell, Bill, Bob
Photo: Carol Judson/Bonnie Sheckter

TorQ: Daniel, Richard, Adam, Jamie
Photo: Tara McMullen

TorQ and Nexus have performed Drumming several times in Toronto and the surrounding area. One of these Drumming performances was in 2014 at the Open Ears Festival of Music and Sound in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario, about an hour’s drive west of Toronto. The festival uses unusual venues to present an eclectic range of musics from new classical music to electroacoustic, musique actuelle, and sound installations. In addition to Nexus and TorQ, Brennan Connolly played percussion, Gillian Stone and Amy Gottung from the University of Toronto were the singers, and Laura Chambers played piccolo. TorQ member, Richard Burrows is currently the Artistic Director of the festival and is planning another performance of Drumming when the Covid pandemic has lessened enough to hold public concerts once again.

Drumming at Open Ears
Program from Drumming at Open Ears Festival with Nexus and TorQ
Program courtesy of Open Ears Festival
Nexus and TorQ performing Drumming at Open Ears Festival, June, 2014
Photo courtesy of Open Ears Festival

Steve Reich and Soundstreams Canada

Soundstreams Canada and its Artistic Director, Lawrence Cherney, have been some of the biggest supporters of Steve Reich’s music in Canada for many years. Soundstreams was a co-commissioner for Mallet Quartet and in 2010 presented the Canadian premiere of the piece with Nexus in Koerner Hall, Toronto. In addition to the premiere of Mallet Quartet, Soundstreams has presented Canadian premieres of Daniel Variations, You Are (Variations), and 2×5 as well as several performances of Six Pianos.

In April 2016, Soundstreams produced a week-long celebration of Steve Reich’s upcoming 80th birthday with concerts, lectures, and special events. The final concert of the week was at venerable Massey Hall in Toronto where we performed Clapping Music, Tehillim, and Music for 18 Musicians. On Monday, April 11 of that week, Steve performed Drumming, Part I with three of us from Nexus in a private concert at Integral House in the Rosedale section of Toronto. As far as I know, that is the last time Steve played in Drumming. 

Integral House
Garry Kvistad, Russell Hartenberger, Steve Reich, Bob Becker at Integral House, Toronto, April 11, 2016
Photo courtesy of Soundstreams Canada