American Music For Percussion 1


American Music For Percussion 2














Collage New Music performs Donald Sur



The independent percussion ensemble is an early 20th century musical phenomenon that was stimulated by the exploratory compositions of Edgard Varèse, Henry Cowell, Lou Harrison, Harry Partch, and, especially, John Cage. Composers such as Toru Takemitsu, Steve Reich, Michael Colgrass and Charles Wuorinen latched on to the new sonic possibilities that the percussion ensemble suggested and wrote important pieces. There was also an explosion in the growth of percussion ensembles on both the college campus and in the professional music world. Frank Epstein, a Boston Symphony Orchestra percussionist, Chair of Brass and Percussion at NEC, and Director of the NEC Percussion Ensemble, has long been an ardent champion of new music. With the NEC Percussion Ensemble, he has commissioned and given first performances of many new works, helping building a 21st century repertory for that instrumental grouping. Percussion Ensemble concerts, then, are a rich and varied mix of styles, colors, and textures. Come and be dazzled!


American Music for Percussion 1

New England Conservatory Percussion Ensemble

Joan Tower, Felicia Sandler, Jennifer Higdon, Robert Rodríguez and Gunther Schuller




American Music for Percussion 2

New England Conservatory Percussion Ensemble

Elliott Carter, Peter Child, Edward Cohen, John Harbison, Fred Lerdahl


Collage New Music Performs Donald Sur
The mission of Collage New Music is to commission, perform, and record contemporary classical music, and to provide an arena for the union of composer, performer, and listener, through engaging pre-concert lectures, thoughtful and innovative programming, and informal gatherings.

Founded in 1972 by Frank Epstein, Collage New Music is highly regarded for its scintillating performances of music by the great composers of the 20th and 21st centuries. Over the past three decades Collage has given the first Boston performances of more than 200 works, including 80 world premieres. Under the direction of David Hoose since 1991, Collage has commissioned new works by such luminaries as Andrew Imbrie and John Harbison, as well as many local composers. Many of the finest American singers of contemporary music have appeared as guests with Collage, as have Seiji Ozawa, Gunther Schuller, Milton Babbitt, Clark Terry, Vanessa Redgrave, and others. Collage concerts have ranged from solo performances to fully staged chamber opera and music with extensive electronic equipment.

In addition to its annual series of concerts and commissioning activities, Collage hosts a composer-in-residence each year, runs an annual composition competition for high school students, and is regularly engaged in recording new music.



Lesson Category: Concert Percussion

Skill Levels: Advanced
I have recently found myself in an unusual situation. As founder and director of the New England Conservatory Percussion Ensemble I have been given a generous grant by the Bradford and Dorothea Endicott Foundation to commission a number of composers to write music for the Conservatory's percussion ensemble. As the founder of Collage New Music, a chamber ensemble I founded many years ago, I have been in contact with some of America's premier composers. So when this opportunity came along to commission new works I was both gratified and excited. To date we have received excellent new pieces from Joan Tower, Gunther Schuller, and Jennifer Higdon. Other composers commissioned include: Robert Rodriguez, John Harbison, Fred Lerdahl, and Elliott Carter.

It was during the preparations of Gunther Schuller's 24-minute piece entitled: "Grand Concerto for Percussion and Keyboards" premiered in the summer of 2005 at Tanglewood that some of the fun began. Gunther set himself the challenge of using every percussion instrument he could think of (well over a hundred instruments) and as he determined when he was done, he discovered he did in fact use all the instruments intended except for three. One of the unique features of this piece was its use of suspended cymbals. Gunther's music uses a variety of compositional styles including a 12 tone row. He decided to use 12 suspended cymbals to play the tone row. I don't believe a tone row has ever been assigned to suspended cymbals! The 12 suspended cymbals are distributed among 3 players. I ended up spending a long afternoon at the Zildjian factory selecting these cymbals.

If you have ever tried to find multiple consecutive pitched cymbals you know how difficult that can be. Though all cymbals sound different, their pitch difference is often minimal, often less than a half step. I have had numerous discussions with colleagues when comparing two or three suspended cymbals as to which is the highest sounding. I have often had to step away from the cymbal to determine which cymbal sounds higher or lower. The real difference tends to be in tone, timbre, attack and sustaining power as well as the number and quality of overtones. So to find 12 distinct and audibly different cymbal pitches, with cymbal sounds that relate to one another, turned out to be a real challenge. Even when considering all the different size cymbals that are produced, actual (relative) pitches can be quite similar and tend to overlap. Thus a small cymbal can have a lower pitch that a larger one and a larger cymbal can sound higher than a smaller one.
I began by finding the lowest pitch (22 inch) and highest pitch (10") possible cymbals I could find. I went through hundreds of cymbals, and then when these were in place, I collected all the cymbals that fell in between these two cymbals. I ended up with well over 30 cymbals and then began to try to locate cymbals that were graduated higher and lower, with distinct and clear pitch identification that eventually sounded different enough from a neighboring cymbal while maintaining a sense of unanimity. In the end we used a total of 18 suspended cymbals, including two sizzle and one Chinese cymbal. The piece also required the use of 18 roto toms. Luckily for me, the Boston Symphony some years ago performed the premier of a work by Sir Michael Tippett, entitled "Roze Lake". It called for 49 roto toms and as we still have them all in storage we were able to borrow them.

This project has proven itself to be fun and the fun continues. Next season we will premier many of these works at Carnegie Hall in New York City. I hope some of our readers will be able to attend the concert!