Tag Archives: percussion

Man, did you hear that?

A long, long time ago in a land far away, there was a  symphony orchestra. This orchestra was pretty much like any other orchestra. There were string players, brass players, woodwind players and players of percussion instruments. When they weren’t playing, the string players talked about their bows, the brass players talked about their mouth pieces, the woodwind players talked about their reeds and the percussionists looked far away and smiled.

There was a large dressing room backstage for the women in the orchestra and another one for the men. But the percussion players inhabited a room of their own. It was in the basement just around the corner from the boiler. This percussion room was not much bigger than a closet. It was very narrow and at the back were shelves holding drumheads and other things of their profession. The walls were covered with philosophical quotations. One was “Listen don’t hear. Hear don’t listen”.

The percussionists hung their concert clothes on nails and the unspoken challenge was to wear them for at least one season of concerts and tours before having them cleaned. Jacket armpits were inspected for shredding. A player whose jacket lining had dissintegrated beyond repair was considered the winner. Of what,  was not clear. No one ever admited to having his tails dry cleaned.

To some people the percussionists were weird. They were a clique and didn’t hang out much with other players. They seemed to disappear into their closet at odd times. Whispers suggested they were involved in subversive activities. Occasionally undefined odors immenated from the room. A few orchestra members, though never able to prove anything, harbored suspicions, but only the cleaning staff and the stage hands knew what was going on and they weren’t talking.

Percussionists thought their closet adventures helped them play better and experience the music more powerfully. Upon exiting, they felt loose and believed they heard things in the music they’d never heard before. Their playing tended towards the dramatic, a kind of “If you got it, flaunt it”, attitude.

On one concert, a percussionist played triangle during the entire first movement of  Haydn’s Military Symphony. Once he began to play, he just grooved on quarter notes. It must have been sublime, only one of the conductor’s eyebrows arched. Then there was the deep military drum suspended in the bowl of a kettle drum and played in unison with another smaller drum for the Debussy Fetes from Three Nocturnes. That one got a glare from the concert master and a look of puzzlement from the conductor. The same guy played the Dies Irae in Verdi’s Requiem on two bass drums simultaneously with croquet balls attached to broom handles. The guest conductor was too terrified to say anything.

But the numero uno “Man, did you hear that?” moment came in New York City’s most famous music hall. The orchestra’s timpanist began the 3rd movement of Mahler’s 1st Sympony twice as fast as written. The life of the principal bass player flashed before his eyes and the conductor’s mouth began moving in strange ways.

Someone said, “If you can remmber the sixties, you weren’t there”. Perhaps, but some things can’t be forgotten. Did you ever hear that?


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Cage Encounters

Variations III, No. 14, a 1992 print by Cage from a series of 57.

Variations III, No. 14, a 1992 print by Cage from a series of 57.

Long before I met John Cage, there was a wash of popular scuttlebutt clinging  to him. He was one of the 20th centuries’ most talked about musicians. Cage was a man whose name my teacher refused to speak. During my first year of college I suggested performing one of Cage’s percussion works and his response was a withering look that shivered my timbers.

That was in 1958. I had not seen a photograph of Cage nor heard any of his music. My ignorance was rectified somewhat in 1960 when I saw Cage on the television show I’ve Got a Secret. Cage’s secret was “I am going to perform one of my musical compositions. And he did. It was Water Walk (1959) and the performance can be seen on You Tube. [1.]  My teacher had certainly known about the infamous “silent piece”, 4’33” .(1952) His objection to Cage, though never voiced, made some sense considering his academic rectitude,.

Set-up for Water Walk.

Set-up for Water Walk.

As time passes, a chronology of life’s events can become skewed. I cannot remember how or when I first met Cage, but I do recall an after concert reception in someone’s Toronto home where most of us, including Cage, were seated on the floor. Nexus had just released a recording and I offered a copy to John who said, “I don’t like recorded music, but I’ll donate this to the University of Chicago Library.” On another occasion, a casual hello may have passed between us during a Percussive Arts Society International Convention (PASIC) in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (1984) I remember Cage having a meal with Percussion Group Cincinnati, which may not have been their name at the time. As they left the restaurant, a greeting might well have passed between us.

I know I met and spoke with him at length during a Celtic Festival in Toronto when he performed ROARATORIO (1979) with a wonderful group of Irish musicians including Paedre Mercier and his son Mel playing Bodhran.[2.]

John Cage, Paeder Mercier and R.E. during a Celtic Festival party in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 198?

John Cage, Paeder Mercier and R.E. during a Celtic Festival party in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 1982.

Convocation Hall on the campus of the University of Toronto was the venue for ROARATORIO, January 29 and 31, 1982, and as a warm-up, members of Nexus played Third Construction  (1941) while John and Merce Cunningham sat first row center. As might be expected, it was a very special performance. Afterwards we congregated backstage to share the moment. Merce was crying. “I have not heard this since I played the first performance. This is the part I played” he said to me, referring to my Lion’s roar, ratchet and maracas etc. Cage said, “I didn’t think the piece was so clear”.[3.]

In 1984, I was one of four conductors in Cage’s Dances for 4 Orchestras. [1982] Convocation Hall is circular with a balcony and the orchestras were positioned in various places with mine on the main floor stage. As conductor of Orchestra 1, it was my duty to begin the piece. I gave a downbeat and almost immediately the hall’s cavernous space was cleaved by a raw edged sarcasm. “Robin, is that what you call piano?”  From a distant balcony, it was Paul Zukovsky in high dudgeon. Cage came to my rescue with his distinctive, mellifluous voice,. “I think it’s soft enough Paul.” [4.]

For a television show, I had recently conducted in full symphonic dress, an orchestra of 25 automobiles performing O Canada in a stadium with their horns. Someone told Cage about seeing a newspaper photograph of this event and Cage asked me for a copy which I gave him during our first rehearsal. He was delighted.

Before leaving Toronto’s Celtc Festival, I must mention the great Celtic harpist, singer and historian, Gráinne Yeats. She was married to Michael Yeats, the son of poet and playwright William Butler Yeats.(1865-1939) I had the honor of improvising music with Gráinne for the W. B. Yeats play Cuchulain. Gráinne explained much to me about the Celtic or Irish harp history. For instance,Irish warriors fought naked and were driven to fighting frenzy by the sound of the harp. She also casually mentioned her father-in-law sitting on his porch composing poetry by humming. This past March, 2013 I phoned Ireland to speak with her but she was too frail for a phone conversation. Gráinne died 18 April, 2013.

Part of the lore surrounding Cage was his tolerance for and acceptance of accidental sounds occuring during performances of his music. It was this “anything works” dictum that I accepted as truth. Nexus members, Bob Becker, Russell Hartenberger and I, played his work Amores (1943) in 4 movements for Prepared piano and 3 percussionists 7 October, 1977. The opening movement for Prepared piano is followed by two movements for percussion trio. Cage was again in the audience and our first , the 2nd movement, was a stunner. The audience spontaneously applauded after the last note. When all had settled down, we were ready for the third movement when the pianist began playing the last. Cage rose from his seat and slowly made his way to the stage. He whispered to the pianist, “the percussionists have another movement to play”. Embarrassed, the pianist stopped playing and when Cage was once again seated, we continued on. So much for urban myths.

I participated in Musicircus, Cage’s 75th anniversary celebrations during the Los Angeles Festival (12 September,1987) and was asked to play in “but what about the noise of crumpling paper etc.” (1982) [5.] I believe John prided himself on his penmanship and clarity of expression. He approached me during the first rehearsal and complained about my not playing the way he had explained in his performance note. He was, for Cage, quite exercized and I was apologetic. I told him I had read his note and was conscientiously playing as I had understood it. He told me what he wanted and that was that. After the evening performance John approached and said,” You were correct. I reread my note and there was a missplaced comma which I have moved to its proper place.” Alas, I never asked him to show me the revision.

Nexus played Branches (1976) for a Cage celebration at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.c. (17 November, 1982) We discussed Cage’s performance notes which I understood to mean each of us was to toss the iChing coins to determine how we would interpret our parts. One of our head strong members objected to this reading and insisted we toss the coins just once to arrive at a group interpretation. We tossed one series and played. Cage later said, “Nexus does things their own way. They played  Branches linearly, not the way  I intended.”  Upon reading this, my respect for Cage blossomed and as well, his comment provided me an ah ha, I told you so moment.


During the writing of an article about percussion ensembles in North America, I called John at his home in New York City. After the usual greetings, I asked him if he had invented the percussion ensemble as we in North America knew it. He said he did not. “It was in the air” he said. Continuing, ” I suppose I was the first to have an ensemble that rehearsed regularly. That was to play my music.”

Nexus spent an afternoon in Amsterdam shopping for cactus, an adventure that blew away my mid tour doldrums. Local technicians provided exceptionally sensitive contact mics and a very good sound system. All the prep was for Child of Tree.(1975)  After our evening performance of Child of Tree, an audience member with bravura vocal chords, called out “Bullshit”. After moving to our next set-up, I looked at the audience and said,”Cactusshit”. Next day, that was our concert review headline.

L. to R. roadie, Dave Campion, R.E., John Wyre, 2 technicians, Bob Becker.

L. to R. Our roady,, Dave Campion, R.E., John Wyre, 2 technicians, Bob Becker.

ASLSP, for piano or organ (January 1985). This experience with Cage is related on this site in my article: John Cage Goes As Slow As possible in Halberstadt, Germany.


[2.]  Before Paeder left Toronto, he sold me his Bodhran and gave me a couple of lessons. Years later we were scheduled to meet in Liverpool, but his brother’s death called him home. We never met as Paeder himself died a year or two later. One can hear Paeder’s wonderful playing on early Chieftain recordings.

[3.] Cage limited his critique of our performance to the almglocken used in place of the Cow bell. “I had in mind an old farm cowbell. This sounds too pure.”

[4.] Paul Zukovsky and I remain long distance friends. He now lives in Hong Kong. From my perspective, his major contributions to 20-21st century music are his interpretations of violin music, his conducting and the Musical Observations Inc. CP2 digital recordings which he owns and which demonstrate both his playing and conducting skills. Nexus recorded Jo Kondo’s Under the Umbrella for CP2, each movement recorded in one take, no edits. Paul also conducted and recorded the Cage Sixteen Dances (1982) also available on CP2. Nexus played the latter work with Paul in Toronto, 30 Jamuary, 1982, ( during the Celtic Festival) 15 November, 1982 in Symphony Space, New York City and two days later on the aforementioned Kennedy Center concert, November 17..

The CP2 catalogue consists of 18 splendid CDs  encompassing works from our two most recent centuries. All containing rare musical gems played and produced with the highest professional standards.

[5.] The complete title: But what about the noise of crumpling paper which he used to do in order to paint the series of “Papiers froissés” or tearing up paper to make “Papiers déchirés?” Arp was stimulated by water (sea, lake, and flowing waters like rivers), forests, for percussion ensemble (August 1985).


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