“I am often asked what influence my visit to Africa in summer of 1970 had on Drumming. The answer is confirmation. It confirmed my intuition that acoustic instruments could be used to produce music that was genuinely richer in sound than that produced with electronic instruments, as well as confirming my natural inclination towards percussion (I became a drummer at the age of 14).” So says Steve Reich, the American minimalist composer of the groundbreaking percussion masterpiece Drumming.
I, too, was a drummer, starting at age five. And although I continued to play drums and later study orchestral percussion throughout my undergraduate degree, I did not hear this incredible work until my senior year in high school. For a young classical music lover, this was a late find. But worth the wait. This piece would make me reimagine percussion instruments as generators of unheard sounds and visceral and intelligent emotion.
Drumming lasts about an hour and is in four parts performed without pause. The first part is composed for four pairs of bongos, played by four percussionists. The second part (17:50), for three marimbas, played by nine players and two women’s voices. The third (41:50), for three glockenspiels, played by four players and whistling and piccolo. And the fourth (62:30), for all of the instruments and voices, combined.
One rhythm exists throughout the entire piece. Two players begin the work and construct the ubiquitous rhythm note-by-note. Says Steve, “This pattern undergoes changes of phase position, pitch, and timbre, but all the performers play this pattern, or some part of it, throughout the entire piece.”
A fascinating technique used throughout Drumming is “phasing.” Phasing occurs when two identical rhythms gradually start to move out of sync with one another as one player begins to gradually increase their pace. After a short period of controlled rhythmic dissonance, uniformity resumes, and the groove continues.
This is a highly compelling and hypnotic performance by So Percussion and friends. If you can’t watch the entire piece, I recommend starting with the first part. And indeed, listen to the wild climaxes of part one and part four. Drumming is intensely complex and very challenging to perform; however, the listener can exist purely on a hauntingly primitive emotional plane.