Table of Contents
This article is a submission to the biannual journal of the wind band of the student art troupe of Tsinghua University; December 2022, No. 58.
Auto-translated from Chinese by DeepL🪐. Inaccuracies may arise.
The Elves Who Fell Behind
Two years ago, as I was counting bars in a rehearsal and looking around in a trance at my second unit mates, a scene suddenly came to mind.
The thick tones of the winds sounded like a train on a track, the beat of the piece turning into the regular sound of steam engines and wheels as the train rumbled on through the night, surrounded by a group of sprites that danced around the train, wrapping it in a stream of light.
These pixies are naturally the embodiment of percussion. As the band's experience grows, the picture becomes clearer and more real: even straightforward instruments like the big drums and even the big cymbals remain on stage as the pixies that push the music forward, rather than the steam locomotive that fills it out the most. Even if the rehearsal hall is noisy when the voices are together, it still seems like an empty shell waiting to be filled with substance.
I have had the privilege of experiencing the different roles of the chorus in many places; feeling the sound field around me in the vibrating air, feeling the resonance of the music, like a fish being swept along in a school of fish in the ocean, or a bird flying along with a flock of birds, which I suppose is somewhat similar to a wind ensemble. But the experience of being a percussionist is very different: standing on the outside looking into the winds, you have the experience of being 'up high', surrounded by a unique view but also by a pervasive sense of uncertainty; and the sound of your instrument seems to float around the orchestra forever, with every appropriate or misplaced note exposed in the music. The sound of the instruments in my hands seems to float around the orchestra forever, with every appropriate or errant note exposed in the music. I remember when I first joined the band, I was told by my seniors that "percussion is all about soloing", and the subsequent rehearsals and performances really made me feel the inevitable apprehension I felt every time I stood in front of my instrument.
Percussion is marginalised - "drum practice" and "all of us" are left behind when "wind practice" is mentioned again and again. ...oh don't hit", the bitter smiles after each other, the flirtation with the "male" and "female" "percussion" dressing room signs, the vocal ensemble rehearsals. The flirtation with the 'male' and 'female' dressing room signs, the 'orchestra' and the 'wind' that is said and corrected for a moment when the voices are in unison, all mirror the elves who fall out of line at the drop of a hat, smile helplessly at the train that has left them behind, and then try to catch up to it.
Sometimes this personality is a problem for others. The bulky instruments, the complicated demands of drawing up the stage plan, the band mates who had to move out of the rehearsal hall during vocal rehearsals, the flawed vocal configurations and even the occasional stumbling rhythm during rehearsals ...... were all there for everyone to see. On more than one occasion, the concern was, what did everyone have in mind for percussion? Did the percussionists' contribution to the music live up to the potential of the instrument and the piece by going to such lengths as each of us did?
I don't know. Beyond the train, there is a vast unknown.
The Outlier Explorer
The confusion is real, but I don't think playing a unique role is a bad thing, or at least a fun thing to do. Percussion is a band that stretches its diversity around the band - a wide variety of instruments, a wide variety of vocal parts; not defined by instruments or scores, not even boundaries in terms of membership. John Cage, one of the pioneers of modern symphonic percussion, invited his sculptor spouse Xenia to play in the concert, while Sarah Hennies, a contemporary composer and percussionist, lamented in an interview that " Even if one only rings ragged little bells on stage, one is undeniably fit for the role of a percussionist".
At the same time, the marginal position means a partial absence of outside scrutiny, which largely leaves the say on the rich possibilities in the music to the players themselves. The ideal interpretation of a few notes on a score often needs to be flexibly adjusted in relation to the complex reality of the instrument and the musician. This lack of restriction and guidance is probably one of the major sources of unease.
Nonetheless, this high degree of freedom still revolves around the purpose of concentration. The ultimate destination of diversification is inevitably to serve the music, with the intention of exploring more diverse possibilities in music and tapping into the potential of different instruments and even ordinary objects to participate in musical expression. This was the theme around which all innovation and experimentation in percussion revolved; Henry Cowell and John Cage wrote in their programme in the 1930s and 40s that the potential for new sounds was an important subject for the future of Western music, and that 'percussion is like an arrow pointing to the whole unexplored territory of sound'; this lonely Cowell's percussion repertoire, such as Pulse and Return, based on Asian folklore, was an important early milestone, and it was only the subtle structural design and careful expression of the performance behind the unrestricted instrumentation and rhythmic patterns that allowed such a novel listening experience to be presented to the world. It is fair to say that with percussion, composers and performers alike often become painstaking explorers of the boundaries of music.
In an interview with Professor Philip Ewell, YouTube musician Adam Neely discusses the limitations of contemporary Eurocentric music education and research, pointing out that its discourse ignores the multifaceted understanding of music by different cultures. There are countless interesting and inspiring possibilities beyond the usual horizons, and percussion and its metaphorical diversity is a beacon that guides exploration.
The combination of diversity, which breeds creativity, and marginalisation, which removes the constraints of tradition, gives percussion its unique and innovative character. The unrestricted space brings with it the responsibility to face the unknown and calls for a relentless insistence on perception and practice beneath the surface of unrestrictedness.
The Light Chasers on the Run
The student band is inherently inclusive of individuals, and the flexible vocal configuration of the wind band creates ample space for players of varying abilities. In the face of the complexity of the music, each participant's expression of his or her own abilities and wishes is heard individually, with occasional glimpses into the inner world of the friends. It is a place where both the complexity of the music and the complexity of the individual are seen, and where each person is catalysed to reflect on himself or herself. What is your role in music, and what do you want to contribute? Or, what is the thing that you want to be "outside of yourself"? I think everyone must have their own quiet answer.
More than once, I have seen band mates around me who are striving to be what they want to be. I have seen hard-working seniors running towards their favourite profession and flying out of the pain of failure to fulfil their dreams in a faraway country; I have seen friends in the same section devote themselves to difficult passages and hide their feelings in music with special meaning; I have seen partners finish their wind section practice and then find joy in a different instrument and finally realise their percussion aspirations on the stage of a competition. Watching this, I felt a genuine appreciation and admiration.
Sarah mentioned that the stage is a symbol of power and that people on stage can use their presence to send a powerful message; everyone under the lights can be an icon; behind every opportunity to go on stage is the day-to-day work; what kind of performer do you want to be, what kind of message do you want to send to the audience and your partners, and what kind of determination do you see in your friends who are on stage together? What kind of message do you want to give to your audience and your partners, and what kind of conviction do you see in your friends who are on stage with you? It's a great blessing to meet these shining treasures in every performance.
Marginalisation and diversity is a fluid concept, and everyone is at some point a unique, forgotten and perhaps even eccentric part. The power of the band community is enough to dispel the unknown and the confusion: all talents have a unique value, and if they are different, then perhaps that is the opportunity to shine. It's not easy to be at the border, but if you can, take that freedom and turn the special sceneries into unique ideas.
The train and the pixie must be inseparable. The same music on the stage, the sorrows and joys of the world in their own way - what's the difference?
Hennies, Sarah 2018, “Queer Percussion.” Queer Trash: the Symposium.
Miller, Leta E. 2006, “Henry Cowell and John Cage: Intersections and Influences, 1933–1941.” Journal of the American Musicological Society, 59(1), 47–112.
Neely, Adam 2020, “Music Theory and White Supremacy.” YouTube. https://youtu.be/Kr3quGh7pJA