If the Drum-set owes its great popularity to the explosion in jazz music, so many other instruments of the numerous percussion family, owe their importance to the advent of the so-called "New Music." Which is to say, the contemporary and avant-garde music that has only recently, strange but true, gained rights of citizenship in scholastic programs as well.
Nevertheless, before talking about the use of percussions in contemporary music, it is necessary to try and interpret the new graphic symbolism, at least in its broad outlines. This is to say, the new notation that has made the percussionist into a performer who also has to provide creativity and interpretive discretion.
By musical notation, we mean that complex of conventional signs appropriate for symbolizing and representing sounds.
Traditional notation, with which all the masterpieces of the past were written, derived from medieval symbols called neumi (from the Greek neûma "gesture"). As you know, it articulates the following fundamental elements:
the musical staff or pentagram, the notes, the keys, the figures, the rests and the time fractions.
It has to do with a system that is brilliant in its simplicity and that, after yielding its best fruits, seems to have exhausted its expressive potential, demonstrating the limitations of its time. It is obvious that even a brilliant system, when it has fulfilled its task, needs to be changed or abandoned because, otherwise, it could transform itself into a dangerous instrument of cultural involution.
Contemporary notation, used for the most noted compositions of our time, arose, therefore, from the need to find a need way of writing that, in addition to overcoming the creative limits imposed by the antiquity of the traditional system, was more responsive, with its graphic immediacy, to the language of modern music.
This language, made of new sounds outside the tempered system and the predictability of tonalism, often found its natural location in the tonal richness of percussion instruments.
Not by accident, John Cage had occasion to say that, "music made with percussion instruments, for the fact of being built, in large part, from integral sounds (i.e., natural untempered sounds), represents the music of the future."
Cage's future is our present since today, at the level of notation, you can, in our opinion, already talk about the existence of a unitary, organic structure that we cannot help but be explored, understood and interpreted by all those who, with different motivations, are interested in percussion instruments and their music.
The various evolutionary phases of this new system of writing can be summarized as follows:
a preparatory phase, consisting of the evolution of conventional writing and its graphic symbols (which is to say, greater complexity in its rhythmic schemes, figures and performance technique);
a first phase, including the so-called mixed notation (i.e., traditional figures and new graphic symbols);
a second phase, that can be identified in the total or partial fragmentation of traditional rhythmic schemes and the advent of the subsequent random successions;
a third, and last, phase, consisting of the acquisition of the various layouts, diagrams, and cells and structures.
We will see below how these new symbols are written and interpreted.
What is important to know immediately is that this type of notation, despite appearances, turns out to be extremely simple. In this regard, it is sufficient to realize that, during a series of concerts for the schools, after a summary description, we were able to have elementary school children interpret selections written with the new musical semiology.
The defined rhythms, are those in which there is a regular alternating of strong and weak accents such as to determine an obvious rhythmic ordering of the sounds.
On the other hand, randomness is when the creation of the musical work requires a partial or total contribution from the performer.
"Randomness," affirms Armando Gentilucci, "is that phenomenon where the composer invokes the 'creative' collabora-tion of the performer, to whom he assigns several compositional decisions through a notation that is deliberately imprecise, an 'action' notation, where sound 'gestures' are indicated for the performing co-author to provide rather than the 'phonic' results, which are only approximately described and, thus, not strictly pre--established ..."
Nevertheless, we need to clarify that the extemporaneous composition of part of a musical work is certainly not a re-cent acquisition since it was already practiced in very ancient times, both in "erudite" as well as popular music. So, in this aspect there's nothing new, only the recovery of a creative element that serves to establish a tighter relationship between the composer and the performer.
Often contemporary music does not have the rhythmic continuity of classical music because its various ele-ments are connected in a rather approximate manner.
As a consequence, you have to follow what the other musicians are doing in order to insert your own part in-to the musical context at just the right moment. This is why, most of the time in contemporary music everyone has to follow the whole score and not limit themselves to reading only the part for their own instrument.
Often we go back to traditional notation for the defined rhythms, but even here there is no lack of valid alternative systems.
To obtain the precise rhythm in the example we reproduce, a grid is used where the various squares the comprise it are always as-signed the same duration. In this way, the square functions as a unit of motion and allows for the creation of both defined rhythms and random series.
On the other hand, dynamics are expressed by the thickness of the graphic. In which case, a thicker line corresponds to forte and a thinner line to piano.
To immediately understand how the grid works, just pause for a moment on the fourth and fifth percussions, the jawbone of an ass and congas, re-spectively. The first (marked with a simple accent) plays the "beat," as in waltz time, leaving two rest movements, represented by empty squares. The second (half filled-in little ball), after a rest motion, plays three strokes, alternating with rests. In effect, when there's a symbol in the square you play, -and when there isn't, you rest.
On the other hand, in the second and third blocks the succession of instruments is left to the performers' discretion and occurs as follows: three glissés resting on the tympani, played by the second percussion, saw on the end of the third glissé (played by the fifth percussion), rubbed tam tam, after the beginning of the saw, and another glissé on the tympani, then small cymbals (fourth percussion), etc.
A. Buonomo SPAZIO ZERO
Ricercare for Vocal Cords and Percussion
By mixed notation we mean a type of writing that, in addition to the classic traditional symbols (sometimes suitably modified), also uses symbols from the new notation.
Obviously, "new music" uses different symbols than the traditional figures to indicate the duration of sounds and rhythmic combinations. Since both the duration of the sounds and the performance of the rhythms can both be indicated in a deliberately approximate way, the result is that every performance is different and more personalized.
Generally, the composer provides a summary explanation of the "key" for a proper interpretation of the symbols used. The most used symbols are based on very eloquent designs that serve to call the requested sound effects to mind.
So, for a tight vibrato you might have a simple ridged line, while a slower vibrato would be indicated with the sections farther apart (pp. 72-73 2nd vol. of La musica tra ritmo e creatività).
The same discussion is also valid for random rhythms for which there would be, depending on the density and consistency of the symbols, a corresponding number of sounds of different sonorities.
By plot or path we mean a form of notation based on the performer's creative intervention for which, at the author's option, no key to its interpretation and performance is provided.
In general, it has to do with particular pieces for small instrumental groups, or solo instruments without accompaniment, written with a notational system that stimulates the performer's rich imagination to transform into sounds conforming to his own personal interpretation. The graphic symbols the composer uses to stimulate that search consist mainly of diagrams, cells and structures.
By diagram we mean the graphic representation of sound peaks pointing either up or down. Generally, they are used to indicate changes in tuning towards the acute or grave registers during the execution of a tremolo or vibrato.
Dynamic variations, on the other hand, are indicated, as usual, by heavier strokes.
The cells and structures are another story altogether since, in addition to coming in a variety of shapes and sizes, can be expressed with either traditional or contemporary notation.
In some cases the symbols are enclosed in delimited spaces, similar to measures, and the speed is established based on the distance between the various symbols: the closer together the symbols, the faster their rhythmic ar-ticulation (pp. 73-74 2nd vol. of La musica tra ritmo e creatività).
We have already said that the new contemporary notation arose from the need to overcome the limitations of the traditional system.
For example, some of these limits are represented by the difficulty of obtaining a gradual rhythmic evolution using only value figures, or the use of sounds outside of the tempered system.
In fact, in the first case, we have no intermediate figures, only double or half; in the second, only minimum intervals of semitones.
Let's look at a practical example. If we wanted to write a rhythmic progression for a roll (or for the bow strokes of a violinist, cellist, etc.), the only system for achieving a certain gradualness would be to use the so-called gradual movement modifications, which is to say: accelerando, affrettando, stringendo, etc. In the contrary case, one could only write values that, from the point of view of speed, express the double of the previous ones, which is to say: fourths, eighths, sixteenths, etc.
The same discourse is valid for notes, because, if one wanted to write music using all the sounds present in nature and not just the tempered ones, which are only twelve, this isn't possible with conventional notation.
Let's look at a practical example here as well. Let's say you want a trill with notes that are not fixed from the strings or wind instruments; in practice, notes that, according to the instructions, must rise or fall through the use of thirds and fourths of a tone, as well. This would be very complicated to write using the traditional system, while in contemporary notation a simple
diagram visually expresses the desired effect.
Finally, it should be pointed out that the shattering of traditional rhythmic patterns, represented by randomness (i.e., from the composer's decision to leave the responsibility for its rhythmic creation to the performer, in whole or in part), can remain only a graphic fact and not coincide with the abandonment of the rhythmic forms of the past, even if they interpret the symbols of the "new symbolic musical notation."
For this reason, the rhythmic asymmetry of contemporary music can be caused, from time to time, by the ability (or inability) of the performer to interpret the new symbols, also providing a rhythmic framework in the traditional sense.
Before dismissing this subject, however, it seems like a good time to make some observations.
Contemporary music is often attacked by certain stodgy conservatives, shut up in the dusty rooms of their acquired culture. We can at least discuss the genius of some music, considered to be too bizarre by some critics. But leaving aside the fact that we performers are interested in knowing it and interpreting it in the best way possible, we cannot help but think that keeping up to date with an art that is so highly developed, such as music, and trying to keep in touch with all the genres that comprise it, is a duty that no one should shirk. This is the only way that future musicians will be capable of interpreting every style and/or any type of musical creation: from the popular to the academic. The opera, Busoni, (one of the greatest musicians of the beginning of the Twentieth century) has said, must accept all musical forms and all means, from marches to songs to dances, from singing to the orchestra, from the profane to the spiritual; the unlimited space that it (opera) has available, makes it capable of assimilating every genre and every type, of reflecting any state of mind.
By now, in today's music, there is no place for those who have been crystallized for some time on one genre, or one style.
For a percussionist, but also for any other instrumentalist, ignoring the essential structure of the new musical notation, means giving up the ability to understand and interpret so many contemporary masterpieces that represent, and let's not forget this, the music of our time.