What are exciting percussive music


Composers of the 20th and 21st centuries questioned the drums not only in a particularly thorough, but also in a particularly radical manner. This applies not only to the expansion of the instrument pool, but also to the possibilities of making the instruments sound in a wide variety of ways and of engaging in a creative exchange with them. The drummers themselves are more and more involved in this particular metabolism and in the invention of new sounds. In his essay, music journalist and festival director Björn Gottstein traces the various tracks left by drum music in the 20th century and asks about the importance of drums for the music of our time.


I percussion can be rather dangerous

“Percussion can be rather dangerous,” warned Reginald Smith Brindle in 1970. Smith Brindle only wanted to point out to composers that they should not overdo it with percussive effects in their works, but use them sparingly. But the drums are actually dangerous sometimes. It is known from psychology, for example, that repetitive rhythms affect those regions of the brain in which hypnotic and ecstatic states are triggered. Dance and ecstasy are also closely related, and in shamanism, Sufism, but also in western culture, music and dance were used to produce a loss of consciousness. (Cf. Dürr, 1985) And then there is that famous “rhythm where you have to go”, a mass psychological phenomenon that weakens the individual's independence. This means tempos of around 110 beats per minute, which is the basis of many dances and also differentiated club music such as house music. The compulsion that comes from such a rhythm, the involuntary part of it, is of course also dangerous. When the orchestra's drummer struck the hammer with full force for the first time in November 2012 at the dress rehearsal of a work by Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf, the entire brass section winced. That was "bodily harm", whispered one of the orchestra employees, and Plexiglas panes were quickly brought out to protect the musicians from the dynamic force of the hammer blow. The German word “schlag ”does not imply a particularly tender act; and the more elegant word of the percussive also goes back to percussus, the blow, and percussio, the shock. After all, the stick with which Jean-Baptiste Lully set the beat for his orchestra and which he rammed into his foot one unfortunate evening in January 1867, causing gangrene, from which he eventually died, was also a percussion instrument. Percussion can be rather dangerous indeed.

Now, anyone who puts himself in danger is known to perish in it. The opposite is true for music. It was only the dangers of the percussive that made the liveliness and diversity of music possible in the 20th century. "Our own time seems to be becoming more and more the age of percussion," wrote Smith Brindle. That is an exaggeration, to be sure, and from the mouth of an author writing a book on drums in 20th century music, perhaps an obvious distortion of perspective. After all, piano trios, string quartets and wind quintets were still composed in the 20th century. And yet there is something to the thesis of the century of the drums, just as the Renaissance can be associated with the lute, the Baroque with the organ, the Classical with the string quartet, and the Romantic with the piano. And it is not only in composed, so-called serious music, that the percussive sound has grown in importance. For jazz, rock'n'roll and beat music, the drums became a prerequisite, yes, a condition of their creation, so that wherever we hear music today, drums are usually also played.

But how did the drums shape the new music? And isn't the drums perhaps also a condition of their being created? In an early inventory of new music, in Fred K. Prieberg's 1956 book “Music Under the Line”, there is talk of a “break in rhythm” into music. For Prieberg, the rhythmic, stamping and beating, stands at the beginning of new music. Both the steam locomotive, which Arthur Honegger portrayed in an orchestral piece in 1923, and the trance-like tumbling that Igor Stravinsky evoked in his “Spring Sacrifice” in 1913, are for Prieberg paradigms of a new art that gives the drums greater importance. The mechanical and the cultic, that is Prieberg's thesis, stand, as their raison d'être, to a certain extent, at the beginning of new music. When Prieberg goes on to explain that “the break in rhythm led to an emancipation of noise”, because “rhythmic instruments are also tools for making noise”, then he indicates the far-reaching consequences that have accompanied the percussive expansion of music since then. For it remains to be seen whether the mechanical or the cultic always played such a large role in later works. But it soon became certain that the drums would stay.

II The area of ​​possibilities is limitless

Nothing leads to systematisation like the versatile arsenal of the drummer. When three books were published around 1970 that were devoted to the role of the drums in new music, the focus was on the recording and systematization of the instruments. (Włodzimierz Kotoński, "Percussion Instruments in the Modern Orchestra", 1968; James Blades, "Percussion Instruments and their History", 1970; Reginald Smith Brindle, "Contemporary Percussion", 1970) For example, the difference between idiophones and membranophones is explained. Idiophones are instruments in which the body of the instrument itself sounds, a triangle for example. In the case of membranophones, like a drum, a membrane is made to vibrate. A distinction can be made between tuned and untuned instruments. The stick games are tuned idiophones: xylophone, marimbaphone, vibraphone. Group memberships can also be defined using the building materials skin, metal and wood. From the gong to the big drum, every instrument can be classified and its characteristics described. The authors of the percussion literature then devote themselves to borderline cases, such as the use of a whistle in Latin American dance music. New inventions have to be classified. The cartophone, which Les Percussions de Strasbourg once invented, can easily be ascribed to the un-tuned idiophones. The same applies to the chains that Edgard Varèse demands in “Intégrales”. But what about the water gongs when a swinging-sounding gong is slowly dipped into the water? Where exactly is the drum computer located? Where is a string quartet turned into a drum set?

One of the nicer dilemmas in music history is that new percussion instruments are invented every day. It would never occur to anyone to assign the technique of a bowed cymbal to the family of string instruments. Almost every new form of sound generation that is not performed on an existing instrument or electronically is assigned to the drum kit. Shaken tin, rustled leaves, rolled balls and a wind chime blown - these are all percussion instruments, or at least they are called that. Of course, the opening of music to the everyday has a lot to do with this expansion of the instrument pool. Where composers tap and listen to their immediate surroundings, the world of noises is explored, tamed and finally cultivated. The range of possibilities is limitless, from the sound of the fingertip on the computer keyboard when writing text to turning a page when reading this text or clicking the mouse when the text is scrolled ...

"Not a surrealistic gag or aggressive provocation" should be the expansion of the sound possibilities, as Helmut Lachenmann noted in 1969. The stifled beat, the pressed string, the toneless blast of air are to him rather "logical integration of the entire available sound and noise repertoire". Whether this integration actually follows any kind of music-historical “logic” remains to be seen. Perhaps more important is that Lachenmann, with his percussion concert “Air”, describes the solo instrument “as the most obvious - also the most obvious - medium of such sound realism” because the drums enable him to “experience and incorporate the external mechanical causality that underlies a sound Include reflection ”. Causality also means the immediacy with which an object is made to sound. There is always a little child left, curiously hitting a saucepan, kicking a box or hammering a ball against the garage door. It was not so long ago that such mechanical processes of Lachenmann's sound realistic were still assessed as “unstylized musical raw material” (Dahlhaus, 1982).

Helmut Lachenmann: “Air”, Christian Dierstein with Stuttgart State Orchestra, conductor: Lothar Zagrosek

What is striking in the music is the range between the completely inexperienced activity of striking and the technical requirements of a complex score. It is quite conceivable that a choir singer, although not trained for it, will strike a cymbal on stage as a mere additional instrument. The casualness of such a percussive side effect stands in stark contrast to the rhythmic complexity that, for example, Lachenmann the soloist demands of his concert. Even more than melody instrumentalists and singers, the percussionist is measured by rhythmic accuracy. A clarinetist may occasionally have to cope with a septole nested in a quintole, but the rhythmic-metric proportions of the drums are more clearly emphasized than the essence of the musical event.

III The Percussive turn

With his "Mode de valeurs et d’intensités", Olivier Messiaen ventured an experiment in 1949 with far-reaching consequences. By applying Schönberg's row technique not only to pitch, but also to a number of other elements, including tone durations, he abolished the hierarchy among parameters. When rhythm dominated the music of the 19th century, it was said that “in the hierarchy of parameters the lower is turned up” (Dahlhaus, 1980). In Messiaen's "Mode", for the first time, all parameters have been worked out in the same way and thus treated with equal rights. What irritates about it is that Messiaen emancipates the rhythmic layer of the music, although or perhaps precisely because he does not explicitly shape it. Because if the note values ​​are derived from the numerical values ​​in a row, the rhythm results automatically from the sequence of durations. If the values ​​3 and 1 are in the row of numbers, then a dotted rhythm is noted without ever being as such, that is, as a syntactic unit, was intended.

This sequence of musical durations remained a musical special case and other methods of rhythmic design soon became virulent. And to the extent that the composers differentiated the rhythm as a carrier of meaning, the role of the drums in the new music grew. When Beat Furrer in “Xenos III” (2012) analyzes a text according to the sound form, composes the rhythmic properties of the text and elevates the timpani to a veritable “speaker”, then is only one of many possible methods of “creating” a material. The same applies to a far more open transmission process, such as the musical adaptation of the characters from Fyodor Dostoyevsky's novel “The Gambler”, which Lucia Ronchetti does in “Helicopters and Butterflies” (2012).

Lucia Ronchetti: "Helicopters and Butterflies", percussion: Christian Dierstein, Festival d’Automne à Paris, 2012

If we look back at the history of drum music since the 1930s, it becomes clear how consistently the composers have developed the instruments. The most important innovations certainly came from Edgard Varèse, who tried the percussive for the first time in 1926 with "Hyperprism" and "Intégrales" and finally released it in 1931 with the pure percussion piece "Ionisation". Another step was taken by John Cage, who with his series of “Constructions in Metal” between 1939 and 1941 invented music based entirely on meters. In retrospect, one can accuse Varèse that “ionization” is “not completely successful from a colouristic point of view”, or Cages that the “constructions” “seem to lack color contrast” (Smith Brindle, 1970). But Varèse, Bartók and Cage remain the great heroes at the beginning of the percussion era. When Darius Milhaud composed his “Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra” in 1947, the “Percussive turn” was already in full swing.

In the decades after the Second World War, a number of new contexts followed in which the drum beat sounded. Pierre Boulez, who used the drums in "Marteau sans maître" in 1955 in a completely differentiated way for the first time, has never made a secret of his love for Indonesian music, which served as his model. Steve Reich had just returned from a trip to Africa in 1971 when he created "drumming" as a paradigm of American minimal music. The ideological significance of this opening to so-called world music should not be underestimated. The drums brought a universalism into music that helped to break down many ideological barriers.

Steve Reich and Musicians: "Drumming (1971)", recorded live, Town Hall, New York City, 1971

At the same time, the drums have opened up many spaces of meaning to music. The ritual and ceremonial has already been mentioned, the auscultation of the everyday with a drumstick, the opening up to non-Western cultures - all these are aspects of the percussion that give the instrument a meaning beyond the mere sound. The rediscovery of the body definitely belongs here. So that from the most spiritual of all arts, namely music, something created out of the body and experienced with the body again became. Not only is the rhythm something that affects not only the ear but also the entire body of the listener, the sound production of the drums is also a physical, sometimes almost athletic activity. That applies to the hitting itself. Especially in areas where the drummer is physically challenged, such as heavy metal, the musicians are in no way inferior to top athletes when it comes to fitness. In addition, where, as in new music, for example, a large number of percussion instruments is often required, the musicians have to quickly cover long distances on stage and in any case cover more kilometers than a violinist who does the entire concert on his chair spends. So it certainly made sense to include the drummer's body in the sound generation. The human anatomy even has numerous cavities that increase the body's ability to resonate. Today the idea of ​​body drums, also known as body percussion (I'll definitely find a nice picture for that), already has a certain tradition, including works such as Vinko Globokar's "Corporel" (1985), the anatomical explorations of the Frankfurt composer and drummer Robin Hoffmann or a Works like François Sarhan's “Homework 2”, which also contains pantomime elements, so that the movements of the drummer are no longer dictated by the sound generation. How did the drummer Sven-Åke Johansson once comment on the silent blow on a foam cymbal? Sometimes it is a much louder beat than a real cymbal beat because the listener imagines it aloud. (See Gottstein, 2004)

Poster: “Blue for a moment”, Sven-Åke Johansson in a film by Antoine Prum, 2017 © Förg

With the body of the drummer, something else comes into play - namely, to put it a little disparagingly, the nature of the performer. Because how such a piece sounds for body percussion also depends a little on the physique of the respective musician. And in the area of ​​drums in particular, quite a number of musical personalities have emerged that have an impact on the music itself. On the one hand there are characters like Christian Dierstein, with his more businesslike style, or Robyn Schulkowsky, who often gives her appearances something playful and dance-like.

Daniel Ott: "querströmung 2 for drums and tape (2011)", performance by Christian Dierstein, live at MaerzMusik 2013

Some drummers have committed themselves entirely to a single instrument; Lê Quan Ninh from France and Morten J. Olsen from Norway use the big drum as a resonance body, turntable and stage for all conceivable objects.

Lê Quan Ninh Percussion Solo Live, Traces of Rythms Festival in Tilburg, 2008

One thinks of the many musicians who finally embarked on different musical paths as drummers, of Michael Vorfeld and his light bulb music, of Hanno Leichtmann, who now produces techno, of Martin Brandlmayr, who turns to experimental electronics, of Günter Müller, who specializes in “ cracked everyday electronics "plays, to Jason Kahn, once drummer of the post-hardcore band Universal Congress Of, who now realizes meditative sound ambience, to Volker Staub, who works as an instrument maker, and Stefan Froleyks was last seen on the banks of the Ruhr, where he was fishing for sounds with rods fished. When talking about the personalities among the drummers, one must also mention the founding generation, those curious people who first suggested the new sounds to the composers, such as Christoph Caskel in Germany, Jean-Pierre Drouet in France, William Winant in the USA or, in the field of improvised music, Eddie Prevost in England. They have been followed by other generations: musicians like Jonny Axelsson, Matthias Kaul, Isao Nakamura, Rumi Ogawa, Stefan Römer, Dirk Rothbrust. Some of them even became media stars, like Evelyn Glenn through the documentary “Touch The Sound” (Riedelsheimer, 2004) or the “drum artist” Martin Gruber. It's a long way from the founding of an ensemble like Les Percussions de Strasbourg in 1962 or the Slagwerk Den Haag in 1977 to the local samba group, from a piece like Iannis Xenakis “Pléïades” to the Broadway show “Stomp”, which gives humorous rhythm to everyday life. And you're not doing anyone a favor if you lump all these manifestations of music together. The thesis of the century of the drums, however, formulated by Reginald Smith Brindle in 1970, seems to be justified.

Stephan Froleyks: "Knife Table" 2012

Ensemble Musikfabrik: "Dirk Rothbrust: The fascination of drums, fur instruments 1", 2012

Slagwerk Den Haag: “Nocturne. Percussion quartet for 16 light switches “Muziekhuis Utrecht, 2017

IV A few sounds are enough. For the love of God avoid a racket.

“My heart is beating like a jungle drum”, sings Emilía Torrini and probably wants to say that feelings of happiness can also express themselves in a percussive-somatic way. Jungle drums are wild, immediate, dangerous, and exciting. From a political point of view, these attributions are certainly ambivalent. But they tell us something about what we associate with the percussive as a whole. Because that's how the heart beats in love; a rhythm that we - quite literally - have in our blood. And when the singer then performs her “Rakatungtungrakatungonburubummbummbumm” and vocalically imitates the jungle drum, then drum and love, sound and subject become completely one: the drums as a dispositive of the soul.

Indeed, we owe a number of aesthetic experiences to drums in the 20th century. Take the nervous energy that has spread in jazz since the invention of the bebop and that has something to do with hectic rush and disorientation on the one hand, but which also nullifies the structured gravity of meter and thus evokes something free and bottomless. Let's take the dark beats of the dark wave scene, which still live on today in dubstep and which have something clandestine and deeply melancholy about them. Let's take the groove of hip hop, the humorless straightforwardness of techno ...

Where is there, here you go, the new music? The composers of the avant-garde questioned the percussion not only in a particularly thorough, but also in a particularly radical manner. This applies not only to the expansion of the instrument pool, but also to the possibilities of making the instruments sound. Anyone who has heard the unearthly beautiful singing of a cymbal that is pushed upright over the membrane of a large drum, who has experienced the placeless oscillation of a vibraphone rod bowed with a double bass bow, knows what we are talking about. You can beat the drum to march or, as Mauricio Kagel once did (see videos here), to miss out on victory. The drum can be staged as stupidity or as an instrument of criticism, as in Nicolaus A. Huber's drum piece “The same is not the same”. You can call on the stars, like Gérard Grisey in “Le noir d’étoile” (was at MaerzMusik) and decompose the sound mechanics like Helmut Lachenmann in his “Intérieur”. But don't forget that the drums are always dangerous. And that's why Reginald Smith Brindle's advice to musicians and composers should be taken very seriously: “A few sounds are enough. For the love of God avoid a racket! "(Smith Brindle, 1970)


James Blades, "Percussion Instruments and their History", London 1970.

Reginald Smith Brindle, "Contemporary Percussion", London 1970.

Carl Dahlhaus, “Musical Realism. On the history of music in the 19th century ”, Munich 1982 [= Piper series 239].

Hans-Peter Dürr, “Dream time. Across the borders between wilderness and civilization ”, Frankfurt a. M. 1985.

Björn Gottstein, “The Streichzeuger”, in: taz - the daily newspaper. December 2, 2004.

Włodzimierz Kotoński, “Percussion Instruments in the Modern Orchestra”, Mainz 1968.

Fred K. Prieberg, “The bottom line is music. Panorama of New Music ”, Munich 1956.


At the Musikfest Berlin 2020 there will be a concert with the two drummers Christian Dierstein and Dirk Rothbrust in the Great Hall of the Philharmonie on September 7th at 8:00 p.m. You play Rebecca Saunder's works "dust" and "void" in a new version.

On September 21, the German Symphony Orchestra Berlin will be a guest at the Musikfest Berlin. Together with the GrauSchumacher PianoDuo and the drummers Jens Hilse and Henrik Magnus Schmidt, they will present Béla Bartók's music for two pianos, percussion and orchestra, also at 8 p.m. and in the Great Hall of the Philharmonie.