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The Percussion Paradigm

By Adam Sliwinski

An article has been making the rounds recently, a response to which can be read here. The backlash was swift and fierce, with luminaries such as the composer John Adams quickly entering the fray. 

It was about curriculum changes in Harvard’s undergraduate program that would allow for non-classical musicianship in the music major. It tackles the larger question of multiculturalism in university music departments. Should these departments consist of multiple integrated centers of different musical traditions, or a continued core of European music history and theory with other music entering on the periphery (i.e. as specialized electives and “ethno” musicology)? 

My initial reaction was: what’s the big deal? It occurred to me that these issues have been actively churning in the percussion community for at least the past forty years. To be a percussion major at many music schools in North America is not only to embrace, but even to expect core training that branches beyond classical music. It didn’t seem that this realignment had diminished enthusiasm among percussionists for studying classical music. If anything, it had grown.   

Music history and theory curricula are not my field, and there are many shades of grey separating the needs of different programs. The changes at Harvard seem to reflect a diverse student body in a global university (without a professional undergraduate music major), which might not fit the needs of a conservatory that specializes in classical music. But the possible de-stabilization of European classical music as the norm in an institution as iconic as Harvard touched a nerve that reaches beyond mundane curricular issues.

And so I’d like to add my perspective to this discussion… 

Everything is going to be ok.

Among my group of close friends who hold Percussion Performance degrees, I can count deep backgrounds in: Trinidadian Steel Drums, Balinese Gamelan, various African drumming and melodic percussion traditions, North Indian Tabla, Japanese Taiko, South American hand percussion, Appalachian Hammered Dulcimer, American Jazz, and much more. When we flock together, either at the Percussion Arts Society International Convention (PASIC) or seminars like our Sō Percussion Summer Institute or the Nief-Norf Summer Festival, one of our favorite things to do is compare notes on how these individual interests inform an overall perspective on what it means to be a percussionist. We learn from each other constantly.

Each percussionist’s mix of experiences and interests defines their unique musicianship. Within my group Sō Percussion, Josh Quillen has brought two decades of experience with steel drums into our shifting instrumentation, gradually integrating this voice into newly commissioned and original pieces. Josh’s musical life has run on two parallel tracks, where the traditions of steel drums and western classical percussion developed in his life alongside each other. Throughout, he has constantly questioned what they do and do not have to say to each other, while still respecting what makes each distinct.

Notice that I do not describe this journey as that of primarily studying classical music and then dabbling in steel drums through taking a course or some lessons. The way Josh plays steel drums is deeply rooted in the way Trinidadians play, and he is acknowledged as a master player and teacher within their ongoing musical culture. This is possible because – first in high school and then at the University of Akron, and finally in Trinidad itself – steel drum band was an integral and co-equal line of his percussion study.

Our repertoire is richer for it. Steve Mackey combined Josh’s steel drum playing with the influence of composers like Harry Partch to invent new “microtonal” pans for his quartet It Is Time, where two lead pans with the same layout are tuned a quarter-tone apart. This allows the performer to fluidly perform passages with a scale of 24-notes without fundamentally altering his feel for the instrument. Only a player with Josh’s deep knowledge of the possibilities of this instrument could advise a composer on how to make this work.

My own path was both conventional and unusual. I decided to double down on my interest in European classical music, treating it as my particular specialization. Having grown up taking piano lessons and singing in my mom’s choirs in addition to learning percussion, I felt most at home studying those traditions. I applied to Yale’s DMA program precisely because it focused almost exclusively on classical music (a reason why only a handful of percussionists have completed it). I was frequently advised against only studying classical music. My lack of a “world” specialty was considered a drawback for a possible future in the academic job market.

I integrated that experience into the broader mixture of my field. I often talk and write about how concepts from classical music history inform what we as percussionists do today. Learning about Isorhythmic Motets from Craig Wright at Yale seismically changed my previously held assumptions that all the mathematical fun in music was recent. When writing about Steve Reich’s music, my exposure to Perotin and Stravinsky are essential.

I try very hard not to treat this perspective as the cultural default against which others should be measured. It simply reflects my own passion and perspective, and I believe I can project enthusiasm for it without adopting a colonial attitude. If I did, my colleagues would smack it down hard. By and large, the culture of percussion simply doesn’t tolerate this kind of prejudice anymore.

Very few musicians are opposed on its face to including global perspectives in music training. What’s at stake in these discussions is whether western music retains a central, default, primary function in music instruction as a matter of curricular mandate, or whether we could view the musical universe through different lenses. It may feel as though we have something to lose, as an entire lifetime can be devoted to studying even one tiny corner of the vast thousand years of music we call “western.”

I don’t think this will happen. I have too much faith in Beethoven, in Bach, and in Josquin to think that they’ll fall by the wayside if we allow undergraduates – especially those in a non-specialized undergraduate concentration - to spend a bit more time learning what other cultures or contemporary non-classical music have to offer. As a percussionist, I’ve had every opportunity to cast classical music aside in order to play music that gives me more to do, but I can’t. I want to explore how written scores affect performance; I want to struggle through a Bach fugue; I still marvel at Thomas Tallis’ Spem in Alium. Nothing could dilute this magic for me. I will keep dusting those pieces off and making students deal with them, and I hope this enthusiasm will influence the future.

POSTSCRIPT: I’d like to acknowledge some of the many musical groups and organizations which aren’t exclusively percussion-based that share this ethos and have influenced my thoughts, such as Kronos Quartet, Bang on a Can, Roomful of Teeth, Silk Road Project, and I’m sure I’m forgetting a lot else.

Adam Sliwinski has built a dynamic career of creative collaboration as percussionist, pianist, conductor, teacher, and writer. He specializes in bringing composers, performers, and other artists together to create exciting new work. A member of the ensemble So Percussion (proclaimed as “brilliant” and “consistently impressive” by the New York Times) since 2002, Adam has performed at venues as diverse as Carnegie Hall, The Bonnaroo Festival, Disney Concert Hall with the LA Philharmonic, and everything in between. So Percussion has also toured extensively around the world, including multiple featured performances at the Barbican Centre in London, and tours to France, Germany, The Netherlands, South America, Australia, and Russia.

Adam has been praised as a soloist by the New York Times for his “shapely, thoughtfully nuanced account” of David Lang’s marimba piece String of Pearls. He has performed as a percussionist many times with the International Contemporary Ensemble, founded by classmates from Oberlin. Though he trained primarily as a percussionist, Adam’s first major solo album, released on New Amsterdam records in 2015, is a collection of etudes called Nostalgic Synchronic for the Prepared Digital Piano, an invention of Princeton colleague Dan Trueman. In recent years, Adam’s collaborations have grown to include conducting. He has conducted over a dozen world premieres with the International Contemporary Ensemble, including residencies at Harvard, Columbia, and NYU. In 2014, ECM Records released the live recording of the premiere of Vijay Iyer’s Radhe Radhe with Adam conducting.

Adam writes about music on his blog. He has also contributed a series of articles to newmusicbox.org, and the Cambridge Companion to Percussion from Cambridge University press features his chapter “Lost and Found: Percussion Chamber Music and the Modern Age.”

Adam is co-director of the So Percussion Summer Institute, an annual intensive course on the campus of Princeton University for college-aged percussionists. He is also co-director of the percussion program at the Bard College Conservatory of Music, and has taught percussion both in masterclass and privately at more than 80 conservatories and universities in the USA and internationally. Along with his colleagues in So Percussion, Adam is Edward T. Cone performer-in-residence at Princeton University. He received his Doctor of Musical Arts and his Masters degrees at Yale with marimba soloist Robert van Sice, and his Bachelors at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music with Michael Rosen.

Check out Adam’s blog about music.