When I meet someone for the first time, and they find out that I’m a musician, they inevitably ask if I play, sing, or teach. I mention that I am a percussionist, and for many non-musicians, they often don’t know what that entails.
My go-to explanation is that percussion includes anything that one hits. I’ve always thought this was a simple definition, yet it always seems to fail. It never ceases to cause even more confusion. Whether something is or is not a percussion instrument is not defined by its physical characteristics (that is to say, the construction of the instruments, although there are certainly families), but by how their sounds are initiated. Performance, the act of playing, is crucial in defining what is or is not in this limitless group. A tin can is a discrete object for storing food, holding knick-knacks, or rusting in a junkyard, but the vessel also holds an innate potential energy. When the same tin can is struck with a rattan stick it becomes, all of a sudden, part of a John Cage work for percussion quartet. It is only through the commonality of playing technique that John Cage’s tin can writing has anything to do with the Janissary percussion instruments of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
When I’m playing this instrument, or rather, body of instruments, I feel an immense tug within myself. There is an internal struggle about identity and cultural validity. I want to prove that I belong in the high art world, alongside all the violinists who have toiled over their scales, octaves, thirds, and Ysaÿe sonatas, and wanting to belong in that club, but I also acknowledge that, yes, a toddler can get a decent sound out of a wood block without going to Juilliard for four years (and possibly even before they’ve learned the alphabet).
In a recent rehearsal with a percussion quartet, we were in the midst of a newly-composed work for only found objects. In this piece, I was using a penny to play a ruler that had been clamped to a table, connected to a contact mic, and amplified. In the middle of what essentially amounted to a ruler cadenza, another quartet member joked, “This is the passage where you question all the life decisions that led you to this point.” We all laughed, because it was silly of course, but also because it was undeniably true.
Acknowledging the absurdity of those moments doesn’t necessarily mean that we take our role less seriously (despite our jokes, we found that work quite provocative and intensely original). Rather, it acknowledges the bizarre dichotomy of performing as a percussionist, particularly in contemporary music. When I find myself in a concert hall striking rulers, old car parts, or a hollow log, I cannot help but marvel at this place where the childlike, the primitive, and the complex meet. It is because of the composers of the avant-garde that such an intersection exists, that these objects were brought together to be struck, and that a group of people (percussionists) find intrigue in the possibilities therein.
[originally written April 2017]