The Big Bang Theory

The Big Bang Theory

Written by Don Kaplan

As I’ve mentioned before in this column, when I was very young and first started listening to music I was initially fascinated by “big” music – stereo recordings of large orchestras and choruses with sounds coming from different directions and distances. I was so taken with percussion instruments I would borrow my father’s portable Sony stereo recorder and tape anything that could be shaken, banged, or struck in order to improvise pieces where sounds moved from one speaker to the other. Even though I now listen primarily to chamber music I still enjoy hearing “big” orchestral music every so often – especially music with a good amount of percussion.

Here’s an odd but varied assortment of pieces where percussion is integral to the music. Percussion, of course, plays an important role in almost every style of music but I thought these selections were particularly notable.

Aaron Copland/Fanfare for the Common Man/Orchestra of St. Luke’s/Sir Gilbert Levine, cond. (video) One of Copland’s most famous pieces, Fanfare for the Common Man was written for brass and percussion and is hard to imagine without its powerful percussive accents.

The Fanfare was composed in 1942, part of 18 fanfares commissioned by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra to encourage patriotism as America entered the Second World War. It was inspired in part by Vice President Henry A. Wallace’s speech rallying Americans against imperialism. “Some have spoken of the American Century,” Wallace proclaimed. “I say that the century on which we are entering, the century which will come out of this war, can be and must be the century of the common man.” Copland later echoed that sentiment, stating, “It was the common man, after all, who was doing all the dirty work in the War and the army. He deserved a fanfare.” [1]

Copland’s Fanfare was later used as the theme for the final movement of his Third Symphony (1946), written in honor of the war’s victory and intended “to reflect the euphoric spirit of the country at the time.”


Béla Bartók/Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion Bartók’s orchestral music is familiar to many listeners, and his Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta is considered to be one of his masterpieces. There are many recordings of the work available including audiophile reissues of the classic LP with Fritz Reiner conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (RCA Living Stereo):

Bartók’s chamber music, with the exception of his six string quartets, isn’t as well known. The Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion was inspired by the composer’s interest in the piano as a percussive rather than a lyrical instrument. The piece is rarely found on concert programs because the music is difficult to play, it’s hard to find this particular combination of virtuoso pianists and percussionists, and the instrumental sounds have to be carefully balanced. The Sonata is one of Bartók’s most expressive works: my favorite movement is the third, inspired by Hungarian folk music.

The third movement of the Sonata with Martha Argerich and three equally talented musicians is an unbeatable performance (CD):


Here’s a dynamic performance of the entire Sonata including the well-known pianist Jenő Jandó (video):


Dick Schory’s Music For Bang Baaroom and Harp/Dick Schory’s New Percussion Ensemble/RCA Living Stereo (LP) Audiophiles and other listeners still rave about the iconic RCA Living Stereo Series which consisted of great classical music performances (like the Bartók referred to above) in terrific analog sound…sound so good that these early stereo LPs have been issued and reissued many times in many formats. But there was a flip side to these honored releases: popular and easy listening Living Stereo LPs. Those releases included discs with Arthur Fiedler conducting the Boston Pops (there’s an LP of Leroy Anderson favorites like “Fiddle-Faddle” and “Sleigh Ride”), LPs of Morton Gould leading his orchestra, and Sergio Franchi singing love songs, and the infamous Dynagroove releases manufactured on vinyl so thin they invited being bent into a taco shape, and always sounded (and tasted) horrible.

So dust off the music console, grab a martini, give the record platter a spin, and settle back for 33 minutes of late 1950s nostalgia with one of those RCA LPs that took a different kind of turn. Dick Schory played with the Chicago Symphony, toured as a performing percussionist, appeared on TV, and directed radio and TV commercials. Schory recorded Music for Bang Baaroom and Harp for RCA in June 1958. The LP was an excellent example of stereophonic sound, which helped to keep it on Billboard’s album chart for two years including six months in the Top 10. Later the album was re-released as a digital CD and was added to Classical CD Review’s Sonic Hall of Fame as an outstanding example of the art of stereo recording.

Recommended listening: Tap along with the “Buck Dance” on track 3, keep your company swinging through the “Ding Dong Polka” (track 4), and move right along to check out the drum playing during the “Duel on the Skins” on track 5.

Cool. Very cool.

“Duel on the Skins” (track 5 at 11 minutes into the LP):


Carl Nielsen/Symphony No. 4 (“The Inextinguishable”)/San Francisco Symphony/Herbert Blomstedt, cond. (CD) Crank up the stereo and prepare yourself for the battling timpani in the fourth movement of Nielsen’s Symphony No. 4. Nielsen composed his dramatic symphony in 1914 to reflect his vision of a world at war and the forces that would cause nature to breed new life even though the world had been destroyed. In Nielsen’s own words, “These forces, which are inextinguishable, are what I have tried to represent.” The fourth movement contains a ferocious onslaught from two sets of timpani placed on opposite sides of the orchestra. The battling timpani help drive the music to its conclusion: a celebration of “the inextinguishable.”

The drums are thrilling and great fun to follow. If you’re only interested in hearing the fourth movement, Juanjo Mena conducts the BBC Philharmonic in an exciting, well-played performance. It has the best sound of the examples available on YouTube and comes with a clear, well-photographed video. One of the best recordings of the symphony on CD is Herbert Blomstedt conducting the San Francisco Symphony (London).

Juanjo Mena: the fourth movement starts at approx. 25:15 into the symphony (video):


Herbert Blomstedt (CD):


Harry Partch/And on the Seventh Day Petals Fell in Petaluma: Verse 34”/Ensemble Musikfabrik (video) Composer Harry Partch was most famous for inventing his own instruments and integrating music with art, drama, and dance. All of his instruments are fascinating and produce unusual sounds in part because they are tuned to a microtonal scale of 43 notes per octave instead of the standard 12 notes. Here’s a short example of his work to match this brief description – with visuals, of course!

“And on the Seventh Day Petals Fell in Petaluma: Verse 34”:


David Lang/cheating, lying, stealing/Bang on a Can All-Stars (video) According to The New Yorker, “With his winning of the Pulitzer Prize for The Little Match Girl Passion (one of the most original and moving scores of recent years), Lang, once a post-minimalist enfant terrible, has solidified his standing as an American master.”

Lang’s compositions have been used by major music, dance, and theater organizations throughout the world including the Paris Opera Ballet, the New York City Ballet, and The Netherlands Dance Theater. His website describes him as passionate, prolific, and complex – someone who is committed to music that “embodies the restless spirit of invention…. His works are by turns ominous, ethereal, urgent, hypnotic, unsettling, and very emotionally direct. Much of his work seeks to expand the definition of virtuosity in music – even the deceptively simple pieces can be fiendishly difficult to play and require incredible concentration by musicians and audiences alike.” Lang is also the co-founder and co-artistic director of New York’s music collective Bang on a Can, [2] which leads us to cheating, lying, stealing:

“A couple of years ago, I started thinking about how so often when classical composers write a piece of music, they are trying to tell you something that they are proud of and like about themselves. Here’s this big gushing melody, see how emotional I am. Or, here’s this abstract hard-to-figure-out piece, see how complicated I am, see my really big brain. I am more noble, more sensitive, I am so happy. The composer really believes he or she is exemplary in this or that area. It’s interesting, but it’s not very humble. So, I thought, what would it be like if composers based pieces on what they thought was wrong with them? Like, here’s a piece that shows you how miserable I am. Or, here’s a piece that shows you what a liar I am, what a cheater I am. I wanted to make a piece that was about something disreputable. It’s a hard line to cross. You have to work against all your training. You are not taught to find the dirty seams in music. You are not taught to be low-down, clumsy, sly and underhanded. In cheating, lying, stealing [1993, rev. 1995], although phrased in a comic way, I am trying to look at something dark. There is a swagger, but it is not trustworthy. In fact, the instruction in the score for how to play it says: Ominous funk.” – David Lang [3]

cheating, lying, stealing:


Steve Reich/”Clapping Music” (video) Steve Reich is an American composer who started writing serial music but preferred the diatonic and tonal sound of the minimalist style. [4] His influences include the compositions of Terry Riley, jazz, the Balinese gamelan, music from sub-Saharan Africa, and Middle Eastern singing.

“Clapping Music” (1972) is a classic Reich piece written for two players and performed entirely by clapping. Reich wanted to (in his own words) “create a piece of music that needed no instruments beyond the human body.” The music doesn’t have a melody; it’s composed solely of rhythm. The performer clapping rhythm No. 1 repeats his or her rhythm continuously without changing it. The performer clapping rhythm No. 2 [which is the same as No. 1] shifts the whole pattern an eighth note forward after 12 repetitions – a technique called phrase shifting – and a polyrhythmic texture results as the phrases move out of sync with one another. The process continues until both performers are synchronized once again, clapping the same rhythm in unison.

“Clapping Music” (abbreviated version, no credits provided):


Iannis Xenakis /“Psappha”/Ying-Hsueh Chen, percussion (video) Avant-garde music has always interested me, but there are only a few pieces I listen to on a regular, or slightly irregular, basis. The first time I heard music by Xenakis it sounded like formless noise. But there was something about its primitive, intense sound I enjoyed and wanted to hear more of.

Xenakis was a Romanian-born French composer, architect, and mathematician who originated musique stochastique – music composed with the aid of electronic computers and based upon mathematical probability systems. He built his works on laws and formulas of the physical sciences, and sought to control his music at every instant. He once said, ”This is my definition of an artist, or of a man: to control.” Percussionists in particular enjoyed Xenakis’ music for its vitality and drama. Many listeners did, too, since the solo pieces ”Psappha” (1975) and ”Rebonds” (1988), as well as the sextet ”Pleiades” (1978) became classics of the genre.



Joe Locke/Lay Down My Heart: Blues & Ballads Vol. 1/Joe Locke, vibes (Motema Music CD) Have you developed a headache from all the preceding bing, bang, boom? Rest your ears by listening to vibraphonist Joe Locke’s Lay Down My Heart, a disc of jazz quartet performances designed to restore some calm. Locke states in his album notes that “This music is meant to provide respite for folks who work hard every day and need an opportunity to slow down and be reacquainted with that certain ‘something’ which eludes most of us in the midst of the whirlwind which is modern life. I can’t put a name to what that ‘something’ is, but if this music hits its mark, perhaps you will know what to call it…I’m grateful to the composers represented here, whose songs have touched my heart, made me wanna dance, or simply put a smile on my face.”


Bobby Hutcherson/Happenings/Bobby Hutcherson, vibes and marimba (Blue Note CD) For more good, but livelier, vibrations listen to Bobby Hutcherson, one of Joe Locke’s influences. Hutcherson’s sound is sharper and more percussive than Locke’s and the selections on Happenings are generally faster-paced than those on Lay Down My Heart. Hutcherson’s career took off during the early 1960s as jazz was moving beyond the complex harmonic and rhythmic elements of bebop. He was fluent in that style, but was also one of the first to adapt his instrument to a freer post-bop language, often playing chords with a pair of mallets in each hand.


Native American Music: Tribal Drums and Flute (CD) Two of the most significant types of instruments used by almost all American Indian tribes are drums and rattles. Drums are the oldest instruments on Earth and the ones most important to Native Americans. In Indian culture, drums are thought to speak to the player: The vibrations help the player tune into the natural frequency of the Earth and bring balance and renewal to the drummer. Numerous oral traditions refer to drumbeats as the Earth’s heartbeat (the spirit of life) and rapid drumming can signal the manifestation of a spirit presence. The process of creating and playing a drum combines earth, air, water, and fire – all of the Earth’s elements each with its own sound – resulting in an instrument that represents the circle of life.

The rattle is an instrument of independence. “It is a piece that utilizes what the Native Americans refer to as the three kingdoms or nations. The animal kingdom is represented by the container or feather decorations used on the rattle. The mineral kingdom is represented by rocks used for sound or the paint used for decoration. The plant kingdom is represented by the container (if a gourd is used) or the wooden handle of the rattle. The Native Americans realize that spiritual energy can be derived from the trancelike state that can be induced by music. The rattle causes our bodies and minds both to respond to it. Some cultures believe that music can unblock energy within our bodies and thus heal us of ailments. The beating of the rattle helps break up stagnant energy that is blocking the natural flow within your body. It can also help us focus on our souls, our cores. If you sit quietly alone or with friends and shake a Native American rattle, the music will help you clear your mind and open a doorway to a different emotional place.” [5]


[1] National Public Radio, “Morning Edition,” July 19, 2018.

[2] “When we started Bang on a Can [in 1987], we never imagined that our 12-hour marathon festival of mostly unknown music would morph into a giant international organization dedicated to the support of experimental music, wherever we would find it,” write Bang on a Can Co-Founders Michael Gordon, David Lang and Julia Wolfe. “But it has, and we are so gratified to be still hard at work, all these years later. The reason is really clear to us – we started this organization because we believed that making new music is a utopian act – that people needed to hear this music and they needed to hear it presented in the most persuasive way, with the best players, with the best programs, for the best listeners, in the best context. Our commitment to changing the environment for this music has kept us busy and growing, and we are not done yet.” [From the Bang on a Can website.]

[3] Percussion for this piece includes: marimba, rock bass drum w/foot pedal, anvil or other nasty metal, two tom toms, snare drum, brake drum 1 (high brake drum, medium brake drum, triangle), and brake drum 2 (medium brake drum, low brake drum, triangle). Brake drums 1 and 2 are intended to be separated antiphonally, on either side of the ensemble.

[4] Minimalism is a style that employs limited musical materials. Features include repetitive patterns or pulses, shifting rhythmic patterns, steady drones, consonant harmony, and the repetition of musical phrases or smaller units.

[5] “Native American Rattles,” For more about Native American music see “The Earth’s Heartbeat” in Issue 115.

Header image: the Harry Partch Ensemble. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Niffer Calderwood.

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