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Percussionist's Pleasure
Vacuum cleaners are versatile machines, but can they be used as musical instruments?

Percussionist's Pleasure

Some players of more 'serious' instruments look askance at percussionists, who (so they think) make a lot more noise but without half the skill. Yet almost any orchestra or ensemble, without a percussion section, would sound like the equivalent of unseasoned food: recognisable, but somehow very much less exciting.

What do you know about the wacky world of percussion, that 'toy department' of the orchestra?

Francis Poulenc wrote an unusual and memorably atmospheric concerto for Organ, Strings and ...
( ... which percussion instrument/s ?)
Tuned percussion (vibraphone, glock etc.)
Drum kit
A highly recommended work, not least in the original recording, made at dead of summer's night in Paris
On which form of percussion instrument might you find a snare?
The snare (like its non-musical original or counterpart) consists of lengths of snaggy wire which, when engaged ~ in loose contact with the lower membrane of the drum ~ produce a distinctive rustling sound
How is the sound produced on a tam-tam?
By beating with the fingertips on the head of the instrument, which is like a small semi-tuned hand drum
By beating the large metal surface with a fabric- or leather-coated mallet, once or repeatedly, so that it vibrates like a great gong
By rattling it, so that loose pieces inside create a shimmering sound
By beating its two hollow sticks together to create a rhythmic clicking, vaguely reminiscent of the sound of tropical insects
Do not confuse the tom-tom (defined at Answer 1) with the tam-tam, which, trivial though it may sound, is in fact a gong ~ whose larger sizes can shimmer through the sound of an entire orchestra. There is a wonderfully discreet use of this fine instrument in Debussy's orchestration of Satie's Gymnopedies (listen very carefully on the backbeats!)
Sometimes, as in restaurants and other venues in central Europe, you may hear a folk band playing which includes a sound very like a piano, yet with no acoustic piano visible. The strings are being hit by hand (with felted hammers) rather than from the keyboard of a machine. What is the instrument in question?
This would be the hammered dulcimer, possibly as in the 'damsel with a dulcimer' in Taylor Coleridge's famous fantasy poem fragment Kubla Khan
Which of the following is the odd one out?
The Celesta is the only one played from a piano-style keyboard; in each of the other cases, the struck components are laid out in the pattern of a giant keyboard, but (usually) made to sound by use of sticks or mallets
Percussion instruments (after the human voice itself) are almost certainly the oldest category in terms of musical and technical history, and have grown up in all sorts of styles in different parts of the world, depending partly on what materials come to hand locally. Their distinctive contribution to a combination of sounds is almost an 'aural shorthand'. The use of castanets is usually evocative of what country?
The click of the castanets is as evocative of Spain as the waft of garlic in the sun-baked streets around a bull-ring
Who was the zany bandleader that had so big a percussion section, that the whole outfit had its own special touring train to bring all the 'hardware' with it?
Duke Ellington
Spike Jones
Glenn Miller
Count Basie
Spike Jones and his City Clickers were famous for their quickfire arrangements (and parodies) of all sorts of mainstream and other music, with much split-second use of tuned cowbells and car horns among much else. More serious musicians also have logistical problems with transporting their instruments: there was a radio documentary many years ago entitled 'Mahler needs a Jumbo' (i.e., if you are touring with performances of large-scale romantic symphonies, no smaller airliner will cope with all the players and their apparatus)
What kind of percussionists would perform 'off the table' or 'four-in-hand' music?
A temple-block consort
Handbell ringers
Vibraphone and marimba ensembles, where each player handles four sticks or mallets
Ringers of tuned cymbals
A handbell ensemble may consist of as few as 25 bells or less, or (in fairly extreme cases) several octaves'-worth of chromatic bells
Composers of exotic and other operas have gone to ingenious, even gruesome lengths to specify the inclusion of not-conventionally-musical sounds in their works, often in an age before (and in some ways anticipating) films with soundtracks. Which of the following is NOT factual?
Verdi's Il Trovatore (1853) includes the famous Anvil Chorus
Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmelites (1956) focuses on a house of nuns during the French Revolution; when the nuns process offstage to their execution, the repeated sound of the guillotine is required to be heard through their choral hymn-singing
Leroy Anderson's many novelty compositions include Sandpaper Ballet, featuring the insistent rhythm of a sandblock from the percussion section
Johann Strauss in his Bahn Frei ('Way clear') polka requires the clatter, steam effects and whistle of an express railway train
Answer 4 is not entirely untrue, but apart from the whistle he uses purely conventional orchestral resources to create his effects, as with many other subsequent 'train' pieces (e.g. Vivian Ellis' Coronation Scot and Arthur Honneger's Pacific 231).
Answer 2 remains hauntingly true, but it is not easy (even if you are determined) to find out how the effect is supposed to be produced, whether by the percussion section in the stage pit or by the backstage department
Gerard Hoffnung, musician and humorist, organised a series of 'Hoffnung Music Festivals' in the 1950s which embraced music-making in a very broad sense, with liberal use of unconventional instrumentation, not least in the percussion section. Which of these was not 'scored' at one time or another during the Festivals?
A coffee machine
Three vacuum cleaners &/or floor polishers
A dustbin full of broken glass &/or crockery
A (mechanical) typewriter
The coffee machine made its appearance in a dramatic setting by Matyas Seiber of William McGonagall's poem The Famous Tay Whale, and the 'crocks' during Donald Swann's enhanced arrangement of the slow movement from Haydn's Surprise Symphony. The typewriter appears occasionally in other composers' works, which may be why Hoffnung and co. avoided this then-everyday item


Author:  Ian Miles

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