Things I used to be good at: Timpani

I have no idea why my percussion teacher had such faith in a relative beginner at Duke, but I wound up playing Elliott Carter’s March at my senior recital after only two years of instruction.

I did not, however, play it as fast as this guy, who’s impressive but omits the fun switches from the heads to the butt end.

This guy uses each end of the stick, and he gives some commentary to explain how he goes about it.

He must have an unlimited budget, because he talks about experimenting with his sound in a concert hall. At Duke, we had three timpani in the rehearsal hall and three in the concert hall, and we had to take the big one back and forth on a grassy slope.

He made his own timpani mutes. So did I, in a sense. I used socks.

Also, when I turned up on recital day, I found all my stuff had been moved from the stage because the jazz guys had set up for a concert at night. Glad I got there early enough to switch it.

The piece uses rhythmic modulation, a complicated concept that would make Rush, Yes and the math-rockers that followed King Crimson break out a calculator. The idea is this — play for a while in a particular tempo, then play something that hints at a change, and then change the tempo so that, for example, a dotted quarter note in one measure is as long as a quarter note in the next.

This video takes you through the score so you have a visual. The piece starts at 105 beats per minute (unless you’re playing at light speed like the guy in the first video) and modulates at the 30-second mark (dotted quarter becomes quarter) to 140 bpm. At the 55-second mark, it gets freaky — the eighth notes in a 10/8 measure become quintuplets in a 2/2 measure. Then you have some measures in 14/16 before the dotted dotted quarter has the same value as a half note.

Of course, the performer can take liberties with all this. My teacher encouraged me to pause for a bit on the quarter note after the monster section (2:05 mark) to emphasize the change in mood.

Generally, such experiments lead to some unlistenable music. Even in March, the listener isn’t aware of all these tricks. I nailed this piece when I performed it, and the audience didn’t know the difference. One person who came out to listen said, “You played, and then when you put your sticks together, we clapped.”

But rock musicians sometimes sense a challenge to make things as complicated as this is. And that’s why you have Dream Theater, a band that’s more fun to analyze than it is to hear.

Count ’em — 108 time signatures (well, some time signatures are repeated, so it might be more accurate to say 107 time changes):

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