Art Talk Monday: What's in a percussion ensemble program?

This week's Art Talk Monday is written by Gregory Lyons is an assistant professor in the Department of Music at Louisiana Tech University.  He directs the Percussion Ensemble in multiple concerts on and off campus each year. Visit to learn more about related events in the percussion studio.                            On Saturday, February 16, 2013, the Louisiana Tech University Percussion Ensemble will perform at  7:30 PM in Howard Auditorium (corner of Arizona St. and Adams Blvd.). On Friday, February 15, 2013, Dr. David Wolf ( will present a masterclass/clinic in RM 108 of the Band Building on campus (Mayfield St. across from the Natatorium). Both events are open and free.

David Wolf

“Beauty in music is too often confused with something that lets the ear lie back in an easy chair.” ---  Charles Ives

Designing the program for our percussion ensemble concerts comes with a unique challenge. While wind and string instruments as well as vocalists are capable of sustain, percussion instruments are primarily staccato in nature. How does one create a compelling and artistic long-form event using only non-sustaining instruments? How does an instrument only capable of making “short” tones stimulate the listener for an entire concert?

One possible solution is to select pieces that offer rich variety in terms of musical form and concept. Short pieces, long pieces, multi-movement works, novelty music, absolute music (music that is meant to stand alone without reference to anything else), program music (music that is meant to refer to something else), music that grooves, and music that entrances can all be combined to great effect. Contrasting styles can then create interest for the listener. While variety of programming is helpful for concerts of any category of art music, it becomes especially critical for successful percussion ensemble concerts.

Another solution is to select works that feature different groups within the percussion family. Fortunately, percussionists are offered a wealth of options in this regard, since the very definition of the word percussion is “to strike.” As a result, virtually any object could be redesignated a percussion instrument. The main categories of percussion are pitched and non-pitched. Another method of classification concerns how each instrument’s sound is produced. Those whose sound mainly comes from a vibrating skin head (or membrane) are called membranophones, while those whose sound comes from the instrument itself are known as idiophones. Choosing pieces that feature multiple categories of the percussion family can be another useful tool when programming percussion ensemble concerts.

Some of the instruments the Louisiana Tech University Percussion Ensemble will be striking at their upcoming concert include a waterphone, goat hooves, brake drums, guiros (scraped gourds), splash cymbals, riqs (Egyptian tambourines), cajóns (Peruvian box-shaped instruments), drums, keyboard percussion instruments, and timpani. Featured on the program is Virginia-based percussionist, David Wolf. Dr. Wolf is performing as marimba soloist on Paul Bissell’s The Alabados Song, a composition meant to musically symbolize the last rites ceremonies of scattered Hispanic Catholic communities living in the Southwestern United States during the early part of the 20th century. Dr. Wolf will also perform with members of the ensemble on Austin Wrinkle’s Warthog #3, a work that incorporates improvisation on various hand and frame drums. Other selections on the program include New Zealand composer Gareth Farr’s Volume Pig, and Australian composer Nigel Westlake’s Omphalo Centric Lecture, inspired by Paul Klee’s similarly titled painting.

I sincerely hope you will join us on February 16 at 7:30 PM in Howard Auditorium as we present this diverse collection of musical forms and instrument combinations from the percussion area. Your ears may not always lie back in their easy chairs at this concert, but I bet they will thank you afterward nonetheless.