Street Beats: Percussion in New York City

Ever since Edgard Varèse unveiled his Ionisation at Carnegie Hall in 1933, New York City has been a nurturing home to the art of the percussion ensemble. From John Cage’s groundbreaking work in the 1940s to Steve Reich’s Drumming from the early-’70s and continuing on to current groups like So Percussion, Talujon, and Timetable, our city has been a staging ground for great innovation and invention for percussion. On April 5 at Alice Tully Hall, the Juilliard Percussion Ensemble will explore this diverse repertoire with a look at New York’s rich percussion ensemble tradition, past and present. 


Perhaps New York’s most famous and influential composer, Steve Reich writes music that embodies the energy and vitality of our city. Reich, a Juilliard alumnus, was born and raised in New York, and studied percussion in his early years before devoting himself to composition. The forming of his group Steve Reich and Musicians in the late-’60s was a seminal moment for music and for the percussionists’ art in particular. Revolving around a percussive core, the music deals with the primacy of rhythm, repetition, slow incremental development, and influences of non-Western musical traditions from Africa and Indonesia. Music for Pieces of Wood (1978) grew out of the desire to make music from the simplest possible instruments—in this case five pairs of specifically pitched claves (pieces of wood). The rhythmic process of the piece is one of “build-ups,” where rests are very slowly replaced by notes to create gradually morphing rhythmic counterpoint that evolves into full unison patterns. 

As Elliott Carter embarks on his incredible second century, his role as dean of New York’s new music world is undisputed. Although responsible for some of the most important groundbreaking writing for percussion—such as Double Concerto for Piano and Harpsichord, Eight Pieces for Four Timpani, and the memorable opening of What Next—he had never before written for percussion ensemble when he was approached by Frank Epstein and the New England Conservatory Percussion Ensemble.  Tintinnabulation (2008) uses a large battery of non-pitched percussion with typical Carterian virtuosity and wit, and is divided into three sections: wood, metal, and skin.

Like all his music, Steve Mackey’s writing for percussion is irreverent, sophisticated, stylistically diverse, and often funny. His Time Release for percussion and orchestra and Microconcerto for percussion and chamber group show a facile, fluid understanding of our instruments, and an eagerness to explore the fine line between sound and noise, and between instruments and toys. No Two Breaths (1995) was written for the violin/marimba duo Marimolin, accompanied by four percussionists. The title was taken from a quote by the Indian singer Pandit Pran Nath, who said, “No two breaths are the same.”

Transcending the boundaries of genre, composer-percussionist Lukas Ligeti has developed a musical style of his own that draws upon downtown New York experimentalism, contemporary classical music, jazz, electronica, and world music, particularly from Africa. Active as a drummer/percussionist in New York’s jazz and experimental music circles, he has also written through-composed works for Bang on a Can All Stars, Kronos Quartet, and Ensemble Moderne, among many others. Pattern Transformation (1988), one of his earliest works, is inspired by the metric structures of Baganda court music, from a region now situated in Uganda. Based on a fast fundamental pulse, different musicians feel the “beat” at different moments, and this relative notion of meter opens the door to endless polyrhythmic possibilities.  

A transplanted New Yorker, Alexandre Lunsqui was born in São Paulo, Brazil. He studied at the University of Campinas, University of Iowa, Columbia University, and IRCAM. One of the most sought-after of New York’s younger generation of composers, his music has been played all over the world by groups such as the Arditti Quartet and the Talea Ensemble. In a recent e-mail to The Journal, the composer wrote: “For me, the world of percussion instruments has been an open door to a vast array of sonic explorations. Very often this door leads me to the kitchen or a warehouse store nearby. Shi (2008) asks for bamboo plate mats, barbecue grills, glass jars, gueros, woodblocks, threaded metal rods, tuning forks, and wooden Chinese chopsticks. Not surprisingly, the word Shi stands for food in Chinese.”  

David Chesky straddles the worlds of classical music and jazz effortlessly. A three-time Grammy nominee, he is currently composer in residence for the National Symphony Orchestra of Taiwan, and as a pianist has performed at the Newport, JVC, and Monterey Jazz Festivals. Street Beats (2009), written for the Juilliard Percussion Ensemble, is an ode to the indigenous ethnic sounds and rapid pulse of New York. 

Please join us on April 5 to celebrate the diversity and energy of our great city.


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