Unusual Instruments – Sound Effects

Percussionists are often called upon to play instruments that are sometimes not even classified as percussion instruments. A huge category within this subset are sound effects. Sound effects used in movies began with Jack Foley in 1927. Foley Art is used throughout the film industry today and many of Jack’s techniques are still a mainstay in this world. Another leading figure in the world of sound effects was the late, great Tom Keith of A Prairie Home Companion fame. He used vocal sounds as well as props. Michael Winslow can be heard in the Police Academy movies doing amazing things with only his voice. There’s a wonderful scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail where two of the members pretend they are riding on horseback while one of them makes the sound of horses hooves with coconut shells. “Are you suggesting coconuts migrate?” Percussionists in the orchestra often play instruments that imitate whips, anvils, bird calls, Cathedral bells and animal sounds that are scored by composers such as Aaron Copland, Ferde Grofe, George Gershwin, Richard Wagner, Leroy Anderson and Franz Josef Haydn to name a few . Yet another great reason to be a percussionist!

Unusual Instruments – Jawbone

Quijada: Jawbone of an Ass

Percussionists are often called upon to play unusual instruments. One such instrument is the quijada or the jawbone of an ass (donkey). This instrument is mostly found in South America, Central America and the Caribbean. I own two of them, one of which I bought in the mid-1970s while on tour in Austria of all places. This is probably not an instrument endorsed by PETA since it is literally the jawbone of a large animal left to dry, cleansed of all but bone and teeth.  The teeth are removed and reinserted into the socket, held in by wires, thus allowing the teeth to rattle. The method of playing is much like that of a tuning fork as it’s held by the closed end and struck on one side of the open end, generally with one’s fist. This creates a vibration that moves the teeth rapidly, creating a dry rattling sound.

It is used traditionally in various forms of Latin popular music. However, modern composers such as John Cage have included this instrument in some of their works. The most notable work of John Cage that uses a quijada is his Third Construction written in 1941. It is scored for four percussionists, one of which plays the quijada, a conch shell trumpet and several other unusual instruments. Cage referred to this piece as his Bolero since it is very lively and an audience favorite. In the 50s or 60s, a percussion manufacturer, Latin Percussion, designed a vegan version of this instrument made of wood and metal and is often used in modern orchestras and small ensembles.

There are a lot of drummer jokes out there. My offering is, “Who plays the jawbone of an ass?” The answer, “Another one that still has his jawbone.”


Different Beat

NEXUS Members with Sepideh Raissadat
NEXUS Members with Sepideh Raissadat. That’s me on the far left!

NEXUS has been producing creative and unique concerts since its first one in 1971. This past weekend was no exception as we collaborated with an amazing young Iranian / Canadian vocalist and setar (www.setar.info) player, Sepideh Raissadat who is quite well-known in her native country. Our performance was at a great little theater in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada as part of a very cool music festival called Open Ears. Band member Russell Hartenberger has been working diligently to transcribe and arrange the many classic Persian songs that we performed with Sepideh.

Due to the differences in tuning, there was a concern about using western instruments in conjunction with her setar, a traditional Iranian string instrument (not to be confused with the Indian sitar).  Since we were not able to adapt to her intonation (we were primarily playing fixed pitched marimbas), she adapted to ours. However, her phrasing, pitch bending and beautiful vocal timbres made it work incredibly well.  The festival producers were very pleased that we played to a sold out crowd. It did help to have a large Iranian population in this small town and they showed up in big numbers!

Short Video Excerpt from “A Moment of Ease”
Persian Song at the Dress Rehearsal for Open Ears

Moondog in NYC in the 1970s
Moondog in NYC in the 1970s

In addition to the Persian songs, Russell transcribed six songs written by Moondog (Louis Hardin), a popular street musician and philosopher from the 40s to the 70s in New York City. He was a blind, eccentric composer who was known as the “Viking of Sixth Avenue”.

The then conductor of the New York Philharmonic, Arthur Rodzinski, invited him to attend rehearsals of the Philharmonic which I am sure influenced his musical output. Moondog was also friends with Philip Glass and Steve Reich.  Some credit him for having had a little influence on the minimalist music movement. These pieces were fantastic and Russell’s arrangements were quite beautiful and effective.

The other work on the concert was an older work of Russell’s called The Invisible Proverb. A previous version of this piece is on our Drumtalker CD (nexuspercussion.com/2004/11/drumtalker-dvd/). Hopefully we will be able to record the Moondog Suite, the Persian Songs and possibly rerecord The Invisible Proverb. We are scheduled to do this concert again at the University of Toronto on October 27th of this year.

The next night, we performed Steve Reich’s Drumming. We collaborated on this concert with the Canadian percussion group TorQ (Richard Burrows, Adam Campbell, Jamie Drake, Dan Morphy, with guest Brennan Connelly). Gillian Stone, Amy Gottung and Laura Chambers also joined in on vocals and piccolo.  Everyone played phenomenally in what is a fairly rare performance of the complete work of Drumming (part one alone of Drumming is performed more often).

Backstage just before the concert, Sepideh gave us a short lesson on Iranian finger clicking. We were totally blown away by the sheer volume she was able to produce by simply pushing one finger against another. These are the kind of things that keeps touring interesting. The jokes are usually pretty good too.


For information on Sepideh’s latest recording, go to: www.setar.info/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=95%3Acd-g-anwar-on-the-foot-steps-of-abdol-ghader-maraghi&catid=60%3Acds&lang=en

Orchestra and Chamber Music

The primary difference between orchestra and chamber music is the number of players. In chamber music, there is generally one player per part while a full orchestra doubles up sections to add volume (especially in the string sections). I’ve had the pleasure of playing both kinds.

Back in college I had the outrageous experience of playing timpani in the Oberlin Conservatory Orchestra when Pierre Boulez came to conduct Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The Cleveland Orchestra recording from the 1960s with Boulez was one of those seminal experiences that really turned me on to 20th-century music. As a side note, I recently learned that Paul Simon’s lyrics to You Can Call Me Al was in reference to something Boulez said at one of Paul’s parties. Boulez didn’t speak a lot of English and mistakenly referred to his hosts as Betty and Al as he was leaving instead of Peggy and Paul. That blooper became the lyrics: I can call you Betty, And Betty when you call me, You can call me Al.

Max Roach and me behind the Grant Park bandshell in 1969 during the performance of Peter Phillips “Concerto for Drum Set, Percussion and Orchestra”. Max was an amazing drummer who pretty much invented bebop drumming (He’s the drummer on the famous 1953 Jazz At Massey Hall recording with Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell and Charlie Mingus.)

I spent several summers playing timpani with the Chicago Grant Park Symphony (which consisted of members of the Chicago, Indianapolis and other orchestras in between their seasons) in the late 60s and early 70s. We had an eight week season with two different concerts each week. I was able to play much standard and some contemporary repertoire in the five years I played with that orchestra.

I now play timpani with local orchestras and chamber music with NEXUS and Steve Reich and Musicians. I am on the faculty of the Music Conservatory at Bard College where I have been playing timpani in a rehearsal orchestra that the college hires for their student conducting class. I’m not sure how many colleges / conservatories offer this kind of experience for their conducting students, but I suspect it is fairly unique. The orchestra consists of great players, one per part, which is a hybrid, but you do hear the essence of orchestral music. The class is led by the veteran Maestro Harold Farberman (conductor / composer / percussionist). Maestro Farberman had a unique career as a percussionist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra (the youngest full-time player of the BSO at that time) and as the musical director of the Oakland Symphony Orchestra (California). He is what I would describe as an old world musical disciplinarian which is probably a necessary attribute to motivate some of the younger students. The orchestra meets every other week for three hours giving each of the six conducting students a chance to conduct selections from major orchestral works. I have witnessed both tense and joyful moments as the students find their musical souls in front of an orchestra. I fully suspect they appreciate having live, professional musicians to conduct rather than prerecorded music that does not react to one’s direction. This season we played excerpts from Berlioz Symphony Fantastique, a few of Mozart / Brahms / Beethoven / Haydn symphonies and concertos, Copland’s Appalachian Spring (Farberman studied with Copland at Tanglewood in 1951) as well as several other works.

Playing timpani at Bard College under the direction of student conductors
Playing timpani at Bard College under the direction of student conductors

Another fun experience I have playing timpani is with the orchestra from the Festival of the Voice in Phoenicia, New York. Last year we played Rigoletto, while this coming summer we will do the Barber of Seville. Playing timpani in an opera orchestra is yet another discipline quite different from that of the symphonic orchestra. One of the challenges of Opera as a performer is all of the starts and stops and tempo changes that are constantly going on and vary from performance to performance. Playing percussion or timpani in any orchestra is very different from chamber music, especially modern chamber music. In the orchestra (especially opera orchestras) we have to count measures rests more than we are actually playing! In the end I love playing in an orchestra but prefer the repertoire I get to play with NEXUS. You can call me Garry.

Our Own Private Oberlin Conservatory Reunion at Carnegie Hall

Fernando Leon ('71), Christopher Rouse ('71), Jill Gorvoy ('72),  Mary O'Connor Leon ('72) and me ('71)
Fernando Leon (’71), Christopher Rouse (’71), Jill Gorvoy (’72),
Mary O’Connor Leon (’72) and me (’71)

I attended the May 5th concert of the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall for a sold-out performance of Christopher Rouse’s Requiem. Chris Rouse was a classmate and friend of mine at the Oberlin Conservatory in the late 60s. Chris is now a preeminent composer. He’s won a coveted Pulitzer Prize, a Grammy award and is member of the prestigious National Society of Arts and Letters. I knew him as a teenager from Baltimore who was finding his way into the world of music. He started collecting signatures and letters from famous composers when he was quite young. He also had a huge collection of vinyl records, ranging from Berlioz to Led Zeppelin. Chris wrote a piece for my senior recital which is long lost. He has since withdrawn all of those early works but luckily has a huge volume of compositions that have been played by the finest musicians and orchestras throughout the world. We met back stage after the concert.

Alec Baldwin and WQXR-FM Personality David Garland
Alec Baldwin and WQXR-FM Personality David Garland

Chris’s Requiem took up the entire two plus hours of this concert and was received with a standing ovation when he was called to the stage. This is a massive work for full orchestra including six percussionists and two choruses. The large chorus was onstage behind the orchestra and a 25 piece children’s chorus was in the balcony above the stage area. This work was premiered in 2007 with the Los Angeles Philharmonic where it received rave reviews. It begins with the solo baritone (Jacques Imbrailo) standing in front of the orchestra singing a solo in the style of plainchant (secular Gregorian chant). What follows that is what I remember of Chris’s musical tastes in that it builds and builds to an apocalyptic climax including a very busy percussion section. The work continues throughout with this kind of dramatic contrast. I was incredibly impressed with Chris’s sense of texture, orchestration and the wonderful setting of the text. The concert was broadcast on the classical music station of New York City WQXR and the evening was introduced by a broadcaster from the radio station, David Garland, along with actor Alec Baldwin. Baldwin is a huge supporter of the arts and often helps promote New York Philharmonic concerts. I was surprised to hear just days after this concert that he was handcuffed by the NYPD for having driven his bicycle the wrong direction down Fifth Avenue. One would think there are bigger crimes to attend to in New York City. Luckily for us Baldwin was available that night to present Requiem to the audience.

True American Mavericks

My friend Stacey Bowers and I attended a concert at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall which was called “collected stories: hero”. We especially went to see the second half of the concert which was a musical theater piece by Harry Partch (1901-1974) entitled “The Wayward” (1941-1943). Ever since I was in high school, which was a really long time ago, Harry Partch’s writings and lectures on music had planted the seed for my interest in instrument building and the sounds of ancient scales. Harry’s instruments are beautiful to look at and to hear. His music is corporeal and it’s important that the instruments, musicians and actors are all equal elements in his productions. This is why the instruments, musicians, actors and scenery are all on stage and not in a pit hidden from view.

A scene from Partch’s Delusion of the Fury (written in 1964)
A scene from Partch’s Delusion of the Fury (written in 1964)

What was especially amazing about this production was the fact that this work was premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1944, exactly 70 years ago to the day! Performances of Harry’s works are quite rare and maybe even more so now that Dean Drummond has passed away. Dean, a former assistant to Harry, ran a Partch program at Montclair State College in New Jersey for many years and had developed a great core of musicians to play this difficult music. At this time, it’s unknown where the instruments and the program will reside next. The leading authority on Partch and the custodian of the instruments, Danlee Mitchel resides in California.

Partch’s music uses a scale with 43 tones to the octave (the scale that is commonly used in Western music today has 12 tones). He uses only a part of his scale at any given time (often just five notes at a time) so his music sounds “normal” to the average listener but he has a palette of tones available to be able to reconstruct ancient scales and to accompany the small intervals of human speech when he wants. The Wayward is a collection of four of his works which are mostly based on texts written by “hobos” when Harry himself was travelling in boxcars during the depression days. The performance was absolutely stellar. The playing was fully charged and the soloists were exciting and very convincing. Composer David Lang curated the concert while the Partch performance was produced by “Bang On A Can”. The first half of this program was an amazing performance by Ben Bagby of Scenes from Beowulf in which he accompanied his singing and speaking (all by memory in Old English) on an authentic reproduction of a six stringed German harp.

John Cage MOMA Program 2/7/43
John Cage MOMA Program 2/7/43

As a warm up to this concert, we visited the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) earlier to see the John Cage exhibit (There Will Never Be Silence: Scoring John Cage’s 4’33”) and an exhibition of new works by Jasper Johns. Perhaps Cage’s best known work 4’ 33”, otherwise known as his “silent” piece, was premiered right here in Woodstock, NY in August of 1952 at the nearly 100 year old Maverick Hall. When you first walk into the Cage exhibit, you’ll read about a concert that Cage did in 1943, one year before Partch’s Carnegie Hall concert!

This all-percussion concert was a huge success although he remained penniless for a long time after. The forties were an amazing period for percussion music which struggles even today for recognition in many musical circles.

MOMA’s website describes the Cage exhibit as follows: “Taking its title from a letter written by Cage in 1954, There Will Never Be Silence features prints, drawings, artists’ books, photographs, paintings, sculptures, and films by such artists as Marcel Duchamp, Kurt Schwitters, Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Morris, Lawrence Weiner, Yoko Ono, Andy Warhol, and other artists associated with Fluxus, Minimalism, and Conceptual art who pushed preconceived boundaries of space, time, and physicality to new ends.”

Harry Partch playing his 43-tone to the octave Chromolodean Reed Organ
Harry Partch playing his 43-tone to the octave Chromolodean Reed Organ
John Cage Smiling at the World
John Cage Smiling at the World

Partch and Cage were enormously influential to me. Read Partch’s book “Genesis of a Music” and Cage’s “Silence” and you may never be the same again. I can say with much certainty that I would not be doing what I do today if it weren’t for these two giants.

My Main Muses

Everyone has a muse (or muses) who have helped them find their own path. For me, that list includes teachers, coaches, leaders, artists, musicians, crafts people, friends and family. 


Ben Johnston and Harry Partch
My photo of Composers Ben Johnston and Harry Partch (taken at Harry’s San Diego home just months before his death)

The American composer Harry Partch probably had the biggest influence on my musical thinking and yet there are many obstacles blocking his general acceptance. The performance of his music requires a unique set of extremely large instruments and a devoted ensemble to produce his epic works. His book Genesis of a Music first published in 1949 details ancient systems of tuning and individual musicians who used beautiful scales throughout the history of the world. If it weren’t for this information, I would not have been inclined to make my first windchime in the 1970’s, the Chimes of Olympos, to hear what the sound of a scale (and maybe a taste of the music) from the seventh century BC sounded like.


Dr. Thomas Rossing, Gold Medal award from the Acoustical Society of America and faculty member of CCRMA at Stanford University
Dr. Thomas Rossing, Gold Medal award from the Acoustical Society of America and faculty member of CCRMA at Stanford University

In order to build that first Windchime I studied woodworking, metallurgy and acoustics in college. My physics professor Dr. Thomas Rossing is a renowned acoustician who helped bridge the gap between science and art for me. Without the information and experience I gleaned from Dr. Rossing, I again would not have ventured the path that I did.


Frank Zappa, who greatly affected my thinking, listed many of his influences on the cover of his 1966 Mothers Of Invention album Freak Out!. One of those influences was the French born composer Edgard Varèse whoonce said “An artist is never ahead of his time, it is his audience who are behind theirs.”

Frank Zappa
Frank Zappa

While Frank Zappa and the Beatles were ahead of their time they did have a significant following. Others however took time for the audience to catch up including Steve Reich, Philip Glass and other contemporary composers who grew out of the experimental 1960s. It is heartwarming to see the growing interest in that music. My musical inspirations include Jazz, Indonesian Gamelan Music, Early Music, J. S. Bach, Harry Partch, Frank Zappa, The Beatles, Steve Reich, John Cage, Igor Stravinsky and Karlheinz Stockhausen, to name just a few.
Playing with Steve Reich and NEXUS helped shape my musical life over the last 30+ years. Steve opened my ears to many new ideas and sounds including the concept of psychoacoustics (sound perception).

Steve Reich, NYC Mayor Bloomberg and me at the Mayor’s 2013 Arts Awards
Steve Reich, NYC Mayor Bloomberg and me at the Mayor’s 2013 Arts Awards

While the members of NEXUS have many things in common, we all share our ideas with each other ranging from percussion to politics to the meaning of life. We haven’t figured out the meaning of life yet but we are close to a better understanding of percussion at least.

NEXUS at the Byrdcliffe Theater 2004
NEXUS at the Byrdcliffe Theater 2004

For the Greeks, the nine muses for the arts were Clio, Thalia, Erato, Euterpe, Polyhymnia, Calliope, Terpsichore, Urania and Melpomene. But for me, nothing inspires one as much as family and good friends. To that list I add my colleagues that I work with daily at Woodstock Chimes who are always looking for new ideas that work. Who is your inspiration?

“I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones.”  -John Cage

John Cage
John Cage