I thought it would be fun to ask some musicians whom I admire to write about some aspect of their work. My first email was to Russell Hartenberger.
Russell is one of the prominent figures in percussion history. He is a founding member of the percussion group NEXUS, one of the most important influences on So Percussion or any other percussion group. He is also a longtime core member of Steve Reich and Musicians, and a professor at the University of Toronto. I asked Russell to talk about the role improvisation has played in his work.
There are other great interviews with Russell here: On Steve Reich’s music and a lot of other stuff.
It seems natural for percussionists to improvise, at least it was for me. The first experience I can remember in improvising on a percussion instrument was during a snare drum lesson with my first teacher, Alan Abel, when I was eleven years old. Mr. Abel taught me to play the paradiddle, double paradiddle, and triple paradiddle, and then he told me to play a series of these paradiddle types in any order I wanted with no pre-planning. Up to that point in my lessons, Mr. Abel had carefully prescribed everything I was supposed to play. In fact, he played along with me in every lesson, rudiment, and exercise so I would have his stick movements and time feel to emulate. So this paradiddle improvisation he requested was quite a break from our normal lessons but one that I really enjoyed. I still play paradiddle improvisations as part of a warm-up routine, only now I vary the pulse that I feel against the patterns, or I phrase the paradiddles differently by beginning on a stroke other than the normally accented one.
Two of the other drummers in my high school band percussion section also liked to improvise, so we began jamming in the band room after school, eventually putting together a loosely-structured piece with each of us improvising on various drums and mallet instruments. Just for fun we entered a school talent assembly contest and surprised ourselves by winning first prize. My experiences with improvisation continued when I was an undergraduate at Curtis Institute. The other percussionists and I had occasional jam sessions in the percussion studio and even included a work that included improvisation on school concerts that we gave through the Young Audiences program in Philadelphia.
After graduation from Curtis, I joined the U. S. Air Force Band in Washington, D.C. where the percussionists routinely ‘played the percussion room’ at the back of the rehearsal hall at Bolling Air Force Base. We did this by improvising using the light switch, locker doors, walls, and any other part of the room that made a sound.
Shortly after my discharge from the USAF Band, I played percussion in the Puerto Rico Symphony for several weeks as part of their annual orchestra expansion in order to play larger works and to tour through the Caribbean. Some of the Puerto Rican musicians in the orchestra, including the percussionists, were great improvisers and we spent many hours playing music on tropical beaches.
However, one of my most significant improvisational experiences occurred while I was still in the USAF Band. In 1968, during one of my summer breaks from the band, I was asked to play at the Marlboro Music Festival to perform a work by composer Fred Lerdahl (who later, along with R. A. Jackendoff, co-authored the classic music theory book A Generative Theory of Tonal Music). In addition to the Lerdahl work, the Festival programmed Stravinsky’s Les Noces that week. John Wyre, who had been the regular percussionist at Marlboro for several years played the timpani part, and the other percussionists who were brought in to Marlboro for the Stravinsky were Bob Becker, Bill Cahn, and Robin Engelman. I had met John a year or so earlier, and I knew Bill from our days together in Alan Abel’s percussion ensemble at the Settlement Music School in Philadelphia, but I had not met Bob or Robin until this week. I had to leave Marlboro before the Les Noces performance, but not before John, Bill, Bob, Robin, and I gathered in the dining hall one evening and improvised for several hours.
In 1970 I spent the summer at Marlboro as the resident percussionist. John Wyre came back to visit one day, and we spent an evening at the farmhouse of Rudolf Serkin in nearby Guilford, VT improvising on Japanese temple bowls. Two years later, in 1972, John, Bill, Bob, and I were back at Marlboro to play Messiaen’s Oiseaux Exotiques. We continued these improvisation sessions, but this time they included pianist, Peter Serkin.
By this time, Nexus had played concerts of improvisation beginning with the concert at Kilbourn Hall at the Eastman School of Music in May of 1971. Prior to that concert, Bill and Bob played improvised concerts in the Rochester area, and all of us had gotten together in each others’ homes to improvise for fun. A particularly memorable session was at John Wyre’s geodesic dome in Norland, Ontario. John built wooden racks with lots of bells and gongs hanging from them and had other instruments spread around the dome. We spent a weekend improvising with occasional breaks to eat or to play touch football. During one of the improv sessions, Bill spotted a walking stick insect crawling near his instruments. Bill immediately broke into a song that began, “I am a walking stick…I walk…and I look like a stick.” The song went on for quite a long time as we accompanied Bill with all kinds of percussion sounds.
Bill has an uncanny ability to combine words with sounds. Nexus was invited to play at the Dayspring Festival in the Metropolitan United Church in Toronto in the early 1970s. We improvised a concert on Saturday night, after which the pastor of the church, a very open-minded gentleman, invited us to accompany the Sunday worship service the next morning. We all willingly obliged, and the next morning we returned to our instrument set-ups and began adding various sounds to the hymns and scripture readings. In one of the readings, the pastor read the words, “and the Virgin Mary held the baby Jesus to her breast,” at which point Bill accompanied the sentence with an incredibly loud, screeching sound on a gong by rubbing the rattan end of a marimba mallet across the surface. We all laughed so hard we were unable to continue for several minutes.
Nexus has never planned any of our improvisations in concerts – except for one attempt. We had a two-week residency at York University in Toronto in the summer of 1973. Bill had been writing pieces around this time in which the performer mimed the motions of playing without striking the instruments. Just before we went on stage to play an improvisation at one of these York concerts, Bill suggested that we all go out and pretend to play but that we don’t actually strike anything. We all agreed and Bill led the way on stage. The first motion Bill made accidentally struck a cymbal and so the spell was broken and the performance became a regular improvisation with all of us actually playing on the instruments.
One of the most memorable Nexus improvisation concerts was in a church in Amsterdam in 1984. The presenter asked if we would play a concert all night long beginning about 10 pm. We agreed to do it and the result was a fantastic evening of drawn out improvisational ideas. Knowing that we had several hours to explore ideas, we developed everything very gradually with episodes lasting for extended periods.
As composed pieces began appearing in Nexus concerts: ragtime pieces; music of John Cage and Steve Reich; arrangements of African music; and original compositions by members of the group, improvisations gradually occupied less of our concerts. But the sense of ensemble that was created by the early years of improvisation permeated our interpretations of the other pieces and gave them the sense that they were being improvised, too.
I remember conversations about improvisation with Toru Takemitsu, who had very specific ideas about the kind of improvisation that he preferred. Toru spoke of the Japanese concept of ma, or playing a sound without regard to what came before or what came after, but sound for the sake of sound. An example of this kind of improvisation, and, for me, the most difficult improvisations I have played, are the crotale ‘rain drops’ in Rain Treeand the crotale sounds in the opening procession of From me flows what you call Time. Toru describes his concept of sound this way:
To give a simple example, when one strikes a temple bell, there is a long, relaxed period of time before the sound dies out and the bell can be struck again. From a Western perspective, this is a space [ma] that has no beat. It is an unascertainable, unquantifiable space. In the past, a haiku poet would have listened to the bell—perhaps thought about eating a persimmon first—and felt its beauty. Today we Japanese are immersed in a completely Westernized lifestyle, yet we hear the sound of a wind chime from time to time and appreciate the beauty of a single sound—as we possess that kind of sensitivity to sound.
As one sound is a complete entity that resembles noise, to perform one sound means to desire unity with various sounds in nature. When traditional Japanese music is performed by a master, there is that kind of feeling or receptivity to sound. In short, one denies one’s own ego in the process, and one proceeds, instead, toward nature—a point of anonymity.
(Takemitsu, Toru. “Toru Takemitsu, on Sawari.” Trans. and annotated Hugh de Ferranti and Yayoi Uno Everett. Locating East Asia in Western Art Music. Yayoi Uno Everett and Frederick Lau, eds. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2004, p. 202)
All the guys in Nexus are master improvisers and approach the art of improvisation from various ways. John sometimes referred to Bill as Dr. Imagination (although Bill’s nickname in the group was once The Big Mac of Thought). Bill is indeed an imaginative player both when he is improvising and when he is playing written music. But he has also analyzed improvisation thoroughly, and his book, Creative Music Making, guides musicians who have not improvised very much to a freer way of playing music.
Michael Craden brought an audacious style of improvising to the group. His formal training was as a visual artist, not a musician, although he learned a great deal about music from his days in Los Angeles improvising with Emil Richards. Michael did not read music, so everything he played was essentially improvised. He became famous, or maybe infamous is a better word, for the sounds he made from a small collection of instruments he played as an accompaniment to the Nexus ragtime arrangements. Michael taped the instruments to a padded table and found a way to make sounds in the most unexpected places in the music. One of the instruments on his table was a small 6” tambourine with a head that had been broken so many times there was more duct tape on it than there was head. On an early tour, we were setting up for a concert and one of the young student percussionists who was helping us, and who had obviously heard our direct-to-disc recording of the ragtime tunes, ran over to Michael and said, “The sound you get on the tambourine was amazing! How do you get that sound?” Of course, the rest of us cracked up at this remark.
And speaking of the ragtime tunes, I can’t imagine any more spectacular improvising than Bob continues to do on the rags. He finds new ways to amaze us all, not only with his Mach 2 mallet speed, but with the inventive ways he finds to redefine musicality on the xylophone. Recently, at the marathon concert at Le Poisson Rouge organized by Sō Percussion, Bob’s transition on the xylophone from the last section of Piano Phase that Garry and I played on slap tubes, to the beginning of a ragtime tune was a stroke (or strokes) of genius – the kind of genius we in Nexus too often take for granted when listening to Bob play.
Garry’s creative mind has brought a new dimension to the improvisations of Nexus. Even before he was an official member of Nexus, Garry was contributing to the group. When we received the music to Toru Takemitsu’s concerto, From me flow what you call Time, and realized we needed some kind of bells for the end of the piece, we contacted Garry to see if he could help. Garry met with Takemitsu in Japan and discussed the kind of sounds Toru imagined for these bell clusters. This meeting resulted in Garry creating two racks of wind chimes of various sizes tuned in just intonation to the main pitches in the piece. After John Wyre retired from Nexus, Garry joined the group and brought with him some beautiful Baschet sound sculptures that he uses regularly in our improvisations. When Robin Engelman left the group, Garry took over Robin’s part in the Takemitsu and redesigned the set-up to include log drums he built and tuned to the pitches of the boo-bams that were indicated in the score.
Robin and John always played an integral part in Nexus improvisations. Robin’s choices of instruments were often not percussion instruments. One of his favorite instruments was a Chinese zither-like instrument that he called the changand played with a bow. Another instrument Robin often played was a bass harmonica. But one of my favorite instruments of his was a Scandinavian open-ended flute with no finger holes that he played in an extended improvised solo in an African-based piece we called Fra-Fra.
John Wyre, however, was the soul of our improvisations. It was John who first began collecting unusual instruments back in the days when Japanese temple bowls, Balinese gongs, and water buffalo bells were not commonly available. We all caught the collecting bug and spent most of our free time on the road scouring antique stores and import shops looking for percussion instruments. Each new discovery was quickly added to our improvisations and expanded the scope of our soundscape. John built racks to hang bells and gongs, created sound mobiles from elephant bells and glockenspiel bars, and made bell trees out of dozens of Tibetan finger cymbals.
The World Drums Festival that John organized for Vancouver Expo in 1986 was a showcase of improvisation. At the first rehearsal of this group of over 100 drummers, John told everyone that, for the beginning of each concert, he wanted us all to tap a pulse on the sides of our drums. When we tried to do that, we quickly discovered that the world’s greatest drummers couldn’t keep together with a steady beat. John decided it was prudent to designate one drummer as the leader and everyone followed that beat. John told us all that at the end of each of the four World Drums concerts we played, there was to be no encore and no improvising. However, at the end of the fourth concert there was no holding back and the natural tendency of drummers to improvise took over. The most glorious explosion of improvisation filled the stage, with drummers and dancers reveling in the sound and feel of playing music together. As John might have said in summing up his life of improvisation,
“Beautiful, man, beautiful!”
Russell Hartenberger has been a member of Nexus and of the Steve Reich ensemble since 1971. With these two groups, Professor Hartenberger has performed throughout the world including appearances with the New York Philharmonic, Boston Symphony, Cleveland Orchestra, London Symphony, Israel Philharmonic, Cologne Radio Orchestra, Toronto Symphony, BBC Orchestra, New Japan Philharmonic, and with other leading orchestras in Europe, Asia and North America. His Western music studies were with Alan Abel and Fred D. Hinger. He has also studied tabla with Sharda Sahai, mrdangam with Ramnad Raghavan, Javanese gamelan with Prawotosaputro and West African drumming with Abraham Adzinyah. Prof. Hartenberger has appeared on over 70 recordings for various labels including Nonesuch, ECM, DGG, Sony, Philips and Nexus. He has also performed with the Oklahoma City Symphony, the New Haven Symphony, the U.S. Air Force Band, the Paul Winter Consort, the Canadian Opera Company, and at the Malboro Music Festival under Pablo Casals.