"Percussion music is revolution", John Cage was writing in 1939, when WRITING percussion music WAS revolution. The idea, as expressed in the article, is certainly out of context in present times, and I’m surely not claiming that other music and other instruments CANNOT be as efficient tools for a revolutionary act as percussion are; but none of it will ever confute that percussion music IS and WILL ALWAYS BE an ideal grounding terrain for any revolutionary agitation. Percussion is not one instrument; it’s a way of relating to the world, it’s an ever available aid to see known objects in a different way, to look at reality from a different angle, and therefore a tool for expanding one’s sense of self, of establishing a tangible unity with things outside of one’s body.
And like the voice of a singer, the natural disposition of a percussionist is always carried around; it doesn’t require anything else than one’s body, which makes it the ultimate statement of freedom.
Mind, of course I’m biased in saying that, and harmony probably does the same for a lot of people. For me it’s rhythm, metric, the alternation of tension and release in a persistent cycle; or the absence of it all for that matter: absence of metric recurrence, that or negation of a rhythmic grid, or the two combined. Or the mechanism of tension and release applied to a non-cyclical, non-repetitive rhythm construction. It’s all up to how familiar one is with any given language, how much that anchors you to a stable and reassuring relationship to reality.
As much as the methodical avoidance of a tonal centre possesses the power of leading us with firm hand to different planes of perception, so the familiar alternation of tension and release, when deliberately and diligently devoid of repetition and metric recurrence can liberate the mind from its known routes, and open the doors to dimensions not so firmly tied to space and time.
Rhythm, repetition, pulse, as much as harmony, bring us all together, they give us a concrete perception of what are the physical and mental features that we all share, thus increasing and encouraging mutual trust; love.
The absence of either, the systematic avoidance of root and repetition, drives us instead to the bottomless depth of our own selves, conversely expanding our sense of self. They’re both good; both are important tools for our evolution, and they do the same job, only from two opposite directions.
So that’s why both appear to be very effective instruments for trance and shamanic excursions, even in their more elemental forms.
But more than rhythm, and its antithesis, which are naturally a big part of what my life is made of, what interests me to an even greater degree is SOUND: it’s the exploration of forms through their vibration; the bond that you create between your body and an external object, and the air between the two and around them.
The seed of revolution lies always in the capacity of seeing and approaching reality from different perspectives, and percussion music will always connect you to something very basic of your nature, physicality and intelligence, rescuing you periodically and safely from whatever misleading logic the culture of your time might otherwise easily persuade you into.
For this reason, any rudimental use of strings and air-based sound-making objects fits naturally and lawfully into the category of percussion music.
Keep an eye on this post if you might care to, as I might articulate this idea in further details in the near future. What follows below, on the other hand, is looking like a pretty well settled declaration, and for the time being it is here to stay.
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Percussion music never really finishes anywhere. It expands to everything that exists. I think I've been a percussionist for longer than I've been a musician.
I remember as a kid, going around hitting everything, listening to things hissing, clanging, thumping, reverberating; imitating them, trying to be one of those things.
That's me; music came later, as a consequence of that. Take everything away from me; strip me bare of everything that defines me. That will still be there: I will still be a percussionist.
My solo percussion music, this particular act I'm working on, and all the various collaborations that stem out from it, is for me the completion of a cycle, the pragmatic expression of and the reconnection with something that predates my interest for music, and encapsulates probably the biggest mystery of my life. Music for me came as a mean for organising and give meaning to this seminal drive, which is that of relating to the world through sounds.
The discovery of the sound that can be drawn out of of things is an exercise that never ends; I think that putting an inanimate object into resonance, getting that body to produce a sound, is to bring it to a state as close to LIFE as that object will ever experience.
Sounds I hear around me interest me hardly less than those I create as a percussionist, and they invest an almost equal musical value in my mind.
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- For the record, here’s the complete John Cage quote (the exclamation mark on the title is mine…). It was originally published 1939, as an article for Dance Observer entitled Goal: New Music, New Dance
"Percussion music is revolution. Sound and rhythm have too long been submissive to the restrictions of nineteenth century music. Today we are fighting for their emancipation. Tomorrow, with electronic music in our ears, we will hear freedom.
Instead of giving us new sounds, the ninetheenth-century composers have given us endless arrangements of the old sounds. We have turned on radios and always known when we were tuned to a symphony. The sound has always been the same, and there has not been even a hint of curiosity as to the possibilities of rhythm. For interesting rhythms we have listened to jazz.
At the present stage of revolution, a healthy lawlessness is warranted. Experiment must necessarily be carried on by hitting anything-tin pans, rice bowls, iron pipes-anything we can lay our hands on. Not only hitting, but rubbing, scraping, making sound in every possible way...What we can't do ourselves will be done by machines which we will invent.
The conscientious objector to modern music will, of course, attempt everything in the way of couterrevolution. Musicians will not admit that we are making music; they will say that we are interested in superficial effects, or, at most, are imitating Oriental or primitive music. New and original sounds will be labeled as “noise”. But our common answer to every criticism must be to continue working and listening, making music with its materials, sound and rhythm, disregarding the cumbersome, top-heavy structure of musical prohibitions."
It goes on for few more paragraphs, concentrating on the relationship between musical composition and dance. It’s not a long article; one day soon I’ll finish copying it. I’m sure John Cage wouldn’t mind.
We’ve gone a long way since then, and the “musical prohibitions” of 1939 are of course no longer in force; but it’s good to remind us where we come from.