Decoding the composition
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Cloud Folk was written at the invitation of Michael Burritt for the Eastman Percussion Ensemble. It was the recipient of the 2017 John Beck Composition Prize with the generous support of Ann Carol and Paul S. Goldberg, The Eastman School of Music Percussion Department, Michael Burritt, Kathleen Holt and Stephen Lurie, Ruth and Bill Cahn.

The Cloud Folk are (imaginary) visitors to earth, invisibly parked in our upper atmosphere, observing 21st century human behavior. I’d imagined an arrival driven by optimism, intense curiosity, and excitement; followed quickly by incomprehension, shock, and the hastiest possible departure (back into a wondrous universe teeming with life). With no contact made, in fact avoided at all costs, we were never aware we’d been visited. The music loosely follows this narrative.


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In Focus:

Cloud Folk

Performance Notes, Articles, Reviews, John's Messages

Project Details

Cloud Folk

for Percussion Octet and Piano

Commissioner: Michael Burritt for the Eastman Percussion Ensemble

Instrumentation: Shek, Mar (2x), Glock, Sus Cym, Drum Set, Cab, Maracas, Low Drum, Conc Toms, Tom Toms, Sleigh Bells, Vib (2x), Timp, Tub Bells, Tri, Bass Drum, Gong, Sm Bells, Pno

Premiered by Eastman Percussion Ensemble with Michael Burritt (dir) on November 11, 2017 at PASIC17, Indianapolis, IN, USA

Difficulty Level:
Instrument Tags:
Suspended Cymbal
Drum Set
Low Drum
Concert Toms
Tom Toms
Sleigh Bells
Tubular Bells
Bass Drum
Small Bells
Mixed Percussion
Mallet Percussion

Full Instrumentation

Player 1: *Shekere, Marimba (2), Glockenspiel, Suspended Cymbal

Player 2: Drum ‘Set’ (kick, hi-hat, 2 *tambourines: regular ca. 10-inch and small ca. 6-inch) Marimba (1) (bowed), Cabassa

Player 3: Marimba (2), *Maracas, *Low Drum (16-inch double-headed tom) 2 *Toms (concert toms ca. 12-inch and 14-inch), *Sleigh Bells

Player 4: Vibraphone (1) (mallets)

Player 5: Timpani, Tubular Bells, *Shekere, *Triangle sample (ca. 6-inch), Bass Drum

Player 6: Vibraphone (2) (mallets and bow), *Sleigh Bells

Player 7: *Bowed Small Bells (song bells, or equivalent sound), Marimba (1) Bass Drum, *Maracas, *China Gong (wind gong or small Thai gong) Tubular Bells, *Finger Cymbal

Player 8: Marimba (1) (mallets and bow)

Player 9: Piano (light amplification recommended)

Audio samples of some instruments (marked with an asterisk) are available from the composer

Interview with James Vilseck

Interview with James Vilseck about Cloud Folk, writing for percussion, and percussion with electronics.



JV:      Starting specifically with Cloud Folk first, how did the commission with Michael Burritt begin and what information did he give you when he started?

JP:       With Michael, I’m pretty sure that he got in touch with me about something. He might have been programing another piece of mine with some students and we started having a dialogue. It was a great dialogue. Then he came up with the idea of a commission and I was very excited about it. He suggested a large percussion ensemble, which I had never written for before. You know, there are a few things I’ve never done. I have written one percussion quartet but it’s four drum kits. I haven’t done a typical percussion quartet kind of format. So, I was really into the idea and the only thing that he stipulated was the instrumentation, that it was for a certain number of players. I then asked him if I could add the piano because the piano wasn’t originally part of the instrumentation and that was it! And you know, Mike is so experienced. He really knows what he’s doing when he’s talking to composers because he’s a composer himself. He kind of knew what not to suggest, what to suggest, and what to leave up to me. I felt very free. The other thing was that I felt like I was going to be writing for really good players. I had a bit of a license in terms of parts and what I could write for individuals and that was it. It was just a duration, like, let’s do something around ten minutes which seems to be a very common suggestion.

JV:      You mention that have not written for an ensemble that large. Do you think that was enabling or limiting at all?

JP:       Well, it was very challenging for me because, specifically the time of writing that and especially more so now, I’m writing a lot of music that is for acoustic instruments and playback. There’s a piece of my which has done really well called One Study One Summary. That was one of the first pieces I wrote for percussion and an audio track and I’ve gone deep into that since then. It’s a big part of what I’m doing these days. So, I was keen to do something for the project with Michael that included a backing track and Michael was like “I’m sure we don’t want that. We just want an acoustic piece.” Subsequently, I’ve written a new piece for an even larger percussion ensemble called White Feather, which was just premiered at TCU (Texas Christian University) and I am very happy with that piece. I also pushed for having a playback part to it and they said no. Even when I asked for a piano, they said no.

This was all leading towards answering your question about limitation. The thing I find hardest about large percussion groups or just percussion in general is the lack of a bottom end in the sound. There’s no real low register. The timpani are great in that they give you that, but it’s a certain type of low sound that they give you. So, I was keen on that. For instance, with the White Feather piece, I asked several times if I could use a bass, like an upright bass, because that’s what I love. Write for large percussion ensemble and a bass instrument of some kind because the range gets very weak as you go down the marimba. It doesn’t project in the same way. Especially within a large ensemble, the lower end actually gets weaker compared to the penetration of the mids and the highs in the group, especially if you start adding drums and things like that. That was the only limitation, but the limitations are good. Actually, really good because they force things out of me that make me find solutions to things that I might not have tried hard enough to find otherwise.

JV:      Specifically in that piece (Cloud Folk), like in parts 2, 3, and 4, there’s a lot of ostinato work that has all nine players going at the same time, usually with a soloist or something on top. I was very curious if having the limit on a number of players was limiting in creating the texture…almost like an ocean. I hear something ocean-like, of fading in and out.

JP:       That’s nice! We can talk about that later actually, but the thing about the number of players is that it was the opposite. I spent a lot of time thinking “what do I do with all these people.” You know like, “What am I going to do? There’s so much going on.” Especially with the White Feather piece. I think I got up to 13 players and I was just thinking, “This is so many people, what do I give each of them.” And then, eventually once the piece started building, you realize that I could do with a few more players at certain points of the piece, because everybody’s kind of pushing.

JV:      You mention the electronic playback. One of the things I notice, because I’m working on One Study right now for example, is that a lot of the sounds that were coming from Cloud Folk are kind of similar, I think, in style. For example, the bowed song bells that comes immediately at the beginning of the piece and the shekere, just remind me very much of an electronic influence. Is that something you’ve noticed in some of your acoustic works?

JP:       Absolutely! I think it’s the fact that I’ve been working so much with these hybrid pieces with the acoustic instruments and playback that it does get quite blurry for me. So, you’ll get in the playback itself (like One Study One Summary), you get unadulterated tubular bells being played. That’s an acoustic percussion instrument that’s on the playback. Then, as you say, in the live instruments, there will be this kind of simulation of loops and things like that, that you would get in the electronic environment. So it’s a bit of a hazy border between those two things for me. But on that note, just because you mention One Study One SummaryIt’s slightly sideways but might be interesting for you. In the creation of electronic backing for live performance there’s a fundamental rule that I stick to, which is that the live performer - in this case you playing the marimba in One Study One Summary - has to be the main musical storyteller at all times. They have to hold the narrative of the piece. The extreme example of that not being the case is if you go to a big techno gig and there’s somebody with a laptop and they press a key and there’s a massive launch of sound and energy and yet all the performer has done is press one button on a keyboard. For me, there’s a huge mismatch between the live performance energy and the audio energy that’s coming out of the system. There’s a thing for me, a very important part of all writing, which is the matching of the visual narrative, what you’re seeing, and the energy that’s being generated by the performers, what you’re hearing. If we were talking about One Study One Summary and you were asking about limitations, that would be a very significant one, which is holding back very much in the audio, what the audio can do in terms of telling the story. So, the audio is very much an accompanist to the live performer. I’ve heard other pieces that have digital audio and live performance where the audio takes over and it becomes this sort of main character from time to time. I actually think that’s when you lose a lot of intensity in the work because you’re not seeing that energy being articulated live. It’s a bit of a diversion.

JV:      Could you talk a little bit about the short narrative that Cloud Folk is based on? Where it came from or any influences?

JP:       Firstly, in general, titles and program notes especially, start to kick in halfway through the composing of the work. Titles especially come afterwards. People are often disappointed when I say that because I think that they want to think that there’s a kind of design, a real design. But for me, the music is first. Music is everything. It’s about creating a coherent, compelling, memorable piece of music. The thing about titles and program notes is that they create a resonance around the experience of hearing the work. You notice that One Study One Summary is actually almost completely devoid of any kind of meaning as a title. It doesn’t give you anything to go and so you just listen. The second movement of that, The Summary, is based on an idea of post-human earth. What the world will be like when there is no one here. That’s why you have the birds and the crickets and things at the end because it’s life without us. That’s why in the middle of that piece you’ll have very faint things like children in a playground or the sound of a city far away. You know, the sort of ages-of-man kind of thing. There is a narrative there, and it varies a lot piece to piece.

What I started to develop with Cloud Folk as I was writing, was the specific sound and textural ideas emerging, because almost everything in that piece is built on one chord. It’s built on this idea of a major seventh chord but in various inversions. It’s different if you put the third in the bottom. It’s different again if you put the fifth at the bottom. That means something else. If you put the semitone at the bottom, they all have different emotional colors, those things. If you go through the score of Cloud Folk, ninety percent of the harmony that’s going on is that chord. That’s not because I think its clever to do that, because I’m not interested in clever. That doesn’t interest me at all in composing. That thing about it is that it had a particular emotional color to it. It matched the harmony and matched really well with all the percussive sounds and textures that were gradually forming. The idea of the narrative grew out of the groove and the sounds and the layers that I was making.

You mentioned before the idea of an ocean, like a sort of feeling. You know, I’m often very organized in the way that I write. Everything lines up and all the T’s are crossed and the I’s are dotted and things land together and things build up in the right way so that there’s a cadence that works. I’ve put a lot of time into that, but there’s something a bit rigid about writing like that as well. I wanted to loosen it up. I’ve been listening to a lot of Radiohead. In particular, there’s a fantastic DVD of them doing the album King of Limbs and it’s called “The Basement,” which is a recording studio. In my opinion, it is one of the great performances in the genre of pop music, I really recommend it. What I felt in that performance was a very special thing that Radiohead does. Throughout a lot of their music they have very unpredictable and unexpected entries and exits of layers, so that when something comes in its not on a downbeat after eight bars. It might be halfway through bar 13, and it might be something really significant, like the bass coming in at this very weird place. They always make it work. And so in Cloud Folk, I was putting a lot of effort into trying to have entries and exits feel very loose and organic so that things would start and end in places that you couldn’t predict, but they didn’t interfere with the flow (because flow is everything).

The other thing, if you start breaking down those layers, is different cycles and different parts. In Cloud Folk, there’s a kind of reduced drum set part which is often doing things in five. The kick drum is just going one, two, three, four, five, one, two, three, four, five,  and then there is another part like a shaker that might be in seven. All these things are going on together. Overall, it works because there’s enough reinforcement of an overall 6/4 or 12/8. You know, there’s an overall time signature that you kind of feel as everything. But within that there’s these overlapping cycles that are just going and going and going. It was a huge breakthrough for me in this piece to understand that you can do that and still have a sense of meter. But the meter isn’t really clunky. You’re not just feeling downbeat after downbeat after downbeat. There’s a kind of fluid motion through the meter and yet it’s still there, because when you’re writing you also have to think very practically about the ensemble and what is everybody hearing. How do they stay in time with each other? Does everyone actually know where the downbeat is? So there’s the balancing of that ensemble consideration with the writing process itself. That was one of the great breakthroughs. Anyway, as I was writing it, I just started to have an idea of observing this from above. This kind of semi-chaotic, but organized, cooperation between individuals. Each doing quite independent things a lot of the time but creating something as a unit. That’s where I got the idea of looking down. And then I started to think about non-terrestrials looking down on us. And then I started thinking, what would any intelligent extra-terrestrial think if they came and hovered invisibly in our clouds, and look down on us? I think we would be incomprehensible. Our behavior would be incomprehensible if you added up the whole of the human species, the whole human race. My thought was that they would come, look at us, and leave, and we would never know. That was just the thinking that was going on at the time. I could go on and on but it starts to get quite abstract and I’m not sure how useful all that stuff is.

JV:      I’ve read a lot of your other interviews and you’ve said that you spend a lot of detail at the beginning of your works.

JP:       Yeah

JV:      When it comes to Cloud Folk, what was some of the earliest material that came to mind and how did that influence other material until it eventually formed the whole piece?

JP:       That’s a great question! With Cloud Folk, all you’ve got to do is look at the first page. That’s what it is. It just started with tubular bell and the shaker.  There’s a groove. The tubular bell always has a kind of a sense of something significant going on. Like any bell, it’s symbolic. It creates a kind of seriousness about the piece. The groove is established. The sleigh bells, the crescendo that they do up and down in the beginning, that’s something that comes back a lot. Out of this, slowly, some kind of tonality or harmony emerges so that you get that first riff happening in the piano when it comes up. That’s all that I got. Once I got there, I knew I was away. I knew that I had a piece that I would be able to figure out. I had no idea what it would be, but I know that I had enough potential, like I was creating a seed, you know, that you’re going to plant. It’s creating a seed and it’s knowing that the structure of that seed, or the internal potential of that seed, is going to give you a piece. I’ve never written a piece where I know what’s going to happen. Ever. It’s always starting at the beginning and seeing. And that’s why in Cloud Folk in particular, there’s a very strong sense of wonder in the music. You can feel it in the music. And that’s not just creating it for the listener. It’s also my sense of wonder as I discover the work, as the work reveals itself to me. That’s how I compose. It’s risky if you are locked into commissions and deadlines because there’s no guarantee you’ll get it finished in time. Because you don’t know what the piece is. You don’t know if you’re going to fail a lot during the writing of it. So that beginning, it’s all about a few percussion sounds and creating a little texture at the beginning, some potential tonality, some ideas like the sleigh bells doing that crescendo, that little wave that they do. That was a thing I threw out there. I really like that. I know that’s going to come back because that also sort of destabilizes tempo a little bit. Well, not tempo, but feel, because it imposes something else above what’s going on. And then, with the vibe, percussion four part, there’s a kind of randomness built into that layer that goes all the way through. It’s a kind of rogue element, as is the floor tom. That’s the other thing. I don’t just want to set up loops and think, “okay, I’ll write a piece that’s based upon a bunch of loops.” There has to be something that is unpredictable. It’s like an independent entity within the work. Percussion four’s vibraphone and the floor tom part are both that. You look at those parts and try to make sense of them and you can’t. It’s like they’re listening to everything else, and they’re responding to it, but they’re not completely paying attention. It’s like they are listening and playing but also looking out the window at what’s going on outside. It’s that kind of idea of a part within the work and those parts take forever to write because you’re actually trying to create something that’s independent and free but has to fit it. So there’s a lot of trial and error with each bar and with the phrases and gestures to make that work.

JV:      Cloud Folk is divided into five specific parts and then a coda. Did the separation of the parts come naturally as you were composing material or is that something that happened after the composition was already done?

JP:       No, I only ever write linearly. I never jump ahead. What happens invariably with my writing is that I’ll start something and that will build to its own culmination. The way the piece starts and the way everything comes in, there are builds. More parts coming in and it intensifies. For instance, there’s a gentle hill that gets us up and down to bar 59. Once we get to that, it’s a kind of ebb, that all sort of goes away. Then the next thing comes in, which is a new idea, at bar sixty-something. Then that all builds up to a kind of a first climax, which gets us to bar 104. That reaches its culmination and can’t go any farther. It completes. It does what it can. But I’m very careful to make sure the harmony itself doesn’t resolve. It completes, but it doesn’t resolve because you always need to go on. You have to need to go on. Otherwise, you’ve reached the end. Then Part 2 begins with what is quite a different idea. That shift from one tonality to another is quite a hard thing to get to feel natural. The thing about Cloud Folk is harmonically, it is very homogenous. I see there is this one chord most of the time being shifted around. Anyway, Part 2 works and it does the same thing. You stagger in these lines over the groove and the groove builds up and it grows and grows. Then that gets to its own culmination which is the Swells. That is its own climax and then it subsides. That’s the other thing about moving from one part to another. For me, I feel you have to do it in different ways because there’s a structural predictability as well. You don’t want to arrive then change, arrive then change, arrive then change. The way you change needs to vary so that the piece feels like its constantly unfolding in this organic structure to it. So that why at the Swells, after that, the whole piece kind of takes a while to subside and then it comes down into Part 3, which is the next major part. Coming out of Part 3 it’s the opposite. It sort of grows out of Part three and it gets us to Overlap. Then that gets us to Part 4, which is different again. Then Part 5 is the culmination. The thing to me that I’m very happy about with this climax is that the major climax of it, which is, let me find where that is. Have I labeled it?

JV:      Like measure 446?

JP:       It’s where the tubular bell melody kicks in. Yeah, that’s it. You’re right. The thing with the overall climax of the piece is that it’s obligated to outdo all the other climaxes. The final one has to be the biggest one. Otherwise the piece doesn’t feel proportionally balanced. If you imagine classical symphonies, that’s all in there, that way of creating long shape. What I was really happy about with this climax is how controlled it is. It just happens comfortably over time. There’s no real anxiety about the climax. It’s more of an aesthetic culmination of the work and a celebratory culmination of the work. Every part follows on from what happens before. That’s the only way it ever works for me. It’s interesting, when I used to teach at university my students would often come to me and say, “I’ve written something really great but it only goes so far. I don’t know how to carry on?” It’s a common problem for composers. How do I continue my music at this point? My answer is always the same. The way forward is hidden in the way behind you. How did you get here? The answer is in what you’ve already done. You have to look at what you’ve done and understand it really well because a lot of people write music and the get to a certain point and the love what they’ve done. Especially if they work with technology and you can write music quite quickly, you know? You can write it without really understanding the harmony and the rhythms and all the potential that’s in what you’ve done. That’s what I often do. I’ll go back at some point and I’ll look at it and I’ll go “How have I gotten this?” and I’ll go “Ah, that’s really interesting.” There are all these things in the music that I wasn’t consciously aware of. I can start exploring some of these now consciously as a way of moving forward in the piece.

JV:      One more question about Cloud Folk. Is there any specific thing you would want a listener to feel, or notice, or listen for in the piece?

JP:       Yeah, okay, that’s a good question. In One Study One Summary, the first movement of that, the general feeling is one of excitement. That’s if you reduce it to a single thing. It’s excitement with some anxiety because there’s the diminished elements and modality which give you some sense of unease and tension. In Cloud Folk, it’s interesting, there’s very little tension in the harmony of the piece. It’s mostly very relaxed. If you take that chord that I was talking about, which is this [Plays chord on a piano]. That’s like an A-maj7 chord. If I put an A at the bottom, it makes it an A-maj7 chord. If I play C-Sharp on the bottom, it’s a C-Sharp minor with a minor sixth. It’s a different quality of chord. It’s a different emotion. If I play this, with an E in the bass, it has something more grand about it. And if I play the G-Sharp (in the bass), then the A becomes quite dissonant, and that has the most tension. Now I thought of each of those as its own chord, as its own harmonic/emotional color. Each of them has their own emotion, but the other thing about working with harmony like that is that the effect of it also changes over time so that if you’re listening to one of those harmonies for quite a while, then the emotion that’s wrapped around it impacts on you more and more over time. That’s a feature of loops and minimalist music. What I was doing was changing the flavor of harmony, the color nuance of emotion, rather than making you feel like you were going through a chord progression… the overall feeling that I was trying to get for the listener is one of a kind of aesthetic calm, if there is such a thing. Which is to actually be energized but to feel very calm at the same time. That’s why if you get the harmony that I just played you like this like (plays opening piano rift? 29:44), it’s that kind of idea where it’s actually moving very, very fast. That’s kind of exhilarating because it’s fast. Something that’s really fast is kind of exhilarating for a listener. So there was that and also I want the experience to be one of experiencing warmth. You know, like warm music. That it’s reaching out with warmth to embrace. That’s with this piece, not with all the music that I write. There are very different things going on in different pieces, but this piece definitely has that warmth. In terms of listening in, there are obvious places where there is a melody and accompaniment. You’ve got solo lines happening in the mallets and the ensemble is accompanying that. But in other places, it’s more to experience to totality of it, so that you’re not listening to any particular thing. You’re enjoying the whole ensemble at once. Even though I put a lot of things into the music, I don’t write with the expectation that the listener will remember specific things earlier in the piece. I don’t think they remember things that are earlier in the works very well. That’s interesting because if you’re a performer or a composer, you listening in a certain way, right? We listen in a certain way. Audience members don’t. Non-musicians don’t listen like that. And they’re not going “Ah, that’s from the middle section of the exposition. I remember that.” People don’t have those moments. Very rarely. You can have them when you’re listening to a symphony or sonata, because there’s a kind of sledge hammer hitting you on the head saying “hey, remember this, remember this?” And you have to remember because that’s how the music is designed. But I don’t think to do that because my experience has been talking to people and understanding how they listen and it is more about continuity and flow and the moving forward through time.

JV:      If you don’t mind, I’d like to go ahead and move on to percussion music in general. Would you mind talking a little bit about how you feel your relationship is with modern percussion music and maybe how that’s changed over time?

JP:       Sure. The short answer is it’s fantastic! I feel incredible. I’m writing a whole lot of percussion music at the moment. I’ve been for years now, several years, almost exclusively (writing for) percussion. I just finished a new percussion concerto and it’s one of five that I’m writing over the next three years. I’m writing a whole bunch of percussion chamber music. I’m writing a new piece for Michael Burritt Koolish Zein. It’s a concerto in quotation marks because he’s the soloist but the orchestra is actually a quartet of percussionists and playback. So that’s the backing for the soloist. I’ve just written a new duo for piano, percussion, and playback (Atalanta) and I recently wrote a saxophone quartet with drum kit piece (Connectome), which I was super happy about. I’m really happy with all this music and I’m just finishing off this new percussion concerto. I feel like I’ve landed as one of the percussion writers. That’s what it feels like. A lot of percussionists know my music and it gets played a lot, which is absolutely amazing. There have been pieces that have really taken off. The way that it started was with Evelyn Glennie. When Evelyn emerged, which was in the early 90s, she came to New Zealand and the festival here said “Would you play a New Zealand piece?” She said, “Well send me some scores and I’ll have a look and see if there is something that suits me.” They sent her, in that package, a piece of mine called Matre’s Dance which is for drums and piano. She liked that piece, she performed it here, and then she championed it…I would say she played it more than a thousand times. Easily. She just played it so much. She took that piece to the world and over the last thirty years she just constantly played it. Then I wrote another piece, Drum Dances, for drum kit and piano, and then a few more pieces, including the Concerto View from Olympus for percussion, piano, and orchestra. Since then there have been a bunch of percussion pieces. Both One Study One Summary and Kyoto have really taken off. Kyoto is getting picked up so much. And what’s interesting about both of them is that at their premieres, when they were first being launched, I basically got the vibe that I had written something that was just too hard and wasn’t going to have a lot of life. That wasn’t the performers telling me. That was what my understanding of what I had done. It’s really interesting to see One Study One Summary having entered the repertoire now. It’s incredible, because back when it was first born I thought “Ah man, I’ve overdone it. I’ve written it too hard and no one’s going to play it.” But then Pedro Carniero did these two great videos, one of each movement and I think people just saw those. It’s that psychology. You look at it and you go “eh, it’s playable.” You just see it being done and you go “oh, it can be done.” So then no one questions it. They just go and learn it. It was the same with Kyoto. I didn’t think it was going to have a life. So those two pieces have done a lot and now there is a whole bunch of new music coming out of mine for percussion. I think percussion is a huge part of my future.

And on that note though, because one of the questions I’ve been asked before is why? Why percussion? What are you not like a string quartet writer? And the reason is that I’m really interested in a lot of things connecting a high velocity, because that’s exciting. It’s exciting when rhythms interlock or parts come towards each other then come away or they interlock in a very precise way while there’s groove going on. Percussion is the place to do that. It’s not with the string orchestra. It’s not with the brass quintet. It’s percussion that’ll do it. And the other thing is my rhythmic concepts have come out of a lot of percussion music from other cultures. So I spent a lot of time listening to the percussion music of the middle east, or north Africa, or Greece, which is where my background is from. Or Africa itself and South America. And I’ve done a lot of transcribing and I love that music. So what better medium for me to explore those ideas, which can be quite complex, than in the world of percussion, with percussionists? That’s where you’ll find the most willing punters that’ll have a go with this material. And the other thing too is that percussionists will put more time into solving rhythmic conundrums. You know, they’ll put the time into figuring rhythmic stuff out. The thing is, there’s an attitude, generally speaking, an attitude of percussionists towards challenge which really suits my writing because the way I write is challenging to play. It’s not easy. Nothing I’ve written is sight readable. Ever. It all requires putting the hours in. And its high stakes because you go on stage to play One Study One Summary, and it could all go badly. There’s no room to breathe. There are hardly any rests and you’re playing all the time. And so, it’s high risk high stakes. It’s percussionists that’ll go there. They’re the no-harness free-climbers, putting it all on the line. So that’s kind of why I’m in that world, I think.

JV:      Little bit of a personal question. Do you have a certain favorite instrument family to write for, like mallets vs. drums?

JP:       That’s a great question because I don’t love the marimba.

JV:      Really?

JP:       Yeah…look. I love the marimba being played. What I don’t love is the limitation of the sound of the instrument. You know, I would love to write for amplified marimba so that there’s more grunt in the sound. Like there’s more body and power because I think the marimba is in some ways the weakest one of the instruments that I often write for. The piece I wrote for Michael just now, this sort of electronic concerto, starts off with quite a lot of marimba writing, but once it really takes off, he’s on the vibes all the time. That’s because the vibes punch through and there’s a kind of articulation. A power and articulation that to me kind of beats the marimba. But the marimba is the poet of the percussion ensemble. It’s where the poetry can happen. I think part of it is that I don’t write a lot of quiet music. So, the marimba is something I don’t go to very often. And then I had an amazing session with Pedro Carneiro when I went to visit him two years ago in Lisbon where he took me through the marimba in a very deep way. You know, in a certain way I do also love the instrument. I think for me; the marimba is a solo instrument actually… or it’s like you get at universities where there are five of them in a massive ensemble. It’s either/or. It’s interesting. I guess it’s not that I don’t love the marimba; it’s that I wish it was a stronger instrument. In terms of melody, vibes are the one for me. And also, for vibes, I’ve been using the motor a lot lately because I just love the motor on the vibes. It’s like a cliché for a lot of people but I’ve realized I don’t hear cliché the way others do, so I’ve been using the vibes motor a lot and I really love it.

JV:      Are there any trends you anticipate happening in future percussion music?

JP:       I’m really enjoying the growing body of work that is for percussion and electronics or playback. I’m really enjoying that. One of the things that I can see coming, it’s kind of already here but I mean more and more people will probably get into it, is percussionists working with looping technology to create much bigger worlds with their playing. It is already happening, but it’s not kind of standardized yet I think. With one of the percussionists I’ve talked to in the states, we have a plan at some point to develop a piece that is for percussion and looping that I can write and he can play. Another trend - which I’m late getting into – is controlled improv. This new concerto I’m writing is a big step for me in the sense that for the first time, I’ve let go of some control. There are passages in it where the percussionist is improvising but in a very focused way. There is a real purpose behind the improvisation and that’s only because I know the player really well and we’ve been working together. What do you think? I mean what do you think is ahead for percussion? What are some of the things that might be coming up?

JV:      Honestly, there’s a lot with electronics. There might be more with live sound manipulation. You know, you said you want marimba to be more powerful. Well, you can set up mics and put it through logic and you can manipulate it right there on stage in front of people.

JP:       Absolutely!

JV:      That’s something I imagine definitely being out there. Going to PASIC every year, I hear a new sound every five minutes, every single year and I just can’t imagine what we’re going to come up with. My professor says someone is making a new instrument everyday.

JP:       And some of them are extraordinary. Like, some of them really take off. I remember when the hang drum came out and everybody was just completely blown away by that instrument. You know the drum, the hang drum?

JV:      That’s the hand pan, right?

JP:       Yeah, like the UFO.

JV:      Yes. Those are cool.

JP:       Yeah. The other thing for me that me that I would love, I don’t think it’ll happen in my lifetime, is that where people are getting their doctorates in percussion all around the world, that there’s more going into world music traditions. For instance, if I want to use a djembe in a piece, I have to think “okay, well this is going to be somebody that’s come through university.” They wouldn’t have lived in Senegal for years learning this instrument. So the way I can incorporate that instrument into the work is actually quite limited. We don’t yet have the cultural environment where a Senegalese djembe specialist can easily be brought into a project to play. That’s the kind of area I would love to see develop. Where it’s crossing over and there are percussionists from lots of traditions being involved in the same work. I think that would just explode the whole landscape.

JV:      We just had a guy from Venezuela come to our campus and talk about Venezuelan maraca playing. He has a method book and it is incredible. It’s the first one I’ve ever seen. How long has Venezuelan maraca been a tradition?

JP:       Yeah.

JV:      I read that you hand write your scores and then send them to someone to notate. Do you think that influences the way you compose? Not using the computer technology?

JP:       Yeah. Firstly, I compose at the computer but it does influence the way that I write in that it completely frees me up, because I’m not thinking about the score at all when I’m composing. I’m not thinking about what it looks like, I’m only thinking about what it sounds like. I think that is the problem with the way some composers use programs like Sibelius and Finale. They’re constantly looking at a score when they’re composing, and you can really fall into the trap that thinking this piece of music is the score that I’m looking at and it’s not. The piece of music is what an audience hears in performance. That’s what a piece of music is. So, what I’m creating is the music that people are going to hear. That’s what I think about. Then afterwards, I figure out what the score is. That’s been incredibly liberating, and it’s been like that for a really long time. It’s completely freed me up. You know, my students would be writing something, and I’d go, “Look, it just seems absolutely ripe here that you would split this in this way and do this thing with these parts.” And they would go “Yeah, I thought of that. I really wanted to that, but Sibelius just doesn’t know how to do that, in the software.” I would go “well that’s not the right reason for making that decision in terms of composing.”

The thing about handwriting. I’m in the process right now of handwriting out this new percussion concerto which I just finished. The piece is 844 bars, so it’s a long piece. There are, I figured it out, 34 staves on the score because there’s a lot of parts. I’m handwriting nearly 30,000 bars of music. It just drives me crazy, but there’s a very interesting part of the process. I did it with One Study One Summary. I’ll create this piece and I’ll go “Ah, that sounds awesome. Here’s my piece.” Then I’ll start writing it out by hand and I’ll go “uh, actually that looks like a really awkward corner now that I’m writing it out. Maybe if I just shift that note then the percussionist doesn’t have to do that.” So, there’s something about microscopically going over every single thing that happens in the piece in a later stage than writing it. Where you go “Oh, I’ve divided the strings up beyond the numbers that exist in the string section.” So, I have to change what I’ve done, or I have to find another solution. There is something about going to that detail at that time. It drives me mental doing it because it takes forever. Look, I’ll show you. For instance, these are all my pencils [Holds up pencil cup] and I have to sharpen them every couple of hours. I sit here day after day writing it out, but it is invaluable because you have to know your music when you write it. You have to know what you’ve done. I could go on about that forever. The handwriting has been really good. Then I give it to a copyist who is going to do a much better job than me at creating a score and parts. Somebody whose job it is to do that. The copyist that I work with I’ve worked with for 20 years. He just knows my music really well and he knows how I work, and we’ve got a great relationship. It just means I don’t have to wrestle with software, you know, score writing software.

JV:      You said you do use a computer to help and I know that you’ve said you use Logic and you often create these robot-like MIDI versions. How does that help in the composition process?

JP:       Well firstly, it means that I have a visceral relationship with the audio of my music as I’m writing it. I’m hearing it and I’m getting really excited about it. And by hearing it, it suggests what’s next. It’s a kind of timeline being propelled through music. I think this is why my music has great momentum. My music really pushes forward. I think that is because I am hearing it and I am feeling it moving forward and I can grow that energy. You think of One Study One Summary. I don’t have the ability to figure that out in my head. I can’t imagine that and then write it down, not that incredibly long rhythmic continuity with all of the little speed bumps and little quirky accents and things there are coming out. All of that detail. I don’t think even Beethoven could do that. There’s a limit to what you can do in your head when it comes to asymmetrical groove-based music with a lot of rhythmic detail. Computers have really enabled me to do that. And the complement to that is that I create pretty good sounding MIDI so that when I share it with people, like I just finished this concerto, and I sent the MIDI recording to the soloist and he wrote back and said, “This is amazing. I can’t wait to get started.” Now you won’t get that reaction from somebody looking at a score. You know, they won’t look at it and understand how it sounds. They’ll have to wait until the rehearsal with the orchestra to actually understand how the piece sounds. It’s absolutely a way of getting people excited well in advance of learning the piece. Because normally, you have to wait until someone records it and then you can share a recording, but that takes too long and is often not guaranteed anymore. This is my way of preempting that. I think my MIDI stuff has led to a lot of things happening in my career. It’s really aided my development as a composer.

JV:      Two more quick questions and then I think that’ll be it. I talked to Omar Carmenates last Saturday actually. He talked specifically about your Piano Quintet that he did for the Percussion Project. He said to specifically ask you about that because he said you were quite passionate about that piece.

JP:       Yeah, I really love what he did. It’s extraordinary what he’s done. You know, it’s a beautiful, beautiful version of the piece. I actually just got the CDs from. I’m very, very happy with what he’s done with all of it. All of that music.

JV:      Are there any specific details about your career or works I should make sure I include in this research project.

JP:       I think Kyoto is probably a really good piece to look at in terms of percussion ensemble, because it was for a long time the biggest ensemble I had written for until Cloud Folk. And obviously One Study One Summary is an important one as well. It’s a shame the newer stuff isn’t available yet. White Feather is there online. Have you heard that piece?

JV:      Yeah, at PASIC this last year.

JP:       That’s amazing! I’m super happy with White Feather. You could say that it is actually grown out of Cloud Folk. That’s what Cloud Folk has led to, and there are certainly similarities between the two pieces. That would be a really good piece also to make some comparisons with. White Feather was the first piece I used steel pans, which I really enjoyed using. Those would be the key pieces, I think.