Can contemporary classical music survive disc brakes?

Danny Holt performed five numbers at Berkeley’s Center for New Music and Audio Technology last night.  Holt is a formidable performer who, in this incarnation, plays a piano while also surrounded by, and greatly engaged with, a bunch of stuff to hit with sticks and hammers. Having learned to play all this percussion and the piano at the same time [take that, Prof. Baumol!,  or maybe art imitating art], Holt has persuaded many composers to write stuff for this unique onesemble, which he calls his “piano-percussion project”.  The program was a lot of fun; varied, provocative, and rewarding.  Modern classical music has wandered far from the comfort zone of a large part of its potential audience, which is a pity. I haven’t listened to enough for my musical judgments about the evening to be worth your time, but I intend to take more advantage of living near CNMAT in the future. Certainly Holt and his gang are very much worth attention. They have a sense of humor (two of the titles are “hitting things won’t solve your problems (but it might make you feel better)” and “Ballad of the Mean Angry Jazz Hater Monster”) and  ideas that get your head outside of the I-IV-V7-I  comfort zone.

I have some disjointed reflections on the event. First, I was not there because I had carefully reviewed the musical options presented in Berkeley this month and optimized a listening schedule, nor because an expert in the field had laid out a program of cultural expansion for me, but because one of the composers is taking my Arts and Cultural Policy course  and I think generally that when one of your friends has a gig, you should try to show up. Also because my taste in music is almost disreputably catholic, so it wasn’t super high risk. I think we undervalue personal connections as a path into new kinds of art, especially as we know that set and setting, in this case including personal acquaintance with one of the principals, greatly affects artistic experience.  Certainly I heard a different performance than I would have if I hadn’t been sitting next to the composer. Parents are supposed to take their kids to the museum, to concerts, etc (White brought her mother, in fact); friends should do the same, and this is an important benefit of knowing people who aren’t all in the same professional or social circle.  When someone says, “hey, I have a ticket for XYZ, want to come?”,  “Thanks, but XYZ isn’t my cup of tea” is a reply that deserves a second thought. If it only leads you one time in five to something surprising that you go back to in the future, that’s pretty good; better than the VC’s in Silicon Valley expect!
Classification principles are important for making sense of a complicated world, partly because they work pretty well and also because they never work completely.  In music appreciation class, at least back when I had one, longhair instruments were sorted out into four bins: strings, woodwinds (reeds), brass, and percussion.  They usually sit this way in an orchestra. The classification is based on physics: the piano is classified as a percussion instrument because mechanically, it hits things with hammers, but obviously its main use in music is more melodic and harmonic than rhythmic.  Other instruments, which like the piano don’t have a central role in the nineteenth century orchestra setup present the same untidiness (glockenspiel, vibraphone).
Then there are all the string instruments that are mainly rather than occasionally plucked (harp, guitar family); they have strings, but they don’t do the work of the violin family. And what is that horn (not the English horn, the brass one with valves and no reed), doing sitting next to the oboe instead of the trombone? And who invited it into a woodwind [sic] quintet? Why do saxophones, which are just different sized clarinets with reeds and keys, qualify (for example, in jazz) as brass; just because they’re made of metal?   Is Charlie Christian’s/Les Paul’s guitar a sustaining instrument like a fiddle, but with a sharp attack, or still essentially a guitar; certainly Christian played it like a horn. It’s a very messy business.

Percussion is definitely the most undisciplined grab-bag of sounds and devices in music. If you like stuff that’s weird, surprising, and off-center, as I do, it’s a treasure trove.  Holt’s kit included a standard jazz musician’s set (bass, toms, side/snare and a cymbal, ho, hum), plus

  • a toy piano,
  • a small glockenspiel,
  • a large oriental gong,
  • a foot-square sheet of what appeared to be steel plate, hanging on thongs,
  • an automobile brake drum, and
  • some other stuff I’m forgetting.

A brake drum? I asked my composer friend and she said, yes it’s sufficiently standardized ‘instrument’ that it can be found in orchestra scores.  This led me wonder what a disk would sound like, as fewer and fewer vehicles have drum brakes to supply this second-use market. Is the difference in sound enough to be important?  If so – thinking about Nelson Goodman’s aesthetic theory of density of syntactic differentiation as a key diagnostic of artistic content – are there composers specifying the year, make, and model of the source vehicle  when they call for a brake drum?
Finally, it was interesting to speculate on why one would write for the only person in the world who could play this alone, a skill set most unlikely to be replicated in conservatories on the basis of Holt’s success, and whether a pianist and a percussionist playing one of these numbers as a duo would be a large or a small departure from the intent of the piece. There’s nothing new about instrumentalists with exceptional chops causing innovation in composition, but this project struck me as an especially interesting blurring of the usual score/performance dichotomy.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

10 thoughts on “Can contemporary classical music survive disc brakes?”

  1. FWIW, John Cage first made his mark with a percussion ensemble including brake drums, more than 70 years ago.

  2. In my middle school and high school percussion years, we frequently used the brake drum (straight from the junk yard, and every school I ever visited to play with had one), especially for pieces that were meant to imitate daily modern life, like the sound of trains or construction in cities, etc. But if you were put on brake drum, you were de facto bottom chair, since, unlike with the triangle and gong, which require certain specific techniques for playing correctly, the brake drum required absolutely no training. Just hit it with a hammer, mallet (wood or plastic), or back of a drum stick, depending on what tone the piece/director calls for, and you’re golden.

    The reason I don’t think disc brakes would ever be used is that their shape and density wouldn’t provide enough vibrations to create a loud, sustaining sound. A brake drum works because the metal is relatively thin, though sturdy, and the hollow space inside gives you a nice reverberation which amplifies the sharp, short original sound. Cymbals, gongs, sheet metal, etc., work well because the shape/thinness of the metal sustains the note. I see a disc brake giving the same sharp sound of the brake drum, but without the strong reverberations that make the note louder and more pleasant/rounded, so I don’t think anyone would substitute it in.

    The weirdest percussion “instrument” I’ve ever seen used was at a Faust concert about a year and a half ago, where they brought a cement mixer on stage, filled it with rocks, and let it spin (with a mic in front of it) for about half of the show. That show was phenomenal.

  3. Clearly we need research to find out what other car parts (trunk lids, hoods, quarter panels, floorboard pans) will fill the bill. And, of course, an archival effort to record for later resynthesis as many different brake drums as possible. The NEA is flat, but I bet if we work psychological warfare into the proposal DARPA will go for it.

  4. brake drums are common as rear brakes.

    I wonder if orchestral standards for brake drums require them to be tuned (turned) on a lathe?

Comments are closed.