Composition always involves an element of exploration for me – sometimes it’s just exploring what is in my head, but usually it also involves exploring the capabilities of the instruments or voices I’m writing for. And sometimes this involves quite a bit of research and learning, as in the ukulele pieces I introduced in a recent post (no. 28). Today’s piece also involved researching the instrument that I was using, as it was new to me as a solo instrument. The added proviso that it was a piece destined for an exam, thus needing to include appropriate challenges while not exceeding the difficulty level required.
A few years ago I was invited by ABRSM (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music) to write some pieces for their new percussion exam syllabus. ‘Why me?’ I asked – having never written for solo percussion before – ‘we thought we’d like to ask some composers who weren’t percussionists, as they might produce interesting results, and we’ll tell you if they don’t work’ – came the reply, more or less.
One of the pieces I wrote was for timpani, with, in this case, a piano accompaniment, and they asked me to make it Grade 5 level – i.e. not too easy, but not too difficult. Now I’ve often written for timpani in an orchestral context, but never as a solo. The timpanist normally has three drums of different sizes, each tuned to a different pitch – for beginners the pitches chosen would not change during the piece, but for more experienced players retuning during the piece is a necessary skill. Thus in my piece one of the drums is tuned to a higher note half-way through the piece, while the piano plays on its own for a few bars to allow the player time to do this. This rise in pitch suggested to me the title, ‘Rising from the Deep’ and (like Debussy’s ‘Sunken Cathedral’) you might imagine the timpani player slowly emerging from a sea-bed to reach dry land.
With a limited range of notes, the particular challenge for the timpanist is precision of rhythm and control of tone, and there’s plenty of opportunity in this piece for the player to demonstrate their skills in those areas. There is a big range of dynamic markings, from pp to fff, and a variety of rhythmic patterns ranging from long notes (which are sustained by ‘rolls’ with both sticks), triplet crotchets and quavers, to repeated semiquavers. My aim was to suggest a murky beneath-the-sea feeling at the beginning, with a gradual sense of clarity as the player rises upwards, with final triumphant and fast-moving patterns as dry land is reached. Ideally it could be seen as a duet between timpani and piano – the piano is perhaps a little in the background if it merely ‘accompanies’ – but of course from an exam point of view the focus has to be on the candidate.
Here’s a recording of ‘Rising from the Deep’ (Timpani and Piano, Grade 5)
In case you are interested, here are links to the other percussion pieces that I wrote for the percussion exams. Probably the most challenging to write was ‘Sarabande and Gigue’, in which, at least, I didn’t have to worry about what key it was in or what pitches to use.
‘Sarabande and Gigue’ (Snare drum solo, Grade 4)
‘Night Ride’ (Marimba solo, Grade 4)
‘Spring Awakening’ (Xylophone or other tuned percussion, Grade 3)
‘Summer Sunshine’ (Duet for tuned percussion, Grade 2)
All pieces are in the relevant graded percussion exam books published by ABRSM – ‘Rising from the Deep’ is in this one.