Concerto for Bass Drum & Orchestra premiers [+ US club gigs]

Also known as the la Grancassa (italian), basstrommel (German), and la Grosse Caisse (French) -which can literally be translated as ‘fat drum’ (or even ‘phat drum’), the Bass Drum produces the lowest frequencies of the Orchestra, is used to create some of the most thunderous climaxes, and heaviest punches, but it’s never been considered as a ‘solo’ instrument or been given a Concerto. As it’s un-pitched, and on the surface seems quite a limited instrument, that’s not surprising; but about a year ago I perversely thought it would be interesting to attempt to compose a Concerto for Bass Drum… Now after 3-4 months of composing, and a few hours of rehearsing it’s being premiered by British percussion virtuoso Joby Burgess with Princeton Symphony (conducted by Rossen Milanov) in Princeton, New Jersery, 9th Feb 2012; then being performed by The Chicago Composers Orchestra on 21st Feb (conducted by Matthew Kasper); and then have it’s European premier with the LCO (conducted by Hugh Brunt) in the Round House, Camden, 3rd March 2012.


A Concerto for Bass Drum is by no means a gimmick or a joke piece, there are real reasons why the Bass Drum deserves a Concerto:
Firstly, the Bass Drum is actually one of the most ubiquitous instruments of our time. Where ever I go in London I hear Bass Drums thumping out of people’s car stereos, out of shops, out of night-club and bars; the bass drum is everywhere… More often than not the Bass Drum is the first sound you hear when you approach a club or music event; in electronic dance music most produces obsess over getting the perfect Bass Drum sound; and though it can drive you crazy when its pounding through your walls at 4am when your neighbours having a party; it’s one of the essential instruments of the 21st century.

In classical music it only gets occasional and very simple use, but it has a serious range of sonic possibilities and once you experiment with the Bass Drum many sounds emerge:
– wooden ‘tocks’ & ‘clicks’ from hitting the rim of the drum
– metallic snaps from striking the metal lugs
– Whale-like moans through to rubbing the skin with a wet finger or Super-Ball
– Then hitting the skin itself can give so much variety depending on what type of mallet is used; where on the skin it is hit; and very importantly how much the drum is dampened… and there’s more. [photos below show all the mallets used]


This Concerto grew into quite a monster with 5 movements, 26 minutes long; all inspired by the range of sounds, colours, textures that the B.D. can produce.
Each movement explores different possibilities and moods of the drum; and it’s relationship with the Orchestra. Also many of the different rhythms & beats that are often associated with Bass Drum are explored, and of course the power and energy of the Bass Drum were a big inspiration:

#1: Adagio maestoso – allegro trepido (21 Ways)
the Bass Drum is heavily dampened with 2 towels (plus one towel taped to the underside), and struck with ‘poly’ (plastic) mallets and hard felt mallets, for a really punchy tight sound. The movement opens with Ligeti inspired Wind chords, which then cycle into a slightly hip-hop inspired groove (marked ‘Andante con un po’ di hip-hop’). The second half of the movement has a irregular groove that is in 21/8 (notated as 5/8+5/8+5/8+6/8 to read easier), which gives a little nod to Stravinsky’s rhythmic stabs in Rite of Spring.

#2: Lento Scuro (Bass War)
The dampening is taken off the drum and it’s full bass & power is revealed with a super slow crescendoing roll. Then there is a sort of ‘bass-off’ between the Bass Drum and the low-end of the Orchestra. Then Joby places a chain on the drum to give a grimy, aggressive rumble to it (a dirty, metallic, snare effect), playing a ‘half-step’ type groove. At the end of the movement he rotates the drum to reveal a gut-string coming out of the centre of the drum which he bows to give a Lion’s Roar effect.

#3: Largo Mesto (in the Steppes)
The mood is more contemplative, less dissonant with a slightly Russian, modal-minor feel (hence the sub-title: in the Steppes).
Joby uses only his hands for the entire movement: gentle tapping it with his palms, fist and fingers, using thimbles on his fingers to create clicks and ticks on the rims and lugs.
The second-half freezes to an open, non vibrato strings chord over which Joby rubs the drum skin with a wet finger and a super-ball to create haunting whale-like moans and super-deep sub-bass tones.

#4: Allegro Moderato Leggiero (four to the floor)
A Concerto for Bass Drum wouldn’t be complete without a section dedicated to the ubiquitous ‘thud thud thud thud’ four-to-the-floor bass drum beat of club music. Though it’s rhythmically simple, the subtlety is found in the way Joby alters the damping of the drum, starting completely dead; just like an electronic bass drum, and then musically varying the tone. The Orchestra play a repetitive off-beat chords (based on a corrupted B minor chord), starting with 1/8th notes, but subtly slipping in and out of triplets, playing with the difference between a swinging & straight groove.

#5: Allegro Brilliante (May Speed)
This is a break-neck-speed finale, in which Joby smacks the hell out of the drum with 2 wooden sticks (slightly reminiscent of Japanese Taiko drumming at times), and the Orchestra play a spiralling Hindemith-esque continuously modulating melody.

There’s much more to say about this Concerto. The Orchestra’s role is equal to that of the Bass, and of course they carry all the harmony and melody, but the bass drum is definitely the soloist  and is still able to lead most of the melodic shapes; Joby can produce several clearly different tones, with the Bass Drum marked to help consistency. There is also a strong sense of musical journey in the Concerto, influenced by the simple excitement of composing for a huge drum! through to subconscious (and slightly conscious) influences from the events that have been happening in the world around me over the last year.

Here are the dates for the first performances:

9th Feb – Alexander Hall, Princeton, NJ, USA with the Princeton Symphony Orchestra
21st Feb – Ruth Page Theater, Chicago, IL, USA with the Chicago Composers Orchestra
3rd March – The Roundhouse, London, UK with the London Contemporary Orchestra


As I’m never one to miss the opportunity to put on a NONCLASSICAL club-night. I’m also DJing and hosting 5 NONCLASSICAL club-nights in the US while I’m over. All featuring Solo percussion performances by Joby Burgess (as Powerplant), and Cello & laptop performances from Peter Gregson – doing the US launch of our forthcoming album ‘Cello Multitracks’ (more info on that soon(-ish)). Here are the club dates:

10th Feb – Nonclassical @ Joes Pub – Manhattan. with Peter Gregson (playing upcoming release on Nonclassical: Cello Multitracks) & Todd Reynolds.

11th Feb – Terrace Club, Princeton, NJ @ 8pm – solo Powerplant set, dancers Susan Marshall, Rebecca Lazier and DJ G Prokofiev

15th Feb – The Moct, Milwaukee, WI @ 8pm Nonclassical in association Present Music – solo Powerplant, Dj Madhatter, Peter Gregson, G Prokofiev, & Unlooped Vs Dilla.

16th Feb – The Brink Lounge, Madison, WI @ 8pm Nonclassical in association with Classical Revolution – Powerplant, Peter Gregson, G Prokofiev + local ensemble

18th Feb – Experimental Sound Studio, Chicago, IL @ 9pm Nonclassical + Chicago Composers Orchestra – Powerplant, DJ G Prokofiev, Peter Gregson & more

  1. Not every day you come across a concerto for bass drum. What a fantastic evening, it works well and sounds brilliant. Just how many sounds can you get out of that thing!? You don’t often see conductor’s getting into the groove like that! Great reception from the audience too. Thanks!

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