Concerto for Bass Drum and Orchestra (2012)

Bass drum and Orchestra // 26 mins
Orchestration: 2+pic.2(ca).2(Ebcl.bcl)+bcl.2+cbn/4.3.3.1/solo B.D./str
[Commissioned by Princeton Symphony & London Contemporary Orchestra]

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Programme Note

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’). It produces the lowest frequencies of the orchestra, and is used to create some of the most thunderous climaxes, 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 back in 2011 I perversely thought it would be interesting to attempt to compose a Concerto for Bass Drum… in February 2012 after 3-4 months of composing, and a few hours of rehearsing it was premiered by British percussion virtuoso Joby Burgess with Princeton Symphony (conducted by Rossen Milanov) in Princeton, New Jersey on 9th Feb 2012; then performed by The Chicago Composers Orchestra on 21st Feb (conducted by Matthew Kasper); and had it’s European premier with the London Contemporary Orchestra (conducted by Hugh Brunt) in the Roundhouse, Camden, on 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.

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 occasionally conscious) influences from the often tumultuous events (such as the riots in London, the Arab Spring ) that happened across the world during 2011.

© Gabriel Prokofiev, 2012

The first performance was given on 9th February in Alexander Hall, Princeton, NJ, USA by Joby Burgess (solo bass drum) and the Princeton Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Rossen Milanov.

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