“Q: What is The Dark Arts of Percussion, and should I report you for being a part of it?
A: No, calm down.”
Jeff Willet Music is back with a new series of albums called The Dark Arts of Percussion. There will be a few albums in this series, starting with Volume I: “The Wind Gongs of Willow Grove,” followed by another album currently in the works with big and epic arrangements! I won’t let too much out of the bag at this point, but many more updates are soon to come. Click HERE to jump over to The Dark Arts of Percussion page on this site to read more details about the first album of the series.
“my, what nice 8th notes you have…”<— Nope, not even close:
Instead of showcasing a specific instrument for this blog post, I want to explain a little bit about a layering concept that I often use as a compositional tool and when I perform live to “beef up” the rhythmic nature of a piece. I haven’t heard any other names for it, so I’ll refer to it as the process of “Rhythmic Complementing.”
Strategic Rhythm Placement to Fill Up the Groove in Your Music
Different from rhythmic counterpoint and polyrhythms, rhythmic complementing (or, … rhythomplementing?) is a way to thicken up the rhythmic texture of a piece of music by filling in the gaps created by the main rhythm. Once applied, the result is a measure of all 16th notes (in the example I’ll give), or just a busier groove than what you started out with, regardless of the meter. There is no exact formula for how to do this, other than this simple set of instructions:
1. Write out the main rhythm of the piece.
2. Write another rhythm above or below the first one, making sure to place a note where there was a rest or held-out note in the first one, to fill in the gaps or “complement” it.
3.a.) Keep in mind this second rhythm should make sense on its own, too. Notes in the second rhythm can certainly overlap and/or double those in the first rhythm in order to make it all flow better together AND separately.
b.) Or, leave some gaps and fill in only strategically, sparingly, or wherever it makes the most sense or feels right for you and for the piece (although this could be considered rhythmic counterpoint).
4. Expand rhythms out into melody/notation for your instruments of choice.
Intro to “Ceramics” by The Gathering Mist
Keep in mind that not every piece calls for this, so listen for the context of when to use it and when not to. This works well in live music settings also! Its easiest in a group with a drummer and a percussionist, but experiment with other instrumentations too!
A clear example of this is in a piece I did called “Ceramics” from The Gathering Mist’s album, “Reservoir” (notated above – follow along!), which starts off with a jembe playing a syncopated rhythm in 11/8, panned to one side. After four bars a dumbek enters, panned to the other side, playing a complementary rhythm to the jembe, still in 11/8. Four bars later at measure 9, the jembe and dumbek switch parts but the same principle still applies. Once the dumbek enters on the first beat of measure 5, the rest of that beginning section to the piece sounds like straight 16th notes because of this rhythmic complementing process. Enjoy!
There are a couple subtle hints of this technique sprinkled throughout other tracks I did for both of The Gathering Mist’s albums. And keep in mind, this isn’t necessarily confined to only percussion instruments…
The Udu drum is another favorite percussion instrument of mine. It comes in all shapes and sizes, and I really enjoy the variety of sounds it can make and the many applications for those sounds in different musical settings. Originally a Nigerian instrument, I have also heard it played in a Latin music setting as part of a Jazziz Magazine CD, gently providing a groove for an acoustic guitar and female singer.
The Udu drum is a unique combination of an idiophone (opposite of a smartphone, try to keep up) and an aerophone. The sound comes from hitting the exterior (usually made of clay) and controlling the air within the resonating chamber(s) by covering or uncovering either of its two characteristic holes. It looks like a water jug/pot with an extra hole in the side (“Udu” translates to “pot” in the Igbo language, I’m told).
Because of the overall teardrop shape of this instrument, the Helmholtz principle of acoustics kicks in and produces a deep low earthy sound when one of its holes are hit and covered by your hand, (forcing the air into the resonating chamber, and out thru the open hole) with the ability to bend the pitch up from there as you release your hand. How low does it go? The larger the resonating chamber, the lower the pitch, and believe me these things could easily pass for an 808/bass drop effect!
The way I use Udu drums in my music varies depending on which kind(s) I believe would fit best with the piece. I am working on a piece now called “Footprints” which features all three Udus playing back and forth and “complimenting” each other’s rhythms and pitches to make it sound like its played all on one instrument. After that, the piece develops and picks up speed which calls for an adaptation of Indian tabla techniques to be played on the Udus – first on one drum, then doubled on another, and then switched up a bit to bring in the third Udu for a more straight-ahead groove to bring the piece to a fiery close. A demo with scratch tracks was previously released of this piece, but I have reworked much of it with only a bit more to go at this point. Look for the final version soon!
I have also featured the Udu drums in a few pieces with The Gathering Mist – see if you can pick out their unique sounds:
In “Ceramics,” I used the Udu pictured below to bring in some low-end to support the tuned flower pots, shekere, tambourine, and melodic HAPI Drums for much of the middle section. Lots of very interesting layering combinations and rhythmic/melodic concepts in this piece…
…as well as little subtle parts in many other pieces across both albums – bonus points for recognizing those too!
Paul Orsulak and me practicing for our percussion recital, late 2009 - this same instrument heard on The Gathering Mist albums!
The marimba used to be a sore subject for me until a couple years ago. The high school I went to is well known for their show-style band and drum line, aka no pit band/front ensemble/indoor drum line/weekend tournaments. Friday night is game night – and you won’t be able to hear much afterwards. Our drum line was always right around 25-30 deep, usually with 8 snares, 6-8 bass drums, 3-4 “squints,” and 6-8 cymbal players. Like I said, no mallets. More on the Rolling Thunder Drumline later though…
Concert season would include mallet parts for most pieces – and as I was one of the few percussionists there who could read music, I would sometimes play these parts while everyone else would get the cool drum parts. I would try to make the best of it though, especially on Robert W. Smith’s epic piece for concert band, “Africa,” for which I was on chimes with 2 mallets – a difficult part in itself with 8th note triplets while the rest of the band played with a straight 8th feel. I remember a couple other pieces where I was “stuck on bells” or some other “lame mallet instrument.” Great. But then I went to college…
To audition for the college I would eventually graduate from, I needed to perform a snare drum piece, a timpani piece, and a mallet piece, along with whatever else was involved (sight-singing, yada yada yada). I spoke with Nancy Zeltsman (before I really knew who she was) and she gave me a 2-mallet marimba solo called “Hegira” for my audition that one of her students, Carrie Magin, had composed, along with a CD for reference which helped a lot (Thanks Nancy!). I spent every night in a practice room learning that piece in addition to the famous timpani piece “March” by Elliot Carter – turns out its a really fun piece with stick-flipping, quintuplet and septuplet phrasing, and polyrhythms – my favorites!
These were the most difficult pieces for those instruments I had ever done, and I was really on my own learning them for an audition. But long story short it went well. Got in, did my time, graduated, here we all are. Studying with the percussion teacher there was very beneficial to my own playing as well as for my solo project The Gathering Mist. I had written a piece which I wanted to feature fingerstyle acoustic guitar on, but it was a difficult part. The rest of the album was just about finished when I remembered that the one track still had programmed MIDI guitar scratch tracks on it – unacceptable for the finished product after so much work on everything else. Since my fingerstyle acoustic guitarist search came up dry, I said “screw it, I’ll just play it myself on marimba.”
At that point I was comfortable enough playing with 4 mallets, and the recording went pretty smoothly after a bit of practice. Hearing the playback of the two tracks on my first solo album, Rhythmic Epiphany and then on the one track from my second album Reservoir that feature the marimba, it made me a little more self-confident with my mallet playing. Proof that the best way to improve is to (practice a lot first) record yourself, listen back, and be your own biggest critic with regard to timing, tone, etc. The way I think about it is similar to voice-leading on 4-part choral-style music – Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass – you have 4 mallets, two in each hand – yes there’s 5 octaves worth of possible notes to play, but wherever your next note is, one of those four mallets is going to be closest to it, so you don’t have to work as hard as you would with only two mallets (this goes for linear playing only – thicker chordal textures have more notes, so yes more mallets.)
So I got more and more used to it, and ended up playing the huge 5-octave marimba with 4-mallets for two pieces in my senior recital (another piece only required 2 mallets but was WAY more difficult, go figure), as well as a few other pieces for other recitals here and there. My experience with the marimba happened at a good time too – right as I was getting into other forms of melodic percussion – especially the Kalimba and HAPI Drums.
Anyway, why I’m posting this: I ended up overcoming some difficulties I guess and now I’m proud enough of the results to include it on a few tracks for The Gathering Mist – Enjoy!
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