fffade away…?

Written by: Colin Anderson

75 years of percussion ensemble music is explored at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama. Richard Benjafield explains more…

Richard Benjafield is about to host a celebratory weekend – 75 years of percussion music, ‘…fffade away…?’, the title cued by Richard “wondering how far classical values might fade away from learning percussion; and a lot of percussion just fades away: you hear it, it’s gone.” This showcase for the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, where Richard teaches, has “grown out of doing research projects into percussion ensembles and looking into their history, which is not well documented; we’re fairly careless in this country about history.” The world of percussion is a large and diverse one. Richard himself, a virtuoso and versatile percussionist, “started at the age of 13, inspired by people playing in orchestras, moved on to contemporary music, inspired by Japanese performers, and went to Ghana in 1990; it framed a large part of the canvas.”

And a big picture is on display for the ‘…fffade away…?’ weekend. “In the 19th-century, percussion was just used for colour. Percussionists came into their own in the 20th century, the 1910s really, when they started taking part in the language of a piece. From the 1930s, discoveries were made outside of Europe and experimental composers such as Varèse, Henry Cowell (an inspiring figure) and John Cage took percussion to new dimensions. This festival focuses on really good art music rather than just music for drummers to play.” Saturday evening (at 7 o’clock) is devoted to ‘American Pioneers and Experimentalists’, which includes Steve Reich’s Drumming and the UK premiere of music by Johanna Magdalena Beyer; “she was cold-shouldered in her lifetime and neglected straight afterwards.”

Richard says that although percussion “was institutionalised into American universities, which fed into Europe, we’ve never really taken it seriously in this country. So at the Guildhall School we’ve been researching into the old repertoire and making connections – such as between Ghanaian drumming, some of the oldest music, and Steve Reich.” All this will help feed the Guildhall School’s courses. “We’re not passing down tradition and saying this is how it is; we’re enabling people to release their potential and trying to make sense of the classical music heritage, African drumming, and the art music of the 1930s and 40s.”

The ‘…fffade away…?’ weekend is a “gathering point of research and learning as well as acknowledging students’ enthusiasms.” On Sunday, at 11.30, you can bring your own drum for a spot of African Drumming (for performance at 4.30; e-mail Richard at fffadeaway@benjafield.demon.co.uk to join) and there are numerous events during the day. “Three Strange Angels is a duo, one of them being me, with a piece for sleeping percussionists; we have our eyes shut and give our cues by nudging and kicking. There’s also Philip Glass’s Lullaby for two wines glasses, upbeat salsa-type music, and new music with a happy outlook.”

Percussion isn’t just moronic beats and mindless repetition (pop music, previews and reality programmes!) or, being even-handed, what can be the boorish crash-bang-wallop of contemporary concertos. “There are so many variables in writing for percussion; some of the personality concertos have fallen down because they were used for someone to play loud and fast leaving the orchestra with the best lines.” All the events of ‘…fffade away…?’ are free and require no booking. Richard promises “big variety and a global experience with plenty of entertainment.”

  • ‘…fffade away…?’ – January 28 & 29, Guildhall School
  • GSMD
  • The above article was published in “What’s On in London” on 26 January 2006 and is reproduced here with permission

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