Look closely at a big symphony orchestra, and tucked away at the back behind the horns you’ll see a strange menagerie of noise-making objects. Some of them, like the marimba and tubular bells, will seem familiar. But many will not. There may be curious beasts with odd names that make strange, evocative sounds — Burmese temple gongs, cow bells, log drums, Chinese cymbals, bull-roarers, bell-trees, bird whistles.
This is the percussion section. It’s often referred to as “the kitchen sink department”. There’s more than a hint of condescension in that phrase, a suggestion that while proper instruments make notes, percussion can only summon up sounds.
But in the past 20 years or so there’s been a not-so-quiet revolution in the status of percussion. A new generation of virtuoso performers has sprung up, determined to show the world that these instruments can be as genuinely musical as any other sort. Inspired by them, composers are starting to write concertos for percussion and orchestra, and some of these have already attained near-classic status, with hundreds of performances around the world.
One of the best-known of these players is the Scottish percussionist Colin Currie. If his action-packed schedule is anything to go by, the field of percussion music is in rude health.