Percussion literature has an extremely brief history, and in 2019 it might not be the literature that is getting less and less attention. I think it's the playing.
One thing you may have noticed about the current state of percussion ensemble music at PASIC, Competitions, and Universities is that it has become less and less about the instruments, and more and more about shocking people. Anytime you listen to a Senior Recital from a well regarded University you see students playing works that seem to achieve three purposes.
1. Be so incredibly elementary in tonality and digestable to the audience that it is hard to distinguish from a Nickelback song.
2. Require gimmick instrumentation like kindergarten hand bells, whirly tubes, and kazoos.
3. Lastly using the utmost ridiculous theme to SHOCK the audience with the next ridiculous move like throwing coffee cans off the stage and laughing or playing a piece with no shirt slapping your cheeks senselessly.
Okay...I enjoy a simple and easy to think about marimba solo with woodblock accompaniment every so often. It is hard not to like the latest mind bending polyrhythm inventions from Casey Cangelosi, and we ALL have heard of and enjoyed joking about the latest YPG recording of students practically achieving slapstick comedy on stage. There are a lot of GREAT pieces out there that fit the bill for these stereotypes. The greater point lies beneath however. Why is modern percussion trying so hard? Personally from someone who has watched thousands of arrangements of Over the Rainbow for marimba, hundreds of performances of Stop Speaking, and himself launched coffee cans and bird whistles at the audience while laughing maniacally for Percussion 3 at the Percussion Ensemble concert in my undergraduate.( I was closer than ever to launching my solo comedy career that night)
It is the PLAYERS rather than the composer who have driven this strange evolution.
“To play a wrong note is insignificant; to play without passion is inexcusable.”
― Ludwig van Beethoven
Perhaps one of the greatest quotes from a musician in regards to performance excellence. Players today in the percussion world have abandoned this idea instead opting for what seems to be a bland technical, straight edge, note focused waste of a performance for both the student and the audience. Of course notes are important, but if a performance does not say something, a great disservice to the audience and composer has been done. We are all probably guilty of this, playing a piece we were forced to, didn't have enough time with, or is above their playing ability; but awareness is the key to change.
Endless streams of un-inspiring performance practice and teaching has caused standard literature to become bland in the eyes of percussionists, causing composers and players to go to the absolute extremes just to get attention in the community. Works that explore new sounds and ideas are always welcome in my eyes, but for the works that have a rich history and the new works that don't seek to push the boundaries with instrumental gimmicks and overly simplified content, there must be a change in the way music is shown and taught to students entering the field down the line. After all, studying music at a University of Conservatory is about adapting students to creativity and much less about students learning thousands of sixteenth notes that are meaningless in the real musical world.
Joshua Albert is a freelance musician, theory teacher, and business owner in Central Florida.