I’m writing a ballet for six percussionists. Instrumentation is a big hurdle. I’m writing for six percussionists, which isn’t specific at all. It could be like the percussion section for a romantic-era symphony, with snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, xylophone, tambourine/triangle, and timpani. It could be like six Broadway style percussion sections, full of sound effects and “color” instruments. It could be like the front ensemble of a marching band, with two marimbas, two vibraphones, a “rack” player, and timpani.
It’s kind of a mix of those, and unintentionally so. I’ll discuss my process for selecting the instrumentation.
I intuitively decided to create a sound-pallet for each of the leads, based on melodic and rhythmic fragments I already have in mind for each character, as well as some instruments that can be used to convey certain characteristics. It looks like this:
Aiyanna – I xylophone; II xylophone; III snare drum (snares off); IV woodlbocks; V 2 triangles, shaker; VI tambourine
Heka’atikwe – I xylophone (w/ dowels); II xylophone (w/ dowels), cabasa; III wood shaker, wooden-shell rattle, caxixi; IV daf, woodblocks; V daf, bass drum, bongos, tam tam (w/ superball mallet, cardboard tube, med. rubber mallets, hard xylophone mallet, heavy mallet); VI timpani (w/ standard mallets, w/ superball mallets), kokiriko
Kowané – I med and low toms, china cymbal; II shekere; III bass drum, floor tom; IV marimba; V bongos, 2 tam-tams; VI hand drum w/med. mallet
Clemence – I glockenspiel; II glockenspiel; III vibraphone, snare drum (w/ brushes), sus. cymbal; IV tambourine, ride cymbal; V bass drum, triangle; VI timpani
Ezra – I snare drum; II djembe, pandeiro; III snare drum; IV hi-hat, crash cymbals; V bass drum, floor tom; VI timpani
As you can see, it’s a mix of standard instruments, a few world instruments, and some sound effects. I’m also doing a sound pallet for the incidental music (“Nightfall” and “The Storm”) but I’m going to approach those differently. The instrumentation for those will use whatever is already available from the character sound-pallets, which is a pretty broad list to choose from. I’ll probably tackle those pieces second to last. The overture will almost certainly be the last thing I do. Here’s the current instrument/player list:
- Percussion I – glockenspiel, xylophone (+ dowels), snare drum, toms (med and low), china cymbal, frame drum
- Percussion II – glockenspiel, xylophone (+ dowels), djembe, pandeiro, shekere, cabasa, frame drum
- Percussion III – vibraphone, snare drum, bass drum, floor tom, wood shaker, wooden-shell rattle, caxixi, sus. Cymbal, frame drum
- Percussion IV – marimba, woodblocks (hi, med, low), tambourine, hi-hat, crash cymbals, ride cymbal, large frame drum (daf, 18”-20”)
- Percussion V – frame drum, bass drum, bongos, floor tom, 2 tam-tams, 2 triangles (different timbres), tambourine, shaker, superball mallet, cardboard tube, med rubber mallets, hard xylophone mallet, large frame drum (daf, 18” – 20”)
- Percussion VI – timpani, superball mallets, tambourine, hand drum w/ mallet, frame drum
- wind machine, thunder sheet, two whip cracks, guiro (or merengue guiro), sleigh bells, guitar (w/ dowel rods), cowbell, tubular bells, mark tree, brake drum
61 individual instruments and counting. Who’s even going to perform this thing?!