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Percussion music

Australian music for percussion

In the 1930s and '40s, the Melbourne-born composer Percy Grainger was busy writing orchestral works, often utilising up to 10 percussionists performing ‘tuneful percussion’ (mostly mallet instruments). Slightly later, Peggy Glanville-Hicks was another early champion of percussion music, featuring much original-sounding percussion in her orchestral compositions. Fast-forward to 1971 and the Australian tour of Les Percussions de Strasbourg resulted in commissions from Peter Sculthorpe and Barry Conyngham. The mid-1970s saw the creation of the Australian Percussion Ensemble (Melbourne) as well as the formation of Synergy Percussion (Sydney), leading to a flurry of collaborative work between composers and percussionists.

A great deal of change and development has occurred in the decades since. During my studies at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music in the mid-1990s, there were relatively few Australian percussion solos to choose from, and almost none by female composers. Michael Askill had recorded a number of works on his Australian Anthology CD – these included Ross Edwards’s famous Marimba Dances, and Nigel Westlake’s Fabian Theory, which requires digital delay to realise in performance. 

While the percussion ensemble scene was extremely active during the early 1990s, the commissioning of solo works came to the fore from the early 2000s, with numerous new works commissioned by myself in Sydney, Vanessa Tomlinson (Brisbane), Eugene Ughetti and Peter Neville (Melbourne), Louise Devenish (Perth), and others. 

The following list of works by Australian composers is a broad cross-section featuring a range of instrumental line-ups (including for vibraphone, marimba, multi-percussion and several with the use of voice), and a genuinely Australian stamp to the sound worlds, as well as a sense of openness, enquiry and fun.   

Our community is currently keeping a close eye on gender equity in the commissioning and programming of solo percussion works - of this list of 19 works, seven are by female-identifying composers - and likewise prioritising the development and proliferation of works by First Nations artists, including rapper, drummer and composer Rhyan Clapham, whose work for snare drum and tape is included on this list of representative works.


Claire Edwardes (July 2020) in cooperation with the AMC.
For information about the list compiled by Peter Neville, and earlier displayed on this page, please get in touch.


Representative works

  Work Notes
Digital sheet music sample Drum Dreamer (2019) by Rhyan ClaphamRhyan Clapham, AKA Dobby is a rapper, drummer and composer, whose family is from Brewarrina on Ngemba land. Drum Dreamer is based on a poem by Rhyan, recited by him via tape while a snare drum solo is performed live. The performer also has to scream out in unison with Rhyan throughout, ‘is that where you put your little dumb lyrics and that?’ The work is catchy with a pertinent message for young people.
Soundscapes (1983) by Richard MillsA musically vibrant percussion concerto celebrating a huge array of instruments scattered across the front of the stage. Written for the composer himself to perform, it features mallet instruments alongside drums and more unusual percussion, and showcases the percussionist very successfully.
For marimba and tape (1983) by Martin Wesley-SmithProbably the most performed work for marimba by an Australian composer and a classic on the international scene. It’s also remarkable for the composer’s use of early digital samples featuring the Australian-developed Fairlight CMI (Computer Musical Instrument).
Coil (1996) by Gerard BrophyA work for solo vibraphone inspired by Brophy’s teacher Franco Donatoni (and his solo vibraphone work Omar) in its frenzied style. The piece combines repetitive gestures which keep returning in slightly different combinations and formats - a tour de force for the vibraphone.
Composition in blue, grey and pink (1993) by Andrew FordThis solo multi-drum work has become a core repertoire work, unique in its free instrumentation, dynamics and stick choice. The work celebrates the percussionists own interpretation and open instrument choice and is a great vehicle for musical as well as rhythmic development.
Celestial dance (1998) by Jane StanleyThis duo for marimba and congas is effective for its ‘maninyas' style of catchy marimba writing. And early work by Stanley, it utilises the congas as an accompanying rhythmic force and is an extremely effective chamber work for this unusual combination.
More marimba dances (2004) by Ross EdwardsWritten 22 years after the original Marimba Dances, this solo extends the instrumentation of marimba with percussion including temple blocks, crotales and guiro. It was written on the request of Claire Edwardes who had had the original Marimba Dances in her repertoire since high school and felt the world needed another catchy percussion solo from Edwards.
Clockwork lemon (2007) by Stuart GreenbaumThis snare drum and hi-hat solo was written for the MSO’s Snare Drum competition in 2007. It is an exploration of rhythmic ratios including standard syncopations as well as some more unusual ones which can sound somewhat ‘wrong’ - this is the 'lemon' factor. The irony is that in order to capture this essence of 'wrong' they have to be played with clockwork precision, hence the title Clockwork Lemon (as well as being a reference to the famous film by Stanley Kubrick).
Digital sheet music sample Golden kitsch (2009) by Elena Kats-CherninGolden Kitsch is one of only a handful of percussion concertos by Australian female composers. Written for Claire Edwardes and Sydney Youth Orchestra, it has been performed all over Australia. The work celebrates the kitschy golden tourist objects found in Vienna and showcases sound worlds unique to Kats-Chernin, including the waterphone, multiple toy pianos, bells and singing from the orchestra.
Flash (2008) by Matthew HindsonOriginally written for xylophone, this is an adaptation for 2 mallets on marimba. Just over 4 minutes in length, Flash is a very fast, virtuosic showpiece, continually changing between regular sets of repeated notes and arpeggios, and cadenza like ‘explosions' across the marimba. Hints of singing melodies briefly emerge, only to be put back in their place by the hyperactive rhythmic figures.
Hi Hat and Me (2010) by Matthew ShlomowitzA quirky solo for hi-hat and vocals written for Edwardes. Throughout the piece the performer is directed to tell a story from 'when they were seven’, imitate four animal sounds and three military sounds all performed in a dead-pan manner. The counting which opens the piece is reminiscent of Shlomowitz’s Letter Pieces.
Digital sheet music sample Self Accusation (2014) by Kate NealSelf Accusation was written for Vanessa Tomlinson's epic 8 HITS project, and based on Peter Handke's first three plays - Offending the Audience, Self-Accusation, and Prophecy - Sprechstücke (literally, speaking pieces). The plays examine the power and banality of public and private speech as does the solo itself.
Glocken blocken by Amanda ColeSomewhat inspired by the unique Australian sounding marimba gestures of Ross Edwards, this solo for marimba has a microtonal edge to it, thanks to the inclusion of tuned Swiss cowbells (Almglocken). The 5-octave marimba combines seamlessly with the Almglocken throughout (notated with cross noteheads) creating a unique Australian solo for our time.
Spel (game) by Kate MooreWritten for Perth percussionist Louise Devenish, Coral Speak is a percussion suite of laments and playful dances in homage to the fragility of the Great Barrier Reef. The vibraphone movement ‘Spel’ is a particular favourite and can be performed in its own right. Its swirling repetitive rhythms are very satisfying to perform.
An Elemental Thing (2017) by Liza LimCommissioned by Speak Percussion’s Artistic Director Eugene Ughetti, this work delves into the highly varied sound worlds of a simple large wood block. It is played with fingers, bowed, rubbed, struck, pitch bent, knitting needles, superball, and more. The work is over 14 minutes in length and is quite possibly the longest work in the repertoire for solo woodblock!
Raqad II (2018) by Paul Stanhope‘Raqad’ is an ancient Hebrew word which has the connotation of both leaping and dancing. Both of these elements are present in this work for two marimbas where there is a frequent use of wide intervallic leaps as well as quirky dance rhythms which often dissolve and transform.
Digital sheet music sample Electors of Middlemarch (2017) by Elizabeth YounanA drum solo (hi hat, snare drum, bongos, toms, kick bass drum) set to Mr Brooke’s political speech from George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871). Soloist vocalises and plays simultaneously, often to comical effect. Mr Brooke’s stream-of-consciousness, although delivered with good intentions, is humorously incoherent. In 3 sections, the work explores the different relationships between the voice and percussion.
Falling Embers (2020) by Ella MacensFalling Embers utilises a mixture of bowing and 4 mallets technique as well as different combinations of mallet hardnesses. This highly idiomatic piece, which came out of a highly collaborative approach between the composer and performer, was composed as a meditation for peace and relief from the fires that raged across the Australian landscape in the summer of 2019-20.
Digital sheet music sample Temple (2015) by Michael SmetaninSimply utilising the 5 temple blocks that typically come in a set, this short, showy and striking work features driving rhythmic figures, a free cadenza section and a physical percussive energy to the very end.

Broader categories of Percussion music