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Percussion music

Australian music for percussion

An early champion of percussion in Australia, Percy Grainger created his own instruments, wrote a series of works for 'tuneful percussion' and included major parts for percussion in his orchestral and chamber works. Today, a wealth of Australian composers and composer-players have followed suit and embraced percussion: the repertory ranges from sleigh bell and side drum solos to concertos and large-scale community drumming projects.

A key moment was the arrival of Synergy Percussion and its commissioning program in the early 1970s, although there had been various pockets of activity around the country before then, including John Seal’s Australian Percussion Ensemble. Important figures in Synergy have included Michael Askill, Colin Piper, Richard Miller and Ian Cleworth (who also leads the Japanese drumming group TaikOz). Former member Ian Bloxsom was influential through his work with jazz/rock fusion pioneers 'Crossfire', while Graeme Leak is active in Melbourne as an innovative composer/performer/percussionist.

In recent years a number of other groups have formed and added to the percussive diversity: Karak Duo (TaikOz members Kerryn Joyce and Kevin Mann), Match Percussion (Alison Eddington and Daryl Pratt), Neville Talbot’s Tetrafide Percussion in Perth and Eugene Ughetti’s Speak Percussion in Melbourne. Tertiary institutions have active percussion programs and ensembles, and many key performers have attachments to these: Vanessa Tomlinson, Tim White, Daryl Pratt, Gary France, Gary Wain, Peter Neville (not to forget their many predecessors, including Richard Smith, Barry Quinn, Michael Askill and Jim Bailey). Performance opportunities with Australian orchestras have given exposure to fine soloists such as Alison Eddington and Claire Edwardes.

Australia is also home to many percussionists from around the world who specialise on instruments from their countries of origin. There are also many fine mallet improvisers and influential jazz drummers, including David Jones, Andrew Gander and Tony Buck.


This introduction and the representative list of percussion works have been compiled by Peter Neville in cooperation with the Australian Music Centre.


Representative works

  Work Notes
Digital sheet music sample Speed of sound (1983) by Michael Smetaninthis work for four percussionists (drumkit solo with ensemble) is a great example of Smetanin’s energetic and muscular writing.
Marimba dances (1982) by Ross EdwardsOne of the few Australian percussion works to become widely known internationally, this three-movement solo marimba work is finely crafted and very idiomatic, and shows Edwards's contrasting 'dance (Maninya)' and 'sacred' styles.
Beginnings to no end (1999) by Dominik KarskiNotable for the strength of its ideas and characterisations and some wonderful polyrhythmic writing.
For marimba and tape (1983) by Martin Wesley-SmithOne of the most prominent Australian works for this combination and of historic importance for its use of marimba samples, manipulated on the Australian-developed Fairlight Computer Musical Instrument, the first commercially-available digital sampler.
Coil (1996) by Gerard BrophyA work for solo vibraphone, notable for its immediately identifiable voice and as an example of Brophy’s ability to develop and weave his compositional ideas.
Composition in blue, grey and pink (1993) by Andrew FordThis solo multi-drum work is something of an industry standard. Notable for its open instrumentation, dynamics and stick choice, as well as its interesting metric modulations, this work lends itself to infinite interpretations.
Digital sheet music sample Quête (1984) by Richard David HamesAs yet unplayed, this landmark work (solo multi-percussion) is based on the rituals of the English 'mummers' and requires enormous player virtuosity as well as a developed acting ability from the performer.
Beat generation in the California coastal ranges by Warren BurtA wonderfully simple idea, and one of the most interesting works of a generation. Burt pairs the solo vibraphone with a CD of sine waves to produce beautiful and mysterious frequency beatings, which hover in the air.
Soundscapes (1983) by Richard MillsA strong concerto, written for the composer himself to perform. It features the various families of percussion instruments pitted against Mills's typically brilliant orchestration.
Omphalo centric lecture (1984) by Nigel WestlakeOne of the most widely played percussion quartets in the world and deservedly so, for its wonderful African balafon-inspired writing and for one of the most arresting openings of a percussion piece in the repertory.
Beyond status geometry (1994) by Chris DenchA work for four percussionists which achieved notoriety for its initial 'unplayability'. It uses an advanced rhythmic language and an astonishing timbral array and is built on a unique tri-partite rhythmic/formal substructure.
 And Now for the News by Leak, GraemeOne of the most loved pieces in the catalogue for solo multi-percussion, Leak’s work ingeniously metricates the voices of Vietnamese news readers over a backing track and provides a road-map for the performer to create their own reading.

Broader categories of Percussion music