The notion of timbre is frequently elusive. This is particularly the case for pieces in which melody or pitched material plays a large part. When listening to music, our ear naturally follows the melody, and we’re less inclined to focus on what is producing that melody. But in an all-percussion work, there is no melody. There is hardly any pitch. This forces the listener to concentrate on the subtle differences in sound between the various percussion instruments in order to ascertain how the work was organized.
Ionisaion, composed by Varese around 1930, uses thirteen percussionists and three dozen different percussion instruments. These range from bass drums to castanets to sirens, and Varese organizes them based on what they are made of (primarily metal, skin, and wood). If you don’t know what to listen for in this piece, and you’re not a percussionist, it can be hard to decipher exactly what’s going on. After all, even if you can identify a certain percussion instrument, what is it about the sound that you’re noticing that makes it different from another?
An Abbreviated Guide to Telling One Percussion Sound From Another: Instructions for Something We Usually Do Without Even Thinking About It
- Range: most percussion instruments can’t play the pitches on an even-tempered scale, but they do have a specific range of sounds they can achieve. Ex. Castanets are higher than bongos, which are higher than bass drums
- Envelope: how a sound changes over its duration, usually measured in frequency over time. Some sounds will start out loudly, then fade away very quickly, while others, like a gong, will increase from the initial attack before slowly decaying.
- Attack: the very initial sound that occurs. In percussion instruments, this is usually the primary part of the sound, as opposed to an instrument like a violin where the attack is just the slight crunch of bow hair on string before the tone is produced. This can be manipulated in percussion instruments by switching the type of mallet used.
So now you know why you’re hearing what you’re hearing, but how does that help in understanding this work? Ionisation can be broken down into three parts, and while the divisions I make may differ slightly from what some scholars have written (if you’re curious, see the Jean-Charles Francois article on Ionisation), I do share some of their ideas on how the work is structured. In this brief analysis I draw from Francois’s article in particular.
Part One: 0:00-2:40
Aspects that define this section include a clean rhythmic line and alternation between instruments made of metal and those of skin, while sustained sounds play in the background. I hear this as almost a conversation between the various instruments—they each take what the first has “said” and build upon or answer it.
Part Two: 2:40-5:00
This section is decidedly more chaotic and rhythmically complex as it has many more lines and ideas occurring at once. Additionally, it includes a lot of references to city life, and in parts I hear sirens wailing, horses clomping down the street and the general bustle of modern life.
Part Three: 5:00-end
Here, the majority of the pitched percussion instruments are introduced for the first time. Snippets of ideas that were heard earlier return, but I hear a great sense of finality in this section. I attribute that to the “bell tolling” sounds and the use of the gong.
I’m not a percussionist and I know little about these instruments, but the more I listened to this work, the more I appreciated and enjoyed it. I hope you will, too!