This semester I’m working with some of WP’s most advanced percussion students on Xenakis’s seminal percussion ensemble masterpiece Persephassa. It’s a big piece—at least 25 minutes—with a lot of instruments and many intricate sections. We get together every Saturday for at least two hours and hammer away at it.
The rehearsals are enjoyable. The guys in the band are always on time, have their set ups built, and play well. We work hard and we’re making good progress. Xenakis’s drumming music is physical in a way that is familiar to us percussionists who grew up on rudimental and drum set playing and in that regard it is a natural fit for the students. Nonetheless, questions come up. Sometimes students ask me why we put so much effort into music that is so difficult and so few people appreciate. It’s a valid question; after all, we’re consuming all sorts of resources when we rehearse and perform music, resources that some might argue are better spent supporting other activities that are more obviously beneficial to society. And if we’re not reaching a big audience then are we really communicating anything? Are we doing nothing more than just stroking our own egos? Is this just art for art’s sake?
But music is about more than communication. It’s also about transformation. We are transforming ourselves by tackling a big, difficult piece like this. You can’t go into something like Persephassa with a casual attitude. It requires you to take a big breath, muster up a good deal of courage, and really dig in. The hours are long, and the work is slow and often tedious. It goes on for months and months and at the end of it there will likely only be about fifty people in the audience. Is it worth it?
It is. Because at some point as we get closer to the performance we realize that we can do it. We can play the piece! What at first seemed overwhelming and insurmountable becomes possible. And in that moment of realization we are transformed. We are better percussionists of course, but we’re also better people. We’re mentally stronger, emotionally richer, and our concentration has deepened. And we take these skills into every other area of our life and in turn inspire other people to push beyond their perceived limitations. This may seem like hyperbole, but in fact learning difficult music makes the world a better place.