Review Summary: The Greatest Drum Solo Ever
It goes without saying that in our modern world melody prevails over rhythm. This stems from the popularity of the generic pop and rock music that almost always relies on a simple beat in order not to distract from the storytelling, as well as human preference for a repetitive catchy hook that drives the song. Even in prog circles, rhythms tend to stay fairly straightforward, with beats either stacked or subdivided to give the music a more complex feel. After all, if everyone can work out that 2+2 = 4 it doesn’t mean that 2+3 = 5 is complex maths. Again, polyrhythms now feature prominently in ‘progressive’ music, but have been a jazz staple for generations, appearing regularly in African traditional drumming as well as Indian classical music. For hundreds of years Eastern music was arguably the apex of what can truly be deemed ‘rhythmical complexity’. The 20th century changed all that.
In the West there have always been artists who attempted to break away from the formulaic patterns that dominate mainstream music, with varying degrees of success. In the past experimentation was mainly the domain of forward thinking classical composers, the best known being Edgar Varèse, whose musical tinkering paved the way for what was to become ‘electronic’ music. But before descending into a dark maze of electrons and circuitry and revolutionizing contemporary music he composed several pieces that were ground breaking rather than world shattering. Perhaps the most famous of these pieces, and definitely the most notorious, was the ensemble percussion piece Ionisation
Requiring thirteen players and a colossal forty instruments, this was (and perhaps still is), the greatest homage to rhythm Western music has seen. This was the first time such exclusive focus was given to timbre, texture and density over harmony and melody, and the results are astounding. It takes a few listens for the ear to accustom itself to the aural onslaught, and another dozen to appreciate the bizarre interlocking jigsaw underneath. Fittingly, during rehearsals the percussion players of the New York Philharmonic orchestra was incapable of performing Ionisation
; Varèse had to recruit a super group of composers to execute the absurdly complex rhythmic shifts.
Nowadays, with the advent of the computer age programming, it seems that any 2 bit computer musician can drop ludicrously complex rhythms at the touch of a button. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s worth remembering where it all began. It goes without saying that Ionisation
, along with The Rite of Spring
, is the most rhythmically influential piece of modern times.
For the wild haired Frenchman it was, of course, just the base of the musical mountain he had set his mind upon conquering. The summit, shrouded by violent electric storms and tempests of sound, lay just ahead.