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Bass Drum Concerto


Also known as the la Grancassa, basstrommel, and la Grosse Caisse—which can literally be translated as ‘fat drum’ (or even ‘phat drum’)—the bass drum produces the lowest frequencies of the orchestra, and is used to create some of the most thunderous climaxes. It has never been considered as a ‘solo’ instrument or been given a concerto, and as it is un-pitched and (on the surface) seems quite a limited instrument, that isn’t surprising.

A concerto for bass drum is by no means a gimmick however, and there are firm reasons why it is deserving of such a work: the bass drum is one of the most ubiquitous instruments of our time. Wherever I go in London I hear bass drums thumping out of people’s car stereos, out of shops, and out of nightclubs and bars; the bass drum is everywhere. More often than not it is the first sound you hear when you approach a club or music event; in electronic dance music most producers obsess over the perfect bass-drum sound, and though it might drive you crazy when its pounding through your walls at 4am when your neighbours are having a party, it is one of the essential sounds of the 21st century.

In classical music the bass drum only gets occasional and simple use, but it has a serious range of sonic possibilities, and with some experimentation many sounds emerge: wooden ‘tocks’ and ‘clicks’ from hitting the rim of the drum; metallic snaps from striking the metal lugs; whale-like moans through to rubbing the skin with a wet finger or superball (or friction mallet). Hitting the skin itself can give so much variety depending on what type of mallet is used, where on the skin it is hit, how much the drum is dampened, and what extras (such as chains) are placed on the skin. This concerto easily evolved into four movements, all inspired by the range of sounds, colours and textures that the drum can produce, as well as the rhythms, beats, power and energy it can generate.

The orchestra’s role is equal to that of the drum, and of course they carry the harmony and melody, but the bass drum leads most of the melodic shapes. Joby Burgess can produce several clearly differentiated tones, with the bass drum marked to help consistency. There was a clear sense of musical journey for me in this concerto, drawn from the simple excitement of composing for a huge drum through to subconscious (and occasionally conscious) influences from the often tumultuous events (such as the riots in London, the Arab Spring) that happened across the world during its composition in 2011.

I. Lento scuro (Bass war)
The (usual) dampening is removed to reveal the bass drum’s full bass and power in a slow crescendo roll, followed by a sort of ‘bass-off’ between the drum and the low-end of the orchestra. After this a chain is placed on the drum to give a grimy, aggressive rumble (a dirty, metallic, snare effect), playing a ‘half-step’ groove. Finally the drum rotates to reveal a gut string from its centre, which is bowed to give a ‘lion’s roar’.

II. Largo mesto (In the Steppes)
The second movement is more contemplative, less dissonant with a slightly Russian, modal/minor feel. Joby uses only his hands for the entire movement: gently tapping it with his palms, fist and fingers; using thimbles on his fingers to create clicks and ticks on the rims and lugs. The second half freezes to an open, non-vibrato strings chord, over which Joby rubs the drum skin with a wet finger and a super-ball to create haunting moans and sub-bass tones.

III. Allegro moderato leggiero (Four to the floor)
A concerto for bass drum wouldn’t be complete without a section dedicated to the ubiquitous ‘thud thud thud thud’ beat of club music. Though rhythmically simple, the subtlety is found in the way Joby alters the dampening of the drum, starting completely dead (just like an electronic bass drum) before varying the tone. The orchestra play repetitive off-beat chords (based on a corrupted B minor chord), starting with straight eighth-notes before subtle varied triplets are introduced to play between a swinging and straight groove.

IV. Allegro brilliante (May speed)
This is a break-neck finale, in which Joby smacks the hell out of the drum with two wooden sticks (reminiscent of Japanese Taiko drumming), and the orchestra play a spiralling Hindemith-meets-hardcore continuously modulating melody.

The Bass Drum Concerto was commissioned by Princeton Symphony and the London Contemporary Orchestra (with support from the PRS Foundation for Music). It was premiered by Joby Burgess with Princeton Symphony, conducted by Rossen Milanov, in Princeton, New Jersey, USA, on 9 February 2012, with European Premier by Joby Burgess with the London Contemporary Orchestra, conducted by Hugh Brunt on 3 March 2012, as part of Reverb2012 festival at The Roundhouse, London, UK.

from notes by Gabriel Prokofiev © 2019


Prokofiev: Saxophone Concerto & Bass Drum Concerto
Studio Master: SIGCD584Download onlyStudio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available


Movement 1: Lento scuro (Bass war)
Movement 2: Largo mesto (In the Steppes)
Movement 3: Allegro moderato leggiero (Four to the floor)
Movement 4: Allegro brilliante (May speed)

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