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On this edition of Milestones of the Millennium we explore the history of percussion and its role in the orchestra. As central as percussion is in music, the percussion section was the last to take shape in the orchestra. We hear how this all transpired as the virtuoso percussion ensemble Nexus joins host Lisa Simeone in NPR’s Studio 4A. Nexus leads us on a rhythmic journey, with stops in Africa, India, Turkey, Europe and America.

The performance begins with a traditional tune from Zimbabwe called "Tongues," featuring the mbira, which is made out of tongues of metal. Also highlighted in this piece are the marimbula, the axatse, which is a gourd rattle, and a drum. Nexus also plays a dance from Ghana called "Kobina" on a family of drums commonly used in Ewe culture. Several of the group’s members studied these sophisticated West African rhythms during extended visits to the countries of origin.

We learn that timpani drums were adapted from Turkish and other Middle Eastern drum types, and were among the first percussion instruments used in European orchestras. As we hear, they appear prominently in the second movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The use of the snare drum for military purposes inspired its early appearances in orchestral compositions. Eventually, snare drums would be less recognized as symbolic of military concepts, as exemplified in Rossini’s use of two snare drums in the overture to the Thieving Magpie. Triangles and cymbals are also Turkish instruments that became all the rage in Europe in Mozart’s day. Amadeus employed them in his The Abduction from the Seraglio, which we hear performed by Nexus with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra.

In the 19th century, bells, xylophones, the glockenspiel and other melodic percussion instruments arrived in the orchestra. Later, American George Hamilton Green would be one of the first western musicians to demonstrate the full melodic potential of such percussion with his popular recordings in the 1920s. In NPR's Studio 4A, we hear Nexus play marimba and xylophone renditions of Green’s “Fluffy Ruffles,” “Spanish Waltz” and “Ragtime Robin.” The members of Nexus also share stories about the strangest percussion instruments they’ve every played, from steel I-beams and amplified cacti to pillows.

Listen as Lisa and Nexus explore the story and sounds of percussion, in this online feature from the Milestones of the Millenium series. Note: music parts have been edited from the commentary due to internet rights issues. (This audio segment requires the free RealPlayer 5.0 or higher. You can also listen with a 14.4 connection)

Milestones of the Millennium
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