Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Cymbals, Triangle, Bass Drum... Ruthe

(All of this will eventually be tied in to the Ottoman empire and contemporary American attitudes toward Islam.)

For the last couple years I've been assisting my friend Ryan in the percussion section of an amateurs-and-professionals orchestra based in San Mateo. Now, I'm a clarinetist by training (pretty good one, too) but this is the sort of orchestra where most of the winds double as treasurers and lawyers for the organization- in other words, the terms 'open clarinet spot' and 'obituary' are closely related. So, with this ensemble, it's the percussion life for me.

I've gotten okay at it, too. Sticking your neck out to play a clarinet solo in orchestra takes some nerve, and that mindset isn't so different from the spirit required to really commit to a big cymbal crash or ultra-precise little triangle tingggg. I mention this not to imply that I'm some kind of learning prodigy (%95 of what makes me a competent percussionist is years learning to count rests in youth orchestras), but because percussion's a weird field with lots of poseurs floating around. The size of a percussion section fluctuates widely, from the single timpanist required for early works to, say, ten people for especially clangorous contemporary pieces. As a result, you meet lots of itinerant subs and 'guest' percussionists of different backgrounds and skill levels.

There are: drummers who play well but can barely read sheet music, music theater pit-dwellers with van-loads of synthesizers and portable timpani, ultra-competent former youth symphony personnel with their old kit bags of pristine mallets, bearded (almost always bearded, for some reason) quasi-professionals who act pissy in order to advertise that they're a little too good for amateur orchestras...etc etc.

Anyway, last year we did Mahler 2, a piece that called for ruthe in the bass drum part. Nobody in our immediate section knew what this meant, and it wasn't mentioned in my orchestration books. Little things like this, I think, are what make someone into a seasoned musician- it's only by rattling around the concert demimonde for a while that you end up being asked to learn what a ruthe is.

The answer is suitably exotic and charming. In the Ottoman empire, the armies of the Sultan - white-turbaned Janissaries with sabers and picturesque moustaches - were accompanied on the march by military bands. These comprised crashing cymbals, big triangles (with rings on them to jingle), and a huge Turk whacking a bass drum- he'd have a conventional bass drum beater in one hand and a ruthe in the other. This traditional ruthe was a bundle of straight birch twigs, bound at one end like a sort of cross between a fasces and a little broom. The Turks would hit it against the head or rim of the drum to make a good loud rattly THWACK to contrast with the BOOM on alternating beats.

The Sultan marched his armies up the Balkan peninsula - crashing and jingling and thwacking - to treat the citizens of Vienna to authentic Turkish martial music for much of 1683. Now, you'd think that things that were Ottoman would be held in low esteem by the Austrians after this, but somehow the opposite happened: Turkish music got to be the fashion among the upper classes. An imperial aristocrat might, for instance, give the ultra-lavish gift of a full Turkish orchestra to another noble in order to cement an alliance, and it's a safe bet that Mozart and Haydn heard their share of weirdly-tuned Ottoman lutes and zithers. What really made an impression, though, were those cymbals and bass drums, and 18th century composers soon integrated these into theater orchestras.

I had never known this. There are lots of weird little details to performance practice that, for one reason or another, don't really get passed down. In traditional 18th century percussion notation, for instance, a downward stem in a bass drum part indicated a conventional beater but an upward stem is meant to be played with the ruthe hand. This sonority - much neutered today because of the smallness of contemporary ruthes - would presumably make the end of of Haydn's military symphony a good deal more exotic and clattery than what ends up on the recordings.

Anyway, Mahler apparently felt a good deal of ruthe nostalgia, for whatever reason. In the second symphony he asks for crescendoing ruthe rolls and mechanical ticka-ticka-ticka rhythms that sound like dry bones. The problem, as I said, is that contemporary ruthe are little things, about a foot long, intended to be used as clumsy brushes on snare drums. The Ottoman ruthe was a baseball bat by comparison.

Inspired, I set out to make my own, sneaking around suburban neighborhoods at night to steal twigs from likely birch trees. This was a bust, unfortunately, resulting in one massive (three foot long) ruthe and four fragile little ones of delicate, flexible twigs that would only produce a rustle rather than a good Ottoman thwack. The twigs in the big ruthe weren't straight enough to get an nice, even rattle, making me think that contemporary percussion technology has lost some vital lore necessary for ruthe creation.

It's interesting, though, that these percussion instruments aren't usually remembered as contribution to Western culture that came from the former imperial bastion of Islam. Long European centuries of fascination with the 'oriental' Turk and Arab have been replaced today with a vague anxiety best exemplified by the charming American expression: "Religion of peace, my ass!"

I've been reading an account of life in Constantinople by an English naval officer named Spry, written between 1895 and 1905 when English imperialism was at its zenith. It's a great book - Constantinople is presented through a series of vignettes and visits to historic sites, all lavishly illustrated on vellum plates overlaid with onionskin. Spry visits a religious service of dervishes, dons a fez to sneak through a holy cemetery, bargains for embroidery with Armenians in the bazaar, peruses the treasury of the old seraglio, and frequently takes detours to relate (with Edwardian aplomb) the Roman and Islamic history of the city.

Consider, though, this passage about a religious service during the 'holy month of Ramazan' in the Hagia Sophia:

'The only emblems of the conquerors displayed are six huge shields, bearing, in golden letters on a dark green ground, the names of God and His Prophet and of the first four Caliphs. / The real monument which they have raised to the Most High is the imperishable faith of a patient, long-suffering people who give to their God, not the child-like tender piety of the Christian devotee, but the fierce, passionate devotion of a clansman towards his chief. / When the last prayer is over and the Imaum has once more sent forth his shout - "Allah, Akbar!" - then the pent-up torrent of enthusiasm is let loose, and from some thousands of throats there peals forth a wild kind of shout, "Allah, Akbar! Allah, Allah!" the breath of their very souls.'

What strikes me most is Spry's sympathy. He doesn't condescend to Islam or accuse the worshippers of unhealthy fanaticism. Paradoxically, by finding the picture exotic he's approaching the culture on its own terms. Also, it's hard not to be amused by the 'child-like tender piety of the Christian devotee'- the Evangelical Christainty of today's America seems much, much closer to the 'fierce, passionate devotion of a clansman towards his chief.'


Blogger sfmike said...

If you're in a Muslim-loving mood, try reading T.E. Lawrence's "Seven Pillars of Wisdom" or explorer/linguist Richard Burton's translation of "The Arabian Nights." They are both wild, respectful and awesome looks at "exotic" Arab culture. I read both of them young enough that all the recent demonizing of the "islamofascists" has struck me as absurd on their face.

As for your musicological history lesson and sociological interpretation of percussionists in Northern California amateur orchestras, you're awesome, Trevor.

7:36 AM  
Blogger Trevor Murphy said...

I've actually read the Burton but not the Lawrence. (Well, not the giant 10 volume Burton- I started that but the sheer mass of it scared me off). I like books in that 'orientalist' vein very much, though, since even though they kinda sensationalize their subject matter (i.e. it's more fun to talk about harems than tax systems), they don't strip away the things that make the culture unique. I hate the way a lot of anthropology boils culture down to abtractions like 'reciprocity as a mean of reinforcing friendship bonds'.

I don't know if you're in a muslim-loving mood yourself, but if you like the Nights you might want to check out Irwin's 'The Arabian Night Companion', which is a really good an interesting book about the culture that produced the stories and how they were used in Arab culture, how they were passed down, etc.

11:03 AM  
Blogger sfmike said...

I actually read 6 out of the 10 Burton volumes. There was a great original set with the original lithographs at the Mechanics Institute Libary when I used to be a member. I stopped at some point when I heard there was a curse on anyone actually finishing the tales (after reading enough of the tales you start believing those stories).

I'll check out the Irwin. Thanks for the tip. Oh, and and do read Thesiger, the nutty British character who hung out with the Bedouins in Saudi Arabia in the early part of the 20th century. He wrote a couple of great books about the treks across no-man's land that were totally "exotic."

8:24 PM  
Blogger Daniel Wolf said...

For your Rute (the current spelling), you probably could use a handful of 1/8" birch dowels from your local hardware store. Here in central Europe, birch switches are still everyday items, especially as brooms. If you want to maintain a rustic look to your switches, a good substitute in California might be weaping willow -- although the switches are hollow, they are strong and flexible (they're still used in Fachwerk houses), and are sometimes used here for brooms as well.

6:33 AM  
Blogger Trevor Murphy said...

I've been meaning to go down to the lumber store for just that reason! The willow switches seem like a good idea, too, but after my first rute (I hate giving up that extra 'h' for some reason) expedition I've come to the conclusion that you need a pretty big grove of trees to find enough switches of the right size and shape.

1:00 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home