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Open Access Publications from the University of California

The Composite Instrument: Pitch, Percussion, and Instrumental Transformation in Michael Colgrass’s d?j? vu | Symphony for Percussion Quartet and Wind Ensemble

  • Author(s): French, Daniel Edward
  • Advisor(s): Krouse, Ian
  • Lefkowitz, David S
  • et al.

Volume I:

Michael Colgrass’s d?j? vu is one composer’s attempt at rejuvenation of the orchestral medium, yielding intriguing but limited results. The work, for percussion quartet and orchestra, reimagines the role of percussion in the orchestra in three fundamental ways. First Colgrass, expands the percussion and places the quartet at the head of the stage to equalize sonic power with the orchestra. Second, Colgrass uses instrumental and orchestrational techniques to strengthen the pitch content of traditionally ‘unpitched’ percussion and, third, treats the percussion as equal partners in motivic transactions. The monograph begins with a discussion of sound and auditory perception and a cataloguing of terminology before proceeding to a discussion of organology. The concept of the ‘composite instrument’ as a tool of orchestrational analysis is introduced and explored throughout.


Symphony for Percussion Quartet and Wind Ensemble, in four movements, is my attempt at integration of percussion within the large instrumental ensemble—in this case, a large wind ensemble. Beyond the four-movement structure, the symphony is subjected to a number of higher levels of organization. First, and most notably, each movement engages a different type of percussion—the first movement membranophones (drums), the second malleted percussion (vibraphones and marimbas), the third metallic percussion (bells of various sorts), and the fourth Latin percussion. The second and third movements are tone poems and self-contained pieces within the larger symphonic structure, while the first and fourth movements are musical mosaics of sort, assembled from fragments of shared musical material. The high point of the work comes at the end of the third movement and features a long cacophony of bells sounds over a brass climax. As a symphony, the entire work is constructed from common musical materials, with inter-movement references and organization. Crucially, and like Colgrass’s d?j? vu, my symphony is not a concerto, where the quartet would assume a preeminent role, but my attempt at a unified ensemble of percussion and wind ensemble.

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