Chapter 29: Crafting With Kraft - A Concerto Is Born

Who else was considered to write a timpani concerto? Did Bill Kraft even want to do it? What did it cost? How did we work together? What were the challenges and how were they met? This chapter tells the whole story. Here’s a sample.

. . . . On his way back to Los Angeles from a seminar on the East Coast in spring 1983, Bill made good on his promise to spend some time in my drum studio. We experimented with many possible ways to create sound on timpani. Some were already in the repertoire, such as using sticks of various degrees of hardness and playing some passages with the hands instead of the sticks. Then we began to push the envelope a bit. I wondered what a gloved hand would sound like, and since I had a pair of standard driving gloves nearby, we found out. We tried different combinations of fingers – one finger, two fingers, all four fingers. But what if one of those fingers was covered with thin felt instead of the leather that was already on the driving glove? How much contrast would that give? Could anyone tell the difference? From how far? Bill came up with the idea of a passage to be played using mini-scores as mutes in addition to a passage played with the more standard felt disc mutes. I said as long as we were going to use mini-scores, why not specify Haydn string quartets? This was an inside joke that only percussionists who had to sit through Music History classes identifying early, middle and late Haydn could appreciate. When my string-playing colleagues saw what we were doing, they thought we were honoring them. Yeah, right. I got your honor, right here!

We started trying to build chords. Four-mallet playing is common on the marimba, but the space between drums makes it much more awkward to do on timpani. However, we found that there were many possibilities if the accompaniment would be carefully orchestrated. It became easier to roll using four mallets than to strike chords, especially if you didn’t want the arpeggiated effect on the chord. With rolling chords, you could also change the harmonies by pedaling different notes while the roll was going on.

Bill took note of the various effects. At this point, he had not written a single musical note onto a page. He was still conceptualizing and searching for the answers to his concerns about expression. He seemed stuck – the composer’s equivalent of writer’s block. In an effort to unlock the logjam in his mind, I made a suggestion. “In the end, it doesn’t have to be a standard three-movement concerto,” I said. “You could take some of these effects and create a Theme and Variations piece from them. If you think in smaller blocks, it might be easier to achieve a work that moves logically from place to place.” A small light began to shine in his countenance. I could tell that there might be some consideration forthcoming of the Theme and Variations possibility. He didn’t jump in the air and scream, “Eureka, that’s it,” but he did nod thoughtfully and agree that it just might be the answer. In truth, I really didn’t want a Theme and Variations; I still wanted a standard format, three-movement concerto, but I would have suggested anything at that point to renew the flow of the creative juices.

Bill returned to Los Angeles, and I didn’t hear from him for a few weeks. I finally called to check on his progress. “It’s slow going,” he said. “I’ve written a few things down, but it’s not taking shape yet. I’ve decided to go to the McDowell Colony this summer and work on it there. That’s been a good place for me in the past.” In 1896 composer Edward McDowell and his pianist wife, Marian, purchased a farm in Peterborough, New Hampshire where Edward spent the summers writing music. He claimed that his best work was done in that idyllic setting, and after a few years he and Marian decided to create an artists’ colony on the property so that other creative minds, particularly composers and writers, could find inspiration from the surroundings and from occasional interaction with each other. Many of America’s best, including composers Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein and writers Thornton Wilder and James Baldwin, have found just the right spark through time spent at the McDowell Colony.

I was in my drum studio one morning in late summer 1983 when the phone rang. I answered it with a routine “Hello,” and the thing almost exploded out of my hand. “Tom, I’ve got it!!!!” Of course I knew right away that it was Bill. “I’ve figured it all out. It’s completely sketched, and it’s coming just the way we wanted it.” Apparently the McDowell Colony had worked its magic once more. “Is it a Theme and Variations,” I asked? “Hell, no,” was Bill’s response. “ It’s a real concerto. Three movements. Just the way it’s supposed to be. And it works! You’re going to love it. You’ll see it in a few weeks.” . . . .