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Exploring Percussion with the Tambuco Ensemble, Part Three: Texture

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This is a guest post by Finn Smith, a 2021 Junior Fellow at the Library. He is a student at Vassar College studying philosophy and studio art, and is rumored to play (and sometimes teach) music of all sorts. In October 2020, the Library hosted the Tambuco Percussion Ensemble for a virtual concert and a series of five educational videos about percussion. Together, these videos serve as a lively and informative demonstration of how varied and versatile percussion is—while it can be formalized, it is most fundamentally a way of engaging with one’s environment musically, and is accessible to everyone. What follows are some supporting materials and questions to consider while viewing these five educational videos with kids. Part 3 of 5.

The third video in this series is on texture. Texture can refer to the tactile quality of a material or surface, but it also refers to the sonic construction of a piece of music. Technically speaking, musical texture describes the density of a piece of music’s arrangement and instrumentation, and is dependent on a number of factors such as tempo, timbre, and the number of melodic and harmonic lines present. Simply put, musical texture is “what a piece of music sounds like.” To help kids understand this, listen to these two different recordings of the tune “Arkansas Traveler” from the Library’s audio collections together. This first version of the tune is played on solo harmonica (interspersed with some amusing narration), and this second version is played by a full brass band. Have kids reflect on how different these two recordings of the same tune sound. Are there a different number of instruments playing in each? What sorts of instruments can be heard? How do the sounds of these instruments compare to one another? All of these, as well as any further observations they might have, are descriptions of textural similarities and differences.

With this in mind, it’s worth pointing out that the above Tambuco video focuses on a looser, more intuitive notion of musical texture, and demonstrates how the material quality of instruments and objects can be used to create strange, “colorful” sounds—sounds that push the music right up against the realm of the unreal and the magical.

Or, instead of watching this video, you might first have kids close their eyes and think about the sounds they’re hearing as it plays. If they had to picture the objects that are creating those sounds, what would they imagine those objects look like?  Then, watch together to see how the instruments they pictured compare to the ones the musicians are actually playing.

Even though a lot is happening at once, if you look and listen closely, you can hear which instrument each sound is coming from. You might talk with kids about some sounds that surprised them (or you) the most given the instruments from which they emerged (maybe the loud howl that comes from the stick moving slowly across the upended metal bowl?) Think about how your expectations about what kinds of objects make what kinds of sounds might be upended a bit themselves as you watch and listen. Maybe consider together whether there are any objects around you that could be used to try and replicate some of the sounds in the video (a metal salad bowl could contain great musical potential!). This video can offer kids a lot of really interesting ideas and inspiration for how to explore their environment sonically—what sort of surprising sounds and textures might be lying undiscovered all around you?

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