National Vinyl Record Day is August 12, a day of vinyl appreciation and a commemoration of Thomas Edison’s invention of the phonograph. In celebration of the day, Brian Del Signore, principal percussion, shares memories of a vinyl record that has long shaped his appreciation of music—and you may be surprised to learn where he got his start as a drummer.
Thinking of rock music albums of my youth that had a large impact, the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band comes to mind. I first heard it when my oldest brother bought the LP when it came out in 1967. Still being of elementary school age, I didn’t understand it. But within a few years, after having digested all of the early Beatles music, I realized its artistry.
In the history of music, Sgt. Pepper’s was the event that legitimized rock musicians in the 20th century as artists. Instead of being commercial record sales products for record companies, as before, musicians could take control of their music. The Beatles writing their own music and producing it the way they wanted was a huge influence on the music world. Music scholar Donald Jay Grout lists Sgt. Pepper’s as a major musical event in his book A History of Western Music.
In my youth, I was a part of the post-Sgt. Pepper’s era as a rock musician in a band that started in middle school and lasted a few years after high school. I was writing songs as well as playing drums, and I learned a lot about what I call “street music” before heading into conservatory music training at Carnegie Mellon University.
For my 30-plus years in the Houston Symphony, I’ve had a seat inside the orchestra, able to listen to perhaps the greatest music in the world. Full orchestra music is my favorite by far, and one reason is that there are about 100 musicians at a time working together to create the same piece of music. Another reason is that any music or instruments can be used in a symphony orchestra—so the instrumentation and music for the symphony orchestra is limitless.
The idea that musicians write their own music has never left me. Even though I am an orchestral performer by profession, I have never stopped writing music. I recently completed the composition of a percussion concerto, which is a piece for percussion soloist and orchestra. Listeners will hear the influence of the musics I’ve experienced in our worlds as Americans. I consider all these “street musics” to be our folk music, and to reflect them in our orchestral concert halls is part of what we should do. I look forward to performing this concerto for our audiences someday.
In the meantime, our Live from Jones Hall concert on August 29 features L’Histoire du Soldat by Igor Stravinsky as well as a similar piece, “The Fiddler’s March,” written by Wynton Marsalis. I consider Stravinsky to have written the first heavy metal rock music for orchestra when he wrote The Rite of Spring in 1913, with all its blasting chords, jagged rhythms, and pounding percussion. L’Histoire du Soldat was written right after that, when resources were scarce during World War I. It is a chamber piece written for seven musicians, and the percussion is a multi-percussion set-up played by one person. The piece ends with a drum solo—the first ever in Western classical music literature. In that ending of the story, the devil dances as the soldier encounters his death.
—Brian Del Signore