Thanks in part to a COVID lockdown that was particularly restrictive in the U.K., a passion for the rhythmic complexities and nuanced intricacies of snare drum explored from an early age, and the good fortune of an extended Arts Council grant application window, Jonathan Curtis recently composed and recorded a new collection of advanced solo works for snare drum. Inspired by iconic texts and collections including Stick Control, 14 Contest Solos for Snare Drum, and Rudimental Arithmetic, Curtis looked to turn an unexpected amount of downtime into a resource for the modern percussionist and an exploration into the possibilities of this simple instrument. I had the pleasure of connecting with him via email to explore a little more of his background, experience, and the process that led to this new collection of solos.
R!S: Tell me a little bit about your background in percussion.
Jonathan Curtis: After a relatively strong childhood education in the drums, piano, and music generally, I turned professional in my early-20s after leaving the university. I had just completed a master’s degree in analytic philosophy and was not able to secure Ph.D. funding. Instead, I declared self-employment and began working as a freelance private instructor and session drummer in my local area.
For the next ten years or so, I gradually expanded my professional portfolio with a number of recording and touring projects, continued live work, and the production of some educational media including books and videos. My background in analytic philosophy meant that I was always fascinated by the inner workings of music and drumming. My book Broken Time Drumming was immensely enjoyable to write, for example, because I was able to dissect a very difficult and enigmatic style of drumming in a very analytical way. This love of analytical thinking was very influential in my most recent compositional work.
In 2017, I founded a publishing company and record label named Artificer Productions, through which I began writing and releasing original music and other projects. I have published several studio albums and three drumming books thus far. Two of these are drum set methods, while the third is my recently released book of snare drum compositions.
As a player, I have always been drawn towards jazz, fusion, and relatively “busy” styles of drumming. I am somewhat easily bored, which is probably evident in the sorts of pieces I have written for the snare drum!
R!S: Tell about your previous activity as a composer.
JC: Before this most recent project, all of my compositional work had been in a band or ensemble context. My studio albums of original music fall somewhere on the jazz-fusion spectrum. I really enjoyed the activity of composing and then hearing that material come to fruition when taken to the studio. I’m lucky enough to know lots of great musicians who have recorded and performed my music with me, and after a while, it became quite addictive to write some music, hire some musicians, and make it a reality in the studio.
Perhaps somewhat unusually, I had always been very thorough in my writing, considering the genres involved. I often found that I had written extremely intricate parts that, in retrospect, were probably a little stifling for the musicians who had to play them. I enjoyed the act of sitting and working on a single bar or passage, moving notes or adjusting figures, and seeing how that affected the overall piece. Again, I think this carried over into my more recent work on the snare drum, where my exacting nature was given free reign!
R!S: What prompted you to undertake this snare drum solo project?
JC: In part, the COVID lockdown — which was particularly restrictive in the U.K. starting in March 2020 — meant that all of my live and most of my tuition work came to a halt. I therefore had a lot of time in which to focus on other projects. I had always really enjoyed studying snare drum. I found a copy of Stick Control in a local music shop when I was young, before I know what it was, and bought it. The same was true with Wilcoxon’s Modern Rudimental Swing Solos and Pratt’s 14 Modern Contest Solos.
A few years prior to the lockdown, I had been studying some DCI material —specifically Mitch Markovich’s “Tornado” — and found that I really enjoyed the exacting nature of that style of drumming, aside from the rigors it put my hands through. A few months into the lockdown, the Arts Council announced that their project grant scheme was remaining open, and in the space of an afternoon, I had read all of the application guidelines and built a project around the snare drum as a solo instrument. It wasn’t something that I had particularly planned to do beforehand, though it was something I was obviously very interested in, as the project grant practically wrote itself. It transpired that I had a lot of ideas for the snare drum as a solo instrument, and I wanted to expand on these ideas in a very particular way. I had just read and absolutely devoured Bob Becker’s Rudimental Arithmetic, and I was overflowing with ideas for my own solo collection as a result.
R!S: Tell me about the process of securing the grant funding and what all that entails for this project.
JC: Securing the grant involved planning the project, outlining the goals I wanted it to achieve, and demonstrating why it was worth anybody’s time. I took the view that the snare drum, both within an ensemble and in a solo context, was severely underrepresented in the U.K., and stated that I wanted my work to contribute to an otherwise rich tradition of snare drumming. The American drumming tradition is very well known, and our neighboring French tradition is equally rich, with the likes of Lefèvre, Delécluse, and Goute all with seminal works on the instrument. I wanted to build a body of work on the snare drum in the same vein.
Alongside the compositions themselves, I have written a number of research papers tackling specific areas of technique or compositional theory. Some of these have also become video essays, in which the concepts are demonstrated on the drum itself. I think this educational aspect was key in securing the funding, because the act of composition was a learning process for me which I wanted to share.
In building the application, I was able to combine the act of producing original works (the compositions), a path of personal growth (my own learning during the process), and a wider appeal (the educational aspect and the publishing of the pieces and the research papers). I was also able to secure the contributions of Bob Becker (Nexus), Joe Tompkins (French-American rudimental solos), Rob Knopper (New York Metropolitan Orchestra), Rick Dior (Professor of Percussion, Univ. North Carolina), and Paul Hose (former student of Jim Chapin and author of multiple drumming books) as consultants. The participation of such renowned players was not only instrumental in my own development, but an influencing factor in securing the grant.
For all of this, I built into my budget time to conduct the research, numerous lessons and consultation sessions, the production of the performance videos (including sound and lighting crews, etc.), and time to practice the material. Thanks to the grant, I was able to work on this material, my own development, and the educational accompaniments full time for nearly 18 months.
R!S: How will this collection be available to the public once it is complete?
JC: The pieces themselves are available as part of a collection called Snare Drum Compositions Volume 1. This collection is available as a spiral-bound paperback or as a PDF. Also, each piece is individually available as a PDF. The videos, articles, and interviews are all available for free via my website (www.jonathancurtis.co.uk) and YouTube.
R!S: What other projects, educational or performance oriented, are you currently undertaking, related to this project or otherwise?
JC: For this project in particular, I have composed ten pieces for solo snare, four duets with snare drum and marimba, and a great many etudes. The first five solo pieces are already released; the second set of five will be released in Volume 2, which is forthcoming. I am due to record the four duets with a marimba player in January at the Royal North College of Music in Manchester, which will officially end the project.
The etudes are currently being worked into a forthcoming book of snare drum studies titled The Snare Drum Virtuoso, due for publication in 2022. This book shares my educational ideas on the development of technique and snare drum vocabulary by presenting studies based on various ideas, themes, concepts, and extant snare drumming traditions.
Following this project, I am already putting together the groundwork for the next one, in which I want to expand my ideas into a larger concerto. Throughout the course of writing these compositions, duets, and etudes, I have developed some strong compositional ideas surrounding chanting structures, cycles, and the use of mathematics and numbers, thanks mostly to Bob Becker’s work. I want to explore these ideas further, with the snare drum placed as a leading voice in front of a larger ensemble. This upcoming project will utilize the marimba again, alongside a small strings section and unpitched percussion to create a work inspired in part by Becker’s own “Mudra.” This new concerto is currently planned for performance at Christmas time 2023, after the material has been written and thoroughly rehearsed.
Jonathan Curtis is a drummer, composer, author, and educator from Nottingham, England. Born in 1987, he has released numerous studio albums of original jazz-fusion material, two books on drum kit methodology, and a body of work focusing on the snare drum as a solo instrument. His primary focus is on conceptual approaches to composition, ranging from Hindu chanting structure, through prime number sequences, rhythmic cycles, and mathematical principles. A love of analytic understanding and an exacting nature is reflected in his compositions, which, while notoriously difficult, are often very thematic and philosophically grounded. Jonathan has played jazz, fusion, and blues as a freelancer for many years, and has toured with comedy shows, theatres, and singer-songwriters. When not composing, recording, or performing, he teaches privately from his home studio just outside Nottingham.