Oberlin Blogs

Cowbell solos with the Contemporary Music Ensemble

November 26, 2023

Jonathan Lucke '25

Now, I know what you’re thinking. This is not like the SNL skit, though that would be awesome.

On September 27th, Oberlin’s Contemporary Music Ensemble (CME) performed “The Auditions” by Augusta Read Thomas. I played the first percussion part, which involved several minutes of cowbell solos, among many other instruments I played. The work was initially written as a ballet, with the cowbells representing one of the characters. We performed it without the dancers, but nevertheless, there were still complicated cowbell solos.

This isn’t my first run-in with something like this at Oberlin. As a percussionist in the Contemporary Music Ensemble, I often bounce between over 20 instruments within one performance. Usually, the pieces are up to 30 minutes long, with scores well over 100 pages long. If that wasn’t already intense enough, we typically get 2-4 weeks to rehearse before they are performed. I often perform pieces like this roughly 6-10 times a year, on top of my other ensembles and commitments. 

When someone says “drummer” or even “percussionist,” most people think of grooves, beats, drums, and rhythms. Most people wouldn’t think of conch shells, donkey jawbones, or grandfather clock chimes. I do enjoy playing the drums, but messing with people’s expectations is even better. 

I played not just one cowbell but nine. Six were more traditional-style cowbells, whereas the other three originated from Switzerland and are pitched. They’re called “almglocken,” which translates to “alpine bells.” After the performance, I saw a few friends, and they asked, “What were you playing?” just like every other CME performance. 

I find that experiences like this are representative of my life at Oberlin. Like changing instruments multiple times within a piece, I put on different hats throughout the day. Whether or not that involves going from my 10 AM Japanese class directly to the Contemporary Music Ensemble or my developmental biology class to my music & ecology class. On the weekends, I might go directly from the Biology Majors Committee to Multiracial Students Association meetings to Japanese Student Association meetings. I like to keep my life diverse, bouncing between many things throughout the day. Oberlin is one of the best places for that, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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