The late writer George Plimpton was famous for his participatory journalism: He risked life and limb while playing quarterback for the Detroit Lions, trading punches with boxer Archie Moore, blocking 100-mile-an-hour hockey pucks as goaltender for the Boston Bruins. All to get a good story.
But the only time Plimpton admitted getting scared was when he played triangle for the New York Philharmonic, facing conductor Leonard Bernstein.
“He would stare at Bernstein over the top of the triangle, metal rods gripped tightly, and look for some cue in the whirlwind of Bernstein’s movements that suggested it was time for him to play. And then: Ping!“
The story was remembered in Barry Green’s book The Mastery of Music, by Philharmonic percussionist Walter Rosenberg, who tried to help the poor journalist.
“Bernstein would look at him and say, ‘George, would you play that note for us again?’
“George would pick up the triangle and play it again: Ping!
“The maestro would ask George to try it one more time.
“Another, rather tentative Ping.
“‘Once more,’ Bernstein would say as he cupped his hand behind his ear.
“The tension in the room was mounting — the orchestra members didn’t quite know where Lenny was going to take this one. Finally, he said to George in a rather impatient, dissatisfied manner:
” ‘Now, which of those four pings do you mean? They’re all different.’
“Poor George was obviously in shock. He stood there trembling, his face a complete blank, not knowing what he had done wrong, or what he could possibly do to play his ping any better.”
He was playing the triangle, for goodness’ sake, an instrument that even kindergartners negotiate easily in rhythm bands. How hard could it be?
“A lot of people come up to me and say it must be easy to hit the triangle,” says Bill Wanser, former principal percussionist for the Phoenix Symphony, who retired in 2013 after 38 years at the back of the orchestra. “I tell all my students, you don’t hit anything, you play it. You touch the instrument because the touch you give the instrument determines the kind of sound you get from the instrument.”
I talked to Wanser when the orchestra was going to play the Franz Liszt Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-Flat, which has such a prominent part for the lowly triangle that when critic Eduard Hanslick first heard it in during its premiere in 1855, he dubbed it the “Triangle Concerto.”
We talked in his home studio, surrounded by the drums, xylophones and timpani of his trade. A soft-spoken man, then 62, he had been with the Phoenix Symphony since 1975. He was hired by the late Eduardo Mata and has seen the orchestra through five music directors.
He has thought a lot about the lowly triangle and his part in the concerto.
“You have to have a concept in your head of what you want that sound to be like, before you actually play that note, because that’s going to translate, if you practice, to what kind of touch you give that beater when the triangle and the beater meet. If the touch is correct, the sound you have in your mind will come out correctly. But you have to have that idea.
“I’ve heard recordings when the triangle just sounds terrible because someone’s just hitting it. But with the right kind of touch, the right feel to the rhythm, the whole thing sparkles. That is what I try to do.”
First, there’s the triangle itself. It comes in many forms and sizes, mostly from 4 inches to 8 inches, made from steel, bronze or some alloy.
While a grade-school triangle can cost as little as a couple of bucks, a professional triangle sells for an average of about $75.
A Grover Pro bronze model is “meticulously hammered in a compact randomized pattern,” as the company’s catalog says, which “ensures that the inherent fundamental pitch is dampened and that the instrument’s intricate and complex harmonic structure is enhanced.”
For those who admire James Galway’s gold flute, there is a 9-inch all-gold triangle, sold by Buddy and Thein, which goes for a cool $650.
The triangle came to European orchestras from Turkish janissary — or military — bands. The original version of the triangle had a series of rings attached to the bottom rung to make more jangle when the instrument was played.
It came to Europe after the defeat of the Ottoman Turks outside Vienna in 1683, when, supposedly, the fleeing Turks dropped their instruments in the field. By the time of Mozart and Beethoven, such “Turkish” instruments as cymbals and triangles had become part of the orchestra, at least for military effects.
That percussion became a regular part of the orchestra in the 19th century, and such exotic instruments as the cymbal, the tam-tam (Chinese gong) and the lowly triangle became means for composers to “colorize” their music.
Black Swan Percussion offers a set of six differently weighted beaters in a nylon case for $127.
“I have a collection of color-coded beaters,” Wanser says. “They’re various thicknesses. They used to make triangle beaters from solid metal, but these are not solid.
“We found that we can eliminate some of the contact sound if we don’t use solid beaters. So this guy came up with different thicknesses of metal wrapped around a shaft and separated from the shaft with epoxy.”
Wanser has spread out his collection of triangles and beaters on a soft cloth over one of his xylophones. There are eight triangles of various sizes and metals and some 20 beaters.
He picks one up.
“I’ll probably use this one for the Liszt,” he says. “The metal is fairly thin, just a nylon insert in there, but still enough weight I can produce a pretty big sound. And then, it won’t have quite the tick.”
The tick, he says, is the enemy. You don’t want a metallic sound, like machine parts clanging together. You want something more like the “eructation of an angel,” a scintillant, chiming ping. If you hit the triangle the wrong way, or with the wrong beater, you can make it sound like a traffic accident.
“You have to think about where you hit the triangle. These are things most people don’t know.
“Hit it here and you get this tone: Ping.
“If I play more toward the corner, where the metal is a little denser, then you get this: Ping, but a different ping.
“Or hit it near the top, and you have this: Ping.”
The sound of a triangle is not a simple note, like a violin note or a piano note. It is a mix of upper harmonics, all mixed together in a ping without a pitch. But hit it in different places, and you draw out different harmonics.
“You can almost get a triad out of it,” Wanser says. “Ping; ping; ping.
“And, of course, if I play at the very tip of the beater, I’m going to get a brighter sound. If I play more in the center of the beater, I get a much darker sound. Halfway in between, I get this sound: Ping.”
The sound of the triangle is usually meant to blend in with the orchestra, a coloration effect.
“There are not a lot of triangle solos,” Wanser says. “One that comes to mind is in Brahms’ Third Symphony. It’s a single triangle note that comes at the end of a quiet string passage and puts a period at the end of it: ‘Ding.’ It’s just a color that you want.
“But for the Liszt concerto, you want a bright, articulate sound because it’s a rhythmic passage, not just color, and you don’t want too much shimmer in it.
“When I play that, I’m going to move the beater around on the triangle because the second note is going to be a little brighter than the first, a little sharper sounding.
“Plus, it’s easier rhythmically if you move your beater along the triangle instead of hitting it in the same spot over and over. If you’re playing rapid successive notes, if you move just a little bit, it’s easier to phrase and make the rhythm clear and more articulate.”
The score for the triangle — like that of many percussion instruments — has very few notes on it and many, many rests. Sometimes a hundred bars of rest before a note is hit. Percussionists count those rests. Wanser’s score for the Liszt concerto shows four lines of empty staves, with bars numbered on them. Over a single rest on the staff, there will be a number — 17 in one place, 32 in another — that tells you that rest covers 17 or 32 bars of tacit, or silence from the triangle. Wanser counts each bar.
“There’s tons of counting,” he says. “I’ve played for a lot of years, and I’ll find myself counting my steps as I walk down the street. I’ll sit and have big, long rests, and it’s a challenge to keep focused on what you’re doing.”
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There are stories of percussionists reading books or checking how their stocks are doing while they are waiting for their single cymbal crash or gong cataclysm.
“That was probably more prevalent in the past than it is today,” Wanser says. “I studied with the legendary Fred Hinger, who was percussionist for the Philadelphia Orchestra and later for the Metropolitan Opera. I asked him, ‘How do you count?’
“You have cues written in your score,” Wanser says, “but I don’t rely on those cues because maybe the horn has miscounted or something. It doesn’t happen very often, but it would be the one time it happens, and it could throw everybody off.”
Is it any wonder that Plimpton sweated his time with Bernstein?
Of course, a triangle player doesn’t only play the triangle. He is a percussionist who will play whatever instruments are called for, drums, xylophones, woodblocks, glockenspiels, and even back up the principal timpanist if needed.
“I have a friend who plays with local amateur groups, and he’ll come over to discuss a part once in a while,” Wanser says. “He’s a decent drummer, but I’ll show him what I would do, and he’s amazed because he hasn’t been able to do it. He’s not a professional player.
“The perception is that anyone can be a drummer, but it’s not so. There’s a lot of people who can play drums and pick up the sticks and hit a drum, they have the coordination and can play very complicated rhythms. But do they practice eight hours a day, the way a professional musician does? Have they developed the muscle memory?
“So, when people say, ‘You’re a drummer,’ I say, ‘No, I’m a musician.’ “