Storytelling is a method of communication that has spanned the ages. Whether the stories serve as oral histories, religious doctrines, or simple bedtime entertainment, they have become an important staple of mankind. Many of these stories are percussive; either in the rhythmic structure of the iambs, or in the onomatopoeia of the words. This project aims to fuse elements of contemporary-classical percussion with elements of vocal storytelling.
The Percussive Art of Storytelling manifested itself one day while Hills was improvising. He found himself drawn to a circular pattern between two woodblocks, two cowbells, and two plastic blocks. The pattern was reminiscent of a bicycle, always pedaling forward into the future. The result: The Lost Bicycle, a story about Mother Earth’s only son, who loses the bike he receives for his sixth birthday. The story involves the boy chasing after his lost bicycle through chance encounters with a cheetah, tortoise, and hippopotamus before discovering that his best friend, the dog, has found the bicycle and brought it home. The simplicity and charm of the story allow Hills to create strong leitmotifs associated with various characters and events that are memorable to a young audience and amusing to an older one.
Hills’s original stories use light language, consistent form, humor, and relevant content. The content focuses on global concepts and issues pertinent to a mass audience. For example, The Lost Bicycle teaches that good things happen when you least expect them, The Magic Shoes teaches that hard work can help you achieve a goal, and Aurora Borealis teaches that working together is a great way to solve problems. In addition, the characters in the stories are universally non-denominational. Stories take place all over the world, on all the continents. Sometimes the characters are humans or animals, males or females, and young or old. The underlying goal is to teach young children that it doesn’t matter who we are or where we are from. Hills feels strongly that these lessons of respect and tolerance be taught to children as they progress through the early stages of childhood development. In addition to originally written stories, Hills also works with existing texts, such as Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories and Aesop's Fables.
Sound is the most important musical component found in Hills’ stories. While melodic instruments are used (marimba, kalimba, toy piano, water glasses), the bulk of the music is scored for non-pitched percussion such as gongs, woodblocks, cowbells, Indian bells, almglocken, jing cymbals, temple bowls, and a wide array of sound effects. Hills strives to score these non-pitched percussion instruments in a melodic way. For example, in The Lost Bicycle, a ‘search’ song is heard each time the boy uncovers another piece of the puzzle and runs off in search of his lost bicycle. This melody is played on one high woodblock (pitched B), one low woodblock (pitched E), one high jing cymbal (pitched A), one high ox bell (pitched Ab), one low jing cymbal (pitched E), one low ox bell (pitched B), and one opera gong with corresponding pitches (pitched A).
As a result, in basic notation form, the ‘song’ looks like this:
The result is a library of stories built around a range of pitch sets in a range of tuning temperaments. This attention to sound detail is also applied to the rhythmic and metric structure of the stories. The voice is not simply a means to aurally tell the story; rather, it is another percussion instrument with attack, release, inflection, and articulation. When combined with the rhythm and meter of the percussion instruments, a composite layer forms, creating a more complex and intricate rhythmic structure.