SAN DIEGO — Percussionists are by nature a different breed of musician. Even when they perform with a symphony orchestra, they roam around the back of the stage picking up odd instruments that make unusual noises, while everyone else sits and plays in decorous concentration.
"Percussionists tend to be very physical people," said drummer Randy Hoffman. "They are more physically oriented than, say, a violinist, because they use their bodies more to produce the sound. Also, it takes two guys to lift timpani into a van."
Hoffman is a free-lance percussionist who prides himself on his versatility. "It's what has kept me alive as a player. One day I might show up at a church playing timpani in an oratorio. The next day I'm drumming bossa novas at dinner time at La Costa, or I might be playing with our ragtime marimba band."
The 36-year-old musician defined his performance parameters: "From orchestral music to extreme avant-garde percussion ensembles and from rock 'n' roll bands to polka bands, although I've never played in a marching band." Hoffman's marching band curiosity was squelched by one of his teachers who wanted to spare him its rote "indignities."
Like many drummers, Hoffman began his musical career rehearsing in a garage, imitating the pop music idols of his day. Studying with Danlee Mitchell, longtime San Diego State University music faculty member and San Diego Symphony percussionist, raised Hoffman's sights. "When Danlee was playing on stage at the Del Mar Fair, he would smuggle me in there in his van. Watching him play xylophone and timpani, I saw how broad the field was--it was more than just drums."
While a violinist invests in the best violin he can purchase, and a trumpet player will own several trumpets in different keys, a professional percussionist has to acquire a whole menagerie of instruments. "I have four sets of drums, a marimba, a vibraphone, my own timpani and, of course, a bunch of hand instruments--the small stuff," said Hoffman.
When a percussionist finds he needs an instrument not in his collection--it may be that he needs a bass drum with a calf-skin head and his bass drum has a plastic one--he simply turns to a colleague for a ready loan. "Being a percussionist is like being part of a fraternal organization. More than any other type of player, percussionists stick together."
Another trait common to the profession is the need to own a van to transport the tools of the trade. "I don't know a percussionist who doesn't drive a van. I've had a van for 15 years and would like to get rid of it." He quickly acknowledged, however, that that would be the equivalent of leaving the profession.
Playing with SDSU's Harry Partch Ensemble and with his own percussion trio called the Balboa Allstars has given Hoffman the greatest satisfaction. "The Balboa Allstars had two marimba players and a drummer--we all switched around on the instruments. We took piano rags and marches and arranged them for our group. Because we were an oddball band, we played at oddball functions: private parties, the La Jolla Film Festival, and the San Diego Folk Festival. We were the only act ever to appear at the folk festival where people actually threw money."
While Hoffman was a student at SDSU, he joined the Partch ensemble in 1972 and met the then aged composer. "I was inspired by Partch because he was such an individual," said Hoffman. Partch was an eccentric composer--some think he was a genius--who invented his own musicaltemperaments and a multitude of Rube Goldberg-appearing instruments, most of them belonging to the percussion family. Since his death in 1974, Partch's unique instrument collection has been housed at SDSU, where his protege, Mitchell, serves as the collection's curator.
Hoffman traveled with the Partch Ensemble, performing at festivals up and down the West Coast. In 1980, under Mitchell's direction, the ensemble played at a festival of contemporary music in Berlin. After performing in the San Francisco Bay Area, Hoffman settled there for a time in order to form another contemporary percussion ensemble called Kotekan, a musical term he borrowed from Balinese gamelan performance.
In his more recent commercial endeavors, Hoffman has noted the incursion of electronic instruments and he tries to use them to his advantage. "When I program a drum machine, I make the machine do something I don't want to do, then I do something more spontaneous as a kind of rhythmic counterpoint to it."