Napier’s Bones

Chamber orchestra or large ensemble

For 24 percussionists and improvising pianist

Napier’s Bones was commissioned by Judy Bailey and funded by the Performing Arts Board of the Australia Council. The first performance was given by Judy Bailey and the Sydney Percussion Ensemble conducted by Graeme Leak at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music in 1990.

About the work

I wrote Napier’s Bones to involve the improvising talents of Sydney-based pianist Judy Bailey, who, like me, grew up in Whangarei, New Zealand, and as a companion piece to Charles Wuorinen’s Percussion Symphony.

The title has many resonances, but the Napier referred to is Sir John Napier, the inventor of logarithms, and Napier’s bones in Africa were strips of ebony and ivory used for calculating, suggesting to me both rhythmic complexity and the layout of a keyboard.

The piano part is almost entirely improvised, although the pianist is given basic material to work with. There are various forms of interaction with the ensemble for the soloist — call and response, elaboration of harmonic patterns, decoration of percussion textures, improvised duets with percussion instruments, free solo improvisation. The details will vary greatly from performance to performance, although the shape of the piece, which encompasses many speeds, moods and textures in its single movement, remains constant.


There is also a later version for 6 percussionists and improvising pianist.

Napier’s Bones

Buy or borrow the score and parts from the Australian Music Centre.

Napier’s Bones — AMC