Sultan of Sound

By infusing dance and unusual sounds into his music, Peter O’Gorman makes his mark on the percussion world.
“This is a live performance shot of my composition, Serif. Serif is a trio that uses brushes to turn air into a musical instrument and space into a three-dimensional canvas. The title refers to the final stroke of a pen as it is lifted from the page.” —Peter O’Gorman

Peter O’Gorman first discovered his love for percussion while playing at the lunchroom table in elementary school at St. Mary’s of the Lake. Since then, he’s performed at high-profile events across the nation, composed two dozen concert pieces, written two books, received grants from the American Composers Forum and the McKnight Foundation. He’s also a 2015 McKnight Composer Fellow. We caught up with O’Gorman to learn more about his career in music and his love for the unusual sounds his instruments create.

“I receive a lot of joy from performing, and it’s really rewarding seeing people touched by the work that I’ve composed,” O’Gorman says. “I find performing fun, but it’s also challenging—there are a lot of emotions involved in playing music.”

In 2008, at the height of O’Gorman’s performing career, he was diagnosed with Lyme disease. “It was hard watching my health deteriorate,” O’Gorman says. “One of the symptoms is that my joint health deteriorated to the point that I was not able to play at all, so I concentrated my efforts on teaching and writing method books for percussion.”

O’Gorman tried alternative therapies, and his joint health slowly improved. He began performing again a little, focusing on works by Mary Ellen Childs, a composer known for infusing visual aspects into her music. “I was doing things that I had never done,” O’Gorman says. “Mary Ellen is someone who creates what she calls ‘visual percussion.’ There are two parts of her; she’ll create concert music with chamber ensembles and soloists, and visual percussion pieces that capture visual music in motion.”

Influenced by Childs, O’Gorman drifted into the dance world and began weaving visual aspects into his performances, where he found a deeper connection to his work. “The connection [was] of me paying attention to my body for health reasons and choreographers paying attention to their bodies because it’s their instrument on stage,” O’Gorman says. “In retrospect, it sounds like a natural pairing.”

Eventually, O’Gorman’s unusual performances caught the attention of a variety of different artists, including choreographer Joe Chvala, and he was invited to perform with his Minneapolis percussion dance troupe, the Flying Foot Forum.

Known for creating unique sounds with his instruments, O’Gorman is constantly searching for new ways to produce sound. “I am attracted to the unusual, and if I hear a new sound, it inspires me to learn how to use that sound in compositions, both my own and other composers’ work that I would be performing for,” O’Gorman says. “I look for certain sounds, and when those sounds don’t exist, I’ll work with instrument builders to have instruments custom-built.”

For instance, O’Gorman sought out Michael Kotzen to build three nesting cajons, which are wooden boxes that are played with mallets and wooden rods.

Another of O’Gorman’s special instruments will be in the starring role in a piece to be premiered this summer at the American Dance Festival at Duke University. “The piece is going to be centered on this beautiful instrument called an aluphone,” O’Gorman says. “It’s a chromatic set of conical-shaped bells, with a sound that’s a cross between Tibetan bowls, vibraphone and church bells.”

When he’s not performing or dreaming up new instruments, O’Gorman teaches percussion out of his home in White Bear Lake, as well as at Music Connection in Forest Lake.

“I love helping students improve their skills,” O’Gorman says. “Watching them grow as musicians and as human beings, it’s a very rewarding thing to see.”

Peter O’Gorman’s books, Drum Sessions Book 1 and 2, can be purchased on