“I don’t want to sound like anybody else.” – Kieran Hebden
I have written previously on this blog about the music of Kieran Hebden (aka Four Tet). Hebden not only has good musical taste but also a thoughtful and unique approach to using technology to create his work. In this video from Red Bull Music Academy, Hebden explains to students his electronic gear set-up and how he uses it in performance.
What is interesting here is how Hebden uses a combination of software (Ableton and Cool Edit Pro) running on two computers and other bits of hardware such as loopers and MIDI controllers to re-create his compositions live. This musical system reflects specific performance goals and also illustrates Hebden’s admission that he doesn’t even know some of his software very well (“I don’t know much about Ableton at all and the sorts of things it can do…”). This is key, because it frees him to pursue a quite unique-sounding creative path.
I recently watched an entertaining commercial for, of all things, Delta Faucet, that features percussionist Glenn Kotche playing faucets in a musical way. As he turns on the taps one by one, water streams out of them and strikes inverted pots, pans, and colanders to produce sustained pitches. With the help of a few overdubs, Kotche works up a liquid version of Four Tops’s classic Motown song, “Reach Out: I’ll Be There.” What is interesting to me is how every once in a while percussion and percussionists come to the attention of the rest of the world–through TV commercials or what have you. There’s always a bit of surprise embedded in this attention–a surprise that making percussive music on all kinds of things (even faucets!) is even possible in the first place. Which reminds me of a time I went to see the Scottish percussionist Evelyn Glennie perform a solo concert. At intermission I overheard a lady say: “I didn’t know percussion could play melody.”
Here’s the Delta Faucet commercial:
Kotche is an engaging percussionist no matter what he’s hitting. He is best known as the drummer for the alt-rock band Wilco, but he has also collaborated with numerous other musicians across the pop-classical spectrum and released solo recordings that showcase the breadth of his musical imagination. As I searched for the Delta Faucet commercial online I found an older video of Kotche playing a fourteen-minute drum solo. But this isn’t your regular, drum-bastic kind of thing where the drummer connects a string of free-floating displays of technique. The title of the solo, “Monkey Chant”, references the famous Balinese dance and vocal performance piece known by the same name–or as kecak–in which a large group of male singers render a battle scene from the Ramayana Hindu epic. Why did Kochte chose a piece of Balinese vocal music as his model? I don’t know. But kecak/”Monkey Chant” is a staple example in world music classes that demonstrates intricate vocal hocketting (interlocking patterns using the syllable “cak”) and singers rendering the sounds of characters from the Hindu story. It’s an amazing piece on its own. To start then, here is a video of the Balinese kecak:
Next, here is Kotche explaining how he specially prepared his drumset to make the unusual sounds used in his rendition of the Balinese piece. This is quite interesting in that it gives some sense of how percussionists seek out and create new timbres:
Finally, here is Kotche playing his kecak rendition. Notice a few things: how he sets up a nature soundscape of chirping cricket toys (!) as a background texture for his solo; how he uses kalimba (thumb piano) and crotales to simulate, I’m guessing, the melodies of Balinese gamelan (an orchestra of metallophone instruments); how his snare drum functions as a resonator for all kinds of metallic sound effects; how he keeps the dynamics of his playing constantly in check and mostly at a moderate volume; and how he keeps a rolling triplet-feel with his hands to mimic the hocketting “ceks” of the Balinese singers while his feet play an unwavering steady pulse. All in all, it’s an elegant, thoughtful and subtle rendition of a famous musical tradition from a compelling and curious percussionist listening in.
Here we are, me among them, sitting on the subway, sharing a physical space but each of us somewhere else. We each listen to a different music, and each of our musics acts as a cultural overlay that separates and distinguishes us from one another. Headphones on, we ensconce ourselves in protective bubbles of sound.
Music and musical action are often spoken about as means of sharing experience, expressing and enacting identity, and building community. And this is true: as a form of symbolic action (symbolic because melodies and rhythms don’t literally do anything in the world outside of music), music is perhaps the most powerful social technology we have.
In its staggering diversity of styles, music also invites each of us to surround ourselves with a unique mosaic of (recorded) sounds that articulate who we feel ourselves to be. This is exactly what we, me among them, do as we sit alone-together on the subway with our musical overlays, sharing a physical space but each of us somewhere else.
In Bill Buford’s insightful essay that introduces Magnus Nilsson’s Faviken cookbook (Phaidon), Nilsson speaks of feeling, touch, and vibration when explaining the transcendent quality of French chef Michel Bras‘ cooking:
“I don’t think I can describe it. Or not in technical terms, because it has nothing to do with technique (…) It’s in an extra feeling that Bras has for the food (…) It’s a touch. He has a way of communicating with the dish. A plate comes alive when he makes it, and it vibrates. Do you understand? It actually vibrates, especially if you’re open to that kind of experience.”
I noticed a simple thing the other day while working on some music. The sounds I was working with were long tones with slow attacks and long decays. (Can you guess the instrument?) What I noticed was how instantaneously the shape of the sounds shaped me. The sounds literally slowed me down–making me feel as if I was resonating along with their contours and slow rhythms. I’m somewhat astonished that I had never noticed and articulated this perceptual phenomenon in my own musical experience until now, but there you go.
To re-phrase that Ralph Waldo Emerson quote: Be careful what sounds you make, for surely you shall become one with them!
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