Music from my 1997 recording Wonders, scored for marimbas and vibraphones.
“But how the paths sounded to me was deeply linked to how I was making them. There wasn’t one me listening, and another one playing along paths. I listened-in-order-to-make-my-way.”
-David Sudnow, Ways of the Hand (MIT Press 2001, p. 40)
Every once in a while warming up before a show I noodle around by playing a bit of Steve Reich’s Drumming on the marimba. Composed in 1971, Drumming is over an hour of continuous percussion music entirely built on just a few pitches arranged in a constellation of eight beats over twelve pulses. This is the core melo-rhythmic pattern:
As I played Reich’s pattern I thought about what makes it so idiomatic for the drummer’s hands. First, there its short-short-long-long rhythm whose composite sounding has the feel of a three against two polyrhythm. Next, the truncated scale: four notes of a minor one, but without the other three notes that would tell us more about specifics. Finally, Reich’s pattern on these four notes bring my left hand on an out-in-out motor pattern, moving from the g-sharp (out or away from me), up to the b-natural (in or towards me), and then from the b-natural down a semitone to the a-sharp (in to out). Simply put, while the right hand stays perched up on the c-sharp, the left hand motor pattern traverses a small in-out path that flows like crazy!
As I played and enjoyed the flow of the pattern I wondered how it would sound and feel in different keys, so I transposed it downwards one semitone at a time to try it out on eleven other starting pitches. But none of these transpositions felt nearly as natural as playing the pattern on g-sharp. Interesting. In fact, some of the transpositions–starting on b-natural, for instance–were seriously awkward to play. Now I wondered: Would Drumming have worked had it been done in a different key? Had it been tried in different keys? Was motor pattern flow a factor in deciding on its key? (So many questions.)
Playing the core pattern of Drumming had me thinking about some other matters related to composing and playing musical instruments. Had the pathways of this pattern, in this key, on this instrument (and not the tuned bongo drums that are featured in the piece’s opening movement), been the impetus for Drumming? I also reflected on how it is that a piece of music that works so well–that sits so well in the hands–can help define a lexicon of movements that are possible along the terrain of an instrument. If you write music for marimba, it’s difficult to ignore the enduring influence of Reich’s distinctive syncopated patterns on your understanding of the instrument’s idiomatic potentials and expressive sweet spots. Even if you’re just noodling around, warming up before a show by playing bits of Drumming, the fact that the piece continues to sound and feel as good as it does as ergonomic percussion music is enough to make you reflect anew on how closely writing and performing music are connected.
Here is part two of Drumming:
“I think techno music at the moment is just an infrastructure. Basically, it’s not a musical term anymore. It used to be more like straight, technical funk. Nowadays, it is more of an infrastructure where you have certain beat patterns that you can call techno music. But in the end, it’s a social and economic infrastructure. The name ‘techno’ does not have anything to do with content anymore. It can be anything, from soul jazz to new music, to electro-acoustic music. It’s not the description for a musical genre anymore. It’s the description of a structure within which you move around. And it’s dance music.” – Hendrik Weber (aka Pantha du Prince)
The German techno DJ and Producer Hendrik Weber (aka Pantha du Prince) is quite into the sound of bells. On his 2010 recording Black Noise you can hear bell sounds on the tracks “Welt Am Draht”
and “Bohemian Forest.”
Since then, Weber has kicked his interest in bells up a few significant notches. On his recent recording Elements Of Light, he collaborates with The Bell Laboratory, a collective of musicians who play a range of tuned percussion instruments including a huge 50-bell carillon. The 17-minute track “Spectral Split” showcases the electronic music meets ancient bells and percussion collaboration. Once the piece gets going you can hear the full mix: the lumbering carillon bells, marimba patterns deeply indebted to Steve Reich (the composer may demand royalties here), steel pan, tubular bells, crotales, a 4/4 techno pulse, and a slow-moving synth bassline. Harmonically speaking, “Spectral Split” doesn’t travel far, instead building musical interest through repetition, addition and subtraction of its parts.
What I find interesting about this music is its attempt to engage in a dialog with the languages of classical minimalism and contemporary electronic dance music of the minimal techno variety. In this respect, “Spectral Split” is a unique beast–the musical result of instruments and sounds wandering out of their usual stylistic frames. Does it work? Yes, it does work in its own way. And while the music is perhaps limited either by the carillon themselves (their tuning, and by how fast they can be played) or by Weber’s musical setting of them (I keep waiting for a dramatic harmonic shift that never arrives), the composer and his collaborators deserve credit for making everything groove and hum.
Here is the lusciously filmed official promotional video for Elements Of Light and the track “Spectral Split”:
Formed in 1971, Nexus is a Toronto-based percussion ensemble that has been making hard to classify music using a massive array of instruments for over three decades. Their repertoire spans experimental free improvisation, West African and North Indian drumming, contemporary classical pieces (including commissioned works from the likes of Toru Takemitsu and Steve Reich), original compositions by the group’s members, and George Hamilton Green’s early 20th-century ragtime music for xylophone and marimbas. Nexus’s debut concert, by the way, was entirely improvised.
While extensively trained in classical music, the members of Nexus also came of musical age at a time of profound change in North American “serious” or “classical” musical culture–a time when it was beginning to open up to influences from vernacular traditions, instruments, and sounds from far outside the walls of music conservatories. Specifically, it was in the late 1960s and early 1970s that so-called “world music” traditions from Sub-Saharan Africa, India, Indonesia, and Japan first became entrenched in a few American colleges and universities, largely thanks to pioneering graduate degree programs in ethnomusicology (the cultural study of music making) at schools such as UCLA and Wesleyan. So if you were a student at say, Wesleyan in the early 1970s, you could take lessons with master performers and learn North and South Indian classical music, traditional drumming pieces from Ghana, and play in a Javanese gamelan percussion orchestra. (Actually, you can still do this today.) Several of Nexus’s members did just that. And as they were inspired by their studies of global percussion traditions and their curiosity about these traditions’ complex rhythmic designs, the group also gradually amassed a huge collection of percussion instruments from all over the world, helping to expand and re-define the very notion of what a “classical” percussionist does in the first place. In a way then, the history of Nexus is in part a story of how “world music” traditions–from Africa, from India, from Indonesia, among many other places–have influenced and shaped the practices of Western percussionists and percussion music in general. Once upon a time, this kind of cultural encounter would have been called fusion, but the work of Nexus reminds us that all music is world music, blendable and blending together in one big sonic stew.
To illustrate, consider Nexus’s hour-long, non-stop set at Le Poisson Rouge in New York City earlier this week. They began with Fra Fra, their adaptation of a sequence of Dagomba rhythms from Northern Ghana played on talking drums, gun-gon (a buzzing bass drum), shakers, and a whistle. Then it was off to Zimbabwe for a rendition of a traditional Shona mbira (thumb piano) piece called Nhemamusasa, accompanied by African iron bell, gourd shaker, and a bass marimbula. The mbira piece faded into a long stretch of free improvisation, with each musician playing a small collection of instruments ranging from gongs, cymbals, and shakers to mouth organs, woodblocks, and bird whistles. It was during the bird call moments especially that Nexus’s subtly deep musicianship reminded the audience of the startling things that can happen when we listen and allow ourselves to be lead past technique and exotica and novelty towards micro sounds, quiet sounds, overlapping and uncertain sounds in close dialogue with one another that seem to surprise even the performers themselves as they’re making them. That’s a musical lesson I really want to remember.
The free improvisation and bird soundscapes segued into a rendition of Steve Reich’s early minimalist classic, Piano Phase (1967) played not on pianos but on custom-made wooden akadinda-style xylophones. For me, this was a particularly significant moment in the set as it was a beautiful example of Western and non-western musical traditions colliding and resonating together. On the one hand, we have a piece by Reich, one of the most significant of living classical music composers, who has made a career around repetition-heavy music. In his writings and in interviews, Reich has acknowledged the influence of West African drumming and Balinese gamelan on his composing. Indeed, in Reich’s repeating and hypnotic “phasing” processes you can hear rhythmic relationships, interlocking parts, and perceptual artifacts (weird echoes, doublings and resonances) that are also found in traditions from West Africa and Indonesia. On the other hand, we have Nexus’s custom-made akadinda (one of the group’s members, Gary Kvistad, is also an accomplished instrument designer who makes Woodstock Windchimes) which is originally an indigenous percussion instrument from Uganda. In its traditional setting, the akadinda is played by several musicians whose interlocking parts allow them to play at super fast tempos. Not only that, but in akadinda music you can hear the same kinds of weird perceptual artifacts (one ethnomusicologist once called them “inherent rhythms”) that grow out of Reich’s music (which Reich once called “resultant patterns”). All this to say that even though Reich never found explicit inspiration in traditional Ugandan music, the similarities are most definitely there. And as if to literally hammer home the point, Nexus then continued Piano Phase on a set of horizontally positioned tuned wind chimes and then, changing from mallets to ping-pong paddles, on a vertical set of tuned plastic tubes to make a more . . . wonky sound. The audience could be forgiven for thinking this was a page out of Blue Man Group. But what was happening is that we were hearing a demonstration of how rhythms are ever portable from one tradition and set of instruments to another. Music may not be a universal language (or a language at all), but its structures are like DNA–easily reproduced far from their native habitats.
And finally, as the Reich on wind chimes faded, its motif was picked up on the (western) xylophone, modulated a few half steps, and with that Nexus dove into a series of frenetic yet note-perfect early 20th-century ragtime pieces from the golden age of dance bands when the xylophone was king. When they were done, the audience was on its feet, cheering for encores as if surprised and wondering: Who knew that percussion could do all this?
Here are some YouTube clips of musics mentioned above:
“Nhemamusasa” performed on Shona mbiras:
Steve Reich’s Piano Phase:
Akadinda xylophone from Uganda:
Xylophone music composed and performed by George Hamilton Green:
The photo is me–playing a percussion part on the keyboard. This is one of the stranger wonders of the digital turn in music over the past quarter century: triggering sounds with instruments or controllers that themselves have nothing to do with those sounds. I don’t mind playing drums on the keyboard though. In fact, I’ve become pretty adept at it–learning to play snares, kicks, tom toms and cymbals by switching among those plastic black and white keys. Sure, I could get a fancy controller with squishy rubber pads to drum on (and maybe I just will and report back to you on that), but squishy rubber pads are still not real drums now are they?
I took this photo while in the middle of working on a project precisely because I was so immersed in the moment, experimenting with different tom-tom patterns. Like a deep sea diver coming up for air, I suddenly gasped at the strangeness of me drumming away on a plastic MIDI keyboard and not really caring about it one way or another, so focused I was on the sounds and the patterns. How far I’ve come in my electronic music enculturation! Or should I say: How low I’ve fallen! Whichever it is, how did I get to this musical place and is it a good thing or a bad thing or a neutral thing that I’m here?
Having been a percussionist for a fairly long time now, I still filter any music I hear or make through whatever skills and sensibilities I have at acoustic instruments that I can strike. Here’s a simple example: When I listen to the drum/percussion part of a song, I imagine the physical moves required to play this rhythmic pattern on an instrument like a drum set. It makes little difference if the part I’m hearing is human- or machine-generated–either way I hear it as a physical possibility. In this sense, I resonate as if in sympathy to the pattern, trying to feel it as I might execute it.
This is as it should be: acquired music making skills shape how we listen to music. But there are limitations here too. Indeed, how hard it is to free ourselves of thinking through our existing musical skill sets to imagining worlds beyond them! This, of course, is one of the reasons why musicians practice all the time: to keep expanding the range of what is possible to do at an instrument (and therefore imagine at an instrument). Practice is one way to expand. But what my plastic MIDI keyboard points towards is ways of accessing putting together rhythms that have nothing to do with the experience of drumming.
I find this prospect both fascinating and dismal. Fascinating because just about anything is theoretically possible when patterns can be programmed instead of played. Dismal because I wonder if the Royal Order Of Musicianship is ultimately under long-term threat from the programmers. I’m kind of joking with all that haughty capitalization, of course, but I’m serious about some kind of oral tradition lineage ultimately being endangered. (Seriously: What are the stakes for our using electronic simulacra of acoustic musical instruments?)
What is ironic is that I’m negotiating this landscape of worry myself as I make music on my computer, thinking about how my musical skills are simultaneously atrophying in some ways while truly expanding in others. And I can feel the tension as I cling to older ways of making music. For example, I still build my patterns “by hand” as it were, playing them one note at a time on the keyboard, because it’s only in the process of playing that I feel like I can exercise my musical sensibility. I could draw the notes in or cut and paste them around, I suppose, but these processes don’t feel real enough for me. It’s easier to just play and see what I can come up with on the spot. Playing also encourages me improvise and build phrases that lean towards longer than shorter.
This, finally, is why I took the photo of my finger drumming on the keyboard. It’s just a lot more fun to play something than to turn a knob, or tweak, filter, or process a sound. And so that’s what I was doing in that musical moment: playing a pattern, one note at a time.
Do you like the sounds of steel pans and gamelans? Then you might really be intrigued by the sound of the Hang, a percussion instrument created and hand-built by the Swiss company PANart (Felix Rohner and Sabina Scharer) since 2000. The Hang consists of two steel sheets welded together to make a convex shape, a little like a UFO. The top sheet has a main pitch hammered into its middle, along with 7 additional pitches located as indentations around its perimeter. The instrument almost looks like the concave steel pan turned inside out. To play the Hang you place it on your lap and tap it with your hands and fingers, which brings out the instrument’s many overtones. Due to some YouTube videos that show the Hang in action, demand for the instrument has skyrocketed in recent years. Yet there is very little information on how to obtain a Hang, besides buying a used on eBay for thousands of dollars. Moreover, PANart has no website with information on how obtain one. I have a percussionist friend who has one or two, but I’m a little afraid to ask how he obtained them (!) It’s all a little pleasantly mysterious in a time when just about everything is one click away on Amazon.com.
As with so many audio-video things, YouTube is a good place to check out the Hang in action. Here’s a clip of the most-watched Hang video (over two million views so far): an original piece by the Austrian percussionist Manu Delago. The piece is a moody and catchy one, showcasing the Hang’s tuning and dynamic range, along with Delago’s groovy percussionist’s rhythmic flow. You can watch his performance here.
If you want to get your hands on the Hang’s sound but like many of us have no access to obtaining the actual instrument itself, you might want to consider downloading a sampled version. The company Soniccouture sells a virtual instrument called “Pan Drum” which is a meticulously sampled Hang drum that has earned rave reviews.
Soniccouture specializes in reproductions of instruments from around the world, including the Chinese gu-qin, the khim Thai dulcimer, the Balinese gamelan, and a version of the mbira from Zimbabwe. For US $79.00 you can own Soniccouture’s Hang samples and play them from your MIDI keyboard, add effects, and mutate them to your liking. Soniccouture’s website describes its Hang software as “a unique and evocative instrument that will bring indefinable atmosphere to all kinds of musical production …”
Unique and evocative? Indefinable atmosphere? All of this talk about musical mood leads us back to timbre, or sound “quality” in music. Timbre isn’t everything, of course, but it’s a whole lot of what makes one music sound different from another. Think of the crunchy distorted electric guitar timbres in rock and metal musics, or the liquid metallic shimmer of steel bands, gamelans, and now, the Hang. Timbre is a big part of why we are attracted to or repelled by a music. Companies such as Soniccouture recognize our love of timbre and the simple fact that different timbres make us feel different things; they may even mean different things. And so we continue searching for new sounds for making our music.