Interface: On The Ergonomics Of Musical Instruments

“Most of the works are not about something–they are not trying to tell something–but they are more made like interfaces for the viewer.”
– Cevdet Erek

Recently I came across the music of the Turkish artist and musician Cevdet Erek, who creates sound art installation works that deal with sounds, space, and rhythm. Here is some video of his excitingly-titled “Room of Rhythms” (which I imagine is completely immersive bass-wise when you’re actually in it):

And here is a short profile on Erek:

Erek plays the davul, a Turkish double-headed bass drum struck with a mallet and a thin stick. The davul is commonly used in folk music, not only in Turkey, but also in Iran, Albania, Romania, Bulgaria, Armenia, Serbia, Macedonia, and Greece. (Interestingly, the Greek name for the davul is davouli, and in Greece the instrument sometimes goes by the names toumpano/tymbana/toubi, all of which connect to the Greek tympano—the source of the name for the modern timpani drums of the western orchestra.)

Erek’s recording Davul features the drum solo, in all its abstract beauty. I wouldn’t call this easy listening music, but then this blog is not about easy listening. Anyway, here is the first track, “Heal”:

As I was listening I started thinking about the ergonomics of playing an acoustic instrument–in this case, a davul drum with two different kinds of sticks at the same time. Then it occurred to me how difficult or even impossible it would be to program Erek’s freeform and flowing rhythms in my DAW software. How would I render all those timbral and timing subtleties? This lead me to marvel and wonder at how it is that musicians interface so well with time-tested acoustic musical instruments and how far electronic ones still have to go to earn our goodwill. With hands and sticks we connect seamlessly with our drums and percussion instruments. Ditto with our keyboards, and our lutes where one hand usually frets and the other bows or plucks. It’s all so ergonomic: we designed acoustic instruments with our playing bodies in mind, while at the same time we have spent centuries adapting ourselves to instrumental demands and resistances. Listening to Erek play I thought about how the electronic and digital turns in music making raise enduring questions: How do we relate to our instruments and thus to our musics? Can I interface with my laptop software the way Erek does with his davul? Is the electronic musician’s modality of relating—pushing buttons, turning knobs, triggering clips and scenes, etc.—still in need of thinking through?

For more posts on the ergonomics of music making:

https://brettworks.com/2017/05/03/on-knowing-music-in-practice-and-in-theory/

https://brettworks.com/2015/06/07/on-the-ergonomics-of-music-reflections-on-flow-in-steve-reichs-drumming/

https://brettworks.com/2011/07/20/on-expressivity-in-musical-performance-the-korg-wavedrum/

The Percussionist

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The next time you’re at a concert
notice the melodists up front
–those singing, strumming,
bowing or blowing through pipes–
and watch them sway with the tune
as if they invented its themes
as if they’re unlocking its emotions

then notice the rhythmicists at the back
–those drumming hammer blows
or mallet strikes–
and feel how they subdivide music’s time,
decorating it through accents
counting custodians of synchrony
who guide the melodists
on their flights of fancy.

On The Ergonomics Of Music: Reflections On Flow In Steve Reich’s “Drumming”

“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:

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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:

On Pantha Du Prince And Bell Laboratory’s Elements Of Light

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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”:

On The Filtering Of World Music: A Nexus Percussion Performance

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?

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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:

Real/Fake Drumming On A Fake/Real Keyboard: Thinking About Virtual Musicianship

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.