Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Amateur Exploits

Still-shot from Lasse Gjertsen's percussive viral video, Amateur.

**Note** Around a year ago I emailed Modern Drummer Magazine some of my writing and asked about maybe writing something for them in the future and they were very encouraging and open to the idea, so I wrote a piece on the growing popularity of abstract kinds of percussion in popular music and some recent examples I found interesting. In the end they liked the piece but didn't think it fit in with the way the magazine is geared and asked if I could make it a little more into a "how to" piece. I got lazy and didn't alter it, and it sat dormant in a folder until I just remembered it.

The big thrill for me wasn't that I got to maybe be published in MD (although it's still something I'd like to do), it was that I had an excuse to interview Chad VanGaalen, whom I am a big fan of and who was a big inspiration for this article.

I thought I'd bring it out because I worked hard on it at the time, and it would be a shame if it just disappeared sometime when my hard drive crashes and I'm too lazy to retrieve it, so here it is.

Throughout the history of drumming, the most talented players have always been the ones to push the boundaries of the art of drumming. When Dave Brubeck came home from a US State Department tour of Europe and Asia, he wanted to write music in the odd time signatures he had heard throughout the villages and towns during his travels. He hired Joe Morello as the man to work these time signatures into something tangible on the drum kit. As a result, Time Out went on to sell millions of copies and open drummers’ minds to a completely different way of interpreting rhythm. One year later Billy Higgins and Ed Blackwell pushed things even further by playing completely out of time on Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz, an accomplishment whose influence continues today in the avant-garde movement.

As years went on, drummers always came along and made important contributions to the craft. Players like Jaki Leibezeit from Can and Alan Myers from Devo would influence a whole new crop of drummers, but towards the end of the 90’s something changed. Home recording gear was not only becoming easier to access -- mostly due to a significant drop in price -- but the Internet was also making it easier to deliver your music to a wider audience. The traditional sound of a drum kit on independent recordings was replaced by electronic samples and homegrown means of percussion, something for a bedroom recording artist that was easier to record and manipulate. All drummers at some point have encountered the old adage of “anyone can play the drums”. It’s a statement usually meant as a joke or to offend, but by approaching percussion from a different angle, artists everywhere are proving it to be true.

Chad VanGaalen is a critically acclaimed songwriter from Canada who has taken home recording to a new level. The press photo for his album Soft Airplanes features VanGaalen in front of a Frankestein’ed mound of drums and percussion instruments duct-taped and wired together with various mallets and gizmos popping out at every direction. For people searching for new and interesting sounds, it’s candy for the ears. His songs are often dark and murky pieces with enough structure and melody to attract the average music fan on the first listen, and contain enough interesting sounds and arrangements to keep even the most elitist music fan coming back for more.

“Home recording has changed a lot since I have been doing it, starting out with a couple of boom boxes,” he says. “I was really limited to how hissy stuff started getting. Now everyone has laptops with pimped out digital 24 tracks on them so the sky’s the limit.”

While some artist see the limitations of bedroom recording as constrictive, VanGaalen uses it as a way to re-think percussion.

“If you have a small home studio in a bedroom it’s probably not an option to set up a fully mic’ed kit, so you are forced to use different ways to get approximately the same sound or possibly a better sound if you’re lucky.”

Chad is proof that with a little imagination, you can create memorable parts regardless of skill.

“I have no formal drum training,” he says, “my drumming influences come from listening to Sonic Youth records over and over”.

Chad with his creation

Bedroom recording artists aren’t the only people making leaps in the world of percussion. In 2003 the critically acclaimed, multi-platinum Icelandic rock band Sigur Rós recorded Ba Ba Ti Ki Di Do, a 20 minute piece of music to accompany a dance piece by Merce Cunnigham. The piece is littered with the pitter-patter of a percussion instrument composed of several ballet slippers and tap dancing shoes. The shoes are rarely played in any discernable time, and they are the only rhythmic accompaniment in the entire piece. It’s an abstract approach to percussion that has long been around in experimental recordings, but that has rarely been used in popular music.

The popularity of viral videos is also bringing a visual element into the mix. In Lasse Gjertsen’s short film “Amateur”, Lasse used short video clips of himself hitting individual parts of a drum kit then applied his skills as a video editor to create and shape a rhythm, eventually doing the same thing with various notes on a piano and creating a song. Gjertsen can neither play the piano nor the drums, which is what makes this video so remarkable. By breaking down rhythm into sections of single hits and building it into a piece of music, Lasse proves that you don’t need years of practice to develop a keen sense of rhythm. By approaching it from a different angle and using the skills available to him he wrote a song without ever learning an instrument. Despite the title, the video is no amateur endeavor. To date it has received nearly twelve million views.

Other artists manage to take traditional approaches to percussion but with unorthodox objects. In Julian Smith’s “Techno Jeep,” a group of people uses the doors and internal sounds of a standard Jeep to create a multi-layered rhythm. Throw in some snazzy video edits and a little choreography and you have another successful viral video, 2.5 million views and counting.

It’s because percussion itself is such an accessible art form that these advancements are possible. Anything with a surface can be used in some incarnation as an instrument. Once the fundamental notes are learned on instruments like the piano or the saxophone, you are then taught a series of rules that adhere to structure and tonality. These rules are not infrangible, but only the most skilled and experienced players can bend and break them and still keep the music coherent. When it comes to percussion, the only limit imposed on your playing is your imagination; any oddball pattern can be used as a foundation for a larger musical piece.

An art form needs to always be re-inventing itself in order to stay relevant. If advancements in our craft by others who aren’t traditional drummers by are ignored, we run the risk of rendering ourselves obsolete. Drummers need to find a way to approach their instrument with the right mixture of technical ability and abstract thinking in order to push forward. If a homemade instrument played by someone with no training can be used as a rhythmic base for a song, imagine what someone who has in-depth knowledge of dynamics, rudiments and complicated patterns, as well as the ability to play them could do. Amateurs have proven that there are unlimited ways to interpret rhythm and structure; it’s up to drummers to apply it. Anyone can play the drums it’s true, but a drummer with the correct sense of creativity and ability will never have to defend himself, their playing will speak for itself.


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