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the electrified kit



the electrified kit I took up drums at school after messing about with banjo, guitar and trumpet. I wanted to be in a band and since everybody played the guitar, I started messing about at weekends with three other friends at school, playing metal boxes and an old cymbal. Later I got a second-hand marching bass drum and a snare - by which time the four of us were rehearsing regularly, mostly trying to play Shadows and other instrumentals by listening to and copying records. About a year later I had assembled a rudimentary kit and the two guitarists and bass-player had replaced the radio they all played through with a real guitar amplifier. We felt ready at last for our first public performance - a Christmas party at the supermarket where two of us had a weekend job. I seemed to have become a drummer.

For the next few years I struggled with tuning and technique, but my attitude to my accidental instrument remained equivocal: on the one hand I wanted to get to the bottom of it, on the other I still wanted melody, sustain and greater timbral range than drums seemed able to deliver, however they were played.

Since I was self taught, I didn't find out about rudiments until I had already been playing along with records for a while and I suspect that's why I formed, from the very beginning, a top-down rather than bottom-up approach to playing; and why the sound, rather than the rudiments, became the centre from which I instinctively worked. Perhaps I should clarify this. Books and teachers start with the elements: tiny modules, individual patterns and exercises, and then show you how to use them to assemble a complete drum part: you take this pattern, add that one, spice it up with grace notes and syncopations - and there it is. This is a thinking built on modules and assembly. I learned the opposite way, thinking, hearing or imagining a whole and then trying to discipline my hands and feet to produce it. Using this method, individual parts simply emerge as epiphenomenal effects. When I say I was driven by sound, I mean the whole that I heard I heard as a sound rather than an agglomerated rhythmic pattern. It was this sound that I was trying to make happen, not the discrete elements of a rhythm.

OK: R & B, Soul Music, dues-paying and suddenly it's 1966. By this time I was moderately competent and playing in a band that had stretched its musical material so far it had given up trying to find work and just rehearsed every week. I think it was then that I started to think drums might be interesting after all, because although solidly grounded in their slow growth through jazz and big-band music - and imaginatively extended through the pioneering work of the likes of Edgard Varese, John Cage, Bebop, Free Jazz and some Pop productions - I had the feeling that, in my own field at least, drums were still very much at the beginning of their dramatic emancipation into twentieth century aesthetics. There was a lot to be discovered. It was a feeling that coincided with my own arrival at the point where I felt able to stop imitating and start actually playing.

By the middle of 1966, the band I was in had taken up with unorthodox compositions, noise and improvisation - and little by little had dropped out of playing music for dancing and had began to play music for listening (though we didn't make that distinction at the time: we just rehearsed every week while the room slowly filled up with people who turned up to listen). We thought we had fallen off the map, but in fact a whole generation of musicians was headed in the same direction and within a year additive rhythms, extended structures, improvisation, electronics, noise, compositional complexity and elements from contemporary jazz and new music had all found their way into what had started out as rock.1 (In fact I'm sure it's true to say that in that period a lot of people who thought of themselves as rock musicians suddenly found themselves forced to reconsider their status and musical goals - most of them inspired by listening to, and learning from, other musics). For a while, unfamiliar sounds, extended techniques and mass importations from other genres became the rule. It was a cultural moment that quickly passed as rock went back to basics in the middle of the seventies - but for a few of it's actors it marked the starting point of an approach to music they would never henceforth abandon: sound as art.

Five years later I joined Henry Cow, a group of that new breed irrevocably immersed in experimentation, improvisation, post nineteenth century composition and extended performing techniques. It was in Henry Cow that I first electrified my kit.




Of course, I was aware of Tony Oxley and Paul Lytton and their first vital steps - adding pickups and amplification to cymbals and various additions to their kits - Lytton was especially prescient in his use of electronics (FMRCD81-0501 for 1974 recording -, and of Karlheinz Stockhausen's earlier Mikrophonie 1 for Tam Tam, microphones and potentiometers (1964) and Cage's earlier still Cartridge Music (1960) - as well as having observed at first hand the transforming effects of electrification on a variety of string and reed instruments. So why not percussion?

I started, very crudely, with telephone mouthpieces, an amplifier and a reverb unit, adding a small mixer about a year later so that I could have four or five independent inputs. Because they were free floating, I could move the mouthpieces toward and away from sounding drums or cymbals - or just let them rest on surfaces. It was very basic: a few low-grade imputs and only equalisation and reverberation to play with. It was this set up I used for some of the stranger Art Bears tracks (eg. The Tube, 1977) and extensively in duo performances with Fred Frith (eg. Live in Prague and Washington, 1978). It was exiting for me, but still fairly raw. I had electronic sounds to work with, but by no means yet an instrument.

By the time of Cassiber (1982), I was using two small mixers, more processing devices (a pitch shifter and a delay unit) and had begun to use cheap guitar transducers and a table full of additional wired objects (pans, metal trays, small tambours, an egg-slicer). I had also expanded the range of materials with which to strike or scrape things, adding hairbrushes, chopsticks, cocktail mixers, a massager, violin bow, chain, grooved rods, spoons, and so on. It was a step in the Cartridge Music direction - the idea of a microphone as a microscope - but in the main I was still thinking of the electronics as a voluntary extension of the normal kit and of switching from one to the other, or mixing the two in limited ways. But at least some of the kit was now permanently wired and I was beginning to look for ways to integrate the electronic and acoustic components further. An instrument was beginning to emerge.




In the meantime, commercial versions of electronic drums had appeared as part of the general revolution initiated by sampling. These were not without a certain appeal. It is a fact of life that acoustic drums are hard to tune and sound different in every resonant space. They are also limited to a very narrow range of sonorities that once tuned can't easily be changed, certainly not between one piece of music and another. Re-tuning a drum, unlike re-tuning a guitar, takes a fairly long time and can be very irritating if done in public - and while mixing engineers controlling the PA sound in the room are able to exercise a certain amount of timbral control using effects and filters, this is both limited in scope and outside the control of the player. Electronic drums were set to change all this.




The idea couldn't have been simpler: record all the drum sounds you could ever want to use, store them in a sampler (which is just a very sophisticated recording device) and then assign whatever sounds you want to a series of keys or pads. Whenever you strike a key or pad, out comes whatever sound you assigned to it. Huge Gran Casa, Piccolo Snare, Guiro, Tam-Tam, anything. While an acoustic drum (like an acoustic guitar) produces a comfortably audible sound by resonating a relatively quiet one in a hollow enclosure, a pad drum, like an electric guitar, doesn't need any resonating enclosure and it can be solid, flat and any size you want - because the pad is not making any sound; it's just a switch; it's just opening a gate and letting a sound come through from somewhere else. Since the player can assign any sound to any pad and change these pre-set allocations instantly, it becomes child's play to design different drum sounds for every piece (or even to change them in transit) so that in any combination or order one might work with a rock kit, a jazz kit, a set of classical percussion, gamelan, wholly artificial electronic drum sounds, or even (why not?) rain, birdsong, car accident and trombone: such a technology puts the design of the sound palette entirely in the hands of the performer. On the face of it, then, sampling seemed to be offering an almost limitless extension of the sonic possibilities of percussion - and it sat happily with the general observation that virtual instrument design has to be a commonplace of working with electrified or electronic systems.

I experimented very briefly with samples and understood almost at once that they were not for me. Apart from the fact that they were triggered by being hit, they didn't really share any other qualities with drums at all. Pads are just a complementary system that sits alongside - or replaces - an acoustic drum. There is no hybridisation, mutation or evolution, just two wholly different systems running in parallel.

Indeed, I would say that when it comes to using pads to get hyper-real drum sounds or to play moderately conventional parts, fully automated machines are much better at it, and the brutality of their invariant sound sits better with the quantised rhythmic perfection of a machine than it does with the fuzziness of a fallible human drummer. And of course, once sequencers and programmable drum machines came into use, they proved infinitely more capable than humans of playing impossibly fast, impossibly complex or impossibly co-ordinated parts. Moreover, they never make mistakes. Meanwhile, for triggering and manipulating stranger sounds, a keyboard offers far more control and flexibility in general than hitting something with a stick.




At the heart of the problem I had with samples was the fact that they were unresponsive and inflexible. As a drummer I was used to - in fact I was wholly dependent upon - the minute differences in sound that arise out of the subtle interactions between the tuning of an instrument, the acoustic space in which it resonates, the material with which it is exited (hit, scrape, bounce), the exact pressure, velocity and nature of the stroke and the precise location of that stroke (every drum or cymbal produces different overtones and resonances at every point on its surface). Any variation in any one of these parameters makes a difference, and all the skills of expressive playing depend on knowing (or feeling) exactly how hard, exactly where and exactly with what, to hit, agitate or caress some resonant material in order to make it sound the way you need it to sound. In addition, drums is a multiple instrument and a drummer is always playing several different things at the same time - all of them in close proximity - so inevitably they affect and modify one another: bass drum resonating through floor tom, overtones and frequencies blending.... and of course, such a setting-of-a-system-in-motion is an important part of the controlled gestalt of playing - and therefore of the vocabulary of an experienced player. This is all lost with pads and samples. No matter where you hit a pad - or how hard, or with what - exactly the same sound comes out. There is nothing to resonate and nothing to set-in-motion. Such systems inevitably render traditional performing skills more or less irrelevant. The fact is, you are never actually making any sound but merely opening the door to a sound that is already there. I'm not running samples and samplers down, I'm just pointing out that they are part of a technology calling for techniques and musical aesthetics wholly different from those involved in playing traditional instruments.2




Knowing what I missed with samples helped clarify what I wanted from electrification: an instrument that would respond to the minutia of performative variations, interact with itself and retain all the qualities of an acoustic instrument while extending itself completely into the electronic realm. An instrument in fact like an electric guitar, in which many of the techniques and attributes associated with the acoustic version are preserved but massively extended. I didn't want to programme - or buy - readymade sounds, I wanted to exploit the enormous complexity and instant controllability of the acoustic percussion I knew, and to use these sounds the primary source of subsequent electronic modification.

That was when I started to wire my entire kit. I now use a 16 channel mixer with 2 effect ways, allowing sixteen separate inputs, each with it's own individual control over equalisation, volume and additional effects processing. The processors I use, at present, are a multi-effect unit (100 different programmable effects, selectable on a scrolling button), a 'Space pedal' (various effects, including reverse, harmoniser .....) a 'Whammy pedal' (pitch shifting 2 octaves up, 2 octaves down and all points between controllable on a foot-pedal with a range of different selectable harmonisations), a PDS 8000 (1-8 second delay, with varispeed control) and an ancient Boss pitch shifter/delay unit that I use mainly on one cymbal (it produces extraordinarily low gong-like pitches, sweeping through to high tones - and a whole range of other effects. I can send any amount of any signal to any or all of these effects, and I can change any parameter of any of them in real time.

Once everything was wired, I discovered that it was better to use miniature microphones on most of the drums instead of transducers. They are airier, lighter, more responsive and more subtle. For everything else I still prefer transducers. I also use a pair of sticks tipped with tiny microphones, which are not only mobile and amplify whatever I touch - or approach - but also give minute (and startling) control over the amplitude and timbral variations associated with distance and motion (drastic diminuendo/crescendo, shifting overtone clusters, massive starting transiences, and so on). With a monitor speaker near the kit I also have access to feedback and semi-chaotic interference between the 16 live microphones and transducers. In other words, I can still, but in far more complex ways, work with what I earlier called setting-in-motion.




So far not much of this memoir has been about musical results; it has been more about instrument design and in that respect I have moved continually towards flexibility, versatility and interactivity - with adjustments and additions always following lessons learned at an earlier stage. It is an instrument that is continually evolving and I see no end to this. Right now, it is satisfyingly unpredictable, answering to all my old techniques while continually generating new ones. It speaks naturally to the top down approach to playing and the instinctive preoccupation with sound I outlined at the beginning of this memoir. It is certainly an instrument that can be set in motion. Moreover, the extremes of electronic processing now available leave my early desire for access to melody, sustain and greater timbral range mostly met and sometimes surpassed. It is a genuine hybrid, part 'pure electronic', part acoustic and part extended acoustic, with a range of aesthetics and techniques borrowed from all three domains. Finally, it has its own voice, a voice which still relates directly to my personal tunings, techniques and selection of amplificands and processors. I couldn't buy it, and I've never heard anything else like it.




It still feels to me as if I am not so much trying to make the instrument do what I want it to do as to discover what it wants - and then argue with it in public. That's certainly what convinced me finally to start doing solo performances. Playing alone obliges me to treat the instrument as an equal - a thing with its own mind with which I have to negotiate and co-evolve; and believe me, there is nothing that speeds up the process of evolution like having to work alone under the real-time pressure of a potentially bored paying public. Like Dr. Johnson's prospect of being hung at dawn, a solo concert wonderfully focuses the mind.





1 There was an accepted confluence of arts and thinking in the late 1960's. Of course we went to see Stockhausen, Berio, Boulez, Kagel, Hendrix, Soft Machine, Frank Zappa; and of course we read McLuhan, Buckminster Fuller, Thomas Sszaz and RD Laing, as well as Gunther Grass and Hunter Thompson; of course we went to see Lichtenstein, Warhol, Rauschenberg and Fluxus as well as Godard, Anger, Kurasawa and Fellini - and of course we followed the New Jazz on records as well as the new everything else. History was as close to itself as I've ever known it and there seemed to be very little delay between something new appearing and everyone who wanted to know finding out about it. Perhaps it was the closest we got a real-time culture (pace the incoherent internet) return to text

2 Perhaps that's why some of the best exponents are not musicians in the accepted sense but players who approached the new instruments without existing skills and inherited preconceptions? return to text



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