By Brian Chase
Over the past ten years, I’ve been on an endless quest to uncover the ‘hidden’ melodic material contained within the resonance of a drum. This topic has been of continual fascination since my early days as a drummer. Once, for a high school project, I decided to adapt Bach cantatas for four piece drum set. I charted out my arrangements with the intention to capture the melodic shape and harmonic color of the original works. The arrangements were practiced and eventually recorded on a four track which my drum teacher had given me. The pieces were kinda cool but what I remember was that I regarded them as a failure in regards to my original plan. But, perhaps most importantly, it was an immense learning experience. What I learned was that in my approach I was way too ‘literal’ in terms of translating the melodic content from Bach’s original compositions to the instrument of drums. In these experiments, I learned that drums ‘don’t work that way.’ To convey melodic content as a drummer is not about literally playing a melody on drums, i.e., having a massive amount of drums to represent a quantity of pitches; this in effect turns the drums into a type of ‘piano.’ The main idea when it comes to conveying melody and harmony on a drum is to do so through 'suggestion.' This means being able to manipulate tone, timbre, and rhythm in a variety of ways to express the essence of any musical tonality, gesture, and mood.
Further supporting this notion is the amazing legacy of jazz drummers and their contributions to musical evolution. The jazz tradition, in the span of its first fifty years, goes through an unbelievably rapid technical progression that covers core musical trends of the 20th century, everything from pop music to the avant-garde. With that, drumming has played a major role in shaping and reflecting these shifts in musical styles. How would we compare the drum solos in the time of Count Basie to that of 60s free jazz or the angular chromaticism of early Anthony Braxton? The percussion instrument in these cases is the same, typically a four piece drumkit, but the conceptual and technical strategies of the musicians are very different. Not only are rhythm and phrasing treated differently, but the whole sonic outlook of the instrument itself. This is what has been one of my many lifelong questions as a drummer: how do I suggest a world of musical possibilities in just one drum?
My musical life has found me in a very wide variety of disciplines and settings: classical percussionist, pop drummer, punk rocker, jazzer, improvisor, sound artist, tabla player, etc. In each instance, my expressivity as a drummer has developed as my relationship to the instrument has grown. Throughout these various contexts I’ve been discovering what it means for drums to suggest and complement melody and mood. What kicked this quest into high gear was my solo project, Drums and Drones. This project started in 2007 with the aim to thoroughly explore the harmonic content of a drum. The initial inspiration to embark on this journey came from a legendary sound and light installation in NYC, Dream House, by artists La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela. From my time volunteering at the Dream House, I grew deeply fascinated by the physiological influence of acoustics and by what it means to 'listen deeply.' I devoutly studied the principles of Just Intonation and conceived of ways to apply this microtonal tuning system to drums and percussion. The first instances of these experiments were the beginnings of the Drums and Drones project.
Drums and Drones has often been described as ‘going inside the sound of a drum.’ What this means is that it isolates and exposes microscopic pieces of sonic information that comprise the overall tone of a drum, and uses them as compositional elements. This is often accompanied by an aspect of ‘meditative listening': that hearing these subtleties is supported by qualities of stillness, openness, and discernment. From the drumming standpoint, I developed a wide range of techniques for ‘finding’ and ‘playing’ the specific resonant tones of drum harmonics. Two avenues developed, both in tandem and in parallel: one acoustic and one electroacoustic. In this article we will focus on the acoustic methods.
Presented in this article are video demonstrations of some of the acoustic methods found in the Drums and Drones project. They are a bit extreme in their mission: they are designed to use the harmonic content of a drum to make music. Whereas most drumming uses compositional devices to suggest melodic contour (i.e., phrasing, dynamics, timbre shifts, etc.) the Drums and Drones style uses the pitches of drums themselves. What appeals to me most in this case is that drums are treated in a way that is typically overlooked: that drums are indeed pitched instruments. Whether or not these techniques apply directly to you the reader-percussionist and your immediate musical needs, I do hope that they serve to enhance your expressive range on the instrument and understanding of the ‘hidden’ capabilities of the instrument itself.
As an important note, an essential component that comes with this type of playing is tuning. I can be fanatical about tuning drumheads. What tuning means in this case is that the drumhead is ‘in tune with itself:’ there is an equal tension across the circumference of the head. It took me a long while of practice to develop the ears and skills to properly tune a drum. It isn’t simple as there are many variables that can be obstacles. In my personal experience, there are three main factors that go into successfully tuning a drum: discerning the difference between the overtones and the fundamental, tuning one head while the making sure the other side is muted, and understanding how the different lugs function interdependently with one another. To go further on tuning would require another blog post or two. Keep in mind that, in the following videos, the pitches that I am deriving from the drums results from the drumhead being in tune with itself.
The material discussed below is largely based on the album Drums and Drones III: Acoustic which was released in June of 2018. During the recording process, after a performance was finished, I would take a moment to video document the specific techniques that were used. This album is available via bandcamp and also as part of the triple album and 144 page book, Drums and Drones: Decade (Chaikin Records), which culminates the first ten years of the Drums and Drones project. All quotes below are excerpts from the book.
1. Isolated Harmonics
This first video clip features a technique that is the compositional basis for an ongoing series in the Drums and Drones catalog entitled “Melody Drum Drone.” As of now there are four recorded versions of this piece which appear across three albums. The video below was shot following the recording of “Melody Drum Drone, v.4” and showcases that piece's simple pitch-set. Referring to the recording, I write:
This lead track demonstrates a method integral to the Drums and Drones project: that of deriving harmonics direct from the drumhead. Inherent in this method, and equally significant to Drums and Drones on a conceptual level, is the notion that from a single entity (i.e. the drumhead) there exists many constituent parts (i.e. the harmonics) … (p.87)
This next clip is taken from the recording session for the second Drums and Drones album, Drums and Drones II: Ataraxia, which took place during an artist residency at Headlands Center for the Arts. In this video, I am again demonstrating a similar method as in the first, though with a more varied pitch-set and with more animated dynamics. There is some electronic enhancement happening via computer software. The software is running very precise eq to gently boost the resonant frequencies of the overtones.
A drumhead is tuned to a single pitch, one frequency, and resonates with rich harmonic detail. From there the overtone series can be uncovered and expressed. The Drums and Drones project deals directly with approaching drums and percussion from the standpoint of Just Intonation. (p. 26)
2. Tonal Shading
This clip was taken following the performance of the piece, “Edges Drum”. The technical intention here was to highlight, through the use of tonal shading and harmonic character, the drum’s ability to play melody and suggest thematic melodic material.
If we were to take an ‘aural snapshot’ of the sound of a drum, and zoom in on that snapshot, we can then pick apart and isolate some of the many individual frequencies that comprise the overall resonance of a drum. (p. 59)
3. Open Harmonics
The style of open harmonic playing comes from that of striking the drum head in different ways to achieve specific variances in harmonic character, and allowing the drum to ring. As a result, the drum produces its version of “chords.” This clip demonstrates the three main striking positions for the piece, “Well Drums.” The drums were tuned to the 3rd and 4th harmonics, an interval similar to a perfect fourth. Since most of the Drums and Drones material deals with sonic subtlety, many of the pieces are built around repetition to allow for the listening process to “open up.” Of this relationship between minimalism and the listener,
…the music is ‘sculpted’ in such a way that it yields a continually shifting perception of a seemingly endless multitude of sides, and, though the piece itself never changes, the relationship of the listener to the artwork is always changing. In addition, the longer a listener sits with the music, the more the process of hearing begins to open to reveal perceptively new sonic elements that were always already there. (p. 81)
The videos included in this article demonstrate just a few of the main techniques used for the acoustic Drums and Drones compositions. There is a whole other side to the project that is electroacoustic. That is for another post.
Some words in sum:
The Drums and Drones project was developed as a way to explore and bring forth the subtle resonances of a drum. Hearing the drum in its glorious complexity is what made me want to investigate it further. In the ‘sound of a drum’ I heard a whole universe of individual tones. (p.139)
Drums and Drones: Decade is available at www.chaikinrecords.com.
The Wire magazine writes: “an indispensable statement on how drummers hear sound."
Brian Chase is a drummer and composer living in Brooklyn, NY. He is best known as drummer with Grammy nominated rock band Yeah Yeah Yeahs yet his music extends further to the community of the NYC experimental scene. For the past ten years an important focus has been his Drums and Drones solo project which in 2018 released a retrospective triple album and book on his Chaikin Records label. Brian has been a visiting professor at Bennington College and a guest presenter at the So Percussion Summer Institute at Princeton University.