my fancy soundcloud account lapsed a few months ago, so it’s been sitting lonely for awhile while i’ve been enjoying the wonders of bandcamp. last night i gave it a little love and added this thing: electric guitar with drinking glass, butter dish, coffee can, triangle, woodblock, the usuals. you know.
imagine this song with fuzzy guitars and drums, and that is pretty much the band i’m playing with right now. i’m so excited about it.
one thing about all of this is that i haven’t “been in a band” since 1997, but in that time, i have been in numerous orchestras, concert bands, percussion ensembles, and chamber groups, i’ve studied all manner of percussion, i’ve earned two music degrees and become a full time music teacher. i’ve been thinking about how all of that is making this such a different experience this time. so much to say.
but the other thing is that this is just one piece of my musical life, and it’s a piece that has been missing for too long. as a percussionist, i often get asked what my favorite percussion instrument is, and while some are closer to my heart than others, the thing that’s best about being a percussionist is the versatility. i like to play drums in a rock band. i like to make noisy recordings of myself banging on coffee cans. i like to play vibraphone. i like to play timpani in an orchestra. i like to play sousa marches on snare drum. i like to wear a tuxedo and juggle woodblocks and triangles and tambourines in the back of a concert band. i like to play for post-modern dancers in secret warehouse spaces. i like to play in dive bars. i like big cymbal crashes, gut-churning timpani rolls, unsettling odd meter grooves, and a steady 4/4 on a 3-piece drum kit.
i mean, i would not be able to pick a favorite finger, you know?
the last time i was in a band, it was 1997. of course, i’ve been playing music with people all the time in all kinds of situations, so when i say “band,” i mean a band-band: the kind without sheet music, the kind that plays shows in dirty bars, the kind where you make it all up yourselves. you know.
from the time i was 13 until i was 17, playing in a band was pretty much what i did and what i was known for: forming bands with other kids nearby, schlepping my drums from one suburban living room to the next, playing shows at crusty all-ages venues and rock bars that i wasn’t old enough to actually get into, sometimes (gasp) on school nights.
then my playing-in-bands days ended very abruptly and traumatically, and i was more interested in classical music by that time, so i took refuge in the back of the orchestra and went away to music school where i was too busy perfecting my snare drum roll and learning 4-mallet marimba solos, and (let’s face it) most music majors have horrible taste in recreational music anyway. then i went to graduate school and became a full-time teacher, and other things just took over.
i’ve recently started playing in a band again, and it feels like this piece of my musical life has been replaced after being missing and unnoticed for a really long time.
sometimes, no matter how many meters you have at your immediate disposal, no matter how many pieces there are on your kit, no matter how many music degrees you have, a straight-ahead rock beat in 4/4 is the right answer, and that’s okay.
“Percussion music is revolution. Sound and rhythm have too long been submissive to the restrictions of nineteenth century music. Today we are fighting for their emancipation. Tomorrow, with electronic music in our ears, we will hear freedom. At the present stage of revolution, a healthy lawlessness is warranted. Experiment must necessarily be carried on by hitting anything-tin pans, rice bowls, iron pipes-anything we can lay our hands on. Not only hitting, but rubbing, scraping, making sound in every possible way…What we can’t do ourselves will be done by machines which we will invent.”—John Cage. Of course.
one thing i’ve noticed is how, as a percussionist, my living space really impacts the sound of the music that i make; i can hear these little periods in my music based on where i was living at the time…the townhouse where i had a drum set and a vibraphone, and could play without the next door neighbors complaining. the summer when i had the vibraphone at my current apartment and no downstairs neighbors, but my drum set was at a separate space. the recordings i make at my studio space, where i have a drum set and a lot of metal junk and can play as loud as i want. or the ones i make when i’m feeling inspired to record but it’s late and i don’t want to bother my up- or downstairs neighbors.
this recording falls squarely into the last category: layers and layers of small instruments played softly with light sticks, a combination of my living space and my love of Lou Harrison’s early percussion music.
despite the fact that electronic sounds don’t really do it for me, i really like my little korg monotron. someday, i’ll figure out how to actually operate its knobs to do my bidding, but until then, i’m content to just fiddle around until it does something neat. here’s some of that with other assorted doodads that were within my headphone-wearing reach.
“It is better to make a piece of music than to perform one, better to perform one than to listen to one, better to listen to one than to misuse it as a means of distraction, entertainment, or acquisition of ‘culture’.”—John Cage.
rule #2: if you don’t like how it sounds, don’t do it.
that’s all. it doesn’t matter if it came from the last chapter of your college music theory textbook, or from your friend’s toddler slapping their electric guitar, or if it was the first thing you played when you got back to your instrument after being on a break.
if you haven’t already noticed, lately i’ve been tending toward the sloppy, the noisy, the clangy, the haphazard. i’m getting back in touch with my punk roots via my multiple-percussion-degreed background, i guess. last week, i described the kind of music i want to make as “if john cage and lou harrison were kim deal’s gay dads, and then she threw a distortion pedal at steve reich’s head,” and i feel like that’s pretty much what i’ve been churning out for the past…year?
i guess i’m just feeling a little weary of all the overly-crafted, precious indie pop, the drum machines, the synthesized everything, the music with all the humanity polished and produced out of it.
i just want to make some weird noisy beats where sometimes things don’t line up all the way and sometimes the signal is too loud and things get distorted.
After reading Steve Albini’s letter to Nirvana the other day, this article is hitting me in a weird way. It’s is sort of interesting, I guess, but part of me wonders what the point is in cataloging “mistakes” on famous recordings. Anal-retentiveness? Bringing music idols (that we’ve created in the first place) down to our level? Collecting evidence that such-and-such band is actually overrated? Making ourselves feel better about our own “mistakes”? Reminding ourselves that there are actual humans on the other side of that disc?
Making music is messy. Notes get flubbed, tempos push, entrances get missed, signals clip, but all of those things create a completely unique thing that is tied to one moment. Maybe it’s my punk roots showing, but I would much, much, much, rather hear a recording full of genuine and scruffy energy than something that’s been crafted, polished, click-tracked, and produced to death.
So on Friday nights, I sometimes take this yoga class that is part yoga and part improvisational movement. One of the things (among many) that I like about it is that the improvisational part means I have permission to stop what I’m doing and write things down. Yoga drags up all kinds of stuff for me, but in a normal class, I just don’t feel like I can go and write for a second.
Anyway, I was going to post what I wrote, but actually, having just written this, I’m not going to. I’m trying to keep good stuff a little bit closer these days.
there’s a particular song that i listen to a lot. the first few times i heard it, the introduction made me think that it was going to go in a totally different direction than it actually does. now i know it well enough to know better, but the other day, i was listening and remembered my old expectation, so i decided to just record it. can you name the song?
today i got a letter from my friend’s 6-year-old, who is a budding biologist and astronomer, so of course i made him a little music using my resident cricket, some woodblocks, a letter, two bicycle bells, a triangle, and a bird call.
A follower sent me a link to this ridiculously talented songwriter. Try the third tune, “Don’t Cry Wolf,” first, then dig into the rest. Wow, wow. Expect to hear more from Counterfeit Madison, I’d guess.