As a teenager, back in 1980’s, I was fascinated by the way drummers across the vast musical spectrum had such recognizable sounds, styles, and ways of playing pulse and groove. I also felt strong physical responses whenever I heard rhythmic variations that produced entangled, scrambled, or twisted sounding rhythms. At that time, my favourite examples of these tangled rhythmic shapes could be found in performances by Billy Cobham on Red Baron, Steve Gadd on Chuck E’s in Love by Rickie Lee Jones, the drum fill Jim Keltner plays on Josie by Steely Dan, Stewart Copeland’s drumming at the end of Walking on the Moon, the extraordinary conversational rhythms offered by Jack Dejohnette on numerous ECM recordings, Edward Blackwell’s phenomenal solo drumming on Togo, and Elvin Jones’ profound drumming on Poly-Currents. Back then, I would be mesmerised whenever I heard these types of chattering rhythmic shapes and would feel immense physical pleasure upon hearing a new variation that I hadn’t experienced before.
Later, I had the good fortune to be mentored in principles and processes of rhythmic organisation through time spent with Mark Simmonds and Greg Sheehan, as well as ongoing musical and personal friendships with Scott Tinkler, Phil Slater, Matt McMahon, Carl Dewhurst, Cameron Undy, and numerous other extraordinary musicians in Australia. These mentorships/friendships opened my mind to a range of procedural ways of manipulating rhythm that had previously been beyond my understanding, and provided a kind of procedural tool kit that could be utilised in the development of rhythmic shapes that were not derived from any particular stylistic precedent.
In 2001, I spent several months in Korea for an intensive period of study with a wonderful young traditional drummer named Kang Sun Il. Sun Il’s approach to connecting rhythmic things to body motion, breathing, and sound production opened a pathway for me towards body motion as the fundamental starting point for rhythmic expression. Sun Il’s teaching offered a large pool of physical and conceptual tools that I felt could be combined with processes learned from earlier mentorships, to form a set of basic procedural principles allowing for the creation of music far removed from Korean percussive traditions.
During one of our lessons, a group of drummers turned up and played through a collection of traditional ritual drumming pieces (the equivalent of a jazz jam session). In one of the pieces, the drummers played a rapid rhythmic form that required both hands to be sounding consistently at the same time…not linear patterning, but lots of continuous unison notes with little ornamentations popping through here and there. Watching the musicians play, I felt an incredible wave of physical pleasure, with the combination of body movements, sticking combinations, and rhythmic ornaments offering a deep and moving physical sensation that I had never experienced so intensely before. Later, I was introduced to the music of Korea’s East Coast shamans who perform tangled, overlapping rhythmic forms to a level unlike any other drummers I’ve heard to date. I’ve also been mesmerized by the vast range of extraordinary drumming traditions found throughout the Pacific, and the deeply moving rhythmic shapes appearing in music from the Northern Territory.
These experiences, mentorships and friendships gave me a deeper awareness of the possibilities of developing a highly personal path in music led by physical movement and rhythmic patterning sensations, as opposed to perceived stylistic pressures and conventions. Of course, countless musicians work in a creative space that is led by an acute awareness of certain aspects of their sensory experience of the world (I highly recommend watching this interview which features Elvin Jones describing colours and images emerging from the drumset when he plays), but for me, it took a long period of mentorship and learning to develop the confidence and conceptual/procedural tools to dive into the musical areas I inhabit these days. Recently, I’ve been gaining a deeper understanding, through regular dialogue with a range of Australian musicians, of how individuals are drawn to, and work within, different aspects of musical expression for a myriad of highly personal reasons that include intense sensitivity to some form of physical perception (a clearly articulated and inspiring example can be found in James McLean’s PhD dissertation, A New Way of Moving: Developing a Solo Drumset Practice Informed by Embodied Music Cognition, along with his recent solo drumming release, Oscillator).
Over the past few years, I’ve been focused on developing procedural connections between rhythmic language, sound production, and body motion (including a recording that explores physical pendulums and meditative states experienced during long barefoot runs, entitled ‘On Running’). I’ve come to accept that, for me, physical movements (including cyclic body motions, barefoot running, and all sorts of physical pendulums), rhythmic layering/clustering, and interweaving rhythmic forms, activate very strong physical/aesthetic sensations and pleasures. With this in mind, my current aims as a drummer are to explore this pool of primary areas through the creation of personal drumming language that has a strong foundation in physical movement, whilst being led by feelings associated with scrambled, gurgling, or entangled rhythmic shapes.
In 2016, I felt an urge to develop an alternative vocabulary for the drum set, so as to produce a series of drum chants in solidarity with communities facing upheaval due to climate change (primarily Kiribati and the Marshall Islands), and in support of the international climate research community. The idea would be to create a rhythmic/movement language from scratch, with no stylistic or cultural influence of any kind, and see what happens. Also, at that time, I wanted the sonic parameters of the music to be limited to a wooden sound (log drum), a high tom tom, and a bass drum.
These kinds of developmental periods can take a significant amount of time as, for me, ideas are only “heard” once they are played, which, in some cases, can take many months of practice to embody just a few seconds of new material. During the developmental period associated with this project, I created a layered rhythmic phrase that featured a tiny section of tangled patterning that I hadn’t encountered before, and something in the feeling of this rhythmic shape activated a physical response that felt new to me. In this little block of interweaving rhythm, I found a pathway to the creation of a personal rhythmic/sticking language that I’ve named “coiling”, the “coils” being blocks of tangled rhythmic stuff that can be cobbled together to form phrases, chants, and material for improvisation. Exploring the musical possibilities of these rhythmic coils has been a fun experience as, once embodied, they produce rhythmic shapes that feel physically and aesthetically enjoyable to play.
So this year, through funding from the Australia Council for the Arts, I’m releasing a series of recordings featuring drum chants based on rhythmic “coiling”. The first release in the series, Urgency! (Vol.1) Drum Chants for Kiribati and the Marshall Islands, represents an attempt to create high energy anthemic drum songs, whilst the second release, Urgency (Vol.2) New Rivers, offers a selection of drumming meditations on climate creep. A third recording in the series, featuring long-form “chant-coils”, will be released in late 2018.
The experience of developing On Running, and the Urgency! series of recordings associated with rhythmic “coiling”, have greatly highlighted, for me, the role that physical perception plays as a primary prompt for creative action, and that, for some musicians, stylistic conventions may not offer pathways to satisfying forms of personal expression. As an educator, these ongoing experiences have had a profound effect on my understanding of the need to offer emerging musicians robust technical (body movement), conceptual, and procedural pathways that allow for creative action in response to one’s unique sensory experiences, preferences, and sensitivities.
VIEW AND LISTEN
Urgency! Drum Chant for Kiribati:
Here’s a track from my latest recording Urgency Vol.2 New Rivers as HTML for an embedded player:
If you would like to find out more about “coiling” please get in touch with me via the contact link at www.kimnara.com.au
James McLean links:
Video of Oscillator: