FRArt Micro-Percussion Hybridization. A First Approach to a New Instrument

1. interview

  • type: Article
  • ref: DOC.2021.196

The following interview was conducted in Brussels on August 26, 2020.

A/R Where did the idea to develop this new instrument come from?

T.D.C. In the field of contemporary music, there has long been a desire to reduce the number of instruments and amount of equipment. Ten years ago, I was still giving concerts, arriving at the concert hall with a truck filled with percussion instruments, with five roadies to move everything. But now, more and more musicians are trying to use less equipment. There was also an issue of self-sufficiency that came up, especially regarding amplification. We always envied electric guitarists and synthesizer players who would show up with their own equipment and pedals that took care of just about everything. As percussionists we instead had to set everything up and work for hours with a sound engineer. Now we have an independent instrument. All you need are two stereo cables to hook up to the mixing board. That’s all!

G.N. In my work with young, rock-inspired composers—where just about everyone uses pedals, effects, and electronics—I found that drums had become a contemporary percussion instrument for them. It used to be just an accompanying instrument in rock and jazz, but now, percussion instruments are much more integrated. It was this world of transformed sounds that underlay the project.

A/R So, your project responds to a perceived desire for transportability and independence within the world of contemporary composers and percussionists.

G.N. Yes, but it was above all a personal need for us as musicians. Since we play from scores and improvise our music, we had already explored the possibilities of amplifying our instruments. But we didn’t have the time for a concert or a specific project to explore and develop all these possibilities.

T.D.C. Yes, this is what I kept saying as I was getting my doctorate: we have to buy the time to do things of this sort. On a day-to-day basis, you’re rehearsing over here and then you’re performing over there. You think about all these things, but you don’t have the time to devote yourself to them fully.

A/R Hence, the decision to apply to FRArt to give yourselves the time and means to explore this path in depth.

T.D.C. Yes, exactly. And I have to say that this is pretty rare. In Flanders, the FWO research foundation, which is the equivalent of the FNRS, only provides supports to the arts in the form of doctorates and post-doctorates that are conducted over several years at university level; these are long-term, scientific research projects. Aside from that, there are fellowships from the Flemish Community for artists’ personal development, which is somewhat comparable to FRArt, but this does not form part of organizations like the FWO. So, FRArt lies exactly in between these two possibilities, and it has opened up new avenues of inquiry for projects like ours. It’s just incredible to be able to work for a whole year on an artistic project without having any academic publication requirements. This is pretty rare, anywhere in the world.  

G.N. Actually, we weren’t even aware of these funding opportunities. The Conservatory encouraged us to apply.

A/R Have you ever conducted this kind of research before?

T.D.C. I did my doctorate at Vrije Universiteit Brussels (VUB) on a method for teaching contemporary music to conservatory students using eleven pieces from the repertoire for percussion.  I created an online forum that provides analyses, click tracks, tools, and practical solutions for pieces that at the time were very hard for students to learn.1 It is now used worldwide.

G.N. I never got a doctorate. I instead have extensive experience with microphones, amplification, and sound treatment. And I have always conducted research as part of my collaborations with composers on this or that concert.

T.D.C. We should say that research is very important for Ictus, the contemporary music ensemble in which we play. For years, we developed models for concerts, concepts, and even new instruments. For example, we did something completely new for Stockhausen’s Mikrophonie, a cult piece for percussion from 1964 that explores amplification possibilities and sound filtering on a very large tamtam. We came up with new  concepts for percussion concerts, the Liquid Rooms,2  and we did really in-depth interdisciplinary collaborations with the choreographer Noé Soulier.

G.N. This is standard in the world of contemporary music. It’s an essential part of our work.

T.D.C. It’s embedded in our DNA. At Ictus, we are always trying to break boundaries between stage, instrument, and musical genre. One of the hot topics in musical composition these days is cocreation. It’s no longer the Composer as God who dictates to the performers what they are supposed to do; it’s much more of an interaction. This was the context that in part inspired this project.

A/R “Artistic” research has always been central to your work in Ictus. What’s different here is that you went after a precise, concrete goal, what we might call a kind of “applied” or “technological” research, as the first question was to find out whether this would bear fruit or not. But obviously, unlike designing, let’s say, a new printer, you did this in a context driven by artistic creation, your practices as musicians, collaborations with composers, sound experiments, and the like.

T.D.C. Yes, it was in fact highly specific. The idea was to devote one whole year to see if it was possible to produce such an instrument, all the while bathing in our ongoing creative process. This all started with the humus that is Ictus and the Conservatory. It comes from a deep-seated need. Our colleagues Ross Karre and Johannes Fischer, for example, are working on different things, but they’re also headed in the same direction. These ideas are already being explored. It’s taking shape in all conservatories and ensembles across the world, and it may lead to a new instrumental practice. Change is in the air.

A/R In practical terms, how did the research begin?

G.N. We started with a list of effects (distortions, delays, chorus, etc.), and we just started trying everything using an initial set-up to see what would happen. We then catalogued the results. Did it work or not? Did it help with sounds that were short or long, low or high, etc.? At a certain point, we ended up with this instrument that consisted on the one hand of micro-percussion objects, and on the other, this description of the effects. This was when we asked ourselves, “What should we do with all of this?”

T.D.C. It took at least three months to compile this catalogue together. It took a lot of time and energy.

G.N. But then, the instrument had to be playable. How would we go from one effect to the other? How would we control the parameters? How would we amplify one sound without reproducing the sound of another instrument that is only twenty centimeters away?  

A/R Your FRArt application explained your methodology very clearly. You were going to test this initial set-up, this collection of micro-percussions, with three “agents”: the sound technicians and engineers at the Centre Henri Pousseur, your students at the Conservatory, and several composers. How did these various phases play out, in the end?

T.D.C. Our first partners were the sound engineers Gilles Doneux, Xavier Meeùs, and Patrick Delges at the Centre Henri Pousseur. They gave me my first training in amplification, microphones, and interfaces. I had to learn it all. For each micro-instrument, we had to listen, record, and decide which was the best microphone for the job, the best amplifier, and so on. It was crazy. After that, we worked with our first composer, Kasper T. Toeplitz, who has been working in the noise scene for almost thirty years. But it didn’t go as planned. We didn’t get anywhere. I didn’t understand how my instrument worked, and he didn’t know how to translate his universe through this instrument.  We had to adapt our modus operandi to move the project ahead; otherwise, it was going to stall completely. December-January was tough. We had to figure out what we wanted to do with the instrument before asking others what they could do with it.

G.N. Our collaborators, especially the composers whom we asked to work with us, didn’t know what was expected of them in terms of this first sound catalogue. As performers, we weren’t used to this kind of a situation with creators.

T.D.C. What really helped me was the advice that Andrea Mancianti, the second composer, gave me. He thinks of himself as a digital luthier. He’s one of those people who has devoted his life to designing hybrid or electronic instruments. He suggested I take online classes in sound engineering and computers.3 That helped me understand precisely how a reverb effect works. I had to do that for hundreds of effects.  

A/R And then there was the teaching component, your class at the Liège Conservatory. How did that go?

G.N. It’s often hard to convince students to become actively involved in a project. They are very young, between the ages of 18 and 23. They’re learning how to play a snare drum, the marimba, and so on—more “keyboard” instruments. So, when you show up with something a little conceptual, it’s a stretch for them. But they came and they watched and they listened. Ultimately they discovered the sound possibilities. Unfortunately, when we finally came up with an instrument that worked and was ready to be played, the epidemic prevented us from working together.

T.D.C. We had planned a super project for the Images Sonores Festival in Liège. We wanted to ask students to do their own set-up and install their tables in various rooms of a basement, as if in a labyrinth. We wanted to amplify their playing with two microphones per table and broadcast the sounds in a room above ground. Audience members could walk through the basement rooms, hear the actual sound, and then come back up to the ground floor to hear the treated sound.  

G.N. The concept was interesting, but this was postponed. The festival was originally scheduled for May 2020, and now it is slated for spring 2021. The pieces created for our project were ultimately presented this fall outside the festival.4

A/R Presenting your instrument in an academic setting, despite the few reactions on the part of the students, nevertheless helped you clarify your thoughts and intentions.

T.D.C. Definitely. Ideas are always cropping up. And students continue to ask, “Can we do this?” This pushes us to explore further. I also think it’s important for them to see this kind of project, to see how things are evolving, and that the field of percussion doesn’t begin and end with orchestral percussion. Because a lot of professional percussionists still think that way.

G.N. Yes, this is an important issue. Percussion is a constantly evolving universe. I think that students should first of all learn to play correctly, but a percussionist who is somewhat open to different styles and disciplines has to be constantly looking for new things.

T.D.C. For that matter, percussion is not an instrument per se. We went from snare drum, timpani, cymbals, and triangle within orchestras to a solo instrument in the 1970s, and now, we are at somewhat of an impasse. We are trying to evolve towards something more hybrid, more electronic, or who knows what. This is not like a piano or violin, instruments for which a repertoire has existed since the 17th century, with schools and styles.

G.N. During the last fifty years, composers have explored all of the acoustic sounds in percussion and the various ways of playing. So, now we are looking for what we might be able to add. How can we change the sonorous world of our instrument? How can we introduce this on stage? How can we use it to improvise? How can we imitate other instruments? So many paths have opened up.

T.D.C. John Cage basically said that you can make music with anything. This table is an instrument, and this music stand is an instrument. For us, anything you can strike or brush becomes an instrument. You can now get deep into the nitty-gritty of each instrument. When you play with or without amplification, there is always a distance from the audience and the other musicians. Using our microphone setup, you can get really close to the instrument, microscopically so, and produce new sounds as a result. This is part of the quest to know what you can use to produce sound, in what way, and how to improve things. The world of percussion is like a tree; you have to follow every branch, every possibility.

G.N. What’s more, the amplification of percussion used to be limited in composers’ works to one single effect per piece. Our idea was to combine all the tools into one single percussion instrument with fewer physical means but many more sound possibilities.

A/R In fact, your project sought to condense this burgeoning of possibilities in the world of percussion into one single instrument, to design a kind of microcosm.

T.D.C. There are at least five hundred catalogued instruments. Percussion has always been divided into categories: metal, skin, and wood. Our set-up reframes these categories and then also the subdivisions. But what was very important to me was to have personal micro-instruments. Each object has a history. I have instruments that family members gave me as gifts, things that have been sitting in my closet for twenty-five years, waiting to be used. I have others that were developed by percussionist friends, like Lunason’s “Nicophones,” for example, or yet others that aren’t real “instruments,” like a small plate made of slate that I got from a restaurant in Frankfurt.

A/R At which moments did you have the feeling that you had discovered something, that your research had turned a major corner?

T.D.C. The biggest discovery for me was the use of foam. When the coronavirus crisis first hit, I saw a video by Georges Smits, aka “Toet,” an artist from Antwerp who died in 1997. He put metal objects on polystyrene, and this amplified their sound. What I did was apply a contact microphone to the polystyrene to see what it would do. It was incredible! I found out that you can do so many things with a table made of this material, metal instruments, and a microphone. The only problem is that the polystyrene captures every sound in the room. So, I used foam from the inside of a flight case made of a rather hard, black, insulating material, and I put a microphone on top of that. It had the same properties as polystyrene, but it was less extreme. Putting five or six metal objects on it amplified the resonance (but not the attack). I recently collaborated with a worker to cut the foam in the form of a small case using a laser. One microphone goes underneath the instruments for the attack, and the other, on top of the foam for the resonance. It’s a kind of large microphone made out of foam.

G.N. The process was very gradual for me. I already had experience in the field of amplification, so I began by letting Tom work alone so he figure certain things out. And when I saw the instrument for the first time in December, I wasn’t exactly excited by it. But when we started working on it with Benjamin Van Esser in May, I was blown away! The difference in terms of the instrument’s sound possibilities, practices, and expressions was just incredible. It suddenly became an instrument that was playable, original, complete, and integrated, whereas before it was just an amplified acoustic instrument with effects. And everyone to whom we showed the instrument was blown away by the possibilities. It’s just amazing what you can produce, especially in terms of power, and it all fits on one small table. The future possibilities for performing on stage are huge.

T.D.C. Yes, there was a turning point, which was due to an artistic idea, a vision of something that didn’t exist yet.  It wasn’t a collection of instruments anymore, instead a pathway through this collection. A choice presupposes a closure, but at the same time, it paradoxically opens things up. It was the “disappointing” interaction with Kasper Toeplitz that really made me realize this. Now, the problem doesn’t come up anymore. With Eva Reiter, who will write the second piece after Andrea Mancianti, our collaboration is more like a traditional commission. She had something in mind and she began by creating a  catalogue of each available sound. She wanted to know the possibilities, and then decide. A classic process.

A/R What has been the impact of the health crisis on your research, and how did you adapt to your new circumstances?

T.D.C. Actually it didn’t really change much. It was just that people like Andrea, Kasper, and Eva were no longer able to come work with us in person. We held a lot of meetings online. The advantage of this was that we saved money, which we used to buy new tools. The only thing that really changed was that the pieces commissioned from the composers will premiere a year later than planned. And there is the fact that the students were unable to test the instrument.

G.N. The quarantine didn’t change the essence of the project, but if it had happened three months earlier, we would have had a major problem, because we would not have been able to meet with the technicians at the Centre Henri Pousseur.

T.D.C. Our timing was good. And we have to admit that the quarantine freed up a lot of our time. I was able to delve even deeper into the online tutorials and courses, into my research. And when the quarantine ended, we met with Benjamin, Eva, and Frederik Croene, as had been planned.

A/R What’s next?

T.D.C. First, there are the two pieces we have commissioned from Andrea and Eva. They will debut at the Centre Henri Pousseur in the fall of 2021, if all goes well. We will continue to meet with Andrea and Eva in the coming months to work on their pieces. Then, Ictus has a new, 300 m2 studio at an artist’s collective in Brussels called the Wild Gallery. We are planning to host indoor concerts there every Friday night, where we can use the instrument during duo sessions. Lastly, we plan on presenting the instrument at conservatories in Belgium and abroad through workshops that are a kind of lecture-performance. We have already scheduled dates in Liège, Brussels, Antwerp, Ghent, and Lyon. Many people want to come see and test the object’s possibilities. There is already a network of interest.

A/R Aside from presenting the “results” of your research at a conservatory or a concert hall, what other benefits do you see?

G.N. I would like to use some parts of the research, some new knowledge for other things. Now that the instrument exists, and especially this database about what works and what doesn’t, I am trying to figure out how to apply the results to a fairly hybrid drum set. The idea is to play it as an instrument that you don’t recognize as being a drum set, instead as an electronic instrument.

T.D.C. Just like a synthesizer, which has nothing to do with a piano. Perhaps this is the first step towards something that may not have anything to do with percussion. What makes our model unique is how the sound is amplified. We can now apply this to other instruments as well.

A/R Was the research itself recorded, and will this be made public?

T.D.C. That’s a good question. I asked myself that when I reread all our reports written as part of our research. Maybe we should create a website.

G.N. For me, the process is at once very personal and also very obvious…

T.D.C. I think it would be a good idea to put certain things online: a summary of all the documents, the photographs, and the sound catalogue. We can put that on a drive at the Conservatory and give access there to anyone who is interested, without putting this on a website open to everyone. We’ll see. I could also publish scientific articles on the research I conducted on foam. I think there would be interest in that in Percussive Notes, for example.

A/R Have you thought of giving this instrument a name?

G.N. Actually we haven’t discussed that yet! We could…

T.D.C. Yes, it’s true. We could think about it, but I’m not interested in commercializing it. We developed a new tool during my doctorate as well, and the question of commercialization came up. Some people wanted to make money, but I don’t want to turn it into a product. I’ll leave that to other people.


2. interview

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