spooky drums

There are those who would prefer to uncouple improv from the ties that connect it to jazz. Hearing Han Bennink play solo recently (Night of the Unexpected, Spitalfields Festival, London, 16.6.12) reminded me of a few aspects of Han’s playing:

  1. he hits the drums and rims hard, the biff shot as Baby Dodds called it, but as a continuously fluid opening up of acoustic space, a hail of shrapnel rather than a single gunshot accent.
  2. for his first solo LP – Solo, ICP 011, 1972 – he recorded two tracks called “Spooky Drums”.

The original “Spooky Drums” (also in two versions) was recorded by Warren ‘Baby’ Dodds in 1946 for Folkways Records. Three photographs on the cover of the 10” LP show the physicality of his playing, time-lapse shots that reveal the crossing of arms, the stretching of his upper body, a kinesiology that recalls the kind of photographs collected in Incunabula, the book of source materials that Francis Bacon absorbed into his paintings. Like Bennink, Baby Dodds was a showman who used his whole body to give character and flow to sound (as the film clip shows, Dodds used his foot to muffle the tom tom; Han has done the same for many years and I wonder if he has ever seen this clip). But making a show for dancers merged into involuntary action and pathology. Dodds talked of, and played, what he called “Nerve Beats”, “like a guy got the passels [palsy]”; for his shimmy beat, his stomach was said to wobble up and down in perfect time.

According to Frederic Ramsey Jr., who wrote the notes for the Folkways release, the title, “Spooky Drums” was said to be a whimsical thing, an indication of the pleasure of switching through quick contrasts. Elsewhere I’ve read that it was a reference to the eerie feeling of a drummer finding himself alone in a recording studio. Whatever, it’s clear that these are solo improvisations to be considered alongside Django Reinhardt’s “Improvisations” of 1937, Charles Ives’ “Three Improvisations No. 1” of 1938, Coleman Hawkins’ “Picasso” of 1948 and Lennie Tristano’s “Descent Into the Maelstrom” of 1953. Maybe that was the spooky part, in a studio, alone with an instrument, improvising?

About davidtoop

Ricocheting as a 1960s teenager between blues guitarist, art school dropout, Super 8 film loops and psychedelic light shows, David Toop has been developing a practice that crosses boundaries of sound, listening, music and materials since 1970. This practice encompasses improvised music performance (using hybrid assemblages of electric guitars, aerophones, bone conduction, lo-fi archival recordings, paper, sound masking, water, autonomous and vibrant objects), writing, electronic sound, field recording, exhibition curating, sound art installations and opera (Star-shaped Biscuit, performed in 2012). It includes seven acclaimed books, including Rap Attack (1984), Ocean of Sound (1995), Sinister Resonance (2010) and Into the Maelstrom (2016), the latter a Guardian music book of the year, shortlisted for the Penderyn Music Book Prize. Briefly a member of David Cunningham’s pop project The Flying Lizards (his guitar can be heard sampled on “Water” by The Roots), he has released thirteen solo albums, from New and Rediscovered Musical Instruments on Brian Eno’s Obscure label (1975) and Sound Body on David Sylvian’s Samadhisound label (2006) to Entities Inertias Faint Beings on Lawrence English’s ROOM40 (2016). His 1978 Amazonas recordings of Yanomami shamanism and ritual - released on Sub Rosa as Lost Shadows (2016) and sampled for Björk’s forthcoming album - were called by The Wire a “tsunami of weirdness” while Entities Inertias Faint Beings was described in Pitchfork as “an album about using sound to find one’s own bearings . . . again and again, understated wisps of melody, harmony, and rhythm surface briefly and disappear just as quickly, sending out ripples that supercharge every corner of this lovely, engrossing album.” In the early 1970s he performed with sound poet Bob Cobbing, butoh dancer Mitsutaka Ishii and drummer Paul Burwell, along with key figures in improvisation, including Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, Georgie Born, Hugh Davies, John Stevens, Lol Coxhill, Frank Perry and John Zorn. In recent years he has returned to collaborative performance, working with many artists and musicians including Rie Nakajima, Akio Suzuki, Max Eastley, Tania Chen, John Butcher, Ken Ikeda, Elaine Mitchener, Henry Grimes, Sharon Gal, Camille Norment, Sidsel Endresen, Alasdair Roberts, Thurston Moore, Extended Organ (with Paul McCarthy and Tom Recchion) and a revived Alterations, the iconoclastic improvising quartet with Steve Beresford, Peter Cusack and Terry Day first formed in 1977. He has also made many collaborative records, including Buried Dreams and Doll Creature with Max Eastley, Breath Taking with Akio Suzuki, Skin Tones with Ken Ikeda and co-productions (with Steve Beresford) for Frank Chickens, the 49 Americans and Ivor Cutler. Major sound art exhibitions he has curated include Sonic Boom at the Hayward Gallery, London (2000) and Playing John Cage at the Arnolfini Gallery, Bristol (2005-6). In 2008, a DVD of the Belgian film – I Never Promised You a Rose Garden: A Portrait of David Toop Through His Records Collection – was released by Sub Rosa, and in 2017 his autobiography – Flutter Echo: Living Within Sound – was published by Du Books in Japan. His next record is Dirty Songs Play Dirty Songs, released on Audika in October 2017. He is currently Professor of Audio Culture and Improvisation at London College of Communication.
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