Esoterica, Part 2: A Conversation With Pierre Favre

I was fortunate to spend most of a day with the great Swiss drummer Pierre Favre back in November 2000. He and fellow Swiss drummer, Fredy Studer, were on a short 5 date tour in the States with their duo, Drum Orchestra. They made a stop at the Empty Bottle in Chicago and we met for the first time. 
I have been a fan of Pierre’s since the mid 1970s, back when Paiste commissioned  composer George Gruntz to write a percussion ensemble piece featuring Paiste’s cymbals, Gongs, and various sounds. This became the recording Percussion Profiles on the pre-ECM, JAPO label. The all star group featured Jack DeJohnette, Dave Samuels, Dom Um Ramao, Fredy Studer, George Gruntz, and Pierre. Besides the LP, I had managed to get a big fold out poster of the group  which had detailed photos and gear info on each player. I remember being struck by Pierre’s exotic looking setup that seemed more a sculpture than a typical drum set. But the thing that really hit me were the solos played by Pierre on the recording. I had never heard a drummer sound so musical, so un-drummer like. His playing sparkled and danced, sparking my own imagination. 
Years later I interviewed Pierre for MODERN DRUMMER and AVANT magazines. Over time, I did further interviews and also included him in the book, PERCUSSION PROFILES (a familiar name). In each interview Pierre was always gracious and open. We talked of many things, mostly about his approach to music and drumming, but very little about the technical aspects of his set up. So it was wonderful to finally meet in person after all those years of letters and phone calls. 
Pierre is a quiet and rather unassuming man. What amazed me is how much we didn’t talk, but rather had some sort of psychic communication, with there being an unspoken bond between us. But when we spoke, it was very much about the spiritual aspect of drums, drummers, and drumming. Our conversation centered around how the instruments have a spirit of their own, and that over the years we connect with that spirit. In essence, not only do we get to know the drum, but the drum gets to know us. This is important in how we both play, as we each have an intimate relationship and knowledge of our equipment, whether it be a drum, cymbal, gong, or other instrument. The sound and  spirit of each instrument is internalized. We know what sounds we can get from each instrument and how those sounds will work in a given situation. 
I know that for myself, whenever I buy a new instrument, it takes time to become comfortable with that instrument. There is a period where I am listening to the sound, learning the nuances of it, and feeling the vibrations as they enter my body. I feel that in much the same way, the instrument is also feeling me out, getting to know my touch. Then there is learning how the new instrument reacts with the other pieces of my kit, as the vibrations from one instrument affect the others. As for myself, and I notice Pierre does the same, I use many instruments in combinations. For me I am thinking geometrically: I think in shapes, most often a combination of 2 or 3 voices to form a more complex whole. We both have our kits set up with this in mind, as various cymbals and drums are grouped together.
We related how we both spend a lot of time just looking at our instruments. This is a part of that relationship. We can create different set ups and know how they will sound without playing them. Pierre illustrated this visual aspect with a story:
  • Back in the late 1960s, when he was the head of Drummer services, working for Paiste, famed jazz drummer Philly Jo Jones was at the factory to pick out some cymbals. They walked into the cymbal room where Pierre spied a cymbal in a stack and said, “This is the one you want.” Philly Jo’s response was to the effect that, “I think I need to play some to know which one I want.” He then spent a great deal of time playing cymbals, but not finding anything that suited his taste. He finally played the one originally pointed out by Pierre and was amazed, “That’s it. This is the sound. How did you know that without playing it?” “I could tell by how it looked,” replied Pierre, who had been involved intimately with the manufacture of Paiste cymbals and had also been the “cymbal tester,” giving them their final approval before being shipped out. He had gained the knowledge of being able to tell how a cymbal would sound just by the appearance of the hammering. I also think he also knew how to sense the instrument’s spirit.....

Another story was about the great South African drummer, Louis Moholo:
  • Paiste had sent Louis a cymbal. His wife received it and placed the box on the table. Louis came home and looked at the box for quite a while. Later, perhaps even the next day, he opened it and left the box that way for a while. Finally, he took the cymbal out, placing it on the table. He did not play it, but looked at it. Later he had a gig with a famed jazz pianist where he brought the cymbal, apparently still unplayed. He put it on a stand to his left and looked at it all night. Finally the moment arrived and he played it. Immediately the pianist smiled and looked at him saying, “That’s it!”

The spirit of the drum, that is perhaps second only to the spirit of the drummer. We also spoke about being able to feel the rhythm inside, how this internalization was important. We discussed his ideas of rhythm that he has in the manuscript of his book, Rhythm and Movement. Pierre teaches rhythm away from the drums, where he can focus on the body and how different rhythms feel. We spoke of the circular nature of rhythm and how one must feel it in their center, or abdomen. Once this sense of rhythm is internalized, it can be applied to the instrument freely. 
Where do you sense rhythm? Is it internal or external? Does it come from your center, or somewhere else? These are important questions to ask…
~ MB

Read my interview with Pierre from AVANT magazine in 2000 here: Pierre Favre


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