Improvisation, Part 6 - Matthies/Bettine Duo & Bettine/Brophy/Kern Trio

Bettine/Matthies Duo #3

Before we move on, I wanted to do one more video with Wilhelm Matthies playing his Mosesa, because it’s a very different atmosphere from the others. I started out using a toy whirly tube to get a swirly atmosphere of longer tones over Wilhelm’s bowing. I was listening to what he did and changed the pitch I was playing by changing the speed of the tube. 

From there, I moved to my bass drum, which had 7 Paiste Cup Chimes, bell side down, sitting on the head. I started with a finger roll on the head and some of the Cup Chimes rattled against each other. In a moment of inspiration/madness, I grabbed the rim of the drum and started rocking it back and forth. This caused the Cup Chimes to gather on one edge, striking it in rhythm with my rocking motion, while the Chimes also struck against each other in a more random fashion.

Then I started swirling them around the top of the drum with my hands, for a more sustained, chaotic sound. Next I gathered them up in a stack and used my hands & fingers to play more staccato rhythms. Then I spread them out again, quickly gathering them up for sudden finish.

My main idea here was to create contrast to what Wilhelm was playing. Contrast is one of the tools/options I have available to use:

  • long - short 
  • dark - light 
  • fast - slow 
  • rhythmic - arhythmic 
  • soft - loud 
  • soft - hard 
  • melodic - noise 
  • and various combinations of the above.

When I’m in a situation like this, especially playing with people that I’ve never met and/or have no idea of how they play music, it's really an instinctive/intuitive sort of thing for me. I’ve had over 40 years experience of playing music, with a lot of improvising in there, so I’m able to bring a lot of ideas to the table. But it always comes down to listening and reacting to what I’m hearing. 

Sometimes I’ll wait for a bit, not sure of what to play, waiting for the music to invite me in. Or I may choose to not play at all! Admirable restraint is sometimes the best choice of all. There are times the music seems so perfect to me as it is, that I don’t want to jump in and disturb it. So like I stated earlier, I’ll wait for the music to invite me in at the appropriate time.

But you don’t learn all this in 2 weeks. It takes experience to build up your ideas. I remember interviewing 2 of the best European improvising drummers, Englishman Paul Lytton, and Fredy Studer from Switzerland, for a magazine article 20 years ago. We talked about what types of things they practice and work on. To my surprise, they both worked on the fundamentals of drumming, things like George Lawrence Stone’s Stick Control book. Their feeling was that in order to play free, you needed to have a strong foundation. So I still work on rudiments and sticking patterns today, even though I mainly play improvised music.

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Bettine/Matthies Duo #3 video link

Erin Brophy & Daniel Kern

The idea for this recording session started with Jason Wietlispach putting out a call for musicians who wanted to be involved. People signed up for specific time slots. This way we knew who was coming, as far as instruments played, and would hopefully be able to keep things on schedule. One of the twists was having a few people bring other, unscheduled, musicians with them. This made things even more interesting. One of these people was Erin Brophy (voice/sax/flute), who brought along Daniel Kern and his theremin. Theremin? Why not?

When Daniel set up and played a bit, all I could think of was sci-fi film soundtrack! As opposed to the last track above, where I was looking for contrast, for this one I was thinking of blending in. I wanted to create sounds that were similar in texture/pitch to the theremin. I used my Mike Balter Super Rub friction mallets on the large Gongs. These are super sticky superballs on a short handle. You drag them across the face of a Gong to get that whale/space sound. 

Erin was singing wordless vocals and often processing that through some effects. The great thing was that at times, it was difficult to tell who was making what sound! I really like using acoustic percussion and trying to make electronic/synth type sounds. In fact, I’ve had people ask me about some of my recordings, “What synths did you use on there?” I tell them, “None. It’s all acoustic percussion with no effects processing.” I like that. 

If you listen to the soundtracks from sci-fi/horror/fantasy films, they are often filled with Gongs and percussion, both as melodic elements, and as sound effects. Listen to The Lord of the Rings soundtracks. They’re full of Gongs.

After the friction mallets, I went to using some large, heavy, padded mallets on the big Gongs. This to me was a scene change to a darker, more somber mood. I remember interviewing the great Swiss master drummer/composer, Pierre Favre, years ago. He uses a lot of Gongs in his music and told me that he often thinks of them as a scene/backdrop change, like in a film or theater. This has stuck with me, and this track is a great example of that. When I move to the bigger mallets, the tone gets darker and the others follow along.

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Bettine/Brophy/Kern #1 video link

Next time we'll look at some more tracks with Erin Brophy & Daniel Kern.

~ MB


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