A lot has been written about the new resources that electric guitar-wielding rock musicians have brought to the realm of composition—a keen sense of subtle timbre transformations gleaned from tweaking amps and effect units, a melodic vocabulary where bent notes are given free reign, etc. There’s a different and equally riveting approach that results when a rock drummer grabs the compositional reigns—a sound world where pitch, while rarely absent, takes a back seat and other elements, such as rhythm and sonority, are allowed to be the primary focus. There’s a particular primal rawness to many of the solo compositions and improvisations that have been created by these musicians—whether the drum machine experiments that Ikue Mori created following the dissolution of the seminal No Wave band DNA, the process-oriented stripped down rhythmic patterns created by Wilco drummer Glen Kotche, or the ascetic thraks of Oneida’s John Colpitts (a.k.a. Kid Millions) for his Man Forever project.
Unlike most of this music, Yeah Yeah Yeahs beatmeister Brian Chase’s Drums & Drones, as its title implies, foregrounds pitch, albeit in a new way that is perhaps only possible for someone whose primary musical activity is playing in one of the most visceral of New York City’s post-punk bands. I’ve been a fan of Yeah Yeah Yeahs since their initial eponymous EP from 2001. While I’ve always been floored by Karen O’s abrasive wide-ranged vocals (which have been what has garnered the lion’s share of accolades for the trio), Brian Chase’s primal throbs have caught my attention more than any other aspect of the band’s sound: while Karen O’s shrieks get under your skin, the music stays there because of what Chase is doing behind the drum set.
While listeners familiar with YYY might be surprised by the heady “new music” direction of the material on his first solo release, Brian Chase comes out of Oberlin Conservatory—from the same milieu that produced ICE and eighth blackbird—and has a long history of collaboration with experimental musicians. In fact, according to Chase (whose lavish annotations on the music accompany the recording), the material featured on Drums & Drones was initially inspired by the time Chase spent at La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela’s legendary Dream House installation where he had volunteered as a “monitor,” spending periods of 4 to 5 hours sitting directly outside the gallery space listening to the complex drone emanating from within. In February 2007, Mary Halvorson curated a month of concerts at John Zorn’s club The Stone and asked Chase to participate, at which point he unveiled the first incarnation of a series of electro-acoustic works based on applying just intonation theory to drums and other percussion instruments. This material gradually evolved over a four-year period—which involved tours across the United States and Australia, travels to Indonesia, and YYY’s 2009 album It’s Blitz—into what is contained on Drums & Drones.
Although in classical music circles, drums are frequently mislabeled as “un-pitched percussion,” the reality is that every sound has a pitch component; it is just easier to isolate specific pitches in certain sounds than in others. Struck drums typically produce a numerous simultaneous pitches, each of which contains its own overtone series. The result, when one attempts to analyze its pitch content, is often akin to a tone cluster. By isolating individual sonorities and focusing on their pitch content through electronic processing, Chase is able to make drums sing. The result is a mind-bending recontextualization of the perceived function of percussion instruments in most musical traditions. Several of the most compelling of the album’s ten audio tracks are derived from the sound of striking a single instrument—the crash of a cymbal, the sound of brushes on a snare drum, a foot pedal on a bass drum. “Feedback Drone,” the most overt LMY homage, presents an unchanging drone of upper harmonics derived from processing the resonance of the drum head of a 16-inch floor tom-tom that had been tuned to a specific frequency. Perhaps the least static track is “Melody Drum Drone,” which exploits the harmonic nodal points on a single drum head to yield a rich, melodic tapestry that is somewhat akin to the music produced on jaw harps.
For the truly intrepid, a DVD is also included with Drums & Drones which pairs Chase’s percussion-based drones with austere videography by Ursula Scherrer and Erik Zajaceskowski. Scherrer’s video for “Aum Drone” accompanies Chase’s pitch bending experiments on a 20-inch tom-tom with a seemingly static image of what appears to be a thick forest—as you watch, branches begin to sway and at some point it almost seems like ghosts float by; it’s mesmerizing. Zajaceskowski’s video for “Stick Shot Harmonic Drone,” on the other hand, is not for the faint of heart. Very bright images are intercut with a black screenshot. It’s like a visual on/off switch which shifts as rapidly as Chase’s pulses from the striking of two sticks; it moves by so fast that it is impossible to ever know exactly what you’re looking at. It’s kind of like staring directly into a halogen light and blinking incessantly. It’s fascinating, but probably not something I’ll find myself returning to frequently.
Drums & Drones is a recent release from Pogus Productions—a small, independent label devoted primarily to uncompromising electronic and experimental music that has been run single-handedly for years by Al Margolis (a.k.a. If, Bwana). Being on this label—which has issued important material from such contemporary music luminaries as Pauline Oliveros, Roger Reynolds, Philip Corner, Annea Lockwood, and the late Kenneth Gaburo—connects Chase’s music to an extremely vital stream of iconoclastic music. It is appropriate company for Chase’s intellectually probing music to be placed in. It will hopefully get fans of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs more excited about these important American experimentalists, and perhaps (just as interestingly), make more fans of the avant-garde excited about the Yeah Yeah Yeahs!