In music, as in life, one can never be sure how an invention will be transformed by those who will subsequently use and abuse it. Could Adolphe Sax have had any idea when he conceived his saxophone in the 1840s that his mellifluous horn would find its true voice a century later at the hands and in the lips of black American jazz musicians, Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon and so many others? How would Sax have reacted to the terrifying shrieks that John Coltrane would later extort from both the tenor and soprano models so carefully designed and fabricated by the inventor to be conduits of soothing, soft-edged comfort?
The violin has a much longer history, and therefore one richer in misdeeds against its original purpose. Those first violin makers of 16th-century Lombardy and the players who used their still-prized products had no inkling that unborn Paganinis and other virtuoso devils would get up to all kinds of outlandish tricks: playing insanely high up on the fingerboard at lightning speed, careening through octaves, plucking with the left-hand while bowing with the right. Later innovator-desecrators would go still further: turning the bow upside down, banging on the body of the fiddle, and enacting all kinds of unimaginable outrages against the Cremona masters’ resonant box with strings.
Are such expansions and explorations a sign of generous respect or selfish disrespect? Either way human beings will inevitably want to push any idea or construction for beyond its initial boundaries — to both glorious and ignominious ends. Only the Antonin Scalias of the artistic world remain immobilized in the suffocating mire of original intent. One should be as lucky as Sax and Andrea Amati and have his or her legacy so richly abused.
Then there are those objects which are drafted into musical service from realms seemingly far beyond the far-flung borders of the Empire of Tones. The musical saw comes to mind. It begins to sing its otherworldly song when placed between the knees of the player and torqued with one hand while the other plies it with one of those violin bows of Cremonese ancestry. Virtuosos have developed astounding skill on the saw, an instrument whose cultivation seems at the very least counterintuitive. If you need a lift in your day, check out the “saw-lady,” Natalia Paruz on Youtube, playing Bach’s plaintive organ chorale “I cry to Thee, Jesus Christ” in the New York City subway. This Heifetz of the jagged blade made her Carnegie Hall debut last year.
If the saw can bring forth such celestial melody, what other instruments, percussive and tuneful, await human manipulation for purposes of musical entertainment and uplift?
This past Tuesday evening I strolled down a verdant East Hill in Ithaca, New York, past some of the decrepit mansions of the movie moguls who made the Perils of Pauline in the region’s gorges during the first decades of cinema, to a small music shop and tattoo parlor called No Radio Records to hear the greatest virtuoso of dime store balloons, Ricardo Arias, on tour from his native Colombia. In his explorations of the squeaks, creaks, shutters, stutters, yelps, and moans of these brightly colored, and surprisingly durable orbs, he was joined by his equal in inventive transgression, Andrew Drury, at a floor-tom drum and a host of accessories. The most intriguing of the dozens of items pulled from Drury’s kit bag before the performance was a metal dustpan and a gaggle of violin and double bass bows, whose shaggy and frayed horsehairs indicated that these dignified swords of the orchestral aristocracy had already survived some mortal hand-to-hand combat in the trenches of electro-acoustical percussion improvisation. More would shortly ensue.
The third member of this exploratory trio was Bryan Eubanks on open circuits and portable electronics, which included a laptop holding a massive catalog of sampled sounds highly tweakable in real time. In contrast to the athletic exertions of the acoustic duo upfront, Eubanks sat impassively at his table, hunched over his controls, fiddling with the knobs of his small mixing board, and occasionally poking at his laptop to provide a backdrop of found and invented sounds, sometimes distant and gray like far-off clouds, at other times glowing red and threatening over the spirited colloquy of Aria’s balloons and Drury’s diverse machinations. Theirs is an improvised art bordering on glorious madness.
The evening began with a rather more contemplative solo offered up by Tim Feeney, head of the percussion program at Cornell University and a classically trained musician who pursues what he calls a “double life” as an experimental improviser. His set-up and the sound it produced were considerably sparser than that of Drury, though both used the single floor-tom as their foundation. Feeney had placed a small cymbal on the drumhead next to a space-age coil, which he later informed me was a Pier 1 Imports CD holder that his ex-girlfriend had given him as a hint to get his sprawling record collection in order. The CD holder could only accommodate an inconsequential half-dozen discs. The pair split a few days later.
The visual centerpiece of Feeney’s kit, the crappy CD holder, in this unexpected context achieved an austere visual and aural dignity that the clowns at Pier 1 who sold it and the wage-slaves who made it back in China could never have anticipated.
Feeney began by investigating the permeable border between ambient noise and constructed soundscapes. He fiddled with painstaking finesse at his mixing board for the first several minutes. John Cage’s 4’33” asked us to listen to what was around us, and in so doing rejecting a division I for one hold to be dear: that between art and nature. Feeney takes a more technological approach to such ironic philosophical musings. Nodding crisply to Cage, as it were, Feeney gradually directed our listening to the things in and outside the room, eventually honing in on the feedback off his still unstruck and seemingly silent drum, finding through the hypersensitive microphone perched above the drum head, some astoundingly complex and protean self-generated rhythms. Another of the truths that this investigation quickly reveals is that silence is a myth. The universe appears to be a drummer.
After this rather contemplative prelude of several minutes conjured by thumb and forefinger, Feeney swiveled to his drum and pulled out a violin bow and drew it along the cymbal, which he held down with his other hand on the drum head. Having created this ethereal complaint, he then returned his attention to the mixer and had us meditate on the contours of decay, the sound waves colliding against each other as the microphone listened to itself and we to it.
Later, Feeney balanced the tip a thin rod on top of the Pier One CD holder and drew his thumbs and forefingers in circular motions that set up another wave rich in complex overtones. Pushing against the threshold of human hearing, these gestures had a few members of the audience plugging their ears. In his capacity as soloist Feeney is less a percussionist than frictionist. The soundscape he elicits from his minimal set-up is like a vast, largely barren canvas scratched by a few small marks. Slowly, inexorably we zoom in on one mark, then another, and see they are almost frantically alive — an anthill swarming with unified but busily complex sound. Yet both the close-up and the long-shot are strangely, paradoxically poised. As the last bit of feedback recedes, we realize that in the seemingly depopulated expanse of sound Feeney explores there is much more to hear than we had suspected, and that the flotsam of rampant consumerism—like a Pier One CD gizmo—can yield up mysterious, mesmerizing chords and rhythms.
The evening proceeded from the sparse to the exuberant, not to say baroque. Arias took his position in front of his balloon-kit. The larger of the two balloons, about a yard across was wedged down into the tubular, folding frame of chair, whose canvas seat had been removed. Strapped on top of this with big rubber bands was a smaller balloon less than a foot across. With the four legs of the chair, a big body, and smaller head, the set-up looked like some kind of rotund and garish quadruped.
Arias proceeded to rub a large sponge on the surface of the larger balloon while continually squirting water from a small bottle to increase friction and therefore sound. Drury joined in with feathery fingers across the drumhead, while Eubanks lurked in the sonic shadows. The evolving sonorities gathered themselves into a long, fitful crescendo, the building momentum allowing intermittent retreats to subsidiary moments of reconsideration, even repose. The accumulating energy of the first fifteen minutes, during which Arias brought various sponges and pieces of Styrofoam into play and Drury went from bowing his cymbal to searching out the crystalline qualities of a range of brass bells on the drumhead, gave way to investigations of the resonances of the various acoustic instruments. At one point, Drury scanned his arsenal, but no object caught his fancy. He promptly picked up his drum and began to blow on it mightily on it, as Arias deployed another smaller balloon and tickled it with his fingers, evoking a range of affects from the nervous to the demure.
After a dustpan interlude of renewed intensity in dialogue with more sponge work on the balloon and gurgling water samples from the laptop, a kind of slow movement emerged. Here a lyrical passage of high, almost sweet complaints from the balloons comingled with jangling chains dragged and bounced across the drum. Like Feeney before him, Drury then placed a thin rod on the head, and, caressing it with his hands, brought forth mournful drones.
The drums must be the oldest musical instrument of human kind, and no one has ever confronted it with a more unbounded, yet skilled, creativity than has Drury.
The final climax of the trio’s improvisation came with Drury slamming at a piece of metal on top of the drum, while Arias snapped wildly at the balloons with those rubber bands. The result sounded like high voltage sparks, and would have probably been as painful had they broken in Arias’ face. (Warning, KounterPunch Kids: DO NOT try this at home without the supervision of either an adult or an Obama poll watcher). Arias continued his artistic assault as Drury pushed his kit along the floor, the rubber pads on the feet of the floor-tom making the drum jump and stutter and the bits and bells on top of it shake, rattle, and ding. Above a tectonic Ur-noise from Eubanks, the percussionists careened towards a wild epiphany before a long diminuendo eventually dissolved into the ambient sound Feeney had earlier dissected.
Out on Seneca Street the traffic had diminished to intermittent whoosh not unlike Drury’s blowings. A distant siren pursued its distant goal, like a screaming balloon rising towards the apparent silence of the night sky. Inside No Radio Records, the applause from the audience found its own spontaneous rhythmic logic in an enthusiastic and apposite coda to the evening’s insights and exuberances.
The sheer nerve of it all made me think that perhaps the root of all art lies in mischief.
DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. A long-time contributor to the Anderson Valley Advertiser, he is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org