Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Playing The Silences

Two weeks of standing in front of the timbales and I'd love to describe progress as being superhuman. But I can't. 'Steady' is the best I can muster. But then, there's always next week...

The lion's share of the hours have been devoured by the fundamentals - I've approached this little escapade as somewhat of a restart, a chance to put the perfection of hindsight and years of accumulated experience into practice.

How many times have we uttered the phrase "if only I knew then, what I know now" and had the opportunity to do it all over again?

I'd decided long ago that closed strokes, sometimes called press strokes, would form the backbone of my playing. This is when the timbale sticks stay on the shells after each strike to mute their ringing. It's decidedly old school, from back in the days of the danzón when the dance salons of Cuba knew nothing of microphones. Timbales were played in this way so as not to overpower the delicate violins, just perfect for 4de12's charanga line-up and the confines of the practice room.

Old Skool is a patient person's game; it takes more energy to perform and takes longer to learn. But what it yields are greater dynamics and more articulate expression.

The dynamics come from a greater contrast between the sound of the initial strike and the silence of the shells being closed to ringing - the timbalero plays the silences. The articulation comes the way the sticks come off the shell, either: straight off; or slightly rolled off, towards or away from the drummer.

Its brought back early memories of training as a dancer: learning to thread movement through each floor contact; and why foot placements, on and off, are more articulate than footfalls. The principles are identical: minimise movement to achieve consistency, and lessen background noise so that actions can be clearer without needing to be louder.

Dancing the silences draws your partner into your sense of time.

Playing the silences does the same. The technicalities might be different, some analogous some not, but both are also alike in requiring an exacting level of detail at fundamental level for success. With the timbales, for example:
  • control resonance by striking the shell directly opposite the rubber stand-off, so that vibrations travelling clockwise and anti-clockwise have identical distances to travel;
  • sense the stand-off through the timbale sticks when the shell is placed under different levels of compression;
  • the sticks must become extensions of the hands, where the position of the tips and the speed of their movement are known even when they're unsighted; and
  • know which part of the stick gives the best feel of the stand-off, the best sound, and the most versatility in voicing.
I can be a better musician because of my dancing. And there is much that can be transferred between the two.

Particularly with silence.

Loo Yeo

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Artistry Of Vulnerability

Kate is a sweet, diminutive, young English rose.

An organisational reshuffle six months ago caused our spheres to overlap, and we've become casual acquaintances. Last week when I strolled into the reception, she motioned to me and asked, "do you dance?"

I decided to play along, shifting subtly to a leaden pose. "Do you really think I look like a dancer?" (add slightly disbelieving tone)

"Yes you do actually."

Darn. Normally that works. This one's a sharp cookie.

Kate had always thought that I'd looked familiar but could never place where she'd known me from. A chance conversation with a colleague let the cat out of the bag. It turns out that I'd shared a song with her one salsa night eight years ago. She told me she was just beginning then, and still remembers it clearly. Because even though the song had stopped, she kept on dancing on the inside.

A genuine compliment.

Kate's caused me to think about the persistence of a dance experience. What turns it into an Event? An landmark memory?

Louie Spence said that the performance of dance can be so emotionally evocative that it can make the watcher cry. The fourth episode of SKY1's exuberant 'Pineapple Dance Studios' is the best so far, especially the five minute sequence where Louie is down but not out after realising his age, being unable to stay the distance though an hour-long warm-up, which the teenage dancers around him don't even break a sweat through.

He rallies spectacularly once the music comes on and the youngsters, with their physical prowess, are awestruck. The videotape editing leads the episode to skim over the most important artistic truth that Louie reveals to his young charges; that a performance at the pinnacle of Art requires you to expose your emotional vulnerability to your audience.

It takes a mature performer to believe, and trust, that the audience's acceptance of a genuine effort is unconditional.

I've been wrestling with this since performing in Yarm. Being a better singer is now no longer about skill, it's about letting down my defenses to let people see how the song makes me feel. This invitation to vulnerability is so very alien, complete faith to be placed in strangers.

It's the reason why we seldom look into the eyes of those but our loved ones. As windows unto the soul, looking into someone's soul requires that we expose our own to them.

All the enduring artistic Events have this in common. An truth of expression born of vulnerability.

That's why I take umbrage to 'styling' as it's purveyed - it is not delivered nor received as an aspect of form for the conveyance of artistic expression. It is manufactured and consumed as a pair of sunglasses to shield the soul, a façade behind which we can shelter our vulnerabilities in comfort and yet still sell to our audience-partners as 'art'.

Each dance robbed of the possibility of forever.

But there is one great positive to say. In this place, those of us willing to risk, stand out to our kindred. Because we all show to each other, and are recognised by, our calling.

Loo Yen

Monday, March 15, 2010

A Reason For The Timbales

The past three months have been a musically busy time, as I've been leading 4 de Diciembre through a comprehensive series of new arrangements. The outcome has surpassed even my best expectations; good songs have metamorphosed into artistically compelling works - it has to be put down to working with a collection of great musicians. During this period, I've had at various times to play (while singing) a variety of rhythms on congas (such as guaguancó contra-clave, songo con marcha, mozambique) and on hand percussion (timbale bell, clave) to tease out the right groove.

Along the way our little revamp-fest exposed a pair of Achilles' heels which might one day stunt my growth as a rumbero/salsero: that my command of clave was not yet instinctive, and that I was still an eighty pound weakling in the rhythmic independence department. Playing clave is a world away from clave phrasing, and I used to think that the phrasing bit would be more difficult to achieve, since you'd have to keep both the clave and what you were playing in mind. I was wrong.

What I learned was that it takes a stellar level of ability to make those five notes sing - in that rhythm there is no hiding place.

To achieve mastery, I needed to play it more often. And it'd have to be 'extra-curricular' with respect to the band, since the hand percussion I play when performing is necessarily pulse-based for the sake of the dancers, and it also sets up the rhythmic structure in which our conguero can improvise. An exception to this rule is "Tempest", one of our newly (re)arranged songs, which now works best with the timbale bell pattern played on the mounting block of my trusty bongó bell.

So to recap, I needed to work on my independence, internalise clave, and play highly syncopated bell rhythms. What might be the best way of doing this?


My anticipated restoration to the timbales has been an on-and-off lunchtime topic of conversation with Christophe who, as a dancer, could anticipate a number of benefits:
  • The ability to tune in better to the polyrhythms of the instrument, understand its phrasing, and become more sensitive to transitions and their cues.
  • Use dance movement and music as mutually supporting activities in evolving soloing strategies.
  • Increasing four-way independence to five (a giant leap for a percussionist dancer).
  • Timbales interpret at least two rhythms if not three, as compared to the congas' one. A window upon hybridity, the timbale domain not only encompasses the AfroCuban domain, but intersects others like pop/funk/rock.
And, it's the last major piece of my recording project jigsaw which has been in hiatus. The only thing holding me back was the commitment - I needed to schedule three weeks of daily high-quality practice to establish momentum.

But as I say to my students, "people always make time for what they feel is important".

Was it important enough for me? How much of this was 'comfort zone' resistance?

On Saturday, I went upstairs and unpacked the timbales.

I'm actually lucky enough to possess two: as custodian of the band's Latin Percussion (LP) Tito Puente timbales in brass, the industry reference standard; and my own personal Meinl Luis Conte timbales in cymbal-quality brass. I've had the Luis Conte ones for four years, and had every intention of playing them, but then 4de12 suddenly needed a lead singer. The rest is history.

So, as it transpires, I've never laid a stick on them; that was a pleasure left for our former timbaleros. Considering the LPs and the Meinls side-by-side, it took five minutes to decide on the Meinls:
  1. I like the larger shell area for playing the cáscara (something which LP addressed in latter revisions).
  2. I prefer the sound of the shells - their hand-hammered surface has a warmer sound, and strikes have body and yet can cut through the mix.
  3. Most importantly the Meinl shells are more sensitive, less forgiving of inconsistent technique. They would take longer to master but, being more articulate, will reward more musical players.
  4. Of all the cowbells that were in the house to constitute a timbale set-up (I've mugged enough cows for four sets), the Meinl ones best suited the sound of the timbalero that I will be.
In the best AfroCuban tradition, I cleaned away the neglect of the set's previous caretakers, selected my bells, adjusted the heights and angles, and prepared a place of commitment in the front room.

Then I washed my hands and began to play.

Loo Yen