The development of percussion instruments attracted rather little interest until the beginning of the twentieth century, during which a number of composers started to exploit the percussion group for its own sake. Percussion instruments are now handled in today’s music with skills that were inconceivable just a couple of generations ago.
In 2015, I started performing experimental percussion solos using a variety of extended techniques: in principle anything is usable to create sound, but too often new devices are merely used as a sterile (sound) effect instead as a tool for expressing and developing a language.
Through the creative path of improvisation, I developed the Drummophone, a system that allows me to treat the drum as an aerophone, both with breath (like a wind instrument) and electric blowers (like an organ).
With my research I aim to define a new language and vocabulary for percussion, performers, composer and question the role of the player as a listener, while continuing to develop technically the Drummophone.
Following the Hornbostel-Sachs classification, the most widely used system for classifying sound-instruments, we encounter today five major categories: idiophones, chordophones, aerophones, membranophones and electrophones.
This classification satisfies day-to-day requirements but, as the Drummophone proved, it can’t be considered as absolute.
What is a drum?
Drums are membranophones, instruments equipped with a stretched membrane that is made to vibrate, with either indefinite pitch or definite pitch.
An aerophone is a musical instrument that produces sound primarily by causing a body of air to vibrate: the air itself is the vibrator in the primary sense.
Unfortunately, under the membranophones section, the closest classification for Hornbostel-Sachs to the Drummophone, is number “241, Free Kazoos: the membrane is incited directly, without the wind first passing through a chamber”.
Basically, Free Kazoos are considered membranophone instruments in which the membrane is vibrated by the unbroken column of wind generated while speaking, and without a chamber.
At the same time, under the aerophones section, we find a relation with membranes at “412.22, Free membrane reeds: the membrane is stretched against a bearing. The air-stream, which is directed against the membrane, determines its movement in one direction, then, thanks to the elasticity of its material, in the opposite direction”.
In this section of the book, the membrane of these instruments is considered as a reed, or vice versa, and the authors do not suggest any examples here, only a close proximity with instruments such as the harmonium and the accordion.
Since classification systems are static and depend upon sharply-drawn demarcations and categories, as proved by the fact that the kazoo is brought in close proximity to the snare drum, I don’t feel that the purpose of my research is to remark the definition of the Drummophone, but rather to detail it’s functionality. I will leave the classification to the future organologists that will ereditate the tools for its categorization based on the compositional aspects and practical uses that has already been and will be discovered, evolving in real time in the ongoing process started in 2015 when I first experimented the idea of blowing through a cymbal attached to the drum.
So, what is the Drummophone?
It consists of a folded up small cymbal with convex instead of concave shape, with a regular bell, to which a tube is attached through its central hole.
When placed on top of a drum, only the circumference of the bell touches the drum skin.
This allows the pressure of the air that flows into the tube, either injected pneumatically or blown by the musician, to make the membrane of the drum vibrating and resonating.
The Drummophone has been officially presented in 2017 at Tempo Reale (research centre founded in 1987 by composer Luciano Berio in Florence). While using it, it’s possible to obtain acoustic drones, melodies and complex beats that drastically distance the instrument from traditional drumming and gestures. Different transitory evolutions have been already explored, each one of them has revealed questions, problems and solutions that brought to what the Drummophone is today.
John Cage said that percussion music is a contemporary transition from keyboard-influenced music to the all-sound music of the future. There's a crystal-clear relation between this statement and my instrument, especially when working with pneumatic forces, obtaining an organ-like sound out of the drums.
A given note may sound in diverse ways, even when it comes from the same type of instrument, what we actually hear is a blend of numerous ingredients and we can thus understand that the manufacture of a musical instrument is a highly specialized handicraft. Equally important is the player whose years of training and education enable him or her to control an often unruly instrument with unfailing precision.
One way to approach playing music, the most common, is to choose one instrument and study the repertoire that has been developed within decades or centuries on it. This is not the case if we play a new instrument: we have to define a vocabulary and build a language in order to make music with it, to interact with other musicians, and to let composers understand how it works.
At this stage I find myself quite prepared technically on the Drummophone; for example, if I want to play in a specific range with a specific dynamic I know how to do it and I can control the final result mostly as I desire.
On the other hand, still many aspects need to be investigated, to clarify how it physically works. My personal experience working with composers like Philip Corner and Anthony Pateras among others, exposed the fragilities and the necessities of the instrument. This device still requires a more precise definition of its acoustical behaviour and its morphological applications.
A mirror-like problem occurs with players and composers: I aim to understand and theorize how the drum skin responds to the pressure of the air, in order to make the use of the Drummophone accessible in other’s playing and compositions.
Composing with the Drummophone
Pitch and rhythm dominated Western musical notation and composers found that it’s easier to create cognitive hierarchies in frequencies and time. Starting with the idea that the dynamic transition from one note to another with the Drummophone is not logically divisible (yet), just as a nuance of a colour from light to dark is not divisible, the final result will be the definition of rules and possibilities within the compositional aspect.
As a starting point, I am using the graphic approach of futurist composer Luigi Russolo, who used to draw lines on the score for his Intonarumori. I aim to define a system that allows the players to interpret a score with a new graphic methodology for percussion.
Listening player and playing listener
Coming from the field of experimental music, I’ve personally tried over the past years to emancipate myself from playing as a traditional instrumentalist.
I’ve always admired electronic and electroacoustic musicians for their privileged position of listening while performing, having (generally) a minor physical involvement in the performance compared to any instrumentalist, that allows a deeper form of self-listening. I solved this urgent need presenting drum-related sound activities, switching the listening focus to the architectural aspect of a drum to the actual space that its sound occupies, getting closer to the audience's perspective while performing.
Starting from this basic concept, after years dedicated to language, vocabulary and technique building, out of the countless technical limitations and obstacles found in the process of creation of the Drummophone, I want to question the listening point of the performer in relation with the audience's.
The vibrations generated on the drum skins through the air’s pressure create a complex texture of harmonics, beatings and pure acoustic resonances that layers in the air and it is actually possible to play chords and tune precisely the pitches, finding the right euphonic resonances in each space.
This approach, specifically with pneumatic pressure on the drum skins, allows me to widen the listening point.
In the psychoacoustic field, the experience of hearing is oriented toward sound sources—not the sounds themselves: adding distance from the instrument brings the performer closer to the listener, rather than the player.
If hearing is at the essence of (playing) music, then how the sound we produce while playing leads towards its content and its significance depends on how we as players position ourselves as medium it the act of listening.
Questioning the quality of listening in its broadest sense is now the subject of self-listening sessions with the Drummophone as part of my practice routine. These sessions are focused on the relation with space and body, deepening the acoustic phenomenon of pure resonation through drum’s resonances, and in the dichotomy in between the listening player and the playing listener.