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Mutually Musical Concepts from a Percussion & Bass Ensemble

I have been thinking for quite a while since last Wednesday night’s concert at FLYWHEEL in Easthampton, Ma. how to arrive at the words to describe the intriguing music I heard.

There were essentially distinct definable spaces in front of me in which each of the four musicians created their own place to produce their musical lines. Matt Weston’s more than complete drum set was in the back left corner of the platform. Le Quan Ninh’s large bass drum was on the right of the platform, an array of cymbals, singing bowls, and percussive tools were laid in an organized fashion on felt cloth on the floor beside the drum. In front of the platform, in front of Le Quan Ninh’s set up was Chris Cooper’s electric guitar, flat on the floor-- inserted under the strings was a steel ruler, about four pedals lay beside the guitar to the back, other objects to be put on or over the strings were next to the pedals. In front of Weston, on the floor was Crespo’s bass electric guitar.

Crespo sat on the floor with his leg extended to bolster the bass which he held upright with his right hand. Cooper knelt in back of his guitar; a mass of curly hair was all I could ever see of his head, and his hands moved rapidly as he changed percussive utensils to exercise the guitar strings. Le Quan Ninh was bent over his legged bass drum for most of the performance and the hand-made bows, pine cone, switches, mallets, cymbals et alia that were once organized on the floor were in complete disarray when the gig was finished. Weston remained conservatively within his space, rising once or twice from his seat to unmount and remount a cymbal, that looked like it has been run over by a truck several times, from its stand or to scrape the far right cymbal (which activity became a mainstay in his performance).

The music...There was very little rhythm. Each musician created a layer of sound within his own instrumental limits. Yet within those limits, each also listened well to the others so as to try to enrich, embellish, make more whole the disparate elements of the unit of four in terms of their own sets of sounds. To the virgin listener, this performance might not have made any sense. But to that same listener, it might have also made the most sense in the world. Here were four men interweaving sounds of an abstract nature into a web of continuity. I will tell you, in the first set, this is what happened (or at least partially, because there was so much going on that trying to create a line that is verbally equivalent to the music is impossible):

Ninh scraped his bass drum with the edge of a medium-sized cymbal; he played it like a DJ would scrape a record as it rotated on a turntable. At the same time, Cooper stroked his guitar strings with a tuning fork. Crespo slid his fingers up and down the neck of the bass, his eyes never coming unglued from that focus. Weston scraped a skinless drum pad and then a cymbal, imitating Ninh, who picked up a larger cymbal, scraped the drum skin and then added the stroke of a drumstick to the mix and then that of a mallet. Cooper jostled odd looking things under his guitar strings while bowing them simultaneously. While Weston made the rounds of his drums with metal sticks, Cooper pressed the pedals modulating the electronics as Ninh continued to use mallets to soften the scraping and replaced a large cymbal on the skin with two small ones. Weston was throwing out upstrokes on his cymbals, then made perceptible clicking sounds off the metal frames of the pair of skinless sideless drums which sat right in front of him. Crespo bowed the upper neck of his guitar; a tight squeal was produced. Ninh used the stick to hit the bass drum; the stick looked like it was rubber; he played the cymbal on the top of the drum like a bell.

Weston resurfaced to change the texture of the entire sound; Crespo responded with deep chords on his bass. Ninh’s drum became a "sounding board" on which he kept putting an endless variety of materials to change the resonance of the drum skin; he bowed the metal struts of the drum with a four foot long hand-made bow. In movements, independent of any other, he hit the cymbals on the drum head, and then hit the drum surface. Cooper scraped his guitar strings with a foot long spring, a metal ruler, and his fingers. Ninh pushed hard on his bass drum skin and then stirred on it with a flexible wire stick and mallet. Crespo was mesmerized on the string of his guitar, strumming the bow at the upper neck again. Throughout the piece, Crespo created a drone like fluidity with his fingering. And Cooper, in general, made a synthesizer out of his guitar through engagement with ready-made scrapers, bows, slides.

The music became a cascade of delicate high pitched tones at each musician’s station. The sound became as quiet and tiny as can be. With that, the four regrouped. Ninh paused for a moment or two. Then all of the musicians resumed their multi-versal aural event. Cooper created a drone; Ninh used a long wire as a rattle on the drum skin, then to serve the same purpose came the pine cone, rocks, and a repeated motion with his fingers and palm from the skin to the side. Weston scraped his far right cymbal again making rhythmic a circular motion with the end of a mallet stick. The four synchronized into a unit, approaching a higher pitch.

Although Crespo was hardly moving, perspiration dripped from his forehead. His fingers had been moving up and down the neck of the bass (the instrument faced away from the audience); then he started a pizzicato of metaphorical raindrops. It was as if the entire group was on a mountain top, each yelling into a canyon below. Weston scraped the cymbal, crackled and rolled his mallets on the toms, then thumped his bass drum. Ninh continued with a series of movements bowing a cymbal, scraping it on the drum skin and then tapping it. Cooper played his guitar strings with a spring. Weston scraped the cymbal again and moved to actually pounding on the tom in a conventional manner. Ninh took off----he hit stick to stick and rolled them on the drum head; he pounded everything that he had put on top of the drum with his fists, then he stroked it all with a mallet. Cooper made a mooing sound on his guitar. Weston was scraping his cymbal again. Crespo bent pitches on his bass, grounding the sound of the other three in the group. Cooper for the second or third time twirled a draydel on his guitar strings. What was happening here was a concerted effort to vibrate everything coincidentally.

Crespo tightly slipped his fingers over the bass strings. Ninh took a mallet across the drum skin in a gyroscopic motion and then played a triangle close to the skin. Cooper pulled a tiny spring across his guitar. The sound was out. This music lent itself to the kind of "analysis" which I have rendered. The music was not cold; it was emotionless and oriented to academic perception. The shape, content and structure were far-reaching and so deeply intertwined with linearity that they disappeared. It was not until the generally more agitated second set began that I recognized the nature of the layering of sound that had been occurring. The musicians were laying out their sounds through time into a stack of four wavy parallel lines which crossed at times but more interestingly by design stayed separated.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Unknown
  • Venue: Flywheel
  • City State Country: Easthampton, MA, USA
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