Man Jumping sticksman Simon Limbrick talks about tuned percussion, sampled percussion and technology on the stage. Nicholas Rowland tunes in to the rhythm of technology.
Simon Limbrick is better known as the percussionist with Man Jumping, but recently he's been performing solo concerts using the KAT MIDI controller and the Akai MPC60.
IT'S A STRANGE thing, but as music technology becomes more sophisticated and accessible, the way people use it seems to become ever more mundane and predictable. Take MIDI; each month, the pages of this very magazine are full of news of the latest gadgets designed to allow musicians to tune in and turn on to the power of the five-pin DIN plug. Theoretically this should have given rise to a generation of MIDI maniacs who can not only play every conceivable type of sound, but, given the proliferation of MIDI controlled effects units, mixers and amplifiers, can also manipulate those sounds as part of a live performance. But where is this race of super beings?
Over the last couple of years groups like Man Jumping and Earthworks have emerged from the nightmare world of MIDI with their jazz sensibilities firmly intact. Less well-known perhaps, is the work that is currently going on within an area variously called 20th Century, avant-garde, contemporary chamber, or Contemporary with a capital "C". It shouldn't really come as a surprise though, as it's here that the traditions of electronic experimentation go back the furthest.
A good example of the type of eclectic musician operating in this area is Simon Limbrick. Probably best known as the rhythmist with Man Jumping, Limbrick is a versatile tuned percussionist who performs almost unceasingly on the Contemporary music circuit with groups such as the English Brass Ensemble, Music Projects London, Opera Factory, Endymion Ensemble, Capricorn, Lontano and Suoraan. He's also been active as a performer for the Society for the Promotion of New Music which organises regular concerts of mixed acoustic and electronic work.
Limbrick is a graduate of the Royal College of Music where, along with percussion, he studied electronics. Working his way up through tape-loops, manipulated feedback, contact microphones on typewriters, bits of metal and resonating tubes, he was eventually introduced to sampling, through the Fairlight.
Add to all this an interest in ethnic percussion (he's studied tabla for four years), plus a lot of hours spent behind the drumkit with various jazz and rock groups, and you've got someone with a rather more oblique perspective on the application of technology than the average DX7 player. Particularly so, since Limbrick uses not a DX7, but the KAT MIDI percussion controller linked to an Akai S900 sampler.
This system forms the basis for the electroacoustic part of Limbrick's solo repertoire, which consists at present of two specially commissioned pieces, one from Vic Hoyland for KAT and acoustic marimba; the other, 'Asi el acero', by Javier Alvarez for steel drum and sequencer. Both these works, along with a third piece for KAT and sequencer, written in collaboration with fellow members of Man Jumping, were due to receive their premieres at the Almeida theatre back in April, as part of the Percussion '88 Festival. Unfortunately, due to technical difficulties which will be explained later, only the Man Jumping piece made it to the final programme. (However, Limbrick assures me he'll be performing the others later this year.)
In the meantime, his explanation of what the audience should have heard offers an insight into the instrumentation involved and the problems of turning electronic scores into performance reality.
In Hoyland's piece the KAT is mounted behind and above the keyboard of a marimba. It triggers marimba samples from the Akai S900 which are then effected by a series of preprogrammed patches called up from a Roland DEP5 MIDI effects unit by the KAT.
"It's a bit like a 'prepared marimba'", says Limbrick with a smile, "since the basic samples stay constant and all the changes come about through effects.
"Unfortunately, although I'd spent a day with him showing what the KAT and the effects box were capable of, Vic didn't realise how easy it is to end up in a very complex area of programming even when you're only dealing with one effects device. By the time I'd got to grips with the material, there wasn't really time to do the programming."
Problems with programming also beset 'Asi el acero', although not because of any lack of technical knowledge on behalf of the composer. Mexican born Javier Alvarez is currently involved in computer music research at the City University and his previous electro-acoustic works, 'Temazcal', 'Luz Caterpilar' and 'Papalotl' have received much critical acclaim.
"We did a tour last year and in the middle of a gig one person stood up and shouted, 'why don't you make a mistake? Are you human or robots?'."
'Asi el acero' makes use of extensive sound treatment of the acoustic instrument. Firstly, the steel drum (the "lead" version) is miked up, while the two top notes, which wouldn't normally be heard with any degree of volume, each have a contact mic attached to the underside. These then trigger steel drum samples, again from the S900, which pass through different programs on the DEP5.
The score calls for the performer to play a series of intricate rhythmic patterns against those of the sequencer which is hooked up to a TX81Z and a second S900. Together man and machine produce an almost danceable rhythmic pulse which is full of constantly shifting accents and harmonies.
"The kind of material Javier produces for the steel drum is very challenging, which is partly why I wanted to get him to write a piece for me. So for example, as I kept getting the next few pages of the score, I realised how he was constantly throwing spanners in the works. The last section of the piece appeared on paper to be very similar to the earlier part - like a reprise or recapitulation in the classical mode. But when I started to play it, I realised that it was technically very different. In the end, though, after spending six weeks learning the notes, we were actually defeated in the last few days by the sequenced element of the piece."
IRONICALLY, THE PROBLEMS were partly due to the offer of the loan of an MPC60 sampler/sequencer/drum machine on the part of Akai, who sponsored the Almeida concert.
"Naturally I said 'Yes please' since it looked such a fantastic piece of hardware. Originally we'd planned to use something small and portable like the QX1, though eventually the idea is to transfer the whole lot to tape.
"Javier had written the piece on Macintosh Performer software which, as a composer working with notation, he finds more accessible and reliable and more suited to the way he records - usually in one long sequence, rather than stringing little ones together. He also tends to keep note information, program changes and controller information on separate tracks. So for this piece there was a single sequence of 212 bars of 5/4 with something like eight tracks of note events for the S900's and TX81Z and five tracks of other events.
"When the time came to pass all this across to the MPC60, we first found we couldn't do it as a bulk MIDI dump. So we ended up having to record each track in real time, which was a bit of a drag. Then on playback, we found the MPC60 refused to go past bar 129 - bar 129, beat four, to be precise - at which point the play button also seemed to stop functioning and the machine locked up. We spent the best part of a day trying to get round this, constantly phoning up Akai to see whether they knew what the problem was. In the end they said there was probably something wrong with the machine. The strange thing though, was that I'd used the MPC60 with Man Jumping and managed to get single sequences consisting of 350 bars without any problem.
"Probably what was happening was that the MPC60's note memory which is quoted at something like 60,000 is actually shared by other MIDI events. So although theoretically it should have been able to cope with nine minutes of music, all the other information meant it was running out."
Since there was no time to revert to the Macintosh and as Limbrick says "It was not a piece I could busk", 'Asi el acero' will have to ride again another day. Happily, for both Akai and Limbrick where the Man Jumping piece, 'Tokyo Mix', was concerned, the MPC60 proved a lot more useful.
"We just said 'no rules' and improvised - suddenly everyone was passing MIDI leads across asking to plug into other people's stacks."
"The way that piece was composed has a lot to do with the way that the group has now changed its focus and method of working", hints Limbrick darkly.
THOSE CHANGES HAVE been brought about by the decision of three MJ members to pursue solo careers. That leaves three remaining besides Limbrick: saxophonist Andy Blake and keyboards-men Schaun Tozer and Glyn Perrin.
Limbrick takes up the story:
"We were left with four people who could just set up the instruments and play without having to talk about it, which was a real breath of fresh air.
A lot of what MJ had done before has been rather precise and pure - too much of a 'product'. As a result we've got a bit of a reputation in magazines like this one for being the MIDI musician's MIDI musicians. I remember we did a tour last year and in the middle of a gig one person stood up and shouted, 'Why don't you make a mistake? Are you human or robots?'. Of course, we'd been making mistakes all over the place, but it sort of brought the point home. Technology had become this cloud we were living under, this sticky mud patch which we felt had to be part of the act.
"In order to try and get back some of the guts which we felt our music lacked, we decided to all go away for a week, set up the gear in a studio and just play. I'd just got the MPC60, so I took it along with all the other stuff, although no-one at that stage, including me, really knew what it did.
"For the first few sessions we just said 'no rules' and improvised. It was absolutely amazing what happened. All these different things which people had obviously had a sneaking desire to do suddenly came out. I was doing bass from the KAT, Andy was playing bass and pulse parts from the sax, Glyn was doing kit parts from the keyboard. Everyone was passing MIDI leads across asking to plug into other people's stacks. Absolute MIDI mania really, but not in that cautious way we'd been used to. Like we've all got effects devices but up to then we'd always been really careful about them. So many milliseconds this, so many milliseconds that. Suddenly you had these outrageous delays rocketing wildly all over the room, panning all round. It's quite a shock to listen back to the recordings we made. We're thinking of releasing them, but I think they'd lose us any following we ever had.
"At first I was using the MPC60 just by playing the drum sounds on the pads. Then I put these random pulse parts into it with different dynamics and panning effects. Over the top of that I put in a very light cross rhythm, very loose, but in 22 or 50 bar phrases and left out all the really big moments like bass and snare, so that it became more like a texture which people could interpret in any time signature they wanted.
"Later in the week I wrote this wildly developed bassline into the MPC60 then did some very loose percussion parts on top. Then I gradually lifted it into the next improvisation. After a couple of improvisations I dumped the MIDI information from each person's performance into the MPC60. We were still all playing simultaneously, but only one person was being recorded at a time. And of course, I didn't record my part as that was to be my contribution to the piece during the performance.
"I took the sequences home and chopped them up. There were basically two alternating sections throughout the piece which had slightly different rhythmic emphases and stresses to draw people in different ways. One section was shaped from something very small to a big crescendo, and I ended up chopping off the quiet bit and using it as a separate interlude which didn't go anywhere, and making the big section far more dramatic. I also swapped the voices around a bit so you heard a theme first on one sound and then on another."
"Used in the right way sampling can make music seem a lot more human. The only use I see for factory sounds is to distort them into something else."
'Tokyo Mix' is indeed a very exciting piece to hear played live, continually alternating between quieter more thoughtful moments and fast and furious steamroller sections. What impresses most is the quality of sound which Limbrick manages to produce using a small stereo PA system. The programming of digital effects is particularly stunning, showing off the quality of the sampled sounds to their best advantage.
The subject of sampling provokes various reactions from Limbrick. For starters, having spent so many years with the real McCoy, he's highly critical of the factory samples which the rest of us accept as tuned percussion.
"A lot of the time, it's quite clear that whoever samples these instruments doesn't really know what they are. They treat them as though they have a one-off sound rather than like a piano, being capable of being expressive in all different ways. For instance, you often find that they've made what they call a marimba from only part of the range of the instrument, so naturally when it's out of that range the character of the tone is not right. They tend to be recorded at a low level too, so there's a fair bit of noise from either the line input or the output amplifiers. I found that problem myself when I did my own marimba samples on the Akai S900. In fact I've had to sample it about four times and it's still a bit noisy. But I have ended up with a very usable bass marimba sound which is in tune, unlike most acoustic bass marimbas."
So, if you are going to get into DIY tuned percussion samples, what's the secret?
"If I'm sampling something like a steel drum or a marimba, then I try to get as much of that sound into the reference file as possible. I go through the whole range playing a series of different types of notes - damped notes, long notes - all with different sticks. It's really a question of patience. I managed to create a brilliant set of crotales. They're really difficult because they ring on for such a long time, but after spending ages finding the loop points I got this sample which has all the harmonics, is touch-sensitive and again is actually in tune."
Aside from sampling large or rare acoustic instruments for the sake of convenience, Limbrick believes that the true value of the medium is as a starting point for something else.
"I've always believed the whole point of sampling is like an extension of a person's character. Used in the right way it can make music seem a lot more human. The only use I see for factory sounds is to distort them into something else.
"It's a principle we've always worked on in Man Jumping. And though we're constantly swapping new sounds within the group, the great thing is that everyone uses them in different ways. For example, on the Akai there's a master catalogue program which allows you to load all the samples across the keyboard so you can hear what's on disk. I'd done a whole disk of metal percussion sounds - triangles, sleigh bells and crotales. All Schaun did was to copy the master program and use it as it was mixed in with DX sounds. So when he's playing the keyboard, you'll get sleigh bells coming through on one note, a triangle on another, finger cymbals on another. We did that with a mixture of vocal sounds and MIDI'd it up with an electric piano so that you didn't know on which notes the vocal would come through under the piano. That was quite surreal - like the keyboard was melting."
If all goes well, the future will see MJ maintaining their unique approach to sound creation through a series of projects for dance, film, and life-size puppets. Limbrick intends to pursue his solo electronic experiments through further specially commissioned works. Eventually he hopes to collect them all together and record them, preferably on CD, though more for personal satisfaction than private gain.
In the meantime, expect to see him popping up in performances of Contemporary music wherever a percussionist is required. It's an area he continues to find exciting and challenging, despite the occasional obtuse work where as he says himself, the audience wouldn't know if he was hitting the right notes or the wrong ones. The audience, now there's another challenge...
Interview by Nicholas Rowland
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