The Art of Noises!
It's not all drumstick and calf skin in the world of the percussionist, y'know. Andy Duncan emits a pleasing 'bong' when struck with a typewriter and discovers other household objects are just as musically compliant.
Percussionist, drummer and hitting-type person Andy Duncan looks at the world of alternative bashing.
All in all you have to admit that the consumer society is a wonderful phenomenon. While we are all at home lying on the couch with the flat cap and Guinness, watching the racing on TV, someone somewhere is beavering away to produce an item doomed to die a rapid death at the hands of either use or progress.
Once this said item has ceased to retain any material value it runs the risk of falling into the grasping hands of that most ecological specimen, the percussionist, who must qualify as one of the few types capable of creating a new role for the used baked bean tin, more of which later.
Indeed no household or workplace is safe from the inquisitive scrutiny of this eccentric person who will shamelessly wander around the place striking, shaking, tapping and otherwise interfering with any object liable to make a pleasing sound.
For instance, take the humble breakfast bowl. No more than somewhere to dump the Weetabix for most people, but a source of fascination to the juvenile percussionist, who discovers at a very early age that one man's nosebag is another man's musical instrument. If you can recall the instrumental section of "Mama Used To Say" by Junior then you can enjoy that rare combination, brass licks duetting with breakfast bowls (empty of course).
Any of you privileged enough to have seen Bob Kerr's Whoopee band will testify to the sublime level to which the drummer, Sam Spoons, has elevated the art of the played spoon, a sadly neglected skill these days, but not necessarily an unfashionable one. It certainly came in handy when I did "John Wayne Is Big Leggy" for Haysi Fantayzee and you never know when you are likely to be called upon to provide a double time solo in "The Sheik Of Araby" with no more than a couple of bits of cutlery.
While hovering in the area of the kitchen, we pause to observe the mug tree and resisting the temptation to derive a cheap joke from its name, we tap its assortment of Chas and Di wedding souvenirs with a spoon (see how useful they can be?) and lo, we have yet another winning ceramic ping selection to play with.
Then there are all the containers to be found in this percussive Jamboree bag. "Blue Peter" may have recreated the "Charge Of The Light Brigade" with Fairy Liquid bottles, but have they ever tried filling about a quarter of the bottle's capacity with lentils, or rice or peppers or anything else that goes toward creating an interesting shaker?
Varying the size and composition of the container will obviously alter the tone as dramatically as its contents, so the greater density of the fabric softener bottle's plastic suddenly becomes as desirable as the screw-top tin or piece of odd tupperware.
Already we are gathering a spectacular array of new instruments guaranteed to surprise and delight even the most tepid of musical colleagues as you dash off a stunning samba rhythm on the shell of an aerosol can of carpet cleaner (full) which gives off a beautifully aquatic pitch bend as you angle the can back and forth between strokes.
If the tuning proves to be inaccurate you can always spruce up the look of the studio carpet by depositing a little of your now invaluable cleaner (in your striving for perfect pitch) on the Axminster in question. The benefit of the full or even partly full Coke can to the player, assuming he has sturdy fillings, cannot go without mention. Partly full, the hole created by the ring pull comes into play as the thumb mutes the aperture and thus provides yet another sound variation for the thirsty player.
Pots and pans qualify as obvious targets in our quest for the groovy noise, but what of the plumbing I hear you say. Well this can be very tricky. Some unkind souls have been known to take offence as a particularly nice length of cold water pipe is removed for use on an upcoming Malcolm McLaren recording. I can offer a useful tip on this delicate point. Turn off the water at the mains first.
Take similar care with both gas and water when attempting to wrest a piece of bending pipe from the central heating system. This proves well worth the effort when, having straightened out this pliable, corrugated item we scrape it with the chop-stick (a familiar percussive device to Oriental players) and discover that the Cuban guiro just ain't in it by comparison. Hold against the chest (not essentially your own) for a nice tight sound and the chance to get close to an impressionable stranger.
Having dismantled or stolen most of the kitchen and its contents, let's wander outside and see what we can find in the garage.
First, the car. Not so much a means of getting from A to B, more a mobile percussion setup. There's the tang of a neatly struck hub cap (if your model goes back that far), the clang of a bashed body spring, but best of all, the many and wondrous tones of the brake drum.
The thick brake drum has an anvil-like sonority when hit with a hammer, and positioned upside down. On its back there's a distinct note which lasts as long as any tuned gong. Meanwhile the thin-topped brake drum is more responsive to hand muting when placed face up and gently tapped with a small hammer, but will also provide a long note when turned over and hit on its side.
Each car varies the shape, size and consistency of its brake drums, so no model is safe from the feverish spanner hand of the percussionist. Much the same can be said of the petrol tank, which is a larger version of the partly filled tin can sound when you whack in a couple of pints of water, and change the angle at which you are holding it as you tap the exterior.
Tapping the exterior of a 40-gallon oil drum alienates the hapless percussionist from the neighbours, but justifies this social sacrifice with its thundering tone. Nothing in the way of reconstruction has been done to my oil drum, in fact it still has some oil in it. This is most certainly not your Caribbean steel pan with its delicate chromatic tuning, in fact, it's about as delicate as a stampeding herd of wildebeests.
To play the oil drum you first have to make a pair of beaters. Take two hammer handles, two walkingstick tips (rubber), a selection of lead fishing weights, some gaffer tape and, yes, at last, two used baked bean tins (medium size).
Fill one-third of each tin with a selection of different weights, make a hole in the top and bottom of the tins and poke the top half of a hammer handle up through each tin, until about a quarter of its length protrudes from the top. Tape this concoction into place with a liberal dose of gaffer, ram the walking-stick tips over the ends of the top quarter of the handles and you are ready to take on the oil drum itself.
As you strike the drum you will first notice the rather wild counter rhythm which occurs as the lead shot bounces around inside the baked bean tin. The faster the tempo the tighter the sound. Second, you will rapidly become entranced by the variety of tones to be found on the assorted contours of the drum's body.
Halfway down the side (placed on its side), the clonk of the stroke is accompanied by a more distinct drainpipe rattle than you can generate from either end, where the sound has more of a ftang element. And as any percussionist will tell you the "ftang" element is the holy grail for which we all search, so mysterious and beguiling is its beauty.
One small but nevertheless important note at this point. Our rabid percussionist, now almost totally concealed by a huge mound of scrap metal, domestic hardware, ironmongery and downright junk, must be as careful in the selection of beater as he has so far been in his choice of object. A swift action replay shows our man, in the majesty of slow motion, employing spoons (on the breakfast bowls), chopsticks (on the gas pipe), hammers (on the brake drums), knives (on the Coke can), and of course our old friend the baked bean tin, and hammer handle (on the oil drum).
The moral is simple: anything that sounds good will do.
Even the innocent broom has a part to play. The handle is made of softwood and since most mass-produced beaters are made from hardwood, the sound variation that can be derived from, say, the cowbell (by now a rather passe object), when tapped with this unlikely tool, is most pleasing to the ear.
However, one more tip; you only require the top ten inches of the handle. The risks are otherwise obvious. A: you may be mistaken for a menial as you turn up to perform and may be forcibly ejected or obliged to do a smart once around the place with the bristles, or B: you may well fetch a fellow musician a nasty blow with the unused majority of the broom as you mambo across the stage, inciting the crowd to riot with your fabulous playing.
I once saw an extremely serious Italian percussionist playing his kit with two toy rabbits, Pink and Squeaky. He didn't exactly cause a riot, but you had to admit that the boy had style.
But then the toy is very close to the heart of every self-respecting rhythm maker since the desire to follow this noble trade is invariably lodged in the recesses of early memory, where our sailor-suited hero first felt the pang of ecstasy as he jumped high in the air and landed with both feet smack on the head of some miserable squeak-responsive creature or other.
Yes, it's a strange calling alright, but in case you are wondering, I'm by no means the only one. There's Joseph Jarman from the Art Ensemble Of Chicago for a start. What he can do with a battery-operated nautical hooter doesn't bear thinking about.
His mate Famoudou Don Moye blows a pretty mean duck call and Jamie Muir (ex-King Crimson) once climaxed a solo at the ICA by emptying a sack of leaves over his kit.
What about the gent who managed to make a living by singing "Mule Train" and whacking himself over the head with a tin tray? He was well aware that, like most of his peers, his nut was the least sensitive area of his body and that the hollow space located just under the barnet provided the best resonance. Also it left him with only a 50/50 chance of turning up to play without all the required instruments.
Then there was the percussionist who advertised a recital at his local hall. The audience duly showed and sat in eager anticipation as they surveyed the splendid and comprehensive array of gear spread all over the stage. The lights dimmed.
A hush fell.
After about a minute there was still no sign of the performer. Then the silence was shattered by a loud click which was rapidly followed by the tang of a gong. Then another click followed this time by a boing. As one the audience looked round and up into the balcony, where they saw the percussionist levelling his air pistol at another onstage target.
Apart from the end of the show that was where he stayed, blasting happily away. At the end of the show he ran around the outside of the hall screaming at the unfortunate audience through the (open) windows... This particular mode of performance would seem to be more suited to players with some Territorial Army experience, since it requires both a reasonable degree of marksmanship and a healthy pair of legs and lungs.
So by now we can see that the percussionist is in fact Everyman. Even as you read, or swot flies with, this magazine, you are surrounded by potential instruments. Look again at the lampshade, waste paper bin, fire extinguisher, kettle or Hoover. They can't wait to get into the music business either. They're just bursting to show you how they can do more than keep the place clean or make the tea.
On purely compassionate grounds (that an item is an instrument unless proven otherwise) you owe it to your worldly goods and chattels to give them a break. How would you like to be trapped within the domestic confines of the cabbage strainer, hanging around all week waiting for someone to get the Sunday roast on the go? When you think about it, it's downright scandalous. (Also at worst cheap, at best free, and at least convenient.) So there are no excuses.
Go to it.