Q&A with John Brennan of Temporal Drum Set

Do instruments retain sonic memories from previous performers? Can improvisers transform their instrument’s tonality and timbre over time? Vancouver musician/sound artist John Brennan sets out to answer these questions in the Temporal Drum Set, an immersive sound installation that investigates the relationship between the “sonic memory” of instruments and improvisation. Western Front New Music’s Róisín Adams sits down to have a conversation with John Brennan.

RA: This installation is investigating “sonic memories,” improvisation and the relationship between an improviser and instrument i. e. how an improviser can influence an instrument and vice versa. Can you talk about how you became interested in these subjects and how the Temporal Drum Set project came to be?

JB: I’ve always been interested in how sound can influence physical objects in this reality.

Two and a half years ago, I was hanging out with Giorgio [Magnanensi] and he showed me what he was working on. At the time he was using transducers and cymbals as resonators similar to how one might use audio speakers. Our conversations instigated the initial ideas for the development of The Temporal Drum Set. They made me think further about how certain objects, specifically percussion instruments such as cymbals and drums, resonate. For example, when instruments are excited while being played, can their tonality and timbre change? Some musicians believe that Stradivarius violins sound good because of their history of being played. All of these thoughts started developing and being an improviser, I was interested in whether other musicians, unknowingly, could be influenced by previous performances on the same instrument.

RA: The installation explores “sonic memories” in the instruments. Does it also explore sonic memories in the performer’s mind?

JB: I definitely think about the performer’s sonic memory too but with this project, my focus is on a more speculative and perhaps metaphysical aspect:  Are “memories” retained by an instrument over time and how? Can this accumulative process influence future moments? Considering the animistic nature of instruments was particularly interesting to me. I was curious whether various improvisers believe there is agency in their instrument or the instrument could have a memory of sorts.

RA: How long ago was it that you dreamed up these ideas and how long have you been working on this project?

JB: It was October/November 2015 when I first began thinking about this installation.  I wanted a drum kit to recall the sonic memories of past performances as the core of the project.

I bought some cheap transducers and amplifiers and test the idea in my studio and it seemed to work on a small scale. At that point I knew that if I had enough time and resources, I could develop the project further.

I wrote a CCA grant and the funding was approved. I went to Rufus Drums and found a drum kit that I thought would work for this project and the drum company Ludwig was willing to sponsor me.

Photo of the installation by John Brennan, taken at “No Idea Festival” in Austin Texas in February 2018.

RA: Your installation involves interviews with the artists in addition to the “enchanted” drum kit. How did you choose which artists to work with and what was it like collecting the interviews?

JB: I made a list of the drummers who have influenced me over time. I was able to contact them and they agreed to participate in the development of the project. I had support from VIVO Media Arts Centre and used their studio to record some of the artists while in Vancouver but the experience of traveling to New York for two weeks to work with Chris Corsano, Greg Saunier and William Hooker was one of the most inspiring part of the process. I spent a day or two with each of them listening and recording their solo performances. We talked about their relationship with their instrument in the context of improvisation and I recorded these conversation that were later edited into a 20 minute audio collage.

One of the questions I asked them was about agency:  “When you improvise on the drum kit and you touch the instruments’ components and materials, do you ever feel that the instrument is playing you?” Their answers were diverse and revealed their openness to engage with my question. For example, William Hooker told me: “I am willing to have this conversation [with you] but I kind of sense there is something about me that doesn’t want to play drums in a “receiving” way because it takes a lot of humility.”  On the other hand, Greg Saunier explained: “there is a constant, almost breathless adjustment that is happening between the drums and the muscles and in those moments it feels like the instrument is playing me.”

RA: You’ve researched and mounted this installation in multiple places and June 26th 2018 will be the Vancouver premiere. What (if anything) has changed throughout the different iterations?

JB: After a year and a half of work on this project, I had the opportunity to present it in Austin at the No Idea Festival. I realized that presenting the recordings of the drum solos documented in different places didn’t feel cohesive when the piece was installed in a new location. It seemed disjunct and didn’t function aesthetically. So, I talked with Chris Cogburn, founder and curator of Austin’s No Idea Festival, and together we discussed  a new way to present the work, which is the format that I’ve adapted for the Vancouver premiere at the Western Front.

Instead of incorporating drum solos that were recorded over the past year and a half, I now approach the project as a site specific installation. At the No Idea Festival, I worked with Marshall Trammell, Greg Saunier and Chris Cogburn. At the venue I recorded audio and video footage of these three drummers improvising on the same drum kit. I then modified the drum kit, synced the video to the same drum kit and set up a listening station playing the audio collage. This is the process I will also adopt with Chris Corsano, Greg Saunier and Mili Hong in the lux at the Western Front in June. On the opening night, there will be a concert featuring each of these drummers.

RA: How are you hoping that audiences will interact with the Temporal Drum Set Installation at the Western Front from June 26-29?

JB: I hope that everybody will have a chance to actually sit on the drum throne and spend time experiencing how each performer approaches improvisation. I’m also hoping that people will think more about the agency and influence of instruments and objects in our environment and how their histories might contribute to future moments.

The Temporal Drum Set installation opens at 7pm on June 26th and is followed by a concert featuring Chris Corsano, Mili Hong, John Brennan and Greg Saunier playing live, improvised sets. The exhibit runs from June 27-29 (11am-5pm) at the Western Front, 303 East 8th Avenue.

Presented in collaboration with Western Front New Music.