1 player. The nondominant hand slaps, raps, or taps the lap or table or any handy thumping-noise making object in steady moderate tempo quarter notes. Tap tap tap tap. Once that is established, the dominant hand does one of two things, perhaps in sequence, perhaps (later) mixed together: 1) it sustains a series of different rhythm patterns that either go with the steady quarters or against them (e.g. triplets, offbeats, etc.) 2) it freely solos over the steady beat. In either case, don’t forget the use and power of including silences. The underchallenged may repeat the game, reversing the roles of each hand.
I ran across this mesmerizing video this morning of virtuoso Hang drum players Danny Cudd and Markus Johansson – the duo’s official name is Hang Massive. Their music is simple (a Hang drum has only a drone plus seven tones) but endlessly varied. The soft, ethereal tones of the Hang drum are otherworldly and bewitching.
A word or six about this unusual instrument. A Hang is essentially a steel drum turned inside out and played with the hands and not sticks (Hang is Swiss German dialect (Bernese) for “hand”, pronounced ‘hahng’). It made its debut at the music mega-fair in Frankfurt in 2001, and is the result of several decades of research and experimentation by Felix Rohner and Sabina Schärer. The shape, as you see, is like a large lens. The feeling of the metal surface is cool and soft and smooth, almost velvety.
I know because I have one.
I am a classical musician. Classical musicians are acutely concerned with pitch. Don’t miss a note! Don’t make a mistake! Performing classical music is a stressful occupation because the notes are prescribed, already known and we spend huge amounts of time being able to deliver those notes. And – if we know what’s good for us – we spend a lot of time trying to sweet talk our nervous and endocrine systems through this fight or flight experience. Although we’ve all had times when it was tremendous fun and/or “flow”, the most common experience of good feelings is afterwards – glad that’s over! Shirt is soaked – we wonder how can you sit in a chair, hardly moving, and be drenched?
1+ players. AMAPFALAP = “as much as possible from as little as possible,” a game invented by W. A. Mathieu in The Listening Book. Over any kind of rhythmic accompaniment (e.g. two or three players with shakers or drums and/or playing minimalist ostinatos) or a drone, the solo player may improvise using only one note. The soloist must thus give his solo interest using rhythms, timbre (including extended techniques), and dynamics. Don’t forget the power of Not Playing – i.e. rests. As classical players, we have been trained to think pitch pitch pitch – “I have to play a blizzard of notes to have an interesting solo!” If that were true, the only speakers worth listening to would be auctioneers (imagine Shakespeare as performed by a troupe of auctioneers – Hamlet in 15 minutes?). This game is a welcome antidote to that and makes us classikers get back to the foundation of all music and expressiveness: rhythm. We need to be able to 1) hone our rhythmic skills and sense of pulse and time (a feeling that, e.g. 8 bars (or 16 or 32) are up… now!) and 2) be able to generate a stream of rhythms that is both coherent and interesting to listen to. This is not a musical gimme (golf term). If you haven’t generated rhythms before, it takes time and practice. The good news is that it is fun. Really, really fun. Start now with whatever you can reach that will make a noise.
Variations. Once you can make interesting rhythms with one note, you can expand a bit:
1. The soloist may use two adjacent notes.
2. Use three tones, either three adjacent (123, 12b3, 1b2b3, 1b23), two adjacent and one a third (major or minor) from the middle note (on either side), e.g. 124, 134, 1b34)
3. Repeat, with two soloists. The soloist should relate in some manner. Or not.
Don’t be in any hurry to add more pitches until you have spent quite a bit of time experimenting with just one note. When you start adding pitches, don’t forget all the variety (rhythm, timbre, etc) you just learned with one note. Western music is very pitch-centric and rhythm poor – enrich yourself by reversing the values and becoming skilled at inventing rhythms, changing timbres, exploring dynamics changes and extremes.
It is very easy for the teacher or facilitator to underestimate the degree to which repeating an idea can be musically valuable. This may be because western European music places so much emphasis on developmental procedures throughout its history; but other world musics tend to be more rooted in ostinato patterns, and in improvised music, the ostinato can be regarded as an essential point of departure. Repetition maintains energy flow. – Rod Paton