DRUMMER OF A DIFFERENT BEAT
It’s 8 PM November 9. A lone drum sits centre stage in the Music Gallery at St. George the Martyr where the altar would usually be commanded by an Anglican Minister. But tonight’s sermon is entirely percussive. A snare and its master, Fritz Hauser, will preach from the good book of drumming for the first one of two heavenly hours.
This, the North American premiere of Trommel mit Mann (Drum with Man), is a percussive exploration of sound and rhythm as only Fritz Hauser can journey. Swiss-born Hauser is no stranger to the world stage of drumming virtuosos. His concerts in solo and ensemble along with his numerous recordings have transcended the drums’ native timekeeping role to define them as a uniquely musical solo instrument.
I have to confess, though, as a player and lover of all things drumming; even I had my doubts about the entertainment value of a 1 hour snare solo. There’s no question that the skill involved to endure such a lengthy public workout would have to be nothing short of masterful. Of course, I myself like any other diligent drummer have practiced rudimental drills on a snare for several hours at a time. But I wouldn’t dream of making an audience endure it with me. After all, how long can one listen to the same tone of a single drum no matter how brilliantly played?
So as the Music Gallery’s artistic director, Jim Montgomery introduced our featured performer, I quietly thought to myself that if I could just get through this first hour of whatever may come, there’s a hopeful reprieve in the second half. At least then Hauser would be joined by two of our own Toronto’s finest percussionists. But as the somber and confident Hauser took the stage, the roaring cheer of the audience revealed that these were not mere anonymous attendees to a promising program. These people were indoctrinated disciples of a phenomenon I clearly had yet to experience. Perhaps this wouldn’t be so bad after all.
From the moment Hauser takes the throne it’s confirmed for me that this is no drum solo as I’ve ever experienced. In fact the first three minutes of the performance present no flailing sticks, no rumbling mallets, no swishing brushes and no barrage or din of any kind. These minutes are spent as whole note rests of silence in which Hauser simply confronts the drum in a seemingly endless stare as we all watch in anticipation. Then, beginning on beat 4 at a tempo of only 1 beat per minute, Hauser’s hand slaps the head of the drum with one near deafening crack through the chapel silence. Then, with 60 seconds to dissipate the sound’s rippling waves into almost distant memory, another shock of the hand meets the drum. The space between strokes, however sparse, has been clearly defined to faithfully predict the following note at 1 minute later. Only this time it’s a surprising quarter the intensity of the last. The capacity crowd is consumed by the soft blow into a comforting vacuum of lured attention. And with six minutes and only three notes into his snare solo, Hauser has captured me and this audience body and soul without even lifting a stick.
As the piece begins to unwind, almost no surface of the drum is left unplayed. The wood shell, the chromed hardware and even the plywood floor they sit on have become fair game for percussive acrobatics. Not surprising then, his first choice of striking implement is unorthodox. After his fingers and palms finish rhythmically exploring all sides of the drum, Hauser selects a thin steel rod instead of a traditional wooden stick as his first weapon. Then, one hand at a time and without ever missing a beat, steel turns to mallet. Mallet turns to brush. Brush turns to some kind of squeeze toy chime concoction which finally turns to a 10 minute high flying frenzy of drum stick wizardry with interlaced boot stomps at the 30 minute mark of the performance. Racing hearts could be felt throughout the hall almost adding counter-rhythm to the symphony of percussion.
Flowing seamlessly from his fiery torrent to a whispering buzz roll, Hauser displays his control and command of volume without ever breaking time or tempo. And then, like a true sensei of the drum, Hauser plays the spaces between the notes which define them. Each note becoming stronger and more potent with the increasing spaces which precede and follow them. He is slowing down.
Sticks are traded for the lull of mallets as we begin our descent to where we began.
Mallets give way to hands. Hands switch to fingers. Fingers soften to light finger tips that swish over the snare producing a soothing ocean drum effect which rolls out to sea into absolute silence. The maestros’ solo is complete.
Applause befitting what is now the most remarkable single drum performance I have ever witnessed most certainly was heard far beyond this hallowed hall. And certainly no reprieve was needed as I had earlier surmised. Part two of this program could only be icing on an already perfect cake. And it surely did not disappoint as Bob Becker and Russell Hartenberger joined Hauser for Trommeln mit Männer (Drums with men).
The Music Gallery’s program hailed this performance as "a spontaneous exploration of percussion sounds and musical sensibilities." I found that to be a sophisticated way of saying, "jamming with drums and everything else you can hit to make a sound by people who know what they’re doing".
For this performance, Fritz Hauser’s centre stage set up is that of a traditional 1920’s Euro jazz drummer. Each of his Gretsch made drums are set flat like a series of small tables at almost even height to one another; a great departure from contemporary multi- elevated set ups. On stages right and left are the virtual cockpits of Becker and Hartenberger. Featuring a huge array of hanging gongs, cymbals and bells along with racks and tables filled with percussion instruments of all shapes, sizes and ethnic and cultural origins, it was like looking at a Third World operating theatre. It was magnificent!
As a founding member of the Toronto percussion ensemble NEXUS, Bob Becker was inducted into the Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame in 1999. Only the year before, Becker won a Grammy award for his work with the Steve Reich and Musicians ensemble in 1998. And even though he is generally considered to be a virtuoso performer of the xylophone and marimba, this night he has prepared an arsenal of non-melodic yet wonderfully musical instruments of resonance and vibration in keeping with Hauser’s percussive exploration.
Russell Hartenberger, also a member of NEXUS and Steve Reich and Musicians, is a Professor of Percussion at the University of Toronto. He has worked with other percussion masters such as Steve Gadd and Peter Erskine as well as with classical cello genius Yo-Yo Ma and our very own Canadian Brass.
As our ensemble begins their percussive crusade, one can tell immediately that this is no trio of mere rudimental demons. This is sonic space exploration into deep and literally uncharted territory. Every timbre of each drum, cymbal and whatchamacallit with the wiry do-dads sticking out of it was being examined for sound in relation to every other instrument on the stage.
At first the music reminded me of a Clint Eastwood spaghetti western "good vs. evil" showdown soundtrack. And I mean that in a good way. It was intense and emotional. Like the part of the movie when you know someone’s going to get shot but you’re not sure who. You’re on the edge of your seat. The trio then elevated their feel to even greater intensity. As Becker drew a cello bow across the squared edges of an otherwise normal looking cymbal together with Hauser’s unwavering tribal ostinato, I could have sworn I was listening to a rock concert featuring the feedback from the guitar of Jimi Hendrix during his Woodstock rendition of the Star Spangled Banner. But there were bass drum timpani, cymbals played off of floor toms, mallets striking bongos and a shaker used to sound off a small tom tom. Clearly there were no rules defined between the performers before they took the stage. As a result, this concert proved that there truly are no limits to the creation of percussion music. And as each man turned to lightly swell their cymbals in turn, the three came together in sweet waves of harmonic resonance emulating the enchanting drone of the church’s organ which stands only a few feet away. And finally, they fade into silence.
I couldn’t have imagined how this concert would have entertained me as a fan of drums and music. Nor would I have guessed that they would have inspired me as a player and performer. But now I can count myself as one of them; one of the indoctrinated disciples of this truly unique musical art form as well as these heroes of their own genre.
For more information about these performers I encourage you to explore these web sites:
DEE POTTER has been a professional drummer recording and performing in Toronto and around the world for over 20 years. He is also the author and solo recording artist behind "The Drummer’s Guide to Shuffles" published in the U.S. by Hal Leonard Corp. www.halleonard.com available in over 60 countries including Canada and Germany. For more information about Dee and his works visit www.deepotter.com.
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