Chris Cutler -
the Solo interview
By Beppe Colli
Nov. 29, 2002

Chris Cutler's approach to drums has always been highly personal and distinctive right from the start. For proof, just listen to Legend - Henry Cow's recording debut, originally released in 1973 and recently restored on CD to its original mix. Of course, he's never sat still, as the countless albums he has contributed to (my personal estimate: in the neighbourhood of 100+) can easily attest. A clear thinker both on and off the drumstool, his work has taken place pretty much under the radar, his collaboration with Pere Ubu being the closest he came to the "mainstream" - that is, if you consider Pere Ubu as part of the mainstream.

Extending the possibilities of the drums (and thus their language) by means of electrification has been one of Cutler's preoccupations since the late Seventies; in this respect, the duo CDs he recorded with longtime partner Fred Frith are maybe the ones that first come to mind, but as a personal favourite I'll have to single out Quake (1999), his live collaboration with Thomas Dimuzio.

It was with great pleasure (and no less curiosity) that I welcomed the news of Cutler's decision to play some solo concerts in full "electrified kit" mode - and the announcement of a live solo CD. About two months ago I asked him for an e-mail interview about the topic, and fortunately he agreed. At the time of our conversation the album was yet to be released. Now that I am reasonably familiar with it, I can only say that it goes way beyond my expectations in terms of timbre, layering, variety, depth of vision. And yes, you know it's him, but it's not him "exactly as before".

With hype flying left and right everywhere (and no advertising muscle to speak of behind it) this album will be a hard sell. Chances of mainstream visibility are obviously nil (the Sixties being long gone). Maybe more important, it seems to me that nowadays the correlation between the physical act of playing and sound, once obviously apparent to any attentive listener, is becoming more and more inscrutable to most. Some would say that it doesn't really matter whether it's drums or a laptop. But in a way it does - and it should.

It's almost thirty years since you made your recording debut, but it's only recently that you've started playing solo concerts: why not sooner?

Two reasons, probably. Firstly, I never considered playing alone as something I would want to do. I learned music as a collective activity - and improvisation as a kind of public conversation - always with one eye on keeping an audience engaged. I had and I still have nothing to express, no messages and no feelings to embody that I think can be best realised through music. For me music is it's own discourse and demands sensitivity not domination. Beyond that, I find exhibitions of technique pointless and invariably tedious. So I had no context for solo playing - which is not to say that I didn't admire and enjoy many other people. I just thought that they had solved a communicative and structural problem I didn't yet feel moved or competent to deal with. Secondly, by the early '80s I felt that, for me, acoustic percussion was an instrument best approached compositionally. That is, I enjoyed working out parts and adding to or working against the structure of a musical composition and felt that, as a composer, I knew how to deploy sounds and patterns intelligently. I knew my instrument and how to use it usefully. As an improviser it inspired me less; after working through a long period of experiment and discovery, I felt I had little more to contribute to its non compositional vocabulary: I'm not temperamentally suited to the fast and furious approach, nor to the accumulation of exotic instruments, pots and pans or oriental percussion. I found my interest lay increasingly in the electronic extension of acoustic sounds and the development of new techniques associated with an emerging instrument (just think acoustic guitar/electric guitar). All the improvising work I did throughout the '80s and '90s was with the electronically extended kit and never with acoustic drums alone. And the kit continued to evolve always in the context of work with other people so it was a while before I realised it had long passed the stage where it could - and should be allowed to - speak alone. I was still hesitant. I still couldn't see the point, didn't see where I fitted into the picture. It was Fred Frith and Rene Lussier who eventually persuaded me do something alone. Do it, they said, you'll get the point soon enough. So when Hirotsugu Watanabe in Tokyo asked if I'd do a solo concert I just said yes without thinking about why I shouldn't. Then I did what I always do as an improviser: make sure everything is working properly, don't have any plan, start playing before there's time to think. Then listen. After that first concert I realised that even when alone you listen no less than when you play with somebody else. There is still a conversation.

How does your electrified kit differ from a regular drum set?

The electric kit is to a regular kit as an electric guitar is to a regular guitar. In other words, it's a kit like any other, except that every drum and cymbal and various accessories like tambours, metal pan, eggslicer - are amplified, either by tiny radio mikes or transducers. The signals go into a 16 channel mixing desk and out through various processors: guitar pedals, a multi effect unit, an 8 second delay... It's the same and so totally different from the kit as known that it's more or less unrecognizable. The main reaction to my solo CD so far has been disbelief.

Are your solo pieces all in real time - i.e., do you ever employ pre-recorded loops or tapes? What are the aesthetical reasons for your choice?

Everything is always and only in real time. I never use samples or loops. I did experiment with samples many years ago but quickly found them inflexible and unresponsive. I like the way acoustic drums register every subtlety and nuance of pressure, the way sounds change according to where and with what you hit, scrape, brush or stroke something; the way they reflect action and gesture. With an acoustic or an amplified and extended acoustic instrument, you can make what you feel sound through direct action (think Jimi Hendrix or Elvin Jones) and I would hate to lose that. I prefer to initiate sounds than programme and then choose between them. Loops have always irritated me; I want to escape cages not construct more of them. Pre-recorded tapes the same. How could I follow where the music wants to go, be in the unfolding present, if I were tied to a sequence of sounds belonging to a dead past that can neither listen nor change. It would be like being chained to a corpse. However, I may use recorded material occasionally and intermittently as an external force. For instance, on the piece on my CD recorded at Musique Action I used a Minidisc recording made in the town in the morning as an obbligato for the evening performance, bringing it in now and then as a counterpoint or disturbance, naturally not knowing what sound would emerge when I did so. For me, this can be productive, where playing along with a tape tied to it and having to follow it - is not.

I don't mean to comment here on the way other people use loops and pre-recorded tapes, there are countless great pieces realised this way. I only explain why such methods don't fit with my own approach to performance and composition.

Rhythm plays an ever-increasing part in today's music but sometimes it seems that the individual signature's being lost. Your opinion?

When a drum machine or sequencer is programmed, it does exactly what it is programmed to do. It's perfect. But it feels nothing and therefore it phrases and interprets nothing. Think of automated railway announcements or Stephen Hawking: the words are there but no expression, no meaning beyond basic semantics. It's the same with programmed percussion, which is why the music that machines make is so cold: it's devoid of subjectivity. Perhaps that's why it works best in Dance contexts - where human energy has to be expended in a vain attempt to breathe life into it? From Motown to Hip Hop; from groove to taunt?

With rhythm, and music generally I'm drawn to what is human, I look for interpretation and complexity, for the human content in the form. And on this level, it does seem to me that there is much more music today whose content is mechanical, robotic, technically perfect but insensitive. This is not inevitable and the machines are not to blame. I'm not a luddite - after all I use new technologies all the time myself, though not as a consumer (choosing between existing sounds) but as a producer. Perhaps this is a useful distinction?

© Beppe Colli 2002 | Nov. 29, 2002

For more information on the electrified kit see Chris Cutler's website