Sticks, Stones and Breaking Bones
Styles: free-improv, mirror image rhythms
Others: Clayton Thomas, Jean-Luc Guionnet, The Ames Room
I’m in awe of this record and in awe of the guy who made it. It dropped into my inbox one day a few months back with a view to giving it a spin on this radio show I do, and I was immediately impressed. The musicianship, the sheer muscular intelligence of Will Guthrie’s technique, the raw immediacy of 40 minutes spent engrossed with nothing but a man and his drums. It’s not just that the record’s good (and it is); the values it seemed to embody felt really unfamiliar and exciting to me as a result of the kind of soundworld I’ve been inhabiting recently.
Don’t get me wrong. I won’t be arguing the now infamous Julia Holter line that aesthetic merit is somehow commensurate with or proportional to artistic labour. We all know the virtues of the aleatoric, the ‘unskilled,’ the rough-around-the-edges. But I will say this: there is and always will be something impressive about technique — the beauty of chops hard-won, a body rigorously disciplined and spectacularly in tune with an obviously sharp mind. Give me a run-of-the-mill post-bop gig — keys, fingers, and sticks flailing, performers’ bodies lost to the propulsive groove, heavy breathing — any day of the week over its drone, minimalist or chillwave equivalent. Or at least for the time being anyway. A couple of months back, Sticks, Stones and Breaking Bones was exactly the record I needed.
Besides, Guthrie isn’t just a technician anyway. And this definitely isn’t just run-of-the-mill. Guthrie is an award-winning jazz drummer who works primarily in the field of free-improv and DIY electronics these days. He co-founded Melbourne’s Make It Up Club — still one of the main centers of the city’s avant-grade — way back in 1998 before moving recently to Nantes, where he’s been working hard on his sound ever since. And it’s abundantly clear that this is a guy who knows his shit. I’m struggling to think if I’ve ever read a better or more intelligently written press release, one that’s so obviously more than just a sales pitch. It’s not even remotely controversial that most are 100% pure bullshit, sometimes barely even legible. Not this one. This one reads like a personal epistle to the listener: a smart and sincere effort at explaining what’s going on on the record, how you might like to think about it, and why it should matter. And because I’m honestly not sure I can add anything else worth saying at this point, here it is. From Will Guthrie straight to you. Respect.
The music on this LP is coming out of too many influences to mention (although I tried), but a lot of the music is based on various rhythmic concepts I have been working on for a long time. They are essentially what I call ‘mirror image rhythms’, which use limited material, short simple phrases, able to be played forwards, backwards, sideways, upside down, horizontal, starting in the middle, ending with the beginnings, beginning with the ends etc … Using the same words, but changing the order, and by doing so changing the emphasis, the image, the color and grain, the perspective, and also multiplying the possibilities of starting the whole process again … think Dr Seuss lost in a house of mirrors! The word rhythm is loosely defined as a repeated collection of notes. Of course the same approach can be used in pulse, or texture based playing.
That’s the idea anyway, can I do this note for note even with a very simple phrase, even after working on this stuff for years? Most definitely not (!), but in trying it keeps resulting in engaging music for me. The beauty of it is that I am never sure how the result will come out. To see/hear the image before it is played is difficult, and often just trying these combinations produces entirely different rhythmic patterns, different mirror images, which when pushed a little, physical/mental information overload can occur, and hence the possibilities doubled, tripled, quadrupled … Repetition becomes the only savior, for if one is to continue with this obsessive house of mirror music, one may never be able to get out, stuck in the fun house forever!
Whether you hear it like that is yet another question, but the first and second pieces (in part) reflect these ideas…
The third piece has been performed live often over the last few years. This piece is physically demanding. I ‘trained’ to do this, swam, practiced, tried to prepare like an athlete might for the big game. With this piece I want to see what happens when the body is pushed to it’s physical limits. I want to play tightrope like, do or die, where machine like repetition is the only possibility, a safety net, until the body can go no more, and change happens without choice, uncontrolled, like a rope that snaps from too much pressure. Change is force fed, whether I like it or not, and as well as acting as a safe ground, repetition is also the only chance I have to make sense of it all … I wanted to try to play the drums like a machine, cold, brutal, inflexible and unstoppable, starting nearly always with the same banal like quarter notes, where one of the most clichéd drum figures (constant quarter notes) is mechanical and inhuman, but it is ultimately the very human physical limits that guide and direct this piece, how long it goes for, when change happens, and in which capacity.
But of course whether you hear it like that is yet another question …
I must acknowledge my partners in crime Clayton Thomas & Jean-Luc Guionnet, with whom this work has developed hand in hand with what we are trying to do together in THE AMES ROOM. Also this music developed out of playing live, so I would like to acknowledge all those who organized gigs for me, booked, cooked, lugged and lodged…
Will Guthrie – February 2012
03. Breaking Bones