Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Happy birthday, Ms. Abe!

Today is the 80th birthday of a person who has had a tremendous influence in the marimba world: Keiko Abe.



It is not the purpose of this article to detail her career, achievements or insist on the tremendous importance of her figure (everything already well known), but to wish her a very happy birthday on this very significant date and to remember the fantastic days of music making I shared with her almost fourteen years ago.

During my time in London, there was a specially hard week, as we had to prepare many works to play for her which would be recorded live. I prepared solo works by Japanese composers (Tanaka, Miyoshi, Abe...), and a chamber ensemble prepared "Conversation in the Forest III" and "Marimba Concertino The Wave", both by her.


"Conversation in the Forest III". Rehearsals at the Duke´s Hall

Obviously, we were spected to play at our best whic, together with Keiko´s never ending stamina, made for a very hard and demanding week.

After the concert

From that fantastic experience, apart from unforgettable memories, I keep a CD of that recital, a very precious possession of mine that I still play from time to time.

I also played some solo works for her. I got extremely surprised when, having finished with Tanaka´s "Two Movements", she asked me to start all over again... She joined me improvising a second part the one already written. I will remember that duo for ever.



Should you want to listen to a small fragment of that recital, you can do so on my website: MULTIMEDIA, audio tab. The second track on the player is the final part of "The Wave".

A very nice person, full with boundless energy, extremely polite and a rare musical talent. Happy 80th birthday, Ms. Abe.


…et in Arcadia ego.
© David Valdés

Monday, 27 March 2017

The davul.

From March 20th to 25th I played Bartok´s masterpiece "The Miraculous Mandarin" with the OSPA. This works includes a peculiar bass drum part, in which stems up indicate notes to be played with the righ hand and stems down those to be played with the left one. It also asks for a "flexible rod" to be used on the left hand (in the original edition).


© David Valdés


Because of the part, indications, context, type of music, the knowledge Bartok had on folklore (he travelled Turkey, the Balcans and Central Europe) and the explanations given by our conductor Rossen Milanov (a Bulgarian who knows this music very well), I soon realized this bass drum part was clearly influenced by the davul.

Having asked my principal (Rafa Casanova) and the person in charge of the part (I was playing xylo, triangle and tam-tam), it was decided to try my davul. We all liked it and, apart from a timbrical point of view, the scenic and visual ones got really reinforced.


© David Valdés


As you can see, it was played the traditional way (hanging from a shoulder) and using the sticks associated with it: a very thin, flexible rod with the right hand and a "spoon shaped" wooden stick with the left one. You can see them in detail on the next photo.


© David Valdés


What´s a davul? We already mentioned it on "Percussion archeology" but, today, we´ll be more specific about its history, technique and usage

The davul is an instrument of Turkish origin, intimately related to the janissaries, the sultan´s elite troops. They were accompanied by bands named mehterân (a mehter is a musician who is part of the mehterân), the davul being one of the instruments in these bands.




The davul is a wooden drum of variable size (ranging between 18" and 36" in diametre and about 10" in depth), two headed, which is held so both are practicable. The right hand holds a wooden spoon shaped mallet in charge of the bass tones, the left one holds a thin dowel in charge of the ornaments. The right hand holds its stick in the regular way, but the left one holds it so the fingers can be used, permiting very intrincate figures. A technique which, centuries later would be known as "one handed roll" or "freehand technique" (popularized by Johnny Rabb, among others) is a trademark of this instrument, producing several strokes with just one action. This dowel evolved to become our Central European "rute".


© mehter.com.tr


©Wikipedia


©Wikipedia


Because of the expansion of the Ottoman Empire, the instrument (together with its partners in the mehterân) got to be known in the conquered territories, becoming very popular in the Balcan Peninsula, where it´s know as  tapan, (that´s how our conductor named it), tupan, daul, toba, tof, daouli, tupana, lodra, doli, dwola...  

I´m sure Bartok got to know it during his ethnomusicological travels, and got his inspiration from it to write the bass drum part for "The Miraculous Mandarin". 

Obviously, Europe got to know this instrument because of its wars against the Turks (who besieged Vienna). We adopted it (see Haydn´s "Military Symphony", Mozart´s "Abduction from the Seraglio", Beethoven´s Symphony #9...) and, from there, it evolved into our present bass drum. The following photo shows two very close relatives: a davul (great-great-grandfather) and a bass drum (great-great-grandson):


© David Valdés


How does a davul sound? Here you have some videos:







You can see it here played in context, in a mehterân:



As you can see, the journey of the davul starts as a military instrument, continues as a folkloric one and ends with "classical" music. A mutual influence, a transfer between different human expressions. 

The percussion section and the conductor absolutely loved my davul. It goes without saying that we can use it on any folkloric or janissary influenced music (already mentioned above). Curiosity, imagination, knowledge and respect to tradition should be our guides when it comes to choosing an instrument for any particular work.

Will you give the davul a chance?


…et in Arcadia ego.
© David Valdés

Monday, 13 March 2017

Studio sessions: preparation and thousand more things.

On February 17th, 18th and 19th I was in Colmenarejo (Madrid) taking part in a very interesting project: recording, together with  "Forma Antiqva", the music for "Poem of a Cell". "Winter&Winter" was in charge of the production, and the sessions took place at "Estudio Uno".

I got the parts sent to me two weeks in advance (something to be grateful for as, sometimes, there´s no other option than sight-reading). This way I knew I would be playing baroque timpani, glockenspiel, triangle, wind and opera gongs). Everything but the wind gong was already in my arsenal, so a quick visit to Thomann and, the next day, a beautiful 24" Wu Han joined the family.


© David Valdés


Before any recording, I always check the instruments I´m going to use so they do not fail me: heads, noises, mechanisms... Instruments are my tools, so I must keep them in tip-top shape so they enter the studio in perfect working order. It is also interesting to bring in a few of those needed so I have options and colours (I only own one glockenspiel and one pair or baroque timpani, but I´m very well stocked when it comes to triangles and gongs, so I brought all of them...). For the same reason, I like bringing in many sticks and mallets.

The good thing about getting the parts early is that I can have a look at them in advance, the bad thing is that it´s new music, so no records available for reference... I don´t know which other instrument I´m playing with, how to phrase, the absolute or relative of dynamics, articulation, if I´m doubling parts or soloing... There´s a preparatory work that has to be done so, once the red light is on, everything is perfect and works from scratch: it´s not nice having to roll another take or wasting my colleagues time because of me not being prepared.

So, first things first... There´s a job that, sometimes, composers and engravers miss: numbering all bars (if there are many tacet bars and the conductor asks "let´s take from bar X", I can´t waste everybody else´s time while counting or adding because they are not engraved: if bars are numbered I can pinpoint where to start without wasting a single milisecond). On the next photo you can see how I numbered bars. Also, I used a green pencil to mark a quite hidden bar change which could pass unnoticed during sessions.


© David Valdés


I also number cue bars so as to have information doubled and to minimize the chances of a mistake. You can see that on the second to last pentagram on the previous photo and on the next one.


© David Valdés


The next photo shows a very common problem: engraving software writes with no logic. Although correct, that writing makes reading unconfortable. My preparation work includes modifying it to get a more easy to read part so there are no problems once I´m in the studio. There are many different ways to write the same thing, and I opt for the easiest so the chance of a mistake gets minimized. Because of this previous work, I save my colleague´s time and avoid extra takes.


© David Valdés


Here´s another example. I also add an eye (that´s a personal thing :-D ) as a reminder that I have to keep playing after the line jump.


© David Valdés


I also mark the beats to differentiate very similar patterns. The triplet in the line above and the eighth notes below could be mistaken du to the very similar writing. Dear engravers: time signatures do not bite, you can use them at the beginnig of each line without problem ;-) .


© David Valdés


I also mark a clear mistake to discuss it with the musical director.


© David Valdés


When all the parts are marked and clear so I can´t make any mistake, the next step in my preparation is clear: practice, practice, practice... In this case, although not particulary difficult, the glock part needed some attention:


© David Valdés


 With parts and instruments ready, there we go, Colmenar...


© David Valdés


Once the sessions are rolling, everything goes ultra fast: two passes (at the most) and we are recording. Because of that, my radar has to be on during those previous run throughs so as to grab as much information as possible (pencil and eraser are my best friends). I write down cues from other instruments to secure a music I hear for the first time. This way I make no mistakes, and no takes will have to be repeated because of me. On the following photo you can see cues written down during long tacet periods.


© David Valdés


It´s also time for writting down ritardandi, comas, correcting mistakes (see the previous photo where a 5/4 was changed to 4/4), choosing mallets/sticks, listening to what the other musicians are playing to match their phrasing, articulation, dynamics, intonation...


© David Valdés


With regard to sticks/mallets, it´s a shame I have no photos but, when you go into the studio, it´s compulsory to bring a good arsenal so you can get as many colours and characters as posible and make both conductor and producer happy. But... No matter how many I bring in, the producer will always want to try all of them: I´ll star with a pair which he doesn´t like, we keep on trying untill we go full circle and get back to the original ones (he doesn´t know ;-) ) and... "Those are perfect!". I knew... :-D . Bring many sticks to sessions and use your best diplomacy and tact to deal with these kind of situations (and always remember: the boss is the boss. Do what you are asked to do).


© David Valdés


During these run throughs I have to keep my ears wide open and listen to what the other musicians are playing so we deliver a coherent whole. Here you can see a very easy timpani part.


© David Valdés


The producer told us those notes represented a menace coming from the underworld (with this information I can guess character, dynamics, sticks...). I discover I play them together with the double bass: I now know intonation has to be perfect (it has to be perfect anyway, but because we are playing the same pitches, it has to be "specially perfect"). Also, although we have the same writing (plain half notes), I was playing them legato and he was articulating them. I realize that, have a chat with the double bass player and we decide to play them separated (different articulation fro the same thing is a no no...). There was this discrepancy during the first run through, but everything was perfect from there on. You can see me talking to the cello and bass players trying to unify criteria.


© Forma Antiqva/Jaime Massieu


On the following one, the cellist and I are clarifying an excerpt so my gong part fits where it should.


© Forma Antiqva/Jaime Massieu


A good communication with the other musicians is crucial, and it has to be carried with the utmost respect. I must be ready to modify my playing for the benefit of the group: ego and stubbornness are completely useless: if there´s something people really appreciate in a musician (specially a studio one), that´s flexibility.

More examples showing the importance of reacting (fast!) to what I´m asked... Mi glock part states "sempre piano" (see photo above), but the conductor wants me to do some inflexions the other players are doing. I write down and play them:


© David Valdés


When the producer hears them, he prefers to keep everything flat, as he thinks it´s a stratified, layered texture... He not only wants them piano, but pianissimo. So, in a very short period, I have played the same thing in three different ways. Flexibility is key in this kind of studio work: I have to be able to INMEDIATELY play something that is not on the part, to modify dynamics, articulation, phrasing..., or to add something NOW that was not even written ("David, get into the booth and improvise a pavana "alla Monteverdi", as it will suit this number". I almost spill the coffee I was drinking and, out of the blue, the red light is on and I have to play something that works and not waste my colleagues time: I have to play -whatever- and make it happen no matter how hard it is). I have to be ready to inmediately play what I´m asked.


© Forma Antiqva/Jaime Massieu


So, the tape is rolling: I have to avoid any kind of noise (squeaking chairs, rolling sticks falling down, page turns, sliding papers, resonating instruments...). To avoid this last issue, I always have black towels at hand (they are discreet and don´t call for attention on stage), which I use to lay sticks on or to hang from the instrument (or cover it...). Total silence before and after playing, no speaking unless I´m asked... If I make a mistake, I have to say it so it doesn´t get to the final edition. Loads of patience and concentration for the many repetitions... My mobile phone has to be off: my attention has to be on what I´m playing, not on whatever is going on in my telephone. It must be switched off not only because a matter ot attention and respect: it can interfere with (in fact, it does interfere) the electronics in the studio. Concentration.

If I have to re-tune (unavoidable when using calf heads), I do it piano, respecting when the rest of the instruments do so (makes things easier, I don´t disturb, don´t make any noise, avoid tensions an keep the good vibe...). I always tweak intonation in between takes to make sure it´s perfect when I have to play: tuning fork at hand, soft stick, piano, no disturbing and perfect intonation. Done. Every happy and gay.

If the preparatory work is done, sessions will run smooth as silk.


© David Valdés

If I have nothing to play, I prefer staying out of the booth to avoid noise and distractions. I never go too far so as to be available, just in case I´m needed. My favourite place to be is the control room because I can follow the proccess, I´m at hand and I like technology and recording, so...When in the control room, remember: there´s people working, so no noises, no distractions, no disturbing...


© David Valdés


Everybody in the studio is working: let´s make their job easy. We have to say "please", be kind (sincerely), give them a hand, offer solutions and not problems, know when to ask for something and when not... If, once we are done setting up, the technicians are still bussy, why not helping them?  Remember: if we are not only good musicians, but easy-going and polite, chances are that we will be booked again.

Microphones, techniques, preamps, outboard and all that stuff I like so much will, maybe, be detailed in the future ;-) .

I´d like to thank "Forma Antiqva" and Jamie Massieu (photographer) for some of the fantastic photos illustrating this article.

…et in Arcadia ego.
© David Valdés

Monday, 30 January 2017

Do It Yourself gong beater.

Last week, the Asturias Symphony Orchestra played Jesús Torres´ "Concerto for Violin and Orchestra. The part I was assigned included two gongs (Eb and Bb) played with hard mallets.

This kind of beater is not usual when playing gongs, so I had to use my imagination so as to get the proper mallet and character. Apart from a couple of them I forgot to photograph, these were the "tools" I took to rehearsals.

© David Valdés

The one on the left is the one I normally use when playing gongs (and I also used it on this program in a piano, sombre passage together with the other percussionists). The centre one is used for striking opera gongs, but was discarded because it could not produce enough volume. The one on the right is the one I want to talk to you about...

It´s made with a skate wheel I bought at Decathlon:

 
© David Valdés
© David Valdés

The handle is made of beech, and I got it as a 1m dowel at Leroy Merlin. It was cut to measure, the tip was sanded so as to fit the hole in the wheel and the butt was rounded for a more confortable grip.


© David Valdés

© David Valdés




















Then, it was just a matter of introducing it through the hole in the wheel:

 
© David Valdés
© David Valdés


There you go: a mallet that perfectly fits the purpose.


© David Valdés


The following video (telephone quality, don´t be very picky...) shows the difference between the regular mallet and the one I built. You can hear a noticeable difference, which makes this beater fit perfectly in the context, where forte 16ths spread between all four percussionists for the duration of a crotchet are played.


video


This is the set I used (two gongs -Eb and Bb-, 22" Chinese cymbal and 5 octaves marimba).


© David Valdés


The following photo, courtesy of Marta Barbón and the Asturias Symphony, shows Rafael Casanova and I during one of the concerts. You can clearly see the mallet.


© Marta Barbón/OSPA
 
The concert was, as usual, recorded by the Spanish National Radio. If you stay tuned, you´ll be able to hear it in a few weeks.

…et in Arcadia ego.
© David Valdés

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Muffling the bass drum in style.

Tried and true instruments/heads combinations exit... Oversized Ludwig Professionals (32", 32", 29" and 26") with REMO heads is a classic, as the Supraphonic/Emperor, Hardtke/Super Kalfo...
 
The more I play the bass drum, the more I realize this instrument doesn´t sound at its best when mounting plastic heads: they produce funny harmonics, resonate excessively, you can hear the sound of the material instead of that of the instrument, tone is always improvable... Calf heads make the bass drum sound good doing almost nothig but, in exchange, they present their own problems (changes in temperature, humidity...). I do accept these challenges because of the far superior sound these heads produce. So, to me, the tried and true combination when it comes to bass drum is that involving calf heads.
 
When plastic heads are the tool at our disposal, the usual thing is muffling the head using a hanging towel secured to the counterhoop with a clip. Playing with the amount of material lying on the head, we can control resonance and harmonics.
 
 
© David Valdés
 
 

On this photo you can see a towel hanging as previously described (the ones I use are from IKEA, dirty cheap and discreet on stage due to the black colour). Don´t mind about the length showed, as it´s just a "pose": I just clipped it for the sake of the photo. 

Last time I used this trick I had a problem: when playing, the free end of the towel moved up and down, shaked by the head, hitting it, acting as a snare and producing a very annoying buzz. Maybe the audience could not hear it, but it was driving me mad...

When thinking about solutions trying to solve the problem, get the instrument under control and get the best possible sound, I remembered a device used on vintage drum sets. It is a felt pad attached to a round plate with articulated arms which you can fix to the counterhoop. Using wingnuts you can control the pressure it exerts on the head and where on it (by bending the arm). You could see it mainly on bass drums, as the other drums on the kit used to have it inside.


© late8


I got one a few months ago. My intention was to not necessarily use it on a kit, but I knew that, at some point, it would come very handy for whatever weird purpose my mind would come up with. This is the one. It has no brand or inscription on it. Maybe a Ludwig? It´s 15cm in diametre and its arm is 25cm long. As with everything, you can go the expensive way if you get a vintage, fancy one, but you can get a modern one for a very fair price (STAGG).


© David Valdés


© David Valdés


© David Valdés


© David Valdés


© David Valdés


Here it is on the head, ready for some action.



© David Valdés


The muffler moves together with the head, you can press it more or less against it, there´s no play between them, you can move it closer or away from the counterhoop and it produces no buzz at all. It works flawlessly. Just one thing: its size is intended for bass drums no larger than 24", 26". As symphonic bassses can reach up to 40" in diametre, its surface may be not enough to get the desired effect on instruments this size. I would have loved some more control, but this device can be very easily modified to get more contact surface. Even that, I got rid of the buzz and the bass drum sounded very well.

A calf head is the best option for a bass drum (I think, in fact, it´s the only option) but, if not, the towell trick has proved (quite) its effectiveness. If the towell is giving you a hard time, this muffler is a fantastic solution to play your bass drum not only with control, but with some style...


…et in Arcadia ego.
© David Valdés

Thursday, 10 March 2016

"American in Paris" taxi horns: the end of a historical mistake.

There´s a buzz going through discussion groups and forums these last days that, far from calming down, is growing in a very noticeable way... The subject is not trivial, as it has "huge" consequences. An article in the New York Times reveals that the taxi horns we´ve been using all these years in "An American in Paris" (George Gershwin) were playing the wrong pitches.


© Jam percussion


The article, published on March, 1st (hot from the oven), has left no percussionist indifferent. HERE is a link to it. There you will find the conclusions of Mark Clague, musicologist in charge of the new critical edition of the score.You will also find a recording with the part as we play it today and the first recording of the piece (and the only one featuring the original pitches) by Toscanini and the NBC National Orchestra. Stop reading this blog, open the link and, before going on with Percusize Me!, read the New York Times article. The key is the A, B, C, D notation...
 
Have you already read it? If not, stop now and go for it... Done? Don´t tell me you are not petrified...

The conclusions in the article make much sense, but they gave cause to doubts, discussions and mistrust, as they could not be 100% proved due to the original set of horns being lost and because no photographs could definitely prove the A, B, C, D notation was not one related to musical pitches but to the order in which the horns were arranged for the recording. The commotion and controversy the article created about this "transcendental" issue enriched the debate, but every doubt and opinion got eclipsed when, on March 5th (only four days after the article shocking the Gershwinian foundations was published), the University of Michigan got the ace hiding up its sleeve that proved almost irrefutably its point. The link to that article is HERE. As before, stop reading Percusize Me!: open the link and devour it.


© Ira and Leonore Gershwin Trusts


What do you think? Incredible, isn´t it? This photo is the bombshell that proves we´ve been playing those notes wrong. It´s pretty clear looking at them that the size of the horns is not proportional to consecutive pitches (a, b, c and d), and that they are not even arranged following a size pattern, so the points made by Mark Clague are very valid.

Gershwin himself got those taxi horns during two different trips to Paris, got them arranged on a board the way we can see in the photo and named them A, B, C and D as ordinals, not as pitches. The pitches on the Toscanini recording are A flat, B flat, D (quite brilliant) and A natural (low octave).

Don´t know you, but I´m astonished about this revelation, and the points are valid. This is also the kind of curiosity mixed with academic rigour that, you should already know this, I like so much.

There are rental companies already offering this new set of pitches and percussionists willing to play them in future concerts. I would love to try this new version... What would you do?


…et in Arcadia ego.
© David Valdés