Chris Brown: Talking Drum

Pogus 21034

Chris Brown

Talking Drum


This compilation/composition documents nearly a decade of work that began with the recording of dense sonic environments, both ‘natural’ and urban. I favor densely complex music because it allows each listener the freedom to take their own path in exploring a soundfield, rather than being conducted through an experience already managed for them. When I began doing these recordings by wearing a binaural microphone (two peanut-sized omni mic elements clipped to sunglasses, one near each ear) and a miniature DAT machine, I found that I could roam freely and unobtrusively through a place, and that my path would be acoustically recorded as if by a moving camera. This captures that experience of spatial exploration, especially when heard over headphones, by immersing the listener in a moving three-dimensional sound image. Having spent too many hours in recording studios trying to imitate the complexity of real life by moving faders or programming computers, I was stunned by the results of this simple technique, whose complexity could never, it seemed to me, be electronically synthesized.


At the same time I became interested in polyrhythmic musics that similarly allow both performers and listeners the freedom to roam between the layers of a musical texture without interfering with each other. The experience of listening to traditional Afrocuban or Balinese musics, for example, is that one can attend to different rhythmic layers at different times—these layers being stratified by similarity of rhythmic cycle length, timbre, or theme—and still the music is composed, held together by defined relationships between the parts. Polyrhythmic music aligns with a polytheistic world-view, with many intersecting centers. So too do the best free improvisations, where each player contributes to an evolving musical texture, all defining their own musical space, but all listening and responding to the whole, playing in such a way that all may be heard.

I decided to make an instrument—really, an ensemble of computer instruments—that could combine these experiences in making polyrhythmic sound environments. Talking Drum is an interactive installation made with four networked laptop computers programmed to explore cyclical polyrhythms in large acoustic spaces. While the performance of the entire system is synchronized by one computer, each computer station generates independent results using genetic-programming algorithms which are affected by acoustic musicians’ performances. Each station in the space “grows” its own rhythmic response to the situation, like similar plants growing differently in adjustment to their locations in an environment. The musicians improvise with the rhythms, interacting with the response of the computers they play next to, and the whole is a quartet of these human-machine duets. The audience moves freely between the musicians and speakers, searching for mixes that appeal most to them, sometimes participating spontaneously.


Since 1995 I have performed Talking Drum throughout North America, and once in Europe, collaborating with different computer musicians and instrumentalists at each location. I recorded nearly all of these performances by asking someone to wear the binaural mic and move through the installation. By 1998 a repertoire of five pieces for the ensemble called “Inventions” had been completed, defined by particular rhythm sequences and timbres.


This recording compiles moments from these performances, and the recordings that inspired their creation, into one continuous piece. Electronic music is normally thought of as a medium emphasizing unlimited access to timbre—I think this is often over-emphasized, and that, at its best, it changes our experience of space. The traditional African talking drums are played held under the arms so that their laces can be squeezed to change the pitch of the drum-head as rhythms are played. The changing pitches and rhythms imitate patterns of the tonal languages of West Africa, and can be used like musical telephony to communicate over long distances. This recording follows this design, creating conversations between different places, environments, people, rituals, and parties on a global scale.



CUBA: Recorded July 28, 1994, Casa Fina, Miramar-Havana, Cuba by Chris Brown. Performers: faculty of the Institute Superior del Arte (ISA) and Escuela Nacional del Arte (ENA) during a course on traditional music organized by Caribbean Music and Dance Programs. Special thanks: Melissa Daar and Deborah Rubinstein.


HEADLANDS: Recorded May 23, 1999 Battery Wallace, Headlands Center for the Arts, Sausalito, California. Recorded by Ted Coffey. Produced by Brian Karl. Performers: DJ Eddie DEF, Scot Gresham-Lancaster, Kristin Erickson, David Vazquez, and Chris Brown.


CNMAT: Recorded July 11, 1998 at Center for New Music and Audio Technologies, UC/Berkeley, California, in the tennis court, by David Wessel. Performers: Peter Valsamis, Kristin Erickson, David Vasquez, and Chris Brown


ISEA 95: Recorded Sept. 20, 1995, Pollock Hall, McGill University, Montreal, Canada by CBC/Societe Radio-Canada, Mario Gauthier, Producer.


RPI: Recorded March 17, 1999 iEAR Space, Rensselaer Polytechnic University, Troy, NY by James Baumgartner. Performers: David Gibson, cello; Robert Gluck, keyboard; Dan Trueman, violin, Curtis Bahn, bass and computer, Seth Cluet, electric bass. Matt Rainville, Laurie Brown, Chris Brown, and Andreas Huber, computers.


UIUC: Recorded March 25, 1999, Tryon Festival Theater lobby, Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Performers: Tom Paynter, flute; Dorothy Martirano, violin; Peter Roubal, alto sax; Tim Madden, trombone. Arto Artinian, Michael Klingbeil, Adam Wilson, and Chris Brown, computers. Special thanks to Bill Brooks.


MOUTH FULL OF FIRE: Recorded November 30, 1996 by Bob Boster at 101 Market St. (Federal Reserve Bank), San Francisco. Poets: Cindy Heng, Ra Sek, Dong Nguyen, Linh Nguyen, Joel Hernandez. Computerists: Matthew Goodheart, Nick Peck, Mike Berry, and Chris Brown. Production collaborators: Hoa Nguyen, Sofie Siegmann, Johanna Poethig, Glades Perreras with Inner City Public Art Projects for Youth, supported by ArtSpan, SOMAR, and the California Arts Council. A project of the San Francisco Art Commission’s Market Street Art in Transit Program.


GRONINGEN: Recorded March 15, 1998, Cultuurcentrum de Oosterpoort, March 15, 1998, Groningen Holland, by Tom Nunn. Part of the Pacific III ‘Westcoast’ Marathon of the PRIMe Foundation, Groningen, Holland. Performers: Rombout Stoffers, Wim Konink, Rene Oussoren, percussion; Roland Nicolic, Guido v.d. Kamp, Peter Reintjes, Chris Brown, computers.


CALARTS: Recorded February 4, 1999, California Institute of the Arts Gallery by Kolbeinn Einansson. Erin Guinn, turntables, Tonya Ridgely, flute; Sean Rooney, computer, J-Y, percussion, bass-clarinet, Wadada Leo Smith, trumpet., and other members of the Electroacoustic Improvisation class. Thanks to the African-American Improvisation Program for support.


BALI CREMATION: Recorded January 3, 1996, Bali by Chris Brown.


BEANBENDER’S: Recorded March 20, 1996, Beanbender’s, Berkeley, California by Louise Land. Performers: Donald Robinson and William Winant, percussion, Lisle Ellis, bass, Chris Brown, keyboards and synthesizer; Robert Kauker, Nick Peck, Scot Gresham-Lancaster, synthesizers.


© 1999 Chris Brown, BMI. All rights reserved.



live recordings of music for electronic network music ensemble juxtaposed with location recordings of traditional music and environmental soundscapes


made in Bali, the Philippines, Turkey, Europe, Cuba and America 1991-99




1 rumba quinto, havana, cuba

2 invention #3, headlands, sausalito, california

3 cremation procession, bali

4 tennis court, CNMAT, berkeley

5 hammering, hagia sophia, istanbul, turkey

6 honda bay, palawan, philippines

7 invention #2, iEAR/RPI, troy, new york

8 rumba kata, havana, cuba

9 invention #5, headlands, sausalito, california

10 quiapo market district, manila, philippines

11 invention #2, calarts, valencia, california

12 mariwo chant, havana, cuba

13 talking drum, beanbender’s, berkeley, california

14 cremation procession downbeat, bali

15 invention #1, headlands, sausalito, california

16 talking drum, groningen, netherlands

17 chango, havana, cuba

18 fireworks, iloilo, philippines

19 hawaii bird park, hawaii

20 frogs in irrigation canals, champuan, bali

21 vultures and muezzin, istanbul, turkey

22 rooster, boracay, philippines

23 mouth full of fire, market st., san francisco, california

24 talking drum, isea ‘95, montreal, canada

25 invention #4, univ. of illinois, champaign-urbana

26 invention#4, headlands, sausalito, california

27 cremation flame, bali