Berlin-based drummer and lower-case electronicist eschews percussion on his latest release.

Prominently displayed on percussionist Burkhard Beins' webpage is a Piranesi quote which reads, "Every ass can tell the best is always located in between monotony and confusion. The only problem is, where is the center?" Beins says he believes that "struggling again and again to find an answer to this question seems to be what it's all about . . . to reposition yourself in a more or less wide field of possibilities each time anew." It's safe to say that, over the past decade, Beins has done a pretty good job at this. A quick glance at his rich discography - ranging from the conventional instrumentation of Yarbles to his new solo disc, Disco Prova - reveals Beins' commitment to "the development of a flexible set of values" to be continually reassessed and repositioned.

Yet Disco Prova (Absinth) contains almost no percussion. In some ways itęs a conceptual head-scratcher, that one of the most interesting percussionists to come around in a long time should release a solo album containing post-produced compositions and field recordings, with no improvisation and just a few recorded snippets of percussion.

Part of what makes his music so compelling is his unique approach to his instrument and its idiomatic properties. Yet equally important is his approach to sound itself. Whether or not he plays using recognizable "percussive" strategies, what's always struck me about Beins' music is his adaptability, the range of his abilities, and his attentiveness to nuance. One might not often hear the obvious rattle of a snare or the audible impact of mallet on tom-tom. But when you immerse yourself into Beins' music, you find that the music on his solo record sits comfortably alongside his overall body of music. Like similarly inclined percussionists - Günter Müller, Jason Kahn, and others - Beins is a sound artist first.

In this, and in his idiosyncratic appropriation of seemingly far-flung influences, Beins is part of a constellation of European and Asian (and occasionally North American) improvisers who have shaken things up in the last decade. Like almost every improviser under the age of 50 Beins was exposed during his adolescence to a broad range of "punk" and "post-punk" music. So the fact that he's dedicated a Disco Prova piece to the late Ian Curtis (of Joy Division) isn't surprising. He's listened to a ton of rock music, but Beins' work is free of the evident riff-and-groove that you find in some free musicians. Rather, it's fueled his zeal for various kinds of "electronic experiments" as he calls them: musique concrète, tape loops, field recordings, drones, and so forth. The first single he bought was The Sweet's Ballroom Blitz, followed by Floyd's Ummagumma, some Zappa, and some Eno, then Cage, Varese, and Lucier.

Though Beins always had an interest in electronics and tape music, his early work in improvisation concentrated mostly on an all acoustic set-up. As he put it, "bowing a cymbal and turning a knob are activities which require two kinds of attention, too different from each other not to get in each other's way." While greatly influenced by two percussionists in particular (Pauls Lovens and Motian), Beins did not receive any jazz drum training until well after he'd established himself, and them, not so much to acquire technique as to figure out how best to pursue the sounds in his head: "I become interested in something aesthetically and then try to learn and develop what it needs to make it happen. In this concern I'm perhaps more an artist than an instrumentalist."

In retrospect Beins' activities during the mid- and late-1990s can be seen as part of the "Berlin reductionism." But it's a term - and to some extent a scene - that Beins regards with some skepticism. Even though he managed to sneak out the relatively expressionist Yarbles (with saxophonist Martin Pfleiderer and bassist Peter Niklas Wilson), he was - by the late 1990s - mostly involved in what he recalls as "the short but intense 'hardcore' period of the so-called 'Berlin reductionism' with Das Kreisen (with Annette Krebs and Robin Hayward)." Having moved to Berlin from London in 1996, Beins began organizing concerts with guitarist Michael Renkel, in a series that brought many different players together, including Axel Dörner, Andrea Neumann, Krebs, and Hayward, along with Londoners Rhodri Davies, Phil Durrant and Mark Wastell. Though they continued to pursue other musics vigorously (Beins in the Yarbles trio as well as Perlonex, the "post-industrial" / "electro-acoustic noise" trio with Ignaz Schick and Jörg Maria Zeger that recorded last year's fabulous double-disc with guests Keith Rowe and Charlemagne Palestine on Nexsound), these players did explore a concentrated focus on what Beins recalls as "the musical potential of extremely long silences and very reduced but pronounced sound material."

This music - whether you call it "lowercase", "reductionist," "eai," or "taomud" - has developed in decidedly internationalist ways, thriving not just on conceptual challenges but on multiplicity, flux, a proliferation of different working situations and combinations involving players (and audiences) of quite different backgrounds. Beins has a healthy skepticism when discussing "scenes" or "movements," but he does speak about the ways in which this area of music has developed in part owing to such international exchanges - made possible by low cost flights, by musicians' willingness to relocate (from, say, North America to Korea), and to some extent by grants. The local still thrives, thankfully, and Beins continues his work with BBB (who have a lovely recording on Absinth), Phosphor (on Potlatch), in addition to his "international" groups like Trio Sowari (with Bertrand Denzler and Durrant, also on Potlatch).

Through these and many other associations, Beins has arrived at a very personal approach to instrumentalism and to music in general. Mark Wastell remarks, "Burkhard doesn't strike the drums, he only rubs or bows them." While he was talking about Beins' playing in The Sealed Knot (with Wastell and Rhodri Davies), it gets to Beins' larger approach. In certain contexts, Beins plays a more or less conventional drumkit, albeit with multiple preparations (such as stones, metal, wood, or Styrofoam, all used to create various frictions or textures that the drums themselves amplify); elsewhere (as in the latest version of his duo Activity Center with Renkel), he places some of his objects and devices on a tabletop, and uses overhead mikes to amplify them; sometimes (as in Koppelfeld, a duo with Orm Finnendahl), Beins even sticks just to glass objects on tabletop.

In other words, whether striking or bowing or manipulating with devices or miking, Beins is interested in the object as sound generator. No wonder, then, that he has returned to a more radicalized approach to sound generation on Disco Prova. The opening "EQ-20" exemplifies these strategies, bringing together scratched LPs, digital white noise, and running water. "Igniter" - which percolates like a vintage Voice Crack piece - consists entirely of sounds recorded from "a cheap electric gas igniter." The bulbous hums and lovely rattles of "Schaltkreis" were captured around Brooklyn by Beins and John Bisset in November 2005. Giuseppe Ielasi made some recordings of Beins' actual percussion, which Beins reassembled into the lovely and heavily spectral "Reel." "Slope" actually sounds the most like Beins' improvisations, a piece for floortom and cymbal that is filled with intense contrast - low, swooping, granular circles and hissing, darting whooshes. And "For Ian Curtis" consists entirely of abstracted fragments of Joy Division tunes.

Beins believes that recording and releasing Disco Prova at this point in his development is a function of the fact that he was ready to realize this music and also that there were ideas that simply couldn't be developed with percussion alone. Once Absinth's Marcus Liebig asked Beins to record one of the four 3" CDs for 2004's superb Berlin Drums compilation, the light bulb went on. The care that went into this music is audible, its rich details affording both immediate, visceral pleasures and rewarding patient study. Beins approaches "all material [as] equal regardless of their original contexts." And yet this radically egalitarian approach to sound yields a music that is distinctly his.

The record's longest piece, "Sekante" - a huge, oscillating drone generated by placing two mikes inside a styrofoam box and running a 12 meter string through it to create friction - is actually an offspring from another project. The Sekante sound installation pursues similar methods - "everyday materials acoustically produced sounds become decoupled from their origins and spread out onto several resonating materials in the room" - and has seven chip-controlled propellers playing the strings with their seven different programmed on/off sequences.

Beins' schedule is filled with new projects; in addition to Sekante, he has recently presented new music with Finnendahl and ARTE sax man Sascha Armbruster; new releases are due from both Perlonex and Trio Sowari; Polwechsel will record a new CD and may embark on a U.S. tour in 2008; BBB (with Serge Baghdassarians and Boris Baltschun) will perform at Donaueschingen this Fall (...)

Beins notes that Disco Prova "feels like the closing of a circle in a way." With all this activity - moving in so many directions but with a consistent focus and purpose - we can be certain that the next paths taken will be just as compelling.

- Jason Bivins, Signal To Noise Magazine, Issue #46, July 2007 -

[ back to theory overview ]