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Saturday, January 12, 2019

Introducing Percussionist Claire Rousay

By Keith Prosk

I first heard percussionist Claire Rousay in duo with guitarist Parham Daghighi when they opened for Kuzu in Austin, Texas this past August; Rousay’s playing was the highlight of the bill for me - no small feat when Damon is present - and I was particularly impressed that they were local. In an effort to share my enthusiasm for this exciting, rising improviser, here’s (part of) Claire Rousay’s year in review with an interview interspersed.

Rousay started releasing recordings in 2017, including the solo percussion albums blip (self-released) and Anatomize (Kendra Steiner Editions), and their schedule has only picked up steam in 2018. Beyond the five albums reviewed below, Rousay also released the percussion solo an inevitable solution (to) (Kendra Steiner Editions), the Siri-sampling solo of Siri (Hard Fun Records), and collaborations with avant-pop collagist More Eaze on split (Hard Fun Records) and Tom Carter’s new psych-rock group on their debut Morning Scales the Mountain with Claire Rousay (self-released) in 2018. I recommend trying out these albums too, but I did not include them because they were either from 2017, not the genres this site caters to, or simply too difficult to find (the CDr label Kendra Steiner Editions is recently defunct). It was a year of development for the percussionist, and I hoped to at least somewhat reflect that by reviewing the albums in chronological order of recording.

Claire Rousay - Divide (Already Dead Tapes, 2018) ****

Divide is six solo drum sketches across 25 minutes. It is a document of the cool, fast tricks Rousay is capable of but feels more alive, playful, colorful, exploratory than just a brute technical display. “Quality” plays around with a stumbling, orotund bass drum and a drunken double time swing on the cymbals. “Rise” is a surrealist alarm clock; ringing bells, cymbals, and rims. Cinematic cymbals that sound like breaking waves give way to marching toms like some ancient creature lurching out of the water on “Birth.” “Definitive Attributes” is an energetic jaunt of talking drum and bell and rhythms that sway to and from fast to faster and dense to denser. This almost segues into “Virulence,” an aggressive gallop of morphing beat and shifting time. The recording ends with the bowed growls and roars of “Obsolete” that quickly grow into a full-on beat assault and just as quickly die back to growls. It feels like a visual album, thanks to Rousay’s apt titling, and is varied, lively, and short, making it a very fun listen. Of the albums reviewed here, it is the most traditional, though attaching the word to Rousay’s style is a bit silly.

Divide is available digitally and on cassette.

Your work from this year is typically short (about 20 minutes or less) and solo. Any particular reason for one, the other, or both?

I felt like I needed to explore a lot of different ideas before I could really settle on a long term focus. A ton of players take years/decades developing their “sound”. Being super fresh on the scene, I felt like I needed to do the work (for at least 12 months) before I could commit to anything outside of short solo works. I think it will be really rewarding to make some recordings next year with larger groups and longer track lengths after putting in the time developing my own style.

Claire Rousay - IMP/ENV (Colour8, 2018) ***

IMP/ENV is two tracks across 22 minutes. “IMP” is a solo drum improvisation and distills many of the techniques presented on Divide into half the time. It begins with a frenzied, heart-like beat before expanding into a collage of skittering sticks and cymbals, talking drum, a rocking gong, and fast bellwork before returning to a deep galloping beat. One key development is the remarkably open, meditative space towards the center of the track, perhaps signalling Rousay’s style to come towards the end of the year. “ENV” is an edited collage of field recordings and Rousay’s heartbeat recorded with a contact mic in those same environments. It starts as a swirling wind punctuated by the characteristic tapping and touching with a stethoscope in your ear before moving to a tape whirr joined by two heartbeats, then a kind of groan and whine call and response, and then the sound of walking on autumn leaves.

IMP/ENV is available digitally, on cassette, and on a lathe-cut 10”.

Any particular influences on your work this year that you would like to shout out? Probably unrelated, but it seems fitting that you recorded something like “ENV” the same year that Milford Graves’ thoughts on heart beat and musical beat were widely released in Full Mantis.

Yeah, what a coincidence! Milford Graves definitely touches everyone at a point, especially drummers. Most of my recorded output this year was tracked 12-14 months ago and I honestly can’t really give many influences from that time outside of the folks who I am fortunate enough to play with (Michael Foster, Jacob Wick, Marcus Maurice, Alex Cunningham, Lisa Cameron, etc.).
Shortly after recording “ENV,” Rousay recorded of Siri. The electronic collage of both prompted me to ask:

Was of Siri a one-off? Or do you see yourself incorporating electronics (or other instruments) into your work in the future (a kind of Ikue Mori thing)?

of Siri was a one time thing. I think few folks do the drums and electronics thing extremely well. I am not one of them. I am interested in sample-based work though. I'm fascinated right now specifically with audio sourced from social media. I've been compiling facebook notification sounds, Instagram story audio, and a bunch of other things for a few months at this point. Maybe one day I'll dig into that library of sounds for a project but probably not for a few years. Drum kit is enough for me right now.

Claire Rousay & John Kennedy - Audit (Congruence, 2018) ***½

Audit is a percussion duo (with some feedback) spanning four tracks and 28 minutes. It illustrates a further progression towards using the drums non-traditionally, non-aggressively, and not loud for Rousay. The two percussionists compliment each other well, and it’s usually difficult to tell who is skittering sticks or who is skittering cymbals at a given time, who is crunching paper or who is crunching plastic, and they are responsive to each other, like thunder after lightning, two different things but of the same thing. Some standout moments for me are the white noise of silence in the recording getting cut by bowed drum heads and gongs in “don’t ask,” a moment around 3:55 in the 15-minute centerpiece “huddled masses wonder” where the music sounds more like a reed and bass duo than a drum duo, and a sound like rain on bamboo shortly afterward.

Audit is available digitally and on cassette.

Any other collaborations on the horizon?

I have a duo album coming out with Lisa Cameron (one of my favorite folks to drum duo with) next year. I’ll also be tracking a duo album St. Louis violinist, Alex Cunningham in the Spring of 2019. There have been whispers about locking down another show for this really superb trio I played in, like 6 months ago at this point, with Marcus Maurice (More Eaze) and Ingebrigt Håker Flaten. Hopefully some more things will arise.

Now that you mention the upcoming duo with Lisa Cameron, I just found Audit too! Are you drawn to drum duos because it's a platform for trading ideas between drummers, trying to achieve a sonic density (or some other sound or technique) that you can't achieve by yourself, or something else?

It is inspiring watching someone explore the same instrument you're playing, while you're playing it. If that makes sense... I'm drawn to these kinds of duos not necessarily for the "idea trading" but because it is really encouraging watching someone else play drums. It sounds awful but I don't think I care about the performance's quality as much as I care about the feeling that accompanies it.

Michael Foster & Claire Rousay - Mail & Tool & Turmoil (Personal Archives, 2018) ****

This is quiet. It’s not all air notes, gurgling, whispering through the sax, and breath, though those techniques feature in several of the eight tracks, but it’s much more subdued than what I expected after hearing Foster’s work with other drummers like Bennett, Byrnes, and Walter. Accordingly, Rousay frequently uses techniques that touch and move parallel to the drum heads rather than perpendicular. The appropriately titled opener “Jet of Foam,” the close recording of smacking lips and swallowing on “Actually, Not Free,” and the high-pitched whining whistle with whirring, tinny cymbals at the beginning of “Cold Sweat” exemplify this dynamic. But the album is balanced with some higher volume playing, like Foster’s bluesy, languid line on “Bookstore Bondage” or the relatively straight-forward jam of “Warm Bowls,” which Rousay meets with some quick, perpendicular playing.

Mail & Tool & Turmoil is available digitally and on cassette.

I typically associate Foster’s style with the more chaotic, louder aspects of free music, though that may be more of who he plays with rather than his own playing. Your collaboration is on the quieter side. Is that from your presence and direction? What’s the relationship like there? What were you going for in this collaboration?

That set of recordings was done during a tour we were on in the Spring. We had been in a ton of bizarre situations during the days leading up to the recording session so I think what was documented was the product of us trying dozens of ways of playing and finally locking into something. I also found that collaborating with another queer person made me feel more comfortable taking chances within an improvisation. There was this barrier that all of a sudden didn’t exist. I can’t really explain it.

I love playing quietly and Michael knows that. He is a super flexible player and definitely guided that session through quieter spaces so I’d have a chance to do my thing. What a gem.

Claire Rousay - Neuter (self-released, 2018) ***½

Neuter is a single 13-minute solo percussion improvisation. It begins with whirring sticks on the skins that almost sound like a snare roll, sometimes with enough pressure to sound like a shipmast creaking in a storm or something unzipping. The sticks give way to brush work, pointillistic strokes with enough fervor to splay the brush against the drum head. There are points where it’s hard to tell what sound is coming from the drum and what is coming from the plastic water bottle Rousay is crushing in their hand. When Rousay actually strikes something, they create a collage of rhythmic vignettes and and the strikes are very fast. Rousay mentions they are interested in the emotional crossroads of rhythm, speed, and texture and, through our conversation, the role of gender in the drum; I can’t help but feel that this track is the culmination of a year of style development and putting thoughts behind the music into practice successfully.
Neuter is available digitally and on cassette.

For Neuter, you explicitly explore the relationship between masculinity and percussion. How is sex, gender, and/or sexuality present in instrumental and/or improvised music? And how are you addressing it?

Articulating complex ideas through non lyrical (not to mention improvised) music is a challenge for sure. Communicating your own ideas about sex and gender through a solo improvisation seems impossible. Hopefully, whatever you are contributing during these performances is coming from a hyperreal and sincere place and you are able to make your ideas and experiences known through the music. You can often tell a lot about a person through their playing in a group context.

I started experiencing bouts of gender dysphoria, specifically while playing drums, about two years ago. I had a hard time playing this instrument that had these masculine associations while also having to remind everyone around me that I am NOT a man (People are awful at pronouns. It sucks.). Dominating whatever space you’re in, emotionally/physically/sonically, is an awful thing to do. That is the definition of toxic masculinity. I guess I am addressing these things by playing cautiously. I want to be open to the idea of “sitting out” in a group piece or maybe interacting with the environment I am in, rather than using the cool, fast tricks I know how to do while playing solo.

I understand this kind of masculinity surrounding playing behaviors in a group or an environment, but could you articulate what's masculine about the drums? Neuter seems to focus on bowing or scraping the drum heads; would it be in line to think of this as a kind of sonic, metaphorical flaying, stripping away the masculinity of the drums and bringing it in line with your own identity? Or do you have other thoughts on the conflict you have with your own skin and the drum skins?

I don't believe the physical drums are really masculine at all but we've just been taught to view them as such. In Scott Harrison's "Music and Masculinity" he says "masculinity is associated with heterosexuality, power, authority and aggression, femininity has frequently and erroneously been defined as “everything else,” “different” or “other” and therefore subordinate." Neuter was an attempt to play the drums in a new way. I wanted to hone in on less traditional ways of playing and see if this would be perceived as an "other" to masculinity. Drums are constantly described using the same words as Harrison's masculinity definition (power, aggressive, etc.) and I wanted to give myself a break from that. When is the last time you've heard someone say, "I am stoked for that new record. I bet the drums are gonna be so delicate/non-authoritative/homosexual"?

What recording of yours from this year are you most happy with? What would you want someone listening to you for the first time to hear first, and why?

I think Neuter would be a great introduction since it is the most recent solo recording. That one is so much closer to what I want to be doing in the future. I am obsessed with the relationship between drums and masculinity (specifically from the perspective of gender/trans-identity). That recording captures all the subtleties I hoped would come through. A ton of that sonic clarity is thanks to Alan Jones who mastered it.

My ratings and my words probably don’t accurately capture my excitement surrounding Rousay, but I recommend giving Neuter and another release of your interest a spin, and don’t miss the chance to catch them live. I genuinely believe Rousay offers a refreshing, unique, exciting approach to percussion, and I’ll be keeping an eye on them going forward.


Colin Green said...

Thanks, Kieth. An insightful, informative and well-constructed set of reviews.

Keith said...

Thanks so much, Colin!

Colin Green said...

And next time, I’ll spell your name right!

Keith said...

No worries! A very common misspelling