Drums and Percussion
The Improvising Percussionist
By Trevor Taylor
I first heard Frank Perry play on a Sunday night Musicians Co-operative gig at Ronnie Scott’s in January 1971, on which I was also playing, with C.I.M., an improvisation ensemble. Frank was playing solo and I believe it was one of the first times he had done so. At first sight the compactness and density of his instruments produce a visual link with the music. He sits, occasionally stands, and moves about w behind a reasonably conventional kit which is surrounded by two frames (area 9’ x 10’ x 6’) containing the bulk of the suspended percussion, other instruments being superimposed about the kit, the accent of which has now changed predominantly to oriental percussion instruments which he plays with a variety of beaters. For kit work he uses drumsticks which have been shortened to 12”.
Trevor Taylor: Frank, could you explain your first involvement with music and drums?
Frank Perry: I was originally involved with music through a natural personal need to express myself. I first realised I was a bit of a rebel at school in Hampstead. I seemed to have a desire to change things, I felt the need for a personal expression from the individual and the need to turn away from the systematisation of school.
So these ideas affected your playing rather than the other way round, which is more common?
Yes, the music was a logical extension of that; I had a chance to create an alternative reality and so start learning through living. I came from a family with no real interest in music or philosophy. My parents were both spiritualists. My father became a trance medium at 24; I discovered my own mediumistic powers at 16 (despite my father’s taciturnity) and those powers became my guiding values.
So you inherited no musical aspirations, how did you get to play drums?
It was at school. I was about 15 1/2 and one of the kids was learning to play drums and I heard him trying to play a rhythm. I went home and found I could do the same as him. He showed me some Rock rhythms which I got off in about half an hour, then hand independence which I found I could do in about an hour and a half. I seemed to have a natural adaptability towards the drums. This guy was interested in jazz drums, Joe Morello and Elvin (which influenced me) but at first I joined a rhythm and blues band and then I went to Morocco when I was 16. When I came back I was asked to join another blues band which I did for a while and then gradually played with more blues bands in a more jazz style with hand independence etc.
Who did you like of the rhythm and Blues drummers?
Well, Fleetwood Mac were very popular at the time and Mick Fleetwood had a very obvious simple approach to playing the drums, whereas Mayall was using drummers who more or less had the approach I had. Eventually I got kicked out of the band for being too complex. I decided I’d had enough of that personality business and got down to playing some jazz. I went to Bill Ashton’s course to learn to read music as I’d come to an impasse; technically I’d exhausted the little lessons I’d been shown and I knew I needed to study a bit more to extend my independence and work out things I wasn’t able to contract on my own through reading music.
Who did you study with?
John Marshall was teaching reading on the course and I learnt to read in about 2 1/2 days, went home and practised all the usual things in books for technique – Coltrane’s Polyrhythmic and Multi-directional Areas, Messiaen’s Non-Retrograde Rhythms – and developed all my own exercises from listening to records. I was using Jim Chapin’s book (4-way co-ordination etc) and others.
What happened then?
I was playing with a friend who played saxophone and then when I was 19 I moved to Cambridge and joined the top local jazz band, The Percy Seeby, Alan Broad Quintet, who were established musicians. It was a kind of Miles Davis band, with those colourings and shadings. I used to play in those days I suppose a mixture of Sonny Murray, Pete LaRoca, Elvin and Tony Williams. I say Sonny Murray more for the feeling in the playing and not so much the execution of it
So you were trying to get away from a technologically dominated style?
Yes, away from cerebral alienation to find the essence of music in spontaneity. Most jazz was then sort of clean, a deliberately stylised way of executing the music. I was interested in the rougher approach. At this point I began listening to John Stevens which changed my whole concept of playing. It made me aware of further possibilities and I started thinking and adjusted to the psychological acceptance of the fact that free music was a valid form. I suppose it appealed to me immediately as a form of self-expression without technical criteria being the dominant factors. I was also listening to Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor etc., and was involved with the contribution to the group of the drummer, the desire to be more part of what the musicians were doing, the melodies and speech-like expressions which expanded the role of the drummer which meant the techniques were more psychological in terms of application to the situation rather than say learning how to play a flam triplet. So I decided at that point to turn right away from the technical things as they seemed to me to be a system which had been devised and almost exhausted and too restrictive a concept for my ideas / thoughts.
Within those techniques being used at that time?
Well it didn’t seem that relevant to just be restricted to four drums, a few cymbals and things; these stemmed from the role of the drummer as a time keeper. I wanted to transcend time, to transcend gravity.
How did you develop this?
I continued playing in Cambridge for about 18 months then came down to London in about January 1969 and played with people like Chris McGregor, Mike Osborne and younger guys like Chris Francis, who allowed a freer use of the drums. I played with lots of people and got a lot of experience but it was going nowhere; I decided I needed just one group so I could develop a personal approach. Then I got the opportunity of a three months season in Cornwall with Goudie Charles and Tony Dickinson on vibes; sort of straight jazz. We played a lot of Coltrane tunes with improvisation featured heavily.
You met Alan Davie down there?
Yes, he was doing his free form things and when I came back to London I started working with hi quite a bit. I also had a piano trio with Ron Herman and Chris Goodie, who was very original, very improvised in free time. He was very rhythmically aware, kind of Monkish; it was a very happy band. About this time my inspirations became truly more individual.
How exactly did this happen?
Well I was working, I had some money, and so I bought various Chinese cymbals and went home and started working on them. The minute I started playing with them I discovered a whole new thing had opened up and I knew it was me. I’d been waiting for this moment and I haven’t looked back since then. The need for time playing was not important anymore, the techniques became the techniques of intuition and not of the brain.
Did you realise straight away that you were going to use totally different instruments, especially Oriental ones?
Yes, I had a good idea a few years before of their existence but didn’t want to get them and find just a passing interest. I wanted to be surer that everything I possessed was going to be used as I’m pretty hung-up about possessions. So I didn’t buy much, I just held back until things matured and blossomed in my mind. At this point luckily the instruments were around although I’d got things earlier like a Chinese gong in Cornwall.
And this was a climax to that?
Yes, a definite time, a combination of influences.
When this happened did you consciously go out of your way to study Oriental philosophy?
I’d already been doing that. My whole things is to find the truth of life so I was consciously thinking, searching, weighing up all the time, living, breathing, developing and unfolding my spiritual nature.
So could you just briefly describe the events up until now?
Well, I started playing with Evan Parker, and then a trio with Evan and Derek bailey. That was really good and we did quite a few gigs that helped part of this conscious feeling to move forward. Then I met Ian Brighton; this would have been about 2-3 years ago. We started on a duo and that developed with other musicians etc. Now I am working on solo things.
Why did you come to the conclusion you wanted to do solo work?
Because the music was a nee to express something out of me, because in terms of what my intake has been in philosophy and spiritual awakenings I needed a channel to express that which wasn’t possible with other musicians, who had a more mundane attitude towards music. They had consciousness, experience and knowledge, but it evolved around concrete music, about the laws of music as regards form, technique and playing experience. They were involved with extending those ranges in a logical, concrete musical way; their attitude didn’t partake of the need to express a Spiritual reality (i.e. Ritual Magic), which I very strongly do. Everything in my life has to be in harmony with the Spiritual life, so with mediumship I’d go into trance and this was the advantage of solo performance because I had complete control of what was coming into me and going out. For instance, when you are in that state, one is in a highly sensitive position and any extraneous noises just completely shatter you; everything that has been built up. The same if you are playing with musicians who are not aware of this use of sound or the inner consciousness (that is why I have often said I am not playing alone; I am in the conscious awareness of a very large Brotherhood of Beings).
What have your solo activities been lately?
I did some television in Paris, represented Great Britain in Brussels with a solo concert, played solo opposite Roland Kirk, played Falmouth and Goldsmith Art Colleges also solo, and a Wigmore Hall concert. I am of course still doing concerts for the Musicians Co-op.
What would you recommend as a typical solo on record?
Well, the only example on record now is with Ovary Lodge, recently made with Keith Tippett and Roy Babington for R.C.A.
What ideas have you for the future?
I seem to be verging towards playing in churches in solo circumstances. I’m very much involved with the therapeutic effects of music. This stems from my interest in the effect of art on the environment, which is to say I create another environment for the people to enter into as opposed to that city outside. I’m doing a concert in July entitled ‘A Musical Meditation’ which perhaps I’ll start calling most of my solo performances in future.
Last time I spoke to you, you were doing very little playing with other people and few outside performances?
Yes, this is still the case. I’m not seeking that much concert with other musicians! My own music is very sensitive at the moment and I need to protect it from the multiplication of outside influences.
Could you explain the physical construction of your set-up?
Well I’ve got three frames, which were specially made and a further one in construction now. These are set up around a drum kit which has very small snare drum 10” x 4”. I use this because standard snare drums are too heavy, sluggish and loud. I have just one head on both tom-toms, which have been specially treated. I also have a fair amount of tape on them to control the particular timbre of the sound, which I want to be wooden and dry. I also use some drums with calf heads.
What other membrane instruments have you?
Two tambours, a pair of bongos some Japanese hand drums and a Kenyan tenor drum.
How about cymbals and metal sounds?
I’ve got about 15 western cymbals 12 Chinese and I think 6 Tibetan. 20 chimes and about 20 gongs.
What sort of gongs?
Well there is a variety. For instance, Kyeezees, temple meditation gongs which have a very pure (3 note) chime-like sustained sound, which is tuned to a religious note, which is the OM. I have four of those, which correspond to the Heart chakra. I have a large horizontal Chinese temple gong of about 24” diameter. It is solid brass and weighs about 70 pounds. I think it’s the only one of its type in this country. I’ve got a large Chinese tam-tam, and 18” Chinese flanged gong, two sets of 3 (framed small-type) Chinese gongs, two Thailand gongs, and various others.
You use a lot of bells don’t you?
Yes, I’ve got Greek, Indian, Chinese, Tibetan and Japanese – thirty in all, and some others in chains of strings whilst the former are fixed to a frame or suspended in symbolic amounts. There is symbolic numerology involved in the construction of the list where possible. Other random sounds are bamboo chimes, stones chimes, seashells and even knives and forks.
Five glass CONA bells, cycle flasks, clusters of metal tubes, Chinese wood blocks, temple blocks, a wooden xylophone, crotales, a small glockenspiel, 15 cow and sheep bells, Persian brass bowls, and a lot of small Indian, Chinese and Swiss finger cymbals. I’m interested in extending the range of timbres in a small dynamic area of sound possibilities and rhythms.
Then I have things to use on the kit like a chain to be played on a cymbal or anything when an indeterminate sound is required. I have various different implements for striking the equipment and getting different effects like the tops of yoghurt cups, acorns of sticks and bows used on cymbals and gongs primarily in exploring the possibilities of the brass range (gongs etc) because of the tone pitch quality, bringing harmony, melody and rhythm and thematic material into the improvisations now; using intervals to create tensions. I’m studying the characteristics of the sounds and the temperament they encourage in the listener and myself as the player. In this connection, I have Tibetan meditation cymbals, which are very powerful, and I have to be careful when I use them as they set up very strong forces being attuned to a specific spiritual/etheric/archetypal sphere.
So the basic themes for an improvisation are symbolic meditational subjects suitable for communion with the invisible creative forces of nature, and so pictured in my mind as a garden or a cave, a hilltop, a tree, a mountain temple and so on. I wish to use these symbols as the essence of an improvisation by drawing inspiration from the various facets of one such symbol and co-relating this process to areas of sound. This has been the extension of a desire for self expression, or in other words to find a language which would express certain experiences and feelings I’ve had which are beyond normal music. I.e. when you play a blues tune it’s predominantly about a bloke losing his bird. Well I have since come into contact with a much more sophisticated, invisible, and subtle line of experience. So I’ve desired to find a way to fire back to life, to realise the implications and this I have tried to do through music.
Now I’m very interested in the subtle harmonics, which is to say those which reverberate around the fundamental. With the drums in the past I knew what to play “on” the drum then I taught myself how to play “through” the drum by studying and contemplating its essential nature so that I wouldn’t be dominating the instrument but rather become more integral part of it. This has been a strong part of my philosophy and approach to playing over several years, in fact, from the beginning really; this is to say a conscious development of the attitude to musical activity. This for instance gave rise to my sudden understanding of how to tune a drum; I never really knew before. There is a time when you just realise you know how to do it like discovering the use of subtle harmonic combinations and timbral inter-relationships with one instrument and another, each revolving around its fundamental chord. I’ve been trying to extend these relationships into inspirational improvisation.
AND PERCUSSION JULY 1974