Beating to a different drum: an interview with Jackie Gallant

0 Posted by - January 17, 2008 - Conversations, Features, Sound

This December, I attended Jackie Gallant’s performance and discussion at GIV (Groupe intervention vidéo, in Montréal, Canada). Gallant’s “drumming” is nothing short of hypnotic, soothing and brilliant. I had the opportunity to interview her in light of her innovative sound work, curious about her inspirations, motivations, and how it all came together technologically. Gallant’s set-up was, her, surrounded by various drumming pads and mixers, pedals and wires—but the sounds were unmistakably affective.

Art Threat: Hi Jackie! So, how would you describe what you do? How would you describe your sound?

Jackie Gallant: With this project I am triggering samples using an electronic drum pad to create sound pieces. Basically I find samples, manipulate them using keyboards and computer software and then map the sounds into drum pads so that they can be ‘played’ much like a traditional drum kit. I then improvise using the processed samples. The source material comes from a variety of places, digging into old records or sounds that I’ve created, but there always seems to be an inherent rhythm in most of the samples and I guess there is always a hint of the rock or punk background that I have. I find that no matter what source material I use there always seems to be a driving, hypnotic rhythm that becomes more layered and more intense and then breaks down and builds back up again. I like slowly layering rhythmic samples until there is almost a solid block of sound with interweaving rhythms and textures.

AT: I’d like for you to explain to me how you compose music based on samples. Where do you get the samples, how do you create them, what kind of samples you are looking for, and what sample-based music is all about.

“All that sounds that mean something to me can be pulled apart or repeated or effected.”

JG: Well the whole idea of taking samples and decontextualizing them for me is based on the incredible excitement of being able to pick bits of music or sound that you like and manipulating them to make something new. I can remember when I first discovered the world of sampling and all of its possibilities. It was just as exciting to me as when it became possible to do home recording with a cassette 4-track.

It was this realization that all of the sounds that mean something to me or trigger an emotional or physical response can be taken and pulled apart or repeated or effected. It’s like being able to listen to your favorite 5 seconds of a song over and over and then adding other sounds or bits of other songs and creating a whole new piece of music. One of the first pieces I did was just using the album Tusk by Fleetwood Mac as source material. I love the production sound of the songs by Lindsey Buckingham. I had sampled a little intro from one of the songs into the keyboard and looped it and when I changed the loop length to 0 it made this strange rhythm that seemed to have a life of its own. It was one of those happy accidents. I loved that loop and used it all the time.

I started sampling more parts of that record and just experimented with effects and stuff and then loaded them up into the drum pads and by a ton of trial and error came up with an ‘instrument’ that I could play. A lot of the samples were unrecognizable from the source but something about the sound quality of that record still came through. In terms of what kind of samples I’m looking for, I guess initially I was sampling parts of old records that I liked, Kraftwerk or PiL and then just playing around with them until I found a loop or rhythm I liked. Now, I am working from specific ideas that I have, giving myself more of a framework.

For one of my more recent pieces I sampled parts of songs from a local band called the American Devices that I used to play drums for. I sampled all of these intertwining bass and guitar riffs that I love and that I grew up with. I decided that I would not alter the sound of the source material at all, no effects, as little manipulation as possible. The result when I play the drums with these samples is that you get a percussive feel to melodic riffs. I’m also working on a new piece that uses only samples from marching bands, sampling these complicated rhythms and rolls. That one is proving to be a challenge.

“I’m working on a piece that only uses samples from marching bands… that’s proving to be a challenge.”

AT: How do you combine your experience as a traditional rock and roll drummer with the precision required for the kind of work you do now.

JG: When I play regular drums I am more limited in terms of my sound palette and hitting a drum once elicits one sound or a dynamic variation of one sound . I find that playing electronic drums and triggering samples is more of a cerebral experience than playing traditional drums. I have to think and remember what samples are where and what samples I have to both trigger and shut off. The dynamic range is much more limited but the sonic possibilities are endless. Also, because the sounds for each drum pad change with each piece and because often within one piece I change the sounds within the drum pads, it is like I have to relearn the instrument. It is an instrument that is basically impossible to master which is part of the fun.

AT: Can you talk to me about the equipment you use — how does it all work together?

JG: Well, initially when I began work with improvising using samples I used an Ensoniq sampler keyboard. I realized that I was playing the keyboard in quite a percussive way so the natural progression was to trigger them using some kind of percussive instrument. The electronic drum pad machine I use now is the Roland SPDs sampling pad and the amazing thing about it is you can bring your own sounds in and assign them to any pad you want. You can also sample directly into it and there is also an effects processor built in so that you can further process the sound although that is a feature I rarely use.
I attach a bass drum pedal with a trigger pad as an extra trigger so that I can play the bass pedal in addition to the pads.

I recently added a Roland SP555 to my setup, which I basically use to trigger longer more atmospheric samples. This gives the pieces a fuller sound and adds even more ingredients to the mix. I also run the sounds from the drum pads through this machine and can manipulate them using a theremin like light sensor. It all goes through a mixer so that I can control the volumes of each instrument (fade them in and out etc). The only problem is that I seem to be running out of limbs to do everything I want to do. That’s where all the practicing comes in.

“There is a whole mind fuck involved in improvising — especially with yourself.”

AT: The GIV show was your first live performance for this kind of work. Can you talk a bit about the performative aspect?

JG: I actually had two pieces that I performed first in St. John’s, Newfoundland in summer 2006 and then again here in Montreal, the Fleetwood Mac one and another piece that had samples from all kinds of sources…sounds I had recorded around the house mixed with sounds I had taken from soundtracks I had done. In terms of the performative aspect… I guess that’s really the crux of the whole project. I’ve always loved the unpredictability of a live setting. The fact that I am in total control of the samples and sounds when I am building the instrument for each piece makes it even more important to throw away that control and improvise live. I love the tightrope that you have to walk when you are in front of an audience.

I am used to being in band situations where you are only one part of a whole so this project is even more challenging because it’s just me. I’m forced to really listen to the sounds I’m putting together and push myself to go beyond my comfort zone. There is a whole mind fuck involved in improvising especially with yourself. My tendency is to want to develop an idea too quickly so I have to force myself to be patient. The ultimate goal is to completely lose yourself in what you’re doing and take chances.

AT: What’s next for you? Any shows on the horizon? Any possibilities of collaborations with other sound artists? Have you recorded any of your work and is it available to the public?

JG: Right now I’m working on developing more pieces. I’d like to do more performances because I find that there’s nothing like playing something in front of an audience to know what works and what doesn’t. It’s a great help and subsequently I know what to modify and what sections to tweak or develop more or just scrap altogether. I’d like to collaborate with some people eventually, but right now this is still a little one-person laboratory.

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