On Oct. 24, Harper Hall became a pool, and the music of Devin Drobka and Tom Rainey its water. I was submerged but not drowning. Seeing a drum set duo improvise is rare, especially with two percussionists of this caliber and coming from very different backgrounds. To be able to only hear the sounds of a drum set was more moving than I could have ever imagined, and this show has forever changed how I will hear a set in any environment. A large part in this new understanding was being immersed in just those sounds—the ability to examine them, and only them, in a microscope and telescope simultaneously.
When a drum set accompanies a group, it is usually that instrument that I have the most trouble thinking and writing about, as I tend to group all of its sounds together and hear it as a drum set rather than a careful assemblage of its pieces. This show forced me to hear many instruments on stage, instead of just one kind, and I was stunned by the great diversity of sound, even though I had heard a drum set countless times before. It became easier to separate the bass drum from the floor tom, the sound of a cymbal struck at one point and again a mere inch away—there was so much depth that, up until seeing them, I had usually missed because of ignorantly bunching the textures together. I could still hear the drum set as a whole, but now it was the same way I would hear a saxophone line as a whole, for example—still considering its individual sounds. It became easier to switch back and forth, giving me a more informed and overall engaging experience.
As my appreciation and sonic focus deepened, sounds that were not as typical for a drum set gained more importance. Near the beginning was the most atypical: Drobka cranking a music box disjointedly while also lightly hitting it on his hi-hat created a beautifully eerie twinkling over Rainey’s full but wavering sustained cymbal sounds. At another point, Rainey produced an electronic-sounding static by using brushes on a cymbal aggressively. While I had heard something similar before, the way he sat with it for about a minute or so consistently made it even more abstracted from its normal source. He approached the bass drum similarly at points, pedaling it to rich, low drones that filled Harper with frequencies that were not just heard, but felt in the heart and bones.
Despite being supremely absorbed by the sound, I was drawn to the way each distinct drummer played, especially because the drum set is such an explicitly physical instrument. Rainey looked at an indeterminate point a few feet in front of him, focused on it with a hard gaze. He was pushing all of his sound everywhere, but his eyes rarely left this one point in space. In controlled but erratic full-body gestures, he perpetually fell over his set, making it nearly impossible to predict his next move. The tumbling and falling motions paralleled his playing, both movement and sound set free but retaining intentionality. Drobka also maintained a focused gaze, although his was over his left shoulder and slightly down. Both stayed so consistent in their stares that it was almost as if it was either previously choreographed or consciously considered during the improvisations. Drobka’s stillness went against Rainey’s bustling movements, barely scrunching up for some moments but for the most part just moving his arms minimally to play. There was a dance going on—separate from, but also going along with the music—which helped me connect to the performance even more.
To have had my intrigue for drums and love for texture within rhythm exponentially grow, to have been able to see two eclectic drummers play together and communicate in ways that go way beyond basic comprehension and to have had the opportunity to experience this, not only thanks to the artists, but Lawrence as well for its constant support of improvised arts, was truly once in a lifetime.