By LM blog contributor Patrick Marschke
Drummer, composer and producer Deantoni Parks probably didn't initially intend to create a new instrument and a revolutionary way of creating music from the outset. His musical and technical facility as a drummer is revolutionary and innovative enough for artists like John Cale, Meshell Ndegeocello, Omar Rodríguez-López (The Mars Volta) and Flying Lotus to seek him out. He could have easily ridden out the capital-D-Drummer-life, but behind the scenes, Parks has been looking for more: “For those of us that are trying to become better every day, reinvent every day and not get pigeonholed, it's important to be able to have new outlets and new ways to come up with unique results.” Concurrently, music technology and access to it has exponentially increased, as have the ways in which we can create ways to create music — instrumentalists now have an unprecedented opportunity to become instrument builders.
Thus Technoself was born. Technoself is both an instrument and musical philosophy developed by Parks that has become a core part of his artistic practice, including the upcoming project Liquid Music performance with Hanna Benn, Procession (read a recent interview with Benn about the project).
But what IS Technoself exactly?
Upon first glance, the project looks starkly minimal: Parks sits behind a bass drum, hi-hat, and snare with a seemingly insignificant addition of a two-octave mini midi keyboard. Parks dedicates his right hand to the keyboard, leaving rest of his limbs to oversee the drums. But with the sacrifice of this hand comes an infinite palette of sonic possibilities. Through sophisticated sampling techniques, Parks has access to nearly any sound possible, activated via the nuanced control and accuracy provided by piano-like keys.
In practice, Technoself isn’t so different than what has been expected of percussionists for decades, as Parks points out:
“I’ve been watching percussionists all my life: what they do is play multiple instruments all the time, especially in orchestra. That's the classical percussion setup, you have to literally play literally 20 different instruments. Treble clef, bass clef: you had to learn all the clefs. That's a tremendous glimpse into what is really happening — multitasking is already built into my instrument as the drums are individual instruments that we put together and now we are just adding other elements like samples. It’s always been multitasking, so it's really not that surprising or different.”
Sampling, depending on how you look at it, is probably as old as music itself, though we tend to think of it as being correlated with the advent of recorded sound. Some go so far as to say that everything is a remix, though here Parks is primarily referring to “the technique of digitally encoding music or sound and reusing it as part of a composition or recording” (Google). Sampling as a primary mode of musical creation can be traced back to the early tape experiments of Pierre Schaeffer’s Musique Concrète, John Cage, Iannis Xenakis, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pauline Oliveros and Steve Reich, where each composer was physically manipulating magnetic tape by slicing, looping, or some other form of mangling.
Perhaps more significantly, DJs discovered that with two turntables and identical records they could extend any section of a song by beat matching and crossfading between two record decks, manually “sampling” an 8 or 16 bar phrase indefinitely. Some of these “breaks” became so iconic that artists began to break them down even further, slicing out each individual drum sound so that they could rearrange to make a completely new groove, at times nearly indistinguishable from its source (see the “Amen Break” and “Funky Drummer”). This all culminated in one of the most significant inventions in modern music history: the Akai MPC, a digital sampler that allowed any sound to be triggered, manipulated and performed in incredibly nuanced and sophisticated ways. From Public Enemy to J Dilla to Arca, revolutionary samplists have paved the way for our current music culture, where there is hardly music that exists today without some component of sampling involved.
Parks taps into these legacies with his Technoself method. There are a few things that are quite revolutionary about the way that Parks has engineered his sampling process. Rather than the stiff “one-shot” pads of the MPC, Parks’ use of the midi piano gives him access to the expressive techniques that are standard on keyboard instruments and very limited in the realm of percussion: altering the duration of a note by holding down the key and conversely using pointillistic jabs so short as to obscure the samples past the point of recognition.
“[How you sample] is kind of the barometer of where you are in music today… I look at myself like a diamond cutter when it comes to sampling. It’s completely my identity. I’m cutting at a rate where I’m bringing in percussive techniques, but also engineering techniques that I have embedded in my body. I can stutter things, I can modulate rhythmically in any direction — to 32nd notes to 64th note subdivisions. Then it’s just up to what is in my head.”
The refined combination of these techniques and the inventiveness of Parks’ selection of source material makes for an unparalleled and distinctly original approach to music making. Parks takes any sound that inspires him and “maps” certain transients/microsamples to specific keys, essentially allowing his right hand to sculpt, remix, and weave a digital mosaic of sounds.
Parks has even come up with his own vernacular for his practice:
“I don’t call them pieces or songs, just to help mentally get in the right mindset. It’s more of the idea that I’m streaming information that comes out in this way at this time. “Streaming” opens my mind up so that there is no pressure to find the perfect rhythm or melodic idea or perfect arrangement. It’s about streaming all the knowledge you have acquired and letting the non-cognitive side of your brain and body work for you. When you hear something you react and it changes the composition and the arrangement at that moment. So it’s not about doing it in the fastest way, but it is about running as smoothly as possible. Our brains are so non-linear in the way that we process as compared to computers, so It’s better for us to act in the moment. I think that is why improvisation is so important: because it's the way we are built.”
We asked Parks to talk more about his creative process:
“The first thing is a sound. It’s all about mood, so it has to be a sound that pushes me in some direction. Lately, it's been my own old compositions that I’ve dug up from the grave that I just am not interested in anymore. I’m finding once I find the highest transients and break it apart beat by beat I’m finding ways to rearrange the notes into new compositions and find inspiration in what it sounds like. From there, once I have this particular sound broken apart on the keyboard with four different octaves of range, then it's just going through the sounds, almost combing the area and seeing if there is something there that hits me. Again, this is all about mood and inspiration and it happens quickly. And if it doesn’t you move on to another sound.
The set up is almost a more important part of the process because if it puts you in a certain mood you can get hundreds of thousands of results because you’ll always relate to those sounds and find melodies. That’s what gives you the fuel to find additional parts and structures. If you’re lucky all this happens very quickly and then as soon as you are ready you start recording. You don’t want to get too familiar because you want to leave time for the “moment.” The brain works best when you are making decisions on the fly, I like using that as a new way of composing.
Once you stream it and find it, you can always go back to it. That means that you’ve 'mapped it.' The Technoself method is kind of the fastest way to 'map' new areas: once you find it you’re there. A lot of what I’ve released or keep going back to are things that I’ve found while streaming and then I knew the references and where I was at the time, so it was easily mappable and I can go back and quote it if I want or change.
The Technoself method for me is a certain way of writing in real time that almost sounds like it was done in post. With the hybrid setup, you can kind of 'fool' the listener into thinking that it has been overdubbed, manipulated, or engineered to sound this way. But that's actually just the way it came out.”
“The drum is one of the most communicative instruments, I feel like it is just a powerful weapon to use. You can literally make people vibrate while they are all together from the same source — I think deep things happen there. It’s like experiencing some kind of eclipse: you don’t know the direct effects but something happened, some information got passed that’s gonna show up later. I feel like it’s very high level, well beyond fiber optics. I think the drum is important, which is why I cannot exclude it from my process.
But I also want to hear sounds that I don’t have access to. I want to be able to hear whatever I’m thinking. That just opens up the pallette to having vocals at your fingertips; sounds of the world; sounds of the city — any sound: your old compositions that you are not even using. It’s definitely about reusable/renewable resources and finding new things in old things. This is something we need to practice as a society to save the planet, but it also works in art.”
“I think that you can take any sound and the way that you filter it, meaning process it, I think that changes the DNA of the actual sound. That’s what I like doing: it's literally how you play it, how you repeat it that makes it. Warhol would take an image that we all knew and then completely, because of the way he 'played it' in rhythm and time, the way it was duplicated and slight differences in detail, that completely revalued the whole piece. That’s very inspiring to me. It still seems very modern and I think there is a lot more to get out of it. I’m mining for those kinds of experiences and effect.”
“[Procession] is really centered around mantra and trying to settle people down in this fast pace and over the top kind of society. The work is composed of pieces that give me the feeling of 'ahh, I’m Grounded, I don’t have to be connected to these devices that surround me.' I’m very excited about it.
Of course, Hanna is the leading inspiration behind this. Her works are very unique and necessary in this time period. I’m really excited to work with her on this.”