“Playing in this colossal revolving pattern was like nothing I’d experienced before in decades of drumming. As the adrenalin rose it felt like we were punching a hole through time.” Mike Barnes joins Boredoms and 87 other cymbal players on stage at London’s Barbican – but not before experiencing a symbolic crisis of choice
BOREDOMS – YOU HAVE BEEN SELECTED read the subject line of the email received from London’s Barbican on 1 June. It wasn’t clear what the selection criteria had been as I had just filled out an online application form and there had been no audition, but it was better to be in than out. What I had been selected for was the latest of Boredoms’ multi-percussion happenings, such as 88 Boadrum that took place in Brooklyn, New York in 2008 with 88 kit drummers. But in this case the 88 percussionists would be cymbal players, each playing just one of their own cymbals for a performance at the Barbican on 27 June. The instruction was that the cymbal should be either a crash or ride between 16” and 22” in diameter. No problem: a quick trip to the lock-up where I keep my percussion kit, grab a stand, a drum stool, a cymbal, and I’d be ready. But in actuality it was not that simple.
Lying awake in the nights before the scheduled rehearsal I auditioned all my various cymbals in my mind, assessing their characteristics and potential suitability for the job in hand. I immediately wrote off the Sabian Hand Hammered 16” thin crash, which had looked a bargain at half price when I bought it, but had turned out to be a particularly ungenerous instrument. Anticipating a sharp attack that would die off quickly, I had to really whack it to get anything out of it and I imagined it would sound feeble and spluttery played with felt beaters, which we were also set to use. So that was out.
I have a 20” Paiste China with a split drilled out. That means it has lost a little of its sustain, but it is still seriously funky as it walks the line between temple and junkyard. But I wasn’t sure that Chinese cymbals fitted the criteria as I hadn’t seen any in the YouTube videos of previous performances of the piece. Then there was the unclassifiable missing link cymbal that was sold to me as a Sabian, but without any authenticating evidence. In my quest to find something unusual, I had, incredibly, handed over around £50 for it. The cymbal’s only plus points are that the design and sound are unique – it is 18”, with the surface of a highly polished standard ride but with a small upturned lip like a Chinese. It produces an extraordinarily harsh metallic ‘pang’ at a volume that seems to defy the laws of physics and that is impossible to endure without grimacing. It would have caused serious distress to anyone within earshot. So no.
A 19” Zildjian medium ride offered itself as a contender. It has a nice crisp stick response and you can get a fair amount of white noise by leaning into it a bit, although the crash has a rather tinny sound. Also under consideration was the Zildjian crash that had been advertised as a 16” on Ebay and which I had bought to replace the Sabian HH, but which turned out to be an 18”. I realised the mistake when I got it home but did nothing about it. It remains unhit, still in the same bag in which it was erroneously handed over. So maybe I should use this waste of money for the first time? Baptise it with fire?
No, I’d rather pick the trusty 1970s-era 18” Avedis Zildjian, a proper Turkish cymbal with its brand name embossed into the metal but with no ostentatious logo or other markings telling you how it was supposed to be used. It’s good as both a crash and a ride, and has always recorded well, unlike its contemporary and partner, the 16” Avedis Zildjian crash, which has a rather unfocussed, mushy sound.
Then I thought of a cymbal I’ve not used in years, a 20” Paiste Rude crash/ride. It’s a heavy cymbal, quite loud, with a nice stick response. When played with soft beaters it has a burnished, brassy, gong-like sound that should cut through the ensemble. It wasn’t an ideal crash, but it reminded me a bit of those big cymbals Ringo Starr used on The Beatles’ “She Said, She Said”, with that ever so slight delay between the stick hitting the edge of the cymbal and it reaching its maximum sibilance. I presumed a lot of the other players would be using bright crash cymbals, so its earthiness would be my yin to their yang. It wouldn’t be heard individually, but then the overall sound would be different without it. Quite absurdly, I also realised that I was actually feeling sorry for it, as it hadn’t been used for so long. So that was the one, my final choice. Except, still riven by doubt, I decided to take the old 18” Avedis Zildjian out of storage as well, just in case…
The rehearsal took place the day before the show in a large space near Cambridge Heath station in East London. I was still suffering with the after effects of a debilitating bad back, and on the way to the rehearsal space I was walking rather awkwardly as I carried my gear, which was heavier than I had anticipated. “Alright man, you a musician?” said the geezer who drew along side me. “What do you play? Jazz?” Not that old chestnut again. “No, jazz is beyond me. I play rock music and improv.” “Cool,” he said. “Do you want a hand with that?” I assured him I would be OK.
Arriving at the check-in room it soon became apparent that I was incontestably the oldest person there. While carrying my cymbal, stand and drum stool up two short flights of stairs a security guard called up after me, “Would you like any help with that, Sir?” The whirl of bad thoughts on age and decrepitude that these two encounters had stirred up subsided on entering the rehearsal room. There were six drum-kits in the centre of the room, with Yamataka Eye’s electronics, eight guitar amplifiers and the cast of 88 cymbalists slowly assembling themselves in two concentric circles. Yoshimi seemed to be directing the drummers and relayed messages to the cymbal players via drummer Hisham Bhachoora, who acted as interpreter.
We were all handed A4 sheets of paper with drawings of Eye’s hand signals, which were amusing but not entirely helpful, and later, another two sheets of A4 mapping out the structure of the piece in a shorthand that, without detailed explanation, was completely incomprehensible. After listening to the group play through a condensed version of the piece, we were told that it was about the movement of energy, and we practised a textural cymbal wave that travelled outwards through the concentric circles: “Like if you throw a stone in a pond,” said Hisham.
The cymbal circle was divided into four quarters that were colour coded green, yellow, purple and orange. Each of these four sections had two cymbal leaders who knew the piece well. We rehearsed cymbal crescendos and diminuendos that Eye would direct with hand gestures towards one or more of the four sections. Even wearing attenuating earplugs, the volume in the enclosed space was crushing.
I first saw Boredoms play live some two decades ago and have always been fascinated by Eye, who seems, one might say, a rather singular character. But I noticed that in the rehearsal he mostly sat in expressionless silence until he needed to get up and conduct or sing. His sign for choking the cymbal – crashing it then quickly grabbing it with a hand – which usually happened at the end of a deafening crescendo, was to make a dramatic movement like tugging on a rope and sometimes dropping to the floor. The first run through was a little rough around the edges, but fairly tight. I returned home fretting that maybe I should bring the 18” Avedis Zildjian for the show tomorrow while also dreading being offered a seat on the tube.
The next day, after another run through on the stage of the Barbican’s main hall, the ensemble was playing with more accuracy and purpose. At one point, Boredoms introduced a round robin passage with the cymbalists playing a roll with beaters then one by one changing over to sticks, slowly altering the timbre. During the run throughs and the performance, Eye, impassive, looking ahead, always knew when the last player directly behind him had switched over from beaters to sticks, which acted as a cue for him to begin his incantations.
The run through had been a bit of a racket, and after talking at length with Eye and Yoshimi, Hisham emphasised that we needed to play across a much wider dynamic range, from a delicate pattering to complete white-out. During the show, the cymbalists played more instinctively in response to Eye’s conducting, sending sonic waves outwards from the centre and across the four groups, all now clad in their section colours. From being a little ragged in rehearsal this process had quickly become a thrilling manipulation of sound.
The most exciting part of the piece was when each of the four Boredoms drummers, who were basically the colour group leaders, played a bar of a rhythmic pattern in quick 4/4 each in turn, and as the pattern moved around the circle, the cymbalists in each section clattered in unison in 16ths for that bar. Playing in this colossal revolving pattern was like nothing I’d ever experienced before in decades of drumming. As the adrenalin rose it felt like we were punching a hole through time.
We had other specific instructions, like playing sparsely and randomly on the bell of the cymbal – “raindrops”, according to Eye’s notes – and a fast rhythm on the bell cued by each cymbal leader. Being onstage sharpens the attention and it all sounded remarkably in time for such a large number of players.
At another point in the piece, one of the Boredoms drummers locked into a lengthy Neu!-like figure on snare and floor tom, punching out the beat with the bass drum, while the guitarist and bass guitarists played lengthy sustained notes, and Eye, gesturing, summoned the cymbal waves from the various quarters before bringing them to a dead stop with his ‘choke’ signal, which was the cue for the core group members to begin a massed vocal chorale over the ongoing motorik rhythm. The effect was thrilling. I imagined that, unlike King Canute, Eye really could have held back the incoming tide.
It all ended with the cymbalists standing and playing a cymbal roll in a very lengthy diminuendo, each sitting down in turn and stopping playing, eventually leaving Yoshimi alone, gently tapping her cymbals, and one of the guitarists playing a single note. During the standing ovation from the sell out crowd, Boredoms bowed to the audience and left the stage. The cymbalists hadn’t been given an exit strategy and so we sat around for a bit and then got up, waved, bowed and wandered off, to another wave of enthusiastic applause.
The experience had been exhilarating, but seemed to go on for aeons, although checking the space-time continuum I realised we had been playing for ‘just’ two and a half hours. As a result of the show running over its allotted time by half an hour, I missed the last direct train home and had to catch another train to the next nearest outpost of civilisation and then get a cab the rest of the way, which cost £25. That was my own miscalculation, but standing outside the cab office I began to feel rather disenchanted. We’d all signed up as volunteers, but wouldn’t it have been nice if it had been budgeted so that we received a token amount towards expenses? Or, failing that, maybe we could have got a T-shirt, or a poster, or some other kind of souvenir. And while I didn’t expect Eye to be high-fiveing everyone afterwards and getting the beers in, apart from Hisham the group remained aloof throughout. We were thanked in the programme, but that was it. Even acknowledging the cymbalists – who made the evening possible, after all – at the end of the performance and getting us to take a proper bow would have been appreciated.
One cymbalist had flown in from Norway to take part, and a number, like myself, had travelled in from out of London. I’d run up a sizeable bill to play, including buying a hideous orange T-shirt as per the dress code instructions, which arrived a few days before the show (I was ‘Orange 8’). But ultimately it was such an unforgettable experience that if I was asked to do it again the answer would be an unequivocal yes. But next time I think I might bring along the 18” Avedis Zildjian instead.