Doug Perkins: The Simple Songs Interview (Part 2 of 2)

October 29, 2012

Part 1 can be found HERE

Doug Perkins specializes in new works for percussion as a chamber musician and soloist. His performances have been described as “terrific, wide-awake and strikingly entertaining” by the Boston Globe and he has been declared a “percussion virtuoso ” by the New York Times. He has appeared at countless venues around the world including Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Spoleto USA Festival, the Ojai Festival and the World Expo in Lisbon, Portugal. He was a founding member of So Percussion.

Doug has been playing parts of Simple Songs for the last month in the US and Mexico and, this winter, will be playing the entire record live throughout the US. Visit ( to see where and when he will be performing.

It’s a funny coincidence, but this is the second time in the past week or two that New Focus Recordings has come up on the blog since, in addition to putting out your new album, they’ve also recently released some very fine projects by Claire Chase, who we just featured in the wake of her MacArthur Genius award. Given your résumé and fan base, you undoubtedly could have released this project with any of several new music labels – you’ve worked with many others in the past – why was New Focus the right home for this recording? Do you see the idea of the ‘record label’ as something that still has conceptual relevance to artists or is it at this point solely a means facilitating distribution?


When I was setting out to make this record, I felt it was important to release it with a record label and New Focus was where I most wanted to be.  I really admire my label mates and am thrilled to be in their company.  Dan Lippel (guitarist extraordinaire and member of ICE) runs the label and was very supportive, helpful, and involved in every step of the process (in a great way).

I feel like there is still relevance in record labels.  As you mentioned, I am in great company at New Focus.  Their releases have a certain aesthetic profile and commitment to great production.  I believe that this can foster a loyal listenership across the label that benefits all of us.  The best thing that a label can do is help create an foster a community.  Making the kind of music that we all do, it is important to have a supportive home and at the very least, it never hurts to be part of a great team!

Aside from having the freedom to go back and fix any little mistakes that might come up, do you perform the same piece differently depending on whether it’s for a concert or a recording?  If so, what issues are you thinking about when you craft a studio interpretation? I ask this question specifically because of Michael Gordon’s “XY” and some of the choices that were made in recording that piece. (Regular readers will recall that, in preparation for this interview, we linked to a video of Doug explaining the piece, which can be found here) Personally, I’ve heard the piece in concert several times, most recently in a tremendously good performance by Justin DeHart at the soundON festival. What struck me (pun only partially intended) is how different a listening experience this recording is compared to a concert and how those differences are almost entirely the result of the recording process.

[ed. note – I would explain the differences to our non-tech savvy readers like this: In concert, there is a small set of drums in one place on the stage and sound moves from that singular place outwards to the listener. In this recording, on the other hand, the microphones are set up so that rather then coming from a single spot, the drums are spread out across the entire width of the stereo field. That is, that the leftmost drum will come out (almost) entirely from the left speaker and the rightmost drum will come from the right. The other drums are spaced between those two spatial extremes. So, in the recording, alternately hitting the two outermost drums would create an antiphonal ‘ping-pong’ effect in fact, just such an effect is heard during the portion of the piece previewed in Itunes)]


In choosing to go with a wide stereo spread, the 5-piece drum kit transforms from a single complicated sound monolith into a 5-voice choir engaged in an intricate counterpoint. What this does, to my ears at least, is help to clarify the ‘algebra’ of the piece, if you will – it’s patterning and polyrhythmic structure. What you lose, however, at least in my opinion, is some of the piece’s emotional spectrum. It isn’t violent and loud and provocatively overbearing (although, to be sure, it’s provocative in other ways).    I’m not trying to sound negative, as I think both approaches reveal things about the piece that are, to some extent, mutually exclusive within a single performance, but I’m looking for insight into how you, as an artist, negotiate these trade-offs. In any event, I think it’s absolutely marvelous that a piece for 5 bongos can offer the same range of interpretive perspectives as ‘the great symphonies’™

Your insights about the Gordon are very accurate and astute.  If you ever see me live, you will see a different version of the piece than what you get on the record.  When I play live, I start similarly to the record to try to get people in tune to the slow moving harmonies that are there.  I then quickly move to a more and more breathless performance of the piece where I play with ever increasing abandon and try to bring the audience along with me as I push myself to my musical and physical limits.  In the studio, it was quickly clear that this communicates as noisy and clunky in the context of the record.  We worked hard to make the piece feel large and overwhelming on the record while maintaining a clarity of vision to the harmonic aspects of the piece so that the listener can get entranced and not just annoyed at me hitting my drums to hard.


Moving back to performance instead of recording, but keeping with the idea of interpretive choice, the score to David Lang’s “Unchained Melody” tells you when to play an instrument, but doesn’t tell you what instrument to play. That is, the player has to assemble his or her own percussion battery to accompany the glockenspiel. How do you begin to go about choosing instruments for something like that? What freedoms and/or limitations does that add to the interpretive process?


For David’s piece, my choices came fairly organically.   I was just messing around with my boxes of “noises” in my studio and kind of fell into my version.  The process was more like adding spices when cooking than anything else.  I would add a sound (like a beer bottle) and it would leave me feeling like I needed something rounder.  Maybe that would lead me to a temple block and that might lead me to a hunk of metal.  I just kept doing this until I ended up with something.  I will say that the sounds are always in flux.  I am playing the piece this week and spent some time tweaking just yesterday to reflect my feelings now.  I love David’s percussion music because in is always growing and changing with me.  Also, the freedom that he gives us in the score means that no two “Unchained Melody” performances are alike.


In talking with people over the years, I think that there is many classically oriented musicians who are interested in performing more modern and contemporary music but are a little intimidated, especially by the rhythmic challenges. Can you recommend any exercises or techniques that might help a non-percussionist start to make that leap from the rhythmic language of Stravinsky, Copland, or Bernstein to music like David Lang or Michael Gordon?

Hmmm…  at one level, I would say that if you can deal with Stravinsky, you should be just fine with these guys.  I would say generally that a little work as a percussionist is good for everyone.  If you are a musician that is worried about rhythm, join a drum ensemble, a gamelan, or a rock band!  Learning to groove in these kinds of groups do wonders for anyone’s core sense of rhythm.  I know that I am a drumset player (and bassist) at my core.  Even though it has been years since I have done either thing seriously, my groove and time are all born from these experiences.


Thank you, Doug for being so generous with your time and your thoughts. I’m sure our readers are just as disappointed as I am that you have to go now. Any last thoughts on the album?

I would just encourage everyone to give the record a listen.  If you are enjoying the record, come see a show, drop a line, or tell your friends (or the internet).  More importantly, I encourage you to dig deeper in to some of my old records or other music by the composers on the record.  My musical friends and I need more listeners, and advocates like you (if you are still reading).  Join the team and help get our kind of music heard!!!  I am extremely proud of the record and hope you enjoy it too.

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