Jaki Liebezeit: The Life, Theory and Practice of a Master Drummer
edited by Jono Podmore
Unbound, 320 pp., $16.94
The drum master Jaki Liebezeit pursued over a decades-long career an enduring fascination with the core truths of time as expressed via rhythm. Not just a musician who wished to perfect a technique or expand his range of drumming styles, Liebezeit took his fascination deeper, to realms in which the very whys and wherefores of rhythm’s true place in any musical mode were of paramount importance – as was by extension its metaphorical relationship to the human being’s role in larger collective society.
From his legendary Can recordings and live performances, along with the numerous other drum-centric musical projects that followed right up to his death in January 2017, Liebezeit had become known quite famously as the drummer whose sense of time was so accurate that he was better than any mere drum machine. This is a reputation he sometimes laughed about, though one could see a twinkle in his eye that suggested that just maybe he suspected it was true. Jaki knew that deep down he and potentially all of us can be, if we so choose, a flesh–blood–bones analogue of a programmed drum machine – a piece of equipment that, after all, simply executes the rhythmic patterns it has been programmed to play.
Why not, thought Jaki, apply the schematics of what a drum machine does to a codified set of rules for human musicians, so that they too could play with more accuracy than a programmed rhythm box? His own playing – wonderfully spare and to the human ear note-perfectly precise – had benefited enormously from applying a strictly held-to set of do’s and don’ts for the proper order and exact placement of drum notes in any given musical scenario. In addition, and perhaps more profoundly, Liebezeit came to a realisation that such a codification of a rhythmic method would in essence build upon a foundation of harmonic hierarchy – i.e. drum notes, he knew, are not just beats, they’re like friendly cousins in the overall harmonic texture of a musical composition.
Liebezeit, who did not consider himself a teacher-type as such, thought nevertheless that his rhythmic system was something that could be studied and applied. Over the years he described the system in detail to fellow drummer Gero Sprafke, and I base my general outline here of the performing application of the system on Sprafke’s transcription of Liebezeit’s quite detailed remarks about his rhythmic method, albeit in condensed and updated form.
As it is analogous to Morse code, Liebezeit’s system is referred to as the E-T method, the E and the T coming from the Morse code to represent the dot and the dash respectively. Especially for drummers, but also for players of any musical instrument and of course just the interested close listener, here are the system’s basic four rules, with a discussion of possible variations and additional rhythmic principles to follow.
DOT means a stroke with one hand. DASH means two strokes with one hand, with the duration of two dots.
Dots and dashes are always played by alternate hands.
The second hit in a dash is always quieter than the first, even to the point of silence. It can be almost as loud as the first hit but never as loud or louder.
Accents are only possible after a dash.
While the above rules of the E-T method are, somewhat miraculously, really the only rules that a player absolutely must follow in order to be said to be correctly applying its principles, the rhythmic pattern a drummer wants to play (or message that needs to be sent) can be as simple or as complex as one wants to make it – much like the Morse code itself.
Among the E-T method’s most pertinent aspects is how its rules follow the behaviours of sticks and drums according to natural laws of gravity, distance, acceleration, etc. Thus the four basic rules of the method imply or suggest a very wide range of possible variations when applied in different combinations – and that’s including when applied by drummers of varying personal temperaments, physical attributes and creative aims.
In fact, while Jaki had early on codified in his head his drumming rules – first developed in his work with Can, then refined and expanded upon in collaboration on solo projects by Can’s Holger Czukay and Irmin Schmidt, Jah Wobble, his own Phantom Band and Club Off Chaos, and in an excellent series of recordings/performances with Burnt Friedman called Secret Rhythms – their proper application and vast musical potential was and is a never-ending thing of articulation, analysis and contextual musical-historical view.
The rigour and discipline with which any player must apply the E-T system, and a very strictly adhered-to focus on the system’s rules, allows for an invigorating freedom of individual expression for its players, along with valuable new perspectives on the very act of drumming. It is a system that is open to a number of interpretations, though crucially these interpretations are by formal necessity limited in number. This can be better understood if we see its resulting manifold patterns as roughly akin to the three-dimensional geometric shapes Liebezeit liked to fashion from paper in his leisure time: the E-T system of rhythmic pattern-making presents a way of creating rhythms for drums (and, in theory, many other instruments as well) that can be heard or perceived in many different ways, depending on the angle from which the rhythm is viewed. That rhythmic viewing angle of course can be affected by a number of things, including the experiential, psychological, emotional or even physical make-up of the player and listener.
Now why should this ‘viewing angle’ aspect of the E-T rhythmic system be so bloody important? One answer is because it adds tremendous depth to the listening experience. Another answer could be that strict adherence to such a system of rhythmic organisation provides a framework that offers a musical adherent a fantastic liberation of personal creativity.
The relevance of such a system lies in how it addresses, ultimately, a most underserved and neglected avenue into new ways of looking at what music itself is and what it can be – and even what it should ideally never be allowed to be. Thus it concerns itself with the subject of human beings interacting and communicating with each other, for personal and mutual benefit. The ‘collective energy’ potential built into the E-T system is perhaps its most beautiful aspect, made even richer when one considers that this gift comes from the almost preternaturally ego-less Liebezeit, a genuinely ‘big picture’ musician famously scornful of musicians with the bad habit of showing off their ‘chops’ to the detriment of an overall cohesive musical statement.
It might be said that the rather taciturn Jaki Liebezeit, much like his long-time Can partner in crime Holger Czukay, had an abiding, organic interest not just in music but in people, at least in what people are capable of achieving if pushed a little bit, or indeed a lot. While, alas, his concern for the real why of any kind of music is perhaps of minor interest to a listener who really just wants a pleasant tune to whistle along to while washing the dishes, or something identifiably generic (un-threatening) to tap a toe to out on the dance floor, this is a concern for the, ahem, seekers among us who wish to have one of the deepest experiences a musician or listener can have in this lifetime: a complete work of art, reflecting and nourishing the soul via the body, the brain and the heart.
For practical application, the E-T rhythm system tells us in no uncertain terms what to play and, with explicit instructions for how to approach dynamics and timing, how to play it. The system presents the players with a beautiful scenario within which to make a sound – within certain sonic boundaries. Hence the idea that freedom through restriction makes for real freedom, as for one thing it eliminates for the player unnecessary distractions that often contribute to a feeling that what they’re playing is not quite to the point, as if missing that central issue that any piece of music of any kind wants to address.
That ‘freedom through restriction’ rulebook, which Herr Liebezeit demanded that by real necessity must be strictly adhered to, presents the opportunity to compose a rhythmic pattern or entire rhythm-based piece, and/or the only seemingly differing experience of witnessing a piece of rhythm-based music compose itself. The system’s essential musical point might be said to be um der Rhythmus klar zu machen – to make the rhythm clear.
As a musician and as a human being, Jaki Liebezeit was oriented toward harmony. But while he had ordered rhythmic/ harmonic rules for his E-T adherents, he also embraced a bit of chaos. Like both the fractal pictures created from chaos theory and the visually mutative geometric forms that he liked to build and look at from different angles, he liked the creativity that comes from chaos or disruption, and how new forms are created from rules.”
Liebezeit liked to compare his method to other systems of rules, for example the possibility of an individual participant’s improvising in ball sports like football: only when there is an acceptance of the rules from all the players and the teams play in opposing directions and within certain lines can the game be played. He meant that the musical work will be improvised and composed together, and for this, he said, you need a rule system was taugt, which is flexible, and which is very simple in its basis, so that within these rules it is possible to compose collectively.
In application, the E-T system is decidedly not about the complete, unfettered ‘freedom’ of the free jazz or ‘free music’ player. And it finds analogues in other artistic and intellectual endeavours; often the layered rhythms produced by multiple players create a moiré pattern of rhythm, or a kaleidoscopic effect in which, again, one’s perception of the shape or feel of the rhythm being played even within single sections or passages can shift dramatically with a mere tilt of the head. As noted above, the rhythms created via the E-T system, though polyrhythmic in effect, are single units of rhythm; the density and superficial ‘complexity’ of the rhythms are representative of the possibilities inherent within one rhythmic scheme, with a set boundary on where a drum strike’s accents and durational considerations come into play.
As Jaki Liebezeit the human beat machine is himself by popular association firmly linked with the very concept of time itself, it’s worth noting one of the more radical conceptions in the E-T system in that regard. He once said that in actual fact there really is no such thing as tempo, there is only density. Singling out and closely examining various aspects of what we think of as ‘time’, such as tempo and note-duration, brings into question the role and nature of ‘tempo’ or speed when applying the E-T rules and methods to one’s playing.
In practice, Liebezeit’s sessions with his collective Drums Off Chaos crew approached tempo with the rules of E-T by playing the rhythms in various tempi, as Jaki believed that a rhythm will never stipulate a tempo. One must decide, he said, depending on the feeling one gets while playing. In the application of the E-T system, any speed – quite slow or really quick – can in theory work equally well, but the players must determine this for themselves, depending on the ‘feeling’. It simply has to sound good.
One very fundamental aspect of the E-T system is that it is always aware of octaves. A standard ‘move’ or technique called Oktavierung (double time) dictates that at any time a rhythm can be doubled or halved. In application this usually means halving, because the ground tempo is usually the fastest tempo, and that allows for the possibility of halving it. Thus one member in the group can play in half-tempo to the others.
The natural, beating pulse of the music – what feels and sounds good – is at the very core of what the E-T system seeks, and is really the key to why Jaki Liebezeit’s drumming always, well, just plain sounded great, with an organic, natural, uncontrived feel that any listener, drummer or not, could happily adopt as a second heartbeat.
The Oktavierung, this halving and doubling of a rhythmic passage’s tempo or density, is an important and fascinating part of the theory, not least because in Jaki’s guidelines this principle’s ‘octaves’ are referred to in the harmonic sense. Jaki had ordered rhythms on their relationship to particular pitches, so particular rhythms were in effect, for example, a minor scale. In concrete terms, like telephone numbers, he created additive complexes or series, seen as an analogue to a scale in pitches.
Now let’s imagine for a moment the scene in Jaki Liebezeit’s apartment in Cologne, which finds him sitting at the kitchen table intently focused on his little hobby of constructing geometric shapes with paper. Jaki’s rhythms can be compared to a cube which when rotated looks like a hexagon. And somehow it makes perfect sense that a drummer in search of Pythagorean perfection – a visually strong image with a not-so-paradoxical resonant ambiguity – would seek it in music’s beating rhythmic heart. A super-expanded, living, breathing rhythmic scheme that provided a chance to hear and play beats that can actually be perceived in individual, personal ways is arguably Liebezeit’s greatest contribution to the world of drumming.
As the basis of the E-T theory is in natural law, its rhythmic and tonal concepts do bear certain similarities to theories of sonority that might be found in Indian, West African, ancient Greek, Asian and Native American music, among others. While Jaki might have been aware of musicologists such as Maximilian Hendler, who trod a similar ‘music must heed Earth’s natural laws’ theoretical path, his largely Spanish-Arabic-Indian impulse was most obviously impacted by the few years he spent living in Spain. The ideas about drumming he absorbed there – far beyond mere matters of complex time signatures – seem to have concerned the persuasive effect of musical instruments’ judiciously crafted audio-frequency harmonisation (which ultimately led to Jaki’s rejection of the standard drum kit) and, perhaps most importantly, of the actual humanitarian why of creating music collectively.
One of the more intriguing aspects of the E-T theory is how it can be used as a rhythmic and tonal organisation system suitable for most any musical instrument, including voice. Liebezeit’s own use of the system did bear tasty fruit when applied on his huge collection of drums from the Middle East, India and Africa, and perhaps especially on his custom-designed alternative kick-drum-free percussion kit, which he’d come up with because of the standard drum set’s refusal to cooperate with the natural laws of making music here on Earth.
As a musician and as a human being, Jaki Liebezeit was oriented toward harmony. But while he had ordered rhythmic/ harmonic rules for his E-T adherents, he also embraced a bit of chaos. Like both the fractal pictures created from chaos theory and the visually mutative geometric forms that he liked to build and look at from different angles, he liked the creativity that comes from chaos or disruption, and how new forms are created from rules. While rigour and discipline are indeed of paramount importance in mastering the E-T system, let’s be clear that in fact the primary lesson one learns in applying E-T’s almost rigidly explicit rules is a very old, time-honoured one: rules are made to be broken.
Taking a look at the ‘feel’ required in order to execute the E-T system’s rhythms properly – ‘properly’ in this case again meaning precisely though not stiffly or mechanically – one might wonder how the great ‘feel’ musics of our time, such as jazz, funk, blues and R & B, might have swayed Jaki Liebezeit’s thinking about a drummer’s individual phrasing/feel behind the tubs. Indeed, if you saw Jaki perform, you’d have seen a drummer who often used his hands and wrists unlike a jazz or funk drummer, which is rather loosely; in fact, he often played using the entire length of his arms, a way of hitting the skins that’s considered a tad primitive in jazzbo circles. As Jaki would say, though, ‘If you want to nail something you use a hammer, so if you pick up a stick hold it like a hammer!’ For him, this was good technique – as perhaps it is for you.
While Jaki respected jazz musicians – or more accurately considered theirs a beautiful music which didn’t happen to be his particular domain – he of course did come at least partially from a jazz background, playing jazz standards early on, then free jazz with the Manfred Schoof group in the sixties – about which he commented that free jazz is just as rule-bound and confining as any other old-fashioned music (‘too much freedom is no freedom at all’).
Along with jazz’s standard compositional ‘improvisation’ structures (individual players soloing over a set series of chords), Jaki rejected jazz’s standard drum kit set-up, with its de rigueur kick drum keeping the feet so busy. New music, he said, needs new instruments. Hence his own alternative drum kit set-ups, which found him playing the entire rhythm with no kick drum at all, instead playing by hand an oversize muffled tom-tom to get that much-needed lower-end boom in his beats.
Does it sound good? The question is both a simple one and something a bit heavier. The proper application of the E-T system to any variety of instruments (trombones, even) involves for the players a thorough mind-clearing and diligent, razor-sharp focus on not just the individual notes and their accents and durations but on the totality of the sound field. This is a crucial aspect that makes moot any group playing correctly that nevertheless doesn’t sound good.
In his sensitivity to how certain frequencies on the audio spectrum do and don’t harmonise well with other frequencies, it is plausible to think that Liebezeit picked up some knowledge not just from the Indian, North African and Middle Eastern musical ensembles he so admired, but from Meister Komponist Karlheinz Stockhausen as channelled via his Can bandmate Holger Czukay. Though Liebezeit’s E-T system was during his Can days still in its early stages of development, one of the obvious ways that even the casual listener would get hooked into the band’s thrall was the tight-but-loose interplay of his drums with the electric bass tones of Holger Czukay, a musical relationship that was considerably strengthened by Jaki’s forceful pushing of very direct, to-the-point, E-T-like rhythmic gambits that the entire band in essence had to pay close heed to.
Holger and Jaki’s partnership revealed an unusual kind of artistic compatibility that was, by Czukay’s account, often like a game of musical chess and which was definitely coloured by each musician’s complicated temperament and of course extremely sensitive ears. The push and pull between Jaki and Holger was not an obvious thing, according to Czukay, who said that while Can fans think of Jaki as the musical leader of Can, the one who laid down the foundations for the rest of the band to layer their parts upon, in fact Jaki didn’t like being in the pole position for the band’s spontaneous compositions. ‘Jaki,’ said Czukay, ‘actually likes to follow; he likes to react to what he hears.’
Yet in Can, the way Liebezeit’s drums and Czukay’s bass worked together glows with an ineffable magic that has a lot to do with Jaki’s strong feelings about the kind of rich tonal minimalism needed to give each instrumental part and, more importantly, the overall sonic landscape an actual physical vibration or resonance.
Holger Czukay used to say that, ideally, the best bass/drums rhythm section should not be thought of as two instruments engaging in mere rhythmic interplay (though his chess analogy indicates his acknowledgement that his teaming with Jaki’s drums entailed a bit of mental gamesmanship); in fact, said Czukay, he himself did not play bass strictly rhythmically, did not even consider the bass guitar a ‘rhythmic’ instrument. No, he said, while drums are natürliche rhythmical instruments, as if by definition, the bass is not a rhythmic instrument – it is a colouriser, a tone-painter that puffs out the complexly emotional/psychological air in which well-played and hard-hitting drum beats find their greatest impact.
Jaki Liebezeit said, ‘You can’t improve the drum.’ He believed that there are purely physical elements that determine both the course of the improvised drum ‘composition’ and how well it is being played. Due to the mass, the speed and how the drum behaves, there are movements that somehow function well for the stick, and a drummer shouldn’t oppose the sticks’ aims but follow them. Apart from and more central to playing rhythms correctly – so that they sound and feel ‘good’ – Jaki the professed non-teacher advised drummers to ‘play what the stick wants’. Beyond this he had little to say about how to play drums, how to maintain focus in performance or indeed any of the more mental aspects of music-making.
‘Wie jemand in die Trommel hineinschlägt, so schallt es heraus’ (‘As someone hits the drum, so it rings out’) –– Jaki Liebezeit
John Payne is Riot Material’s Music Critic and Helmsman through the Avant-Garde. He also writes about music and film at publications including Mojo, The Quietus, Red Bulletin, High Times and Bluefat. Mr. Payne is the former music editor of LA Weekly, and the author of the forthcoming official Diamanda Galás biography Homicidal Love Songs and co-author of Jaki Liebezeit: The Life, Theory and Practice of a Master Drummer Unbound, London).