As related in a Zen koan, Ryonen was the name of a Buddhist nun who lived in the early 19th century. The granddaughter of a famous Japanese warrior, Ryonen was inspired to study Zen when the empress she served died suddenly. Several Zen masters rejected her because of her beauty, so she burned her face with a hot iron.
More importantly, if Google’s search results are any indication, Ryonen is the name of a thin, large-eyed nude model. “I was excited to see that,” says John Colpitts with a laugh, “but it had nothing to do with the piece.”
Ryonen (Thrill Jockey), the latest release by Colpitts’ Man Forever project, was indeed named for the more philosophically-oriented of the two beauties. The album features two lengthy, intense all-percussion compositions written by the drummer (better known as Oneida’s Kid Millions) and performed by him along with the renowned So Percussion ensemble. He’ll perform an expanded 30-minute version of the album’s opening track, “The Clear Realization,” with Brooklyn-based percussion trio TIGUE at Kung Fu Necktie Wednesday night, on a bill with Stoner Boner DJs.
On the CD, “The Clear Realization” floats Colpitts’ hazy, ethereal vocals over intricately interlocking polyrhythms, building to a mesmerizing, almost spiritual, pitch. Live, he promises, the piece is “heavier in terms of the patterns and the impact. It’s more evolved and a little less raw.”
Man Forever was born at the suggestion of Ben Swanson at the now-defunct vinyl-only label St. Ives, an offshoot of Secretly Canadian. “Ben said, ‘I’d like to hear a solo drum record from you. We’ll put it out if you get it to us.’ I hadn’t even considered doing something like it,” Colpitts recalls. He was at a loss as to how to even approach such a project until hearing Fireworks Ensemble performing a chamber rendition of Lou Reed’s polarizing Metal Machine Music in 2010.
“I saw that and thought it would be really interesting to try to do something like Metal Machine Music but with drums,” he says. “So I had some conversations with Brian Chase from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs about tuning drums to just intonation and different pitches and I recorded [the first album] by myself.”
Man Forever evolved, Colpitts says, as he continued to “just set up problems and look for solutions to them.” After releasing that first album, he decided to take the music on tour and enlisted several other drummers, each playing their own drum set. “Tuning four or five drum sets took forever, they’re hard to transport, it’s very, very labor intensive, and it also became a bit of a drag for the band. I couldn’t sustain it so I thought about what we could do next.”
The answer came when Colpitts was asked to perform on Tom Scharpling’s The Best Show on WFMU, which couldn’t fit multiple drum sets. So he and Chase each played a single drum, which eventually led to Man Forever’s Thrill Jockey debut, Pansophical Cataract, which features two drummers playing single stroke rolls out of phase. Wanting to return to playing a full drum set but not go quite as maximal as before, he wrote the music on Ryonen for two drums sets, two sets of bongos, concert bass drum, snares, crash cymbals, and vocals. “I wanted to take advantage of the fact that So Percussion are one of the premiere percussion ensembles in the States,” he explains. “They’ve got chops and they can do whatever the fuck I want them to do, so I did some stuff that was more intuitive but technically challenging.”
Man Forever’s music conjures a variety of rhythmic influences, from African and Brazilian traditions to the minimalist repetition of composers like Steve Reich, but none of that enters Colpitts’ consciousness until after the fact, he says. “The inspiration comes from the doing, just sitting down and playing. It doesn’t spark from anything else, really. Once you’re playing then stuff starts to flow in your mind.”
In addition to playing with Oneida, Colpitts/Kid Millions also plays in improvising duos with Spiritualized’s J. Spaceman and Borbetomagus’ Jim Sauter. “Each of them serves a role,” he says of these diverse projects. “I hope it’s a wide-ranging, well-balanced musical pursuit.”
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