During the 2000s, multi-instrumentalist Susie Ibarra could be heard throughout New York City performing her very specific, very musical, and very original drum style within the creative music groups of bassist William Parker, trumpeter Dave Douglas, pianist Matthew Shipp, and saxophonists John Zorn and David S. Ware, as well as leading her own unique ensembles, like Mephista.
Ibarra’s sound is like no other’s. Incorporating the unique percussion and musical approach of her Filipino heritage with her flowing jazz drumset style, Susie plays with enormous attention to touch, space, intent, attack, mood, and what she calls “vibe.” In recent years, Ibarra has expanded her work into multiple modes of ethnic and formalized percussion, playing drumset for dancers, artists, and percussion troupes, along with solo drumset pieces performed everywhere from museums to concert halls to sound installations.
Teaching for the past six years on faculty at Vermont’s Bennington College and its Center for Advancement of Public Action (CAPA), Ibarra returns to drumset (augmented by various percussion) on her new release, Perception, by her Dream Time Ensemble. Performed by a group of guitar, keyboards, electronics, drums, vocals, and violin, Perception, released by the Decibel Collective label, is a colorful, nearly psychedelic journey. The music unfolds slowly, almost dreamlike, the instruments defining often surreal palettes above Susie’s drum- and percussion-led grooves. Afro-Cuban rhythms abut exotic funk forays; winding violins and itchy guitars create mysterious messages; hand drums, percussion, and solo drum pieces illuminate and drive the music further.
“This record was inspired by and titled after our sensory experiences, and how we can perceive things,” Susie tells us from her home in New Paltz, New York. “I’m looking at these different concepts; we have our senses in how we interact with the environment and people. But perception is ever-changing. In some of my work, that deals with music and technology and dance: Where does that line blur, how do we interact with our environments, and what does that tell us? This album is also personal. When I wrote this music, I was coming out of a time of grieving. That also will heighten your senses and awareness, and how you interact. If we’re lucky there’s grace that comes with that.”
Ibarra is ever-busy. Another album that she’s featured on is Flower of Sulfur, with multi-instrumentalist YoshimiO (Boredoms, OOIOO, Saicobab), and multidisciplinary artist Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe. The album, which was recorded at Roulette in Brooklyn in front of an audience, is one continuous improvisational work. And in addition to her schedule at Bennington, she’s currently composing music including rhythmic studies for the world-renowned Kronos Quartet; a commission for Asia Society developed in partnership with Pioneer Works, New York, titled Fragility: An Exploration of Polyrhythms; and a new work for trio, Talking Gong, co-commissioned by SUNY New Paltz and the Look & Listen Festival, featuring concert pianist Alex Peh and flutist Claire Chase. A piece for Prism Quartet with percussion is also in the pipeline.
“One of my classes is modeled after the record Pieces of Time by Andrew Cyrille, Don Moye, Kenny Clarke, and Milford Graves, who also taught at Bennington,” Ibarra explains. “I have eight drumset players in a room, and I’ll move around that record. Sometimes I teach the history of jazz through drumset, depending on the level of the students and what they need. I also teach Southeast Asian and South Asian percussion and a world percussion ensemble. That might include Brazilian music, Arabic music, Filipino and Nepalese music, different things. But it’s all percussion. Sometimes I teach Creative Music Ensemble, where I teach the work of composer/performers. I also have the students compose and perform, and I’m teaching Women Improvisers in Music this semester.
I teach the Polyrhythms Ensemble at Bennington, which includes instrumentalists beyond drummers. We have piano, bass, guitar, mandolin, and saxophone. We’re looking first at three-against-two and three-against-four polyrhythms. The students listen to music with polyrhythms, transcribe things, and practice techniques, and we try some specific piano things. Now we’re listening to blues music from Mali and a Chopin piece to hear how he scored three-against-four. I want them to research and understand many different polyrhythms and how they’re used as tools in music, because we all use them differently. And they’re in all kinds of music.
Teaching polyrhythms is very intuitive. To play them, it’s very physical in the body. When you grasp polyrhythms intuitively, it’s like an immediate understanding without having to intellectualize it. We don’t think about it but we’re all doing polyrhythms every day, then once we’re aware of it, that changes our ability to play them. It’s fascinating that we’re always moving in polyrhythms.
Students have varying abilities in a liberal-arts college. We work on technique in large classes of up to eight drummers per class. I ask them to transcribe pieces, phrases, and solos. Teaching jazz drumset, [I have them] transcribe Max Roach or Philly Joe Jones. I’ll teach who can lead on a piece. When I did the History of Jazz Drumset [course], we went through the different styles and rhythms, and they had to learn them. They also have to individually come to the kit and play something specific for me. Play it down. This is aside from their ensemble concert performance. If they’re studying rhythms and transcribing pieces, they have to be able to come in and play down each piece or rhythm consecutively, one after the other. It has to be fluid in their body. And they have to deliver a fully written transcription and play it. I let them choose what to transcribe.
If they’re beginners and they want to understand free jazz, I might give them handlebars to hold on to. So if we’re learning certain vocabulary, I might let them use [free jazz] as a palette. I want them to learn how to create in the ensemble. If they’re more advanced, I can talk to them about it and offer suggestions about tuning or approach, which I’ve done at the New School. Regardless of their level, it’s good to have musicality and musicianship, otherwise it can be quite frustrating to improvise. But if they’re advanced I can instruct individually on feel, how to deconstruct something and open it up, or add certain colors or try polyrhythms, for instance. Or we play with tuning. Although the drums are an indeterminate pitch, I like to tune them certain ways for certain pieces.
Listening is important. I have students listen to all sorts of things. Sometimes I ask them to transcribe something from Pieces of Time. I think the listening and transcribing is helpful. It helps to understand how musicians from the past have done things. That gives the students material from which they can move forward. We listen to all the greats: Max Roach, Philly Joe Jones, Louis Hayes with Horace Silver, Elvin, Roy Haynes. If they’re transcribing, I ask them to choose a record. It could be something from Lee Morgan, Bud Powell, Coltrane, Miles Davis….
I have them play together as drummers. I’ll give out parts. I might reduce the parts. I also ask them to create a short piece for the ensemble. They each have to create one. All percussionists in all other cultures learn how to play with each other as an ensemble. I think it’s really important that drummers play together.
For touch, I talk about technique as far as they can take it with technical approaches and questions. We cover ways to hold sticks and brushes and mallets, and where to get tone, likewise where to attack on each of the drums and what tone that will bring. We also cover foot technique, which they often come without. We have to prep all these limbs…. I feel like I want to practice now! [laughs]
The sound you create is very important. I’d rather hear somebody play one note that’s really beautiful than a lot of notes that don’t sound that good. Similarly, how do you teach musicality or vibe? I asked my students that recently, and they all looked at me. Vibe? Oh, she gives us easy things to play. But playing a simple exercise with all your musicality and all the genuine integrity of each note—that’s not that easy. It depends on where you are in the present and how you deliver it.
Tools of the Trade
Ibarra plays Yamaha Maple Custom Absolute drums, including a 5×14 snare, an 8×12 tom, a 14×14 floor tom, and either an 18″ or 20″ bass drum. She uses three different Paiste cymbal setups: from the Traditional Series, 13″* or 14″ Medium Light hi-hats, a 16″ Thin crash, and either an 18″ or 20″ Medium Flat ride* or a 20″ Masters Mellow ride; from the Masters Series, 14″ Dark hi-hats, a 16″ Dark crash, a 20″ Mellow ride, and a 20″ Dark crash; and from the 602 Modern Essentials series, 14″ or 15″ hi-hats, a 16″ or 17″ crash, and a 20″ Classic Medium Flat ride. She uses Vic Firth sticks, mallets, and wire brushes, Remo heads, and eight-rowed Philippine kulintang gongs.
* discontinued models