It’s no accident that the rhythm-centric music of the German band Can is still considered cutting-edge decades after they first came to prominence. As a new book makes clear, much of their iconoclasm originated with their fascinating drummer.
The late, great drummer Jaki Liebezeit (his last name translates into “Love Time”) is best known for his revolutionary playing in the sui generis German band Can. His signature beats from that era combined power, finesse, and repetition and suggest rhythmic paths that still sound fresh fifty years later.
While the music that Can created between 1968 and 1976 remains essential, little was known about Jaki Liebezeit’s musical and rhythmic theory beyond the recorded evidence on the band’s classic albums. Cue Jono Podmore’s new anthology of writings and essays about Liebezeit, which stands as an introduction to the worlds that Jaki mapped and documented over the course of his life in music.
As demonstrated by this absorbing anthology, the Can years were only the beginning of Liebezeit’s foray into rhythmic and harmonic theory. Podmore first met Liebezeit long after his time with Can, during a 1997 recording session for Can keyboardist Irmin Schmidt’s opera Gormenghast.
Podmore, a producer and recording engineer, recently told MD, “Irmin and I went through the whole of the opera and made very complex tempo maps with speeding up and slowing down; then we got Jaki to come down and play the basic drums. I had never worked with someone who was actually pulling the rhythms apart to express the pulse better. From that moment on I was an acolyte.”
From their first meeting, Podmore had many detailed conversations with Liebezeit about harmony and rhythmic structure and encouraged him to write a book based on his theories. A 2004 interview with the drummer in this magazine mentions that a book was in the works. Unfortunately that book was never completed. So in 2017, when Liebezeit passed away at seventy-eight of pneumonia, Podmore had “a case of mild panic” and realized that all of his knowledge, idiosyncrasies, and notation system were in danger of being lost. Podmore scrambled to get the members of Liebezeit’s long-running percussion ensemble Drums Off Chaos and other people with an abiding interest in the late musician to write chapters about elements of his musical insight, outlook, personal history, and discography. The resulting book covers his playing technique, dot-dash notation system, rhythmic and harmonic theory, and instrument setup, all of which goes against convention in one way or another. While it should come as no surprise that a drummer whose musical output broke so many boundaries went against the prevailing grain, it’s still shocking to learn about certain features of his technique.
For instance, Liebezeit’s theories about what constitutes ergonomic playing seem to run contrary to conventional understandings of “proper” percussion technique. In later years he played with a self-described “hammer” form, with a lot of forearm motion and a still wrist, all while deeply in tune with gravity. Some extant film from the Can years shows that he’s not quite as uncompromising as this and uses plenty of finger technique for double strokes and rolls; nonetheless, this revelation was surprising.
The few videos of Drums Off Chaos that exist show the drummers playing with little exertion while creating a powerful roar. Podmore and the musicians in Jaki’s ensemble attest to the ergonomic system behind Jaki’s playing resulting in a lot of power generated with modest movements.
The dot-dash notation system and rules outlined in this book for Drums Off Chaos seem deeply considered and rigorously explored, even though ways to apply these insights practically by a curious drummer who loves the beat on Can’s classic “Vitamin C,” for instance, are not readily apparent. But these theories are practically applied to music that is created within the confines of Drums Off Chaos.
Most of the material in this book feels radical when approached from a conventional percussion background, and that’s certainly by design. Liebezeit was a musician who was focused on tearing down the Western idea of bar lines and even the concept of “syncopation,” i.e. offbeats. So for those of us steeped in Western drumming tradition, the defamiliarizing elements of this book come at a breakneck pace. It’s a method that will reward careful and patient study. How its insights might be applied to the drumset are less clear, and that’s probably fine.
A chapter on Jaki’s equipment and use of ropes to tune conventional plastic drumheads is particularly eye-opening. Podmore says that Jaki’s use of colorful climbing rope influenced Cologne’s drum community. You still see drummers walking around the city with climbing rope on their drums, threaded through the plastic Remo frames and laced to their conventional shells.
What seems radical to contemporary drummers might be simply a deep sense of classicism and conservatism on Liebezeit’s part for the deep history of drums and drumming that’s only recently getting attention in the West. He rejects the four-limb orthodoxy of the drumset, prefers rope to lug tuning, and feels like Western notation does a disservice to the performance and dissemination of rhythms. Everything we take for granted about using a drumset, tuning, rhythm, and notation are dismantled in this book. Whether we should take these concepts as gospel is another question. But for anyone interested in the mind that created the powerful beats of Can and Drums Off Chaos, this book is essential.