All by himself

Percussionist Chris Cutler rocks to the beat of his own drum

Traveling from the wide open spaces of 1960s psychedelic rock through a portal into the electronic future, relentless musical explorer Chris Cutler has hit just about every stop along the way. With a rich, productive history that would exhaust even the most adventurous musician, the expert percussionist has teamed with such notables as the Residents and Robert Wyatt while keeping his own projects alive and slicing.

Like many of his collaborators, Cutler set out to alter music and affect listeners’ perceptions early on in his pursuit. His involvement with guitar legend Fred Frith and their avant-symphonic rock ensemble Henry Cow is a good starting place. The group maintained a regal, mature sort of punk aesthetic, boasting communist ideas and drawing from influences as diverse as 20th-century classical and Frank Zappa’s.

As desired, Henry Cow remained virtually uncategorizable during its eight-year life span. The downside of innovation, however, is inaccessibility. Cutler was confident that interesting music could be produced, but would it be heard? This concern led Cutler to take control of the distribution of his music by founding his Recommended (ReR) label. “The idea was to collect and distribute all the unavailable, unimported and unreviewed independent music that bands and small labels had started to produce, because majors couldn’t be bothered,” Cutler recalls.

Cutler soon found himself amassing a collection of unique recordings including, among others, his groups Art Bears (again with Frith), P53 (with turntablist Otomo Yoshide) and Cassiber. Cutler, though, is most comfortable reveling in the moment and accepting the idiosyncrasies of a particular performance space. As such, some of his best work manages to escape the studio.

“In improvised music, the exact space plays a major role since there’s nothing between the desired sound and the actual sound,” Cutler asserts. “A bad acoustic is a problem for written music, which has to sound a certain way. But in an improvised program, the sound you have is by default the sound you want.”

Acknowledging that the audience plays a large part in the music and performance, he says, “The event is real, not virtual: It only happens once and it happens in one place at one moment exclusively for those physically present — then it’s gone forever. A performance is really the inalienable property of its participants: performer and public, and no one else.”

Cutler’s most recent musical configuration finds him performing in a solo setting, leaving him to his own devices, literally. “I completely electrified the kit and accessories, so everything is wired, either with transducers or tie-clip microphones. It’s all run through a 16-channel desk by way of various processors — like an electric guitar. The acoustic sounds are amplified and treated, with echoes of Cage’s Cartridge Music maybe (microphone as microscope). I don’t use samples or triggers at all.”

Cutler prefers to work with an amplified and transformed signal of the analog drum kit and its auxiliary objects because this allows him more control over the music.

Working with treated live instruments, rather than synthesized sound, he says, keeps “the sound more subtle and organic and it stays bound to the material and the physical gesture that produced it,” he says.

Rounding off his detailed equipment list are wired eggslicers, modified speak and spell, alarm bell, tambours, cocktail mixers, metal pan and some field recordings.

Party of one? This way.

Chris Cutler performs at Earthshaking Music, 543 Stokeswood Ave., Atlanta, Tues., April 10, at 8:30 p.m. He also can be heard Sun., April 8, from 7-9 p.m. on WREK 91.1FM.??