Chris Corsano is a drummer who has been working at the intersections of collective improvisation, free jazz, avant-rock, and noise music since the late 1990s, beginning a long-standing, high-energy musical partnership with saxophonist Paul Flaherty in 1998. Their style, which they occasionally refer to with (semi) tongue-in-cheek humour as “the hated music”, infuses modern free jazz’s ecstatic collectivist spirit with the urgency and intensity of hardcore punk.
A move from western Massachusetts to the UK in 2005 led Corsano to concentrate on his solo music, a visceral and always spontaneously-composed amalgam of extended techniques for drum set and non-percussive instruments of his own making incorporated into his kit. For example, violin strings stretched across drum heads, and modified reed instruments that transform the drums into resonators. In February 2006, Corsano released his first solo recording, The Young Cricketer, and toured extensively throughout Europe, USA, Australia, and Japan. He spent 2007 – 2008 as the drummer on Björk’s Volta world tour, all the while weaving in shows and recordings on his days off with the likes of Evan Parker, Virginia Genta, C. Spencer Yeh, and Jandek.
Moving back to the U.S. in 2009, Corsano returned focus to his own projects, including a duo with Michael Flower, Vampire Belt (with Bill Nace), Rangda (with Richard Bishop and Ben Chasny) and his solo work, further expanded in its use of contact microphones and synthesizers. Corsano’s dedication to collective improvisation has led to collaborations with all sorts of kindred spirits and appearances on over 150 records and 1,000 live performances. He will perform solo on Thursday 4 October at Sheffield’s Abbeydale Picture House.
Can you tell us when you started to play drums and about your early entry into public performance?
I started playing when I was a teenager. I picked up drums because my older brother Tony played. It was mostly playing along to records at first – a lot of Hendrix and some Led Zeppelin. I still feel the Mitch Mitchell influence pretty heavily, to be honest. Well, not just the Mitchell aspect of it, but his playing along with how he and Jimi Hendrix and Noel Redding all related to each other. Later, when I was in my late teens, I heard free jazz and improvisation and that really blew things wide open for me.
How has your playing developed over the past two decades?
Honestly, it’s hard for me to say from the inside looking out. I still get excited about the same things that I did when I first started – building intensity and creating new sounds with there being some kind of energy exchange between band members or band and audience. I started playing solo a lot in 2005, and from then on I really got into building my own instruments and repurposing everyday items and found objects for musical ends. I think my relationship with drums has been pretty much the same throughout that time – I still get a kick out of letting loose and playing them while I’m also trying to squeeze every last interesting sound I can out of them.
You’re often described in virtuosic terms and I’ve read interviews where you’ve said that you find virtuosity in subjective things like composition or tone selection to be more engaging than athletic prowess or technical proficiency.
I like it when good music dictates technique and not the other way around. And the technique doesn’t need to be virtuosic in the traditional sense for me to appreciate it – it just has to make the music do its thing. Mo Tucker from The Velvet Underground is one of my favourite drummers, but I think most people wouldn’t hear her as “virtuosic.” I do, but I guess I’m funny that way. On the other hand, I heard a piece of music recently that came across like an étude to me – like it was a composition designed primarily as an exercise to practice a technique. And because something about the execution of the technique wasn’t absolutely convincing, it fell short. So, the danger of having any type of skill set (no matter how advanced or how basic) is that you fall back on it in some un-creative, predictable way. That’s more like running an algorithm than making music.
What prompted you to live in the UK for a while and what are your abiding memories of it?
My wife is an evolutionary biologist. She moved over to Manchester for a job, so I followed. The move forced me to dive in to a whole lot of new situations – playing solo and also with people like Michael Flower, Evan Parker & John Edwards. It was great getting to tour so much in the UK and getting to know the scenes in various cities.
You’ve performed solo a lot but this isn’t really reflected in the small number of solo records you’ve released. How do you view your solo releases? And which solo records by drummers do you think have been the most successful?
When I’m left to my own devices, I think I can second-guess myself into oblivion. A lot of the things I do in solo playing are always evolving from one performance to another, so it’s hard to know when is the best time to try to capture it on a recording. Honestly, though, I don’t know if it’s like some kind of writer’s block or something else. Because I play solo all the time, both in concerts and at home for fun and also to come up with new things. I think I enjoy that the most—discovering new mini-sound worlds. Documentation seems to take a back seat to just doing that and moving on to find the next thing. And about solo drum records… ah, so many, but Jerome Cooper’s Root Assumptions has been a long-time favourite. And, while it’s not a solo record, Milford Graves’ Percussion Ensemble with Sunny Morgan was maybe the first all-drum record I ever heard and it really captivated me in a way that few records have ever since.
What was it like recording and performing live with Björk?
It was great. In a lot of ways, it was very different from what I normally do, of course. The scale of things was so much larger than what I’m used to. But it was great to see that her main operating principle was pretty much the same as everybody else I play with – try to come up with something new and unique that still has emotional resonance for yourself and hopefully for other people, too.
Which collaborators have challenged you?
Playing with Jandek was maybe the most challenging because I wanted to do the music justice without doing what would amount to an imitation of the drumming on the early records (which I love, by the way). Any time you have a real admiration for the previous work of the person you’re playing with, it’s a challenge to avoid doing an imitation of that sound that you were originally drawn to. Instead, you have to figure out what you have to offer to them, and come up with your own collaborative thing together.
Do you listen to much electronic music? What are your thoughts on percussion in contemporary pop?
Depends what you mean by electronic music. Wolf Eyes, Can’t / Jessica Rylan, Noise Nomads, Aaron Dilloway, and Maryanne Amacher have all had a big influence on some of the sounds that I’m chasing after on drums. I don’t follow much contemporary pop (although I guess it depends what you mean by that, too), but like all things, there’s always going to be a few people looking to raise the bar and come up with the next thing.
Can you imagine being a drummer and playing DIY shows and house gigs into your 70s? I read an interview where you said you use the idealism of your 15-year-old punk self as a barometer.
I hope I’m doing house shows into my 70s! Those have been some of my best memories of my past two decades of gigs. But so have some shows at clubs, galleries, and festivals. It’s all part of the same thing for me. It’s never because of how fancy or prestigious or storied the places are. It’s down to the people behind the scenes who make these things happen with a lot of love and dedication to the music. And that exists everywhere – from a cobweb-covered basement to the brand-newest contemporary art museum.
Chris Corsano plays at Abbeydale Picture House on Thursday 4 October. Tickets £5/£3 on the door.
Words: Jon Marshall