Adrenaline and Concentration
An Interview with Bob Fullex
by Colin Tucker
Bob Fullex is a Buffalo-based percussionist who specializes in 21st century chamber music. Bob received his MM in performance from the University at Buffalo where he studied under Tom Kolor. Bob has attended summer programs including the Bang on a Can summer institute in 2011 and SO Percussion’s inaugural ever summer institution in 2009. He is a recipient of the University at Buffalo’s Morris Grant, which recognizes and funds individuals for outstanding performance. In 2006 he was invited to play in South Korea with the percussion group Rai-Jin. He has played in master classes for Daniel Druckman and the Percussions de Strasbourg. He is a member of the Crossfire Percussion Duo along with Jason Bauers, who have commissioned new works for percussion by Megan Grace Beugger & Jacob Gotlib. He currently resides in Buffalo where he plays in Ensemble Triple Dot, as well as the rock band Mallwalkers.
I. Reimagining Instruments
CT: I wanted to start out by asking about your relationship to the site. Of all the performers who played on the Artpark realization, you have the most experience playing at that site through your work with the Buffalo Percussion Collective. What is your sense of Artpark, as a place, and as a performance venue? How did the performance of PLACE change your perspective on the place?
BF: When I’d played at Artpark prior to PLACE, it had been with performers and instruments in a single fixed location, for instance on the stage under the trees. In contrast, PLACE covered by far more physical ground. In PLACE the performance space had a much more integrated role in the performance; I felt like we were really utilizing the space to generate the music. Usually when I play there, we’re playing in the park; in PLACE, we’re playing with the park.
CT: That was especially true in Part 10.
As a percussionist who works with extended techniques and non-musical sound sources, did this section feel like a big jump from what you had done previously? I’m thinking particularly of some of the more extravagant actions you did with the field drum, which I encouraged you to destroy.
BF: It’s definitely one of the more radical things I’ve done, although I’ve done similar things in the past, for instance destroying instruments [in Megan Beugger’s Daring Doris, written for and premiered by him]. But in PLACE, destruction of instruments is not the primary objective; it needs to be a secondary byproduct. The focus needs to be on sound-making and listening.
I also had to consider the audience, who may never have seen an instrument be destroyed before, and who might find such an action strange or humorous. I remember the first time I saw an instrument destroyed—it was Peter Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs for a Mad King—I had the same reaction. So how do I encourage them to focus not only on the theatre but on the sound as well? To hold true to a focus on the sound as a performer is a challenge.
Bob Fullex in Null Point’s rehearsal of PLACE part 10 at Artpark (July 2017)
CT: Were there particular times when you found you had to refocus on sound-making, and not destroying the instrument?
BF: The one time that sticks out in my memory was when I tied the instrument to a tree and swung it around like a tetherball. I ended up pursuing that action for a shorter time because I worried that it was too theatrical. Conversely, the spirit of exploring seemed more productive in this section when focused specifically on sound making. For instance, I really liked the sound of the drum on the concrete—spinning the drum unevenly so it would swirl unpredictably. This was a pretty theatrical action but the sound was so striking that I worried less about the theatre. I felt similarly about the end of the piece, when we all walked away, which happened to work really effectively in the performance as it began raining—we couldn’t have planned it better!
CT: In the performance of Part 10, you used the drum on a rope throughout. Was that a conscious effort to get away from the history and conventions of the drum? You were almost approaching the drum as a large, clumsy mallet for sonically activating the environment.
BF: For sure. I did use sticks on the head also, but throwing them rather than striking with drum with them. I made a point to begin the section by kicking the drum off of its stand.
CT: Which worked very nicely—taking the drum off of a literal pedestal and removing barriers between nature and culture.
This section seems to question what an instrument is in a variety of ways. I’m curious about how it relates to your training as a percussionist. I’m a cellist, and I imagine I have a fairly different conception of what an instrument is. For instance, my instrument is customized to maximize resonance, so that almost anything I do on the strings evinces some kind of “musical” tone. On the other hand, as a percussionist, you’re often picking up pieces of metal and wood and rendering them musical only through specific choices about mallets, striking actions, striking location, etc. So I would guess that Part 10 is perhaps less of stretch for you than for me. Along these lines, does Part 10 seem like a natural extension of percussion playing?
BF: It didn’t seem wholly new to me. I’ve played things with natural materials like John Cage’s Branches and Child of Tree, but never quite like this, with the drum on a rope. You mentioned the question of what an instrument is; there’s also a related question of what technique is. Often percussion playing is building up technique from the ground, out of a particular set of materials, and that was largely what I did in this piece—the most “technical” thing I did was a roll in Part 9. I think the beauty of the piece for me is not having to have some kind of technique to play it, not having to have had practiced an instrument for years in order to be able to perform the piece, being able to build it from the ground up. It’s different from what most musicians are used to.
II. Attention and Time in Performance
CT: What did you make of the performance as a whole in terms of concentration? Each section demanded extremely different kinds of attention: in Parts 2 and 9, imitating ambient sounds; in Part 4, only occasionally pushing buttons and plugging in and unplugging cables.
BF: It was nice that PLACE had a distinct ebb and flow, with each movement being different, and some placing more demands on one’s concentration. For me, such performance opportunities happen rarely—especially with UB [editor’s note: University at Buffalo] percussionists, we want to play percussion music that’s nonstop energy, with lots of notes. But in music like that there’s no space to step back and enjoy the situation. In such percussion music, you’re nervous, it’s pushing your technical ability. The adrenaline tunes in your physical awareness. But in PLACE, there were no nerves, I did not feel the pressure to “play well on my instrument.” At the same time, I had to activate my concentration in particular places, like Parts 8 and 9. In a lot of the music I play with Null Point, there’s a similar dynamic.
Top: Null Point’s realization of PLACE part 9 at Artpark (July 16, 2017).
Bottom: Bob Fullex (L) in Null Point’s realization of PLACE part 9 at Artpark (July 16, 2017).
CT: So you’re talking about adrenaline as something that deactivates one’s attention to one’s acoustic environment?
BF: Yeah, it’s tunnel vision, and one’s perception of time is so different when one is nervous like that—make a little mistake, and it can feel like an eternity. Then one listens to a recording and doesn’t even notice.
CT: So time feels much faster than it is; whereas in an installation piece the opposite might be true. I found myself sometimes beginning to approach things as if in a more conventional musical time, only later to be worn down, out of this, through extended duration.
BF: Another aspect of a traditional performance is the practice process—six months to a year for a recital; the event itself goes by really fast. To young percussionists, I always encourage people to not forget to enjoy their recital; otherwise, it might fly by in the blink of an eye. With the piece like PLACE, the enjoyment of performance is almost built-in.
CT: So the act of listening to the total environment is built into PLACE. In contrast, in much percussion music with regular rhythms, counting takes priority over listening in real time.
BF: Or rather, listening is limited to predictable events. For instance, I expect a colleague to play on beat three; one expects it and listens for it. But in PLACE, there’s very little predictability, at least on a local level.
CT: Listening in chamber music can be highly focused, by pulse and harmony.
BF: Yeah, it’s part of learning the piece—learning the other players’ parts and so on.
CT: What surprised me was the amount of mental processing power that it took to listen to the outdoor environment in a global way.
BF: Or even in Part 10, with so many different contrasting actions were going on, it was impossible to take in what everyone was doing.
CT: Right, Parts 9 and 10 were so different—Part 9 involves incredibly inclusive listening to the environment, whereas in Part 10, everyone is in their own bubble, paying attention to the interaction between their instrument and a chosen environmental material.
BF: Sometimes a more conventional performance—for instance, a really difficult solo piece—is an out of body experience when there’s sufficient adrenaline. But with PLACE, it seems much more grounded in present. A really difficult piece can be nerve wracking, and it takes a while to settle in. But PLACE didn’t have that. The extreme duration eventually encouraged a more sustainable, and ultimately really engrossing, kind of concentration. Whereas in an adrenaline-fueled recital, it actually takes away from concentration.
CT: So you’re talking about a relationship between duration and concentration. It wouldn’t be possible to have a solo recital level of concentration for seven hours.
BF: Extended duration, and attunement to unpredictable site-specific phenomena, encourages all kinds of performance approaches that wouldn’t be on the table in a more conventional environment: if something’s not working at first, there are ways to explore on the fly and make it work; or the converse, if you begin with something great, you don’t want to overdo it.
CT: There is an almost exploratory, even rehearsal aspect of it: you can never fully “master” the piece because so much of it is contingent upon things that can’t be predicted in advance. It’s difficult to navigate that relationship between preparation and risk: how can preparation open up the attention to the environment, rather than close it down, as in some of the performance situations you describe? But then, as the curator, to an extent I need to think about how we should generally try to sound like we “know what we’re doing.” Yet what does that even mean in a piece like this?
BF: And that depends a lot on who the audience is, and that’s doubly difficult in a public space with a range of folks. To certain people, this piece will sound like we “don’t know what we’re doing” no matter what. It’s not like we had mastered “technique,” let alone mastered “nature itself.”