Last Friday, in the Crowell Concert Hall, Nate Repasz ’14 performed his senior project, “Some Drums,” to an audience well over one hundred strong. Though the show was centered largely on percussion, including a heavy predominance of African drums and concluding with a two-set composition, it also began with a fascinating foray into vocal harmonies and complex wordplay. On Sunday, I sat down with Repasz over brunch to talk to him about his show, his passion for music and rhythm, and his musical influences.
The Argus: When the show began, it really took me by surprise. There were mainly drums laid out on stage: ranging from conventional drum sets, to a huge bass drum and even a doumbek, so I wasn’t expecting the concert to start with vocal harmony Gaelic folk song and then a monologue of complex wordplay. Was there an overall theme to the show?
Nathan Repasz: Well, the overall theme was really just rhythm. I have always loved that song “Dúlamán,” more specifically Michael McGlynn’s composition of it, because the words are ancient…but additionally beyond that the rhythmic structures of the piece are very strange, it’s not an orthodox, Western-sounding, folk melody at all. It switches time signatures from measure to measure, so you’re not really rooted throughout the whole rhythm, but it has this wash effect throughout the whole composition, because Gaelic is such a foreign-sounding language. So I basically just incorporated both of those aspects. The first two program elements were just to highlight the inherent rhythmic properties of human speech and diction. I had that tongue twister that I said and kept saying, so it blurred the line a little bit between what was essentially a stand-up routine. I wasn’t expecting people to be laughing at it, and it was a great problem to have, to have to take time to wait for people to stop laughing. I didn’t expect that, it was a very spur of the moment rendition.
A: Who were the two vocalists you brought up for that first part?
NR: That was Simon Riker [’14] and Robert Hallberg [’14.] I’ve been friends with Rob since fourth grade—we go way, way back—and Simon I met very early freshman year. We actually started Slender James together, the three of us, with a fourth person who had to leave the group after the first year. We’re all seniors now, and I know I could hand them any vocal part and they’d kill it.
A: One of the most intriguing pieces of the concert was your fifth song, “Kpatsapatsaatsatsasaa” (pronounced pa-cha-pa-cha-ah-cha-cha-se-er). I understand that this was actually composed by Brian Parks [’13,] a Wesleyan alumnus. Could you explain a bit about this?
NR: The word itself is a reflection of the structure of the piece. Different people in the audience were able to glean different levels of what was actually happening, but the point of that piece is to give you this wash of bell sounds, and you get these intricate little melodies. Brian writes a lot of pieces based on Ghanaian rhythms that he’ll apply a simple algorithm to, a phrase, and it will play out in a ridiculously complex way, but it’s a simple concept. What he did with this one was, we’d start at the low bell, then on my second note Sean [Winnik ’14] starts, then on his second note Adam [Johnson ’14] starts…all the way down, so we’re staggering this phrase by one pulse each time, so by the time I’m on my last note, the last person is starting their rhythm. So it has this cyclic continuation, and this cascading effect. But it’s really difficult to lock onto, because as a drummer you’re very used to conceptualizing the first beat of a measure, but with a piece like that, there’s no beginning of any measure. It exists in this shifting time, space and it’s sort of independent of restrictions of meter.
A: I have to admit that watching that piece being performed was downright hypnotic at points. Was it weird to then switch to your final piece, “New Bass,” which incorporated some truly furious work on a drum set from you and Samuel Atticus Swartwood [’14]?
NR: That was a piece that Atticus and I had been working on for a month, since the beginning of the semester, and we just workshopped it. The whole compositional process for that was mainly just jamming, deciding on certain rhythms that would interlock in interesting ways, or deciding on synchronized little bits to play. It was very much like a trial and error process, but I think it turned out pretty well… I don’t think it was that weird. I definitely tried to have a general crescendo throughout the entire concert, I started with the quiet vocal stuff and then it just worked its way up. I think that my opening monologue got me into my zone for the rest of the concert, I was very happy with it and it set the tone for a stress-free, Zen mindset.
A: Before your third piece, “Djembe Jawn,” you proudly displayed the djembe you were playing, announcing it as one of the first drums you ever owned. I take it there’s a lot of history there.
NR: I got it [for] my fourth birthday. My parents brought in this African drumming virtuoso and they gave me a djembe for my birthday… and it’s been with me my entire life, I’ve been playing it forever. I brought it to college and the expansion and contraction of humidity, and it was also a really old head, so the head just split one day, when I was a sophomore, and I wasn’t able to find anybody that would fix it…. But I eventually found a guy in Massachusetts…I shipped it to him and he re-headed it. It was this beautiful goatskin head with speckled patterns and this beautiful white fur collar, and I thank the goat that gave me the new head. I got it in the mail, like, two days before the show and was like, “This drum has been a really big part of my percussion background, it only makes sense that I should do a piece on it.” I feel an affinity for that drum, not that it transcends any physical interaction, but it was an electrifying feeling.
A: Looking at the collection of instruments on stage, it seemed like a large collection of them hailed from different regions of Africa. Even if the concert started in Gaelic and ended with a good old-fashioned drum solo (or duo, technically), would you say that there were some heavy African influences present?
NR: I was just aiming to incorporate different elements and traditions that I’d learned, so inherently if you like picking and choosing like that you’re going to get into some shady territory, in terms of appropriation. But I wasn’t really going for a specific shift, there was a really heavy African thread, but there’s also a really heavy African thread in all the music that we listen to.
A: Any closing thoughts you have on how the concert went, as a whole?
NR: I want to just thank everyone for coming, because I know the audience is just a series of individuals, but it really meant a lot that that many people elected to go, and it just really flattered me and really made it seem worth it…. It was really my first experience with putting myself out there as an artist. I play in bands and I’ve acted sometimes, but those are all really different things than presenting work that you yourself did and other people are playing. It was surreal to be done, just straight up surreal.