Booker Stardrum Is a Master Manipulator of Time (And Drums)

'Temporary, etc' finds the composer stretching instants into eternities, both behind a drum kit and in other universes entirely.

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Oct 24 2018, 5:53pm

Photo by Emma Rae Norton

Part of Booker Stardrum’s job description is to fuck with time. As a percussionist for both inveterate experimenters and more pop-minded songwriters—he’s played with everyone from Weyes Blood to Lee Ranaldo, and is a longtime member of the New York polymaths Cloud Becomes Your Hand—he’s tasked with controlling the momentum, with pushing forward the narrative. Of course, working with others means some of that control is ceded, but being a drummer can take on this almost mythic nature not just a keeper of time, but The Timekeeper, a mystic capable of subdividing moments into infinity, of making instants into eternities. It’s no wonder that some of the most mystifying experimental records over the last couple of years have been made by percussionists—like Greg Fox’s backbending solo album for RVNG or Eli Keszler’s quietly ecstatic Stadium. T—they have this inborn power to really fuck with you.

There is some suggestion in Stardrum’s solo work that he is aware of the power that he can exert. He talks about his compositions—starting with 2015’s Dance And—as “pan-tonal” and “pan-rhythmic,” terms he uses to explain the musical and rhythmic relationships between the parts of his work are malleable. Pitches and chords and beats can be collapsed in on themselves, the relationships between them made elastic, the metronomic ticking of the clock rendered irrelevant by rhythms overlapping and intersecting in fractally bliss. You can get lost in there.

“For me, an intuitive approach to rhythm translates into a flexibility and lucidity in the way I think about the dividing of time,” Stardrum says via email. “More specifically, it means that I am not necessarily concerned with keeping a beat and dividing time into ‘regular intervals’ if it does not service the music.”

Stardrum acknowledges his time-twisting, at least implicitly, on Temporary, etc, his new record out Friday October 26 on NNA Tapes (but streaming up above). There’s a track at its center called “A Passage or Time in a Hanging Truth,” which explores dense clusters synth harmonies over the course of five-and-a-half minutes, calling upon the legacy of drone music to freeze the record’s momentum at its center, to bask for a moment in uneasy stillness. This turns out to be true even of the moments when Stardrum plays more recognizable rhythms, there is a slip-stream that occurs even when his playing is fast and scattered. He creates bubbles in which you can rest, moments of stillness amid the flailing.

Part of the charm of the record—and something inherent to Stardrum’s approach—is that the structures are hard to trace. I’m sure it’s possible, but it’s hard to imagine how the insectoid funk of “Drim Dram II” would look scored out or diagrammed. But when I call his music “formless,” Stardrum disagrees.

“I am actually obsessed with structure and the compositional decisions I make are extremely intentional,” he says. “But, I like art that is vague—that asks questions rather than insists on a definition.”

Still, there is a collage-like effect that contributes to Temporary, etc.’s temporal slipperiness. The record is made of studio recordings, but it also splices together things Stardrum made at home, and phone recordings—like, say, a passage of his mom playing flute or “a pretty obscured recording of rain hitting an old jon boat” in North Carolina. It’s not a record of field recordings, or a straight-up assemblage of sounds, but these moments on Temporary, etc. serve as a reminder that recorded music itself is a manipulation of time, a way of transporting yourself to a room in upstate New York where one time a person was hitting something to make a weird sound. Stardrum invites you to live in that moment—in this series of strange moments—for as long as you’d like to.

The emotional effect of Temporary, etc. is consequently a strange one.Trapped in between the beats, there is this headspinning sensation of feeling like you need to be somewhere, but feeling like you can’t pick up your legs to actually go there. There’s a lot of potential energy, but it never locks into the locomotion that you’d expect. And yet it isn’t an anxious record—even when he’s drawing on atonal electronics, there’s something blissful about it all, the way you might feel if you threw all your clocks from your second story window. You might still suffer the effects of the passage of time, but you exist somewhere outside of it, wonderfully unaware.

Booker Stardrum tour dates:
10/25 Baltimore, MD - Solo @ 2640
10/26 Philadelphia, PA - Solo @ Jerry’s on Front
10/28 Brooklyn, NY - Solo @ Union Pool
10/29 Chicago, IL - Solo + trio w/ Dave Rempis + Beth McDonald @ Experimental Sound Studio
10/30 Chicago, IL - Trio w/ Katie Young + Matt Mehlan @ Comfort Station
11/11 Joshua Tree, CA - Solo @ Beatnik Lounge
11/14 Los Angeles, CA - Solo @ Zebulon
11/15 San Francisco, CA - Solo + w/ Sontag Shogun’s Braided Sound @ The Luggage Store Gallery
11/17 Los Angeles, CA - Duo w/ Andrew Bernstein @ Coaxial
11/18 San Diego, CA - Solo @ SDCP