The E-T method by Jaki Liebezeit (drummer in the German experimental rock band Can) is another system for notating movement based on constraints of the body, this time for percussion rather than dance. ‘E-T’ refers to the dot and dash (or short and long) of morse code, which Liebezeit used to notate his rhythms. Central to the system are four simple rules:
DOT means a stroke with one hand.
DASH means two strokes with one hand, with the duration of
Dots and dashes are always played by alternate hands.
The second hit in a dash is always quieter than the first, even to the point of silence. It can be almost as loud as the first hit but never as loud or louder.
Accents are only possible after a dash.
These rules are based on the physical constraints of playing, e.g. it takes longer to play an accent because the hand has to move further to achieve higher velocity. Because a dash consists of two hits with one hand, that gives time for the other hand to play an accent. Rule 4 therefore follow from the other rules, within the constraints of the body.
The system is explained and explored in the book on his life and work “Jaki Liebezeit: The Life, Theory and Practice of a Master Drummer”. For example on rule three: "Liebezeit often cited the example of a falling ball: if a ball is dropped to the ground, the fall height of any successive impact is less than the previous impact. Transferring this natural dynamic to drums and sticks, in a dash, i.e. a double stroke, the second stroke also ‘falls’ from a lesser height onto the drum. A lesser height, by nature, means a quieter stroke. "
The rules are really simple, but complexity comes from e.g. halving and doubling within these constraints, and more than one person playing together, creating wild polyrhythms.
I really like this afterword from the second chapter of the book where the E-T method is explained, in the context of ‘post-authorship’:
That’s a lot and yet almost nothing said. All these dots and dashes only become meaningful when someone translates them into acoustic signals. And that, as stated, takes time, patience, perseverance and, above all, other people to play alongside. Together it is possible to evolve such an apparently closed system.
Jaki Liebezeit was very impressed by the fact that drum construction has not really changed for millennia. Whether a skin is stretched with strings or with screws over the shell, whether it is a natural or a plastic skin – the principle remains the same: a cavity is enclosed. Without the cavity there would be no sound (imagine a drum filled with clay). This cavity is the deciding factor. The drum is built around nothing. And so it is also with the music. Whenever we try to nail it down, it keeps wriggling out and disappearing. In this respect, this attempt to translate Jaki’s drum art and theory into sign language is a fundamental paradox. It cannot be held captive. Jaki would have liked that.
Then from the following chapter 3 by John Payne:
“… the E-T rhythm system tells us in no uncertain terms what to play and, with explicit instructions for how to approach dynamics and timing, how to play it. The system presents the players with a beautiful scenario within which to make a sound – within certain sonic boundaries. Hence the idea that freedom through restriction makes for real freedom, as for one thing it eliminates for the player unnecessary distractions that often contribute to a feeling that what they’re playing is not quite to the point, as if missing that central issue that any piece of music of any kind wants to address.
That ‘freedom through restriction’ rulebook, which Herr Liebezeit demanded that by real necessity must be strictly adhered to, presents the opportunity to compose a rhythmic pattern or entire rhythm-based piece, an d /or the only seemingly differing experience of witnessing a piece of rhythm-based music compose itself.”
I think this gets to the heart of it - paradoxically we explore self-imposed restriction, in order to create the possibility to feel freedom, where the music we’re making begins to make itself.
I have to quote one more bit, that brings up the topic of algorithms:
Jono Podmore likens the system’s rules to an algorithm, which provokes the interesting thought that whoever created the algorithm could be considered the primary composer – but then so conceivably could the other ensemble players performing the algorithm’s possibilities for variation and individual interpretation.
Tsangaris prefers to think of the individual ‘algorithm’ creator as the primary composer of a musical piece in which the other players make their views heard in complement. He likens E-T to language: ‘Whether German, English or a mid-European “average language”, the grammar of the language is very much a part of what I actually say. The system in which we communicate and operate is of course essential, as it is part of what can be and is said. Jaki was quite radical in his research into the roots, the basic conditions of composition.’
So maybe for freedom through constraints we have to be in control of our own algorithms… But also acknowledge that by notating these algorithms, we don’t ‘own’ them, we are just exploring shared, basic conditions.
(By the way if anyone knows in what way E-T stands for ‘dot’ and ‘dash’ I’m very curious to know!)