Pierluigi Billone
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Mani.Mono (Tom De Cock)

Mani.Mono for Spring Drum by Pierluigi Billone

drs.Tom De Cock (researcher at Koninklijk Conservatorium Brussel, Regentschapstraat 30, 1000 Brussel, Belgium.) September 2011

Program Notes:

Mani. Mono (2007), composed for spring drum, requires also a rectangular plate laying horizontal about a meter above the ground, with which the instrument’s spring may make contact. Figure out the action: above is the spring drum, a resonating thunder, the sound source; below is the metal plate, surface that receives and reflects. Between them, the possibility of a contact: the player with his hands, his body and his voice makes it possible for complementary elements to meet, and for different dimensions too – soil and water. Mono is the name of an ancient lake sacred to Native Americans, which is located about 2,000 meters above sea level on the Sierra Nevada range. Mono Lake is an ecosystem that provides a habitat to numerous populations of migrating birds. In the present days eerie calcareous concretions that had stayed submerged for long time are now visible, as the depth of its basin keeps decreasing. The haunting landscape is witness of an ancestral time, at the same time human and pre-human. Ancestral like Billone’s sound, which creates its own cavern where unexpected resonances arise, where the sound turns on and off – or are maybe our hears that find the limits of perceiving, of what is and what is not? In fact, with Mono our hearing is flooded by a constellation of new sounds, and we are just spellbound by their quantity and heterogeneity. Had we not known that the piece was written for one player and one instrument, the variety of timbres, attacks, harmonics, rhythms and resonances would rather suggest the presence of multiple sound sources. There is only one instrument (mono) but several divergent shadows, sound reflections precisely determined in Billone’s writing. How is it possible for one instrument, and one hand, to give rise to such sonic energy? From the smallest gesture a whole universe is generated, from the slightest contact between different substances (instrument-plate-skin-hands-bones-voice) a chance to make vibrate cavities that are ready to receive and reflect the sound. In each of the three pieces for percussion, the performer takes a leading role becoming a resonating instrument himself. His chest resonates when hit by the fist (Mani. Mono, Mani. De Leonardis), or through the gong hanging over it (Mani. Matta). Sometimes it is the hand that becomes resonant instrument and medium of the vibrations propagating from the suspensions to the player’s whole body (Mani. De Leonardis). A distinctive feature of Billone’s music is the exceptional creative energy able to multiply the sound source. From singular (one instrument) it becomes plural, when it meets with the player’s resonant body and his principal and vital instruments, without which he couldn’t live or communicate – that is, hands and mouth. Is the sound within us, or outside us? Billone’s questions are about this borderline space, about the manifestation of a vibrating essence (Sound) that flows around, inside, outside, and throughout the bodies.

Practical difficulties:

-New model of spring drum (coloured) has a better sounding body=>change

The model Billone writes for has an extra layer of plastic glued to the body of the drum, which produces contact noises when the glue starts to let go. Therefor, it is better to take the new model (the body is multi-coloured instead of blue with lightning). Here the print is printed on the carbon body itself, what makes the finger and hand playing on the body a lot easier and better sounding.

-Finding the right thickness of the metal plate

You will need a metal plate to produce the table effects the score asks for, especially for the “feedback”-effect when you drag the spring over the table. I used an aluminium plate of 0.8mm, and sometimes I “reinforce” the edge with another smaller aluminium plate of about 1mm thickness. Don’t take plates under 0.8mm; the spring of the spring drum will stick to the plate when dragging it along the side. A very low and big bronze or aluminium bell plate could work as well.

-Writing the score on the metal plate/printing?

I copied the whole score by hand on the aluminium plate with a permanent CD marker. This takes a lot of time (about 9 hours of writing), but it looks really good on stage and it appears that you actually play the piece by heard. You could also try to have the score printed or etched on the metal plate; however this might be quite more expensive....

-Amplification versus acoustic playing

A question to ask yourself when playing this piece in a live situation, is whether you are going to amplify the drum and the metal plate or not. Without amplification, the piece works fine up to a 100 people, if the acoustics are good. The problem is that you need to hear all the little details in sound and colour; otherwise the piece gets easily boring. That is why I usually ask for amplification to be ready and then decide at the general rehearsal if I am going to use it or not. It also depends of course on the rest of the program: if all the other piece are very loud and energetic for example, it might be nice to have a resting point in the program and have an acoustical version of the piece. Or, if all the other pieces in the program are amplified, it might be wise to amplify “Mani. Mono”, in order to maintain the acoustic picture.

When amplifying, I normally use two condenser microphones, one as an overhead to amplify the body, and one to amplify the metal plate. What I also ask to the sound engineer is to amplify more the pitch range of the spring drum, so the “notes” you play come out more.

Technical difficulties:

-Assimilation and adaptation/amelioration of the different techniques and combinations of techniques
Mani.Mono hitting techniques1. Hitting techniques:

The size of the spring drum chosen is very specific because it should be possible to close the entire hole with the palm of the hand. There is a whole series of natural harmonics that can be produced by controlling the size of the open hole, as displayed above. When the hole is totally closed, the fundamental is brought out, when its hit on the extreme edge, we hear the highest possible harmonic.

It is necessary to create a kind of memory in the hands to know exactly where to hit to produce the wanted harmonic. This needs great attention and will take quite a while to perfect, but once you know it, you don’t forget it.

The “notes” are used in “melodies” and fast combinations and glissandi throughout the piece as displayed above.

Mani.Mono pumping techniques2. Pumping techniques:

Closely related to the hitting technique. You basically grab the front edge of the spring drum with the tops of your fingers and then “pump” you hand towards the fingertips over the hole. You could compare the movement with kneading dough. The bigger the opening you make while doing that, the higher harmonic will come out.

Also glissando techniques are obtained by moving from one harmonic position to another as displayed above.

There is one extra note that is possible to bring out the spring drum in this technique: By pumping the hole totally closed and making a kind of overpressure by pushing the palm of the hand into the drum, a lower octave fundamental is obtained.

Mani.Mono shaking techniques3. Shaking techniques:

These techniques are obtained by shaking the spring drum back and forth and by allowing the spring to resonate into the tube. The sonorous result is a kind of “cluster” of the harmonics that are brought out by the hitting and pumping technique and the sound is very saturated.

This cluster can be modified in structure by the amplitude of the shaking, by closing the hole of the drum partly and so amplifying some of the harmonics (sounds as a glissando) and by closing the drum fully with the palm of the hand. (The latter brings out a muted kind of cluster, as if the sound was veiled)

Mani.Mono hitting actions on the drum4. Hitting actions ON the drum:

This technique of course depends greatly on the form and anatomy of your hands. I used the following techniques: When the hitting on the drums is notated as small dots, dynamic from pppp to mp, I used the fingertip of my index finger. When notated as large dots, from mf to ff I used a combination of knuckles or one knuckle at a time. For the upward triangle symbol, you need to hit the skin of the spring drums with the nail of index or middle finger. This technique is obtained by “flinging” the finger against the skin; similar to the motion you would use to fling away something small out of your hand. (Tension the index or middle finger against the thumb, build up pressure and then move forward the index or middle finger)

Mani.Mono spring action techniques5. Spring action techniques:

The above displayed techniques are all “trashy”, saturated sounds. In this techniques it is quite important however to keep them as “clean” as possible, this meaning avoiding contact with the tube, skin or metal plate when not desired.

The first action is executed by pulling to the spring with the fingers and then releasing. The best sound is obtained here if you use your nails of thumb and index finger; it adds extra punch to the sound.

Second action is simple contact between the spring and the metal plate.

Third action idem ditto, but here the spring remains lying on the plate.

Fourth action is making contact between the spring and the side of the plate.

Fifth action idem ditto combined with a regular up and down motion, which creates a constant cluster sound. The motion should be as regular as possible and the changes in direction as inaudible as possible.

Mani.Mono dampening actions6. Dampening actions:

Two techniques: one is simply dampening the spring with the free hand. Important here is to be careful about contact noises when you dampen. The spring is very sensitive. Second technique is dampening the spring against the body. An upwards glissando will be heard while performing this technique. The most effective way is to push the skin of the drum together with the end of the spring against the body. Be careful about what you wear when performing this. Buttoned shirts can create unwanted noise while performing this technique.

7. Special techniques:

Mani.Mono opening7.1 Opening passage:

In this technique the opening of the spring drum is held against the abdomen and the spring between index and thumb of the free hand. The articulation of rhythm is obtained by flicking the spring back and forth with the ring finger of the free hand while holding it. Closing or opening the opening of the drum with the abdomen, as displayed above obtains the articulation of the three sound types.

Mani.Mono feedback7.2 Feedback:

This is why the metal plate is so important. The contact between the end of the spring and the metal plate produces a sound similar to very high electronic feedback noise. Some practice is required to fully control the sound and the length of it.

Mani.Mono use of voice and chest7.3 Use of the voice and chest:

This action should always be very formal and objective, without emotion. Also it should intervene as less as possible with the actions performed with the spring drum at the same time. There are two actions in this technique, one using the closed fist on the chest while singing softly a descending scale; the other is hitting the chest with an open palm.

I use to perform these passages looking up at a fixed point in the audience to disconnect these from the rest of the piece, as if speaking or communicating to something “out there”.

Mani.Mono combination of hitting pumping7.4 Combination of hitting pumping and contact with the metal plate:

This is a quite simple example of a combination of three techniques. Most important here is that you find a good positioning of the spring, so it can move kind of freely on the metal plate, producing a “sizzle”-kind of sound.

At the end of this phrase you see the turning event: this is similar to the feedback technique, the only difference is that you move the spring fast in a circle. This technique requires some practice to control it properly.

Mani.Mono full and hitting technique7.5 Full hand hitting technique:

Easy to perform, basically you move the full hand from the opening of the drum to the body of the drum, producing a clacking sound.

Mani.Mono abdomen shake7.6 Abdomen shake:

This is a very physical technique, which is also very tiring. You basically hold the opening of the drum against the abdomen, while shaking it “ff”. You have two options in this technique: one is to allow the spring to jump around freely, producing contact noise sometimes to the drum. In this option you can play more fierce and wild. Just hold the drum with one or two hands and shake wildly.

Second option is without this contact noise. Holding the drum with the long end upwards and holding it at the top with one hand while shaking very fast can obtain this. The dynamic is about the same as option one, only the sound is higher and denser, and the result is better controlled. I would suggest this option for recordings.

-Avoiding pain in arms and fingers

Especially when playing amplified, due to the immobility of the overhead microphones, the arm holding the spring drum might tire during performance, and especially if performed several times per day. Therefore, it is advised to consider a not too high playing position (as mentioned below) and to switch holding hand when possible. The switching is for example very convenient in the long pp shakes.

When hitting the drum with fingers or knuckles, be careful not to hit too hard and like me, break some bones.... especially when performing the piece several times a day.

-Finding the right playing height and position

Like mentioned above, it is very important not to mount the metal plate too high, to optimize your playing comfort. Therefore, avoid taking normal tables, which are just a tick too high. I always take a Kolberg percussion table of about 70cms playing height, also putting a black folded cloth between the table and the metal plate, so the plate is properly dampened and stays in place.

Interpretational difficulties:

-Musical tactics/how to tackle the long pauses/sounds.

All of Billone’s pieces are very long (Mani. Mono is about 20 minutes long) and the musical material is so different from what we are used to, that it is difficult to plan a musical tactic for these pieces. In a way, the music is very expressive and gestural, what made me choose for an intuitive approach. Not really shaping or phrasing, just see what comes next. Like this you can also achieve his demand of moving from one movement of the piece into another without connection, as a total surprise.

Another difficulty in these pieces is the extreme long “pp”-passages and silences. How you will execute this live will depend greatly on your audience and acoustics. If they “allow” you to play out these passages, take advantage of it and try to make them as interesting as possible. If not, you can move on more quickly over these passages and take advantage of the more physical parts.


Sketches used in the text:

All sketches that were used in the text are taken from the scores and the legends of the described pieces. Copyright © Pierluigi Billone.

All websites are stated as found on the Internet on 22/11/2011:


Other references:

-Tzlil Meudcan Festival and summer course, Israel, 29 June 2011 until 9 July 2011: Various working sessions with the composer on all the pieces.

-Ars Musica Festival 26 March 2010, Brussels: performance of “Mani. Mono”

-Felicija Blumenthal Centre Tel Aviv, 27 April 2010: performance of “Mani. Mono”

-Konzerthaus Detmold, 14 July 2010: performance of “Mani. Mono”

-Internationalen Ferienkurse für Neue Musik Darmstadt 25 July 2010: performance of “Mani.Mono”

-Porgy and Bess Wien, 1 december 2010: performance of “Mani. Mono” -Minoritensaal Graz, 2 december 2010: performance of “Mani. Mono”

-Felicija Blumenthal Centre Tel Aviv, 7 July 2011: performance of “Mani. Matta”, “Mani. Mono” and “Mani. De Leonardis”

-Since the start of the working process in 2010: Various working sessions with sound engineers (a.m. Tom Philip Krause, Alfred Reiter, Alexandre Fostier)

-Intense email conversation with the composer about the performed pieces.