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Frank Rosaly: Music From Within

Lyn Horton interviews drummer about his life and his approach to improvisational music

Frank Rosaly

Frank Rosaly has always been a drummer. His only sibling, his older sister Frances, made sure of it, when being in the fourth grade band herself, she showed her brother how to use the snare drum. Frank was just in the second grade. He “was immediately fascinated” by the snare and by the time he joined band in fourth grade, he had learned all the basics. He felt as though “he excelled in something at school, for once.” He also started lessons. That was only the beginning of the shaping of his inner drive.

Born in Phoenix, AZ, in 1974, of Puerto Rican parents, Rosaly’s early musical life was consistent with his familial and cultural heritage. Never wont for parental support, he says that “music was a part of growing up.” Both classical and Latin music infiltrated his listening space. Experiencing a public school music program, even at age ten, Rosaly was so open to music’s variability that seeing a video of Van Halen’s “Panama,” captivated him. “That’s when I fell in love with the drums…[Van Halen] was playing these giant, clear Ludwigs that completely freaked me out.” And, then, two years later, Rosaly heard a “hot” live concert by Tito Puente’s band; Rosaly was moved to tears. His spirit had been tapped. “Nothing ever felt so good that very moment…That’s when I fell in love with the music.”

His curiosity compelled him to begin collecting recorded music of every kind-from Paul Simon’s Graceland to the Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz. Rosaly did not allow genre bar his way from learning about the directions in which music could go. He did not care. He wanted to absorb the material and the tools that he needed to continue to tailor what was inherent to his being. “I think it was around then, in 1986, that I decided I wanted to be a professional musician, really. It wasn’t the fireman, architect (which I thought I wanted to be until I was twelve), President of the United States dream thing…it was reality.”

The study of classical percussion, in both high school and college, exposed him to classical contemporary composers such as Milton Babbitt, John Cage, Harry Partch, Iannis Xenakis as well as their precursors, notably, Charles Ives, Henry Cowell, and Alban Berg. Through the music of these composers, Rosaly learned about extended techniques of making sound which was “an epiphany” for him. He put these lessons away until later in his musical life. Yet, he claims that classical percussion in addition to the study of jazz provided the doorway to being serious about playing traps. With the essential knowledge of Latin, rock, electronic, as well as classical music in mind, Rosaly faced the world, ready to go, but not yet completely sure of his own direction.

Between the ages of sixteen and twenty-five, Rosaly talks about “focusing a lot of energy on hearing unusual pulse centers…I had been introduced to Afro-Cuban, Brazilian and African rhythms and began to discover polyrhythms…I got super nerdy about it… [creating various sequencing programs and taping them for the purpose of] memorizing two beat cycles over each other.” This “simple idea” led him to appreciate the basis of phasing. “It was a fascinating discovery, one that helped me to understand theoretical relationship between pulses that are happening around us all the time. I even tried to memorize my heart beat over my breath before bed each night for a long time.”

He describes this nine year period as “a very heady time.” His rhythm was so clean and precise; he claims that it didn’t “breathe at all.” A year or so after college, he moved to Los Angeles and stayed for a couple of years. “I could play anything…and was doomed to become a studio cat making money playing jingles and porno sound tracks. And I did, too!” It was at this point, however, that he met Billy Higgins, whom Rosaly dubs his “angel.” “I guess what I remember most about my time with him was that he saw the light in me…” The two drummers developed a rapport where Higgins gave Rosaly much of his own “time, energy and support.” Their human relationship reminded Rosaly “why I fell in love with music in the first place.” Their relationship as drummers taught Rosaly some specifics: “The ride cymbal is the center of your universe,” Higgins told him. Rosaly confesses that it has been only recently that he understands what Higgins meant: “Cut down the white noise in your head. Relate all that you hear around you to the ride cymbal. Make it the most important sound you make at all times. Allow it to be everywhere around you.”

Billy Higgins was not the only transitional figure in Rosaly’s life. Returning to Arizona in 1999 after LA, he began a Masters course of study at Northern Arizona University and eventually received a scholarship to Manhattan School of Music. On his way, Rosaly visited his dad outside of Chicago. During his stay with his father, he happened to see an improvised music performance with cellist Fred Lonberg-holm and drummer Michael Zerang at The Empty Bottle. “I was simply floored…not simply because they were using sounds but because they were playing such exciting, well-played music…with such commitment, such connection…THAT was the hook. The line and sinker came with Zerang buzzing dildos and masterfully using friction on his snare drum. Fred played the cello like a piano, then a guitar, then a glockenspiel, then a tube of toothpaste…I’ve never witnessed such mastery of sound or complete concentration.” After hearing that gig, Rosaly gave up his scholarship to MSM and stayed in Chicago. He has lived there now for a little over ten years.

As his exposure to improvised music grew, Rosaly changed his rigid, metronomic approach to the drums. Now he addresses his instrument in the same way as “an improvising dancer responds to sound…I have begun to generate sounds through gesture in reaction to sounds I have heard when improvising…It’s a very physical approach to playing, one that often produces very little actual sound compared to the energy expended. Sometimes I imagine all my muscles contracted: only when I relax them can my limbs move to attempt to produce sound.”

An obvious association with drumming is the concept of rhythm and Rosaly is “fascinated by it and approaching it with a universal ear.” He further defines it: “Rhythm is a generation of patterns: grids intersecting lines. Rhythms can act as tangled webs. They can expand and contract like breath, with breath. [Rhythm] functions as a means to create order and also to disassociate… [This] is a powerful and underused principle…” and one which marks his non-conformist sensibility. His ideas concerning both rhythm and sound began when he was a child with his sister: “I remember she used to sing rhythms to me and I would sing them back, then play them on the drums. Eventually we started mimicking sounds that we liked, too, such as milk pouring into a glass, rubbing Styrofoam, ice clinking in a glass. [We called these sounds] ‘molk.'” Molk later became the name of Rosaly’s record label.

Proclaiming that he “loves limits,” Rosaly utilizes his lack of resources to his benefit. He has configured his traps with snare, toms and a bass and “ever-rotating cast of cymbals” but has a love-hate relationship to the array, some of which he has built himself. His rock aesthetic steering him towards electronics, they contribute at times to his unconventional sound-making. Instead of working with some “fancy” hi-tech electronics hooked up to his traps, he creates them with “cheap guitar effects” and self-made devices.

Drums are for Rosaly “purely a source of melodic ideas” as evidenced in his solo record Milkwork. Yet, when he is “playing ‘time'”….his drums are “simply a motor driven by the ride cymbal…It keeps things moving or pulls things back…I like the tension of that sound. It’s often considered bad ‘time,’ like playing out of tune, but sour notes have a place in music and arguably color a musical statement…I allow for this rub to be a part of the musical conversation. I love it. Sometimes I think of it [the ride] like a laptop and try to create white, pink and brown noise, disjunct loops, sputtering, clipped blips. I really hear that in my head sometimes and that’s what I attempt to emulate. I think that is where using my sounds [the bells, gongs, metal junk] tends to come from…” So, even with the ride cymbal, as “the center of the universe,” Rosaly is “looking for something else…I don’t ever want to settle on a body of sounds that locks me into a particular place…I’m still discovering my voice…What I do generally functions as art, as commentary, as a platform to ask about what music can be. I’m attempting to challenge the boundaries of how the music is conceived and received. Music functions as my medium to express that curiosity…I play from a very emotional place.”

Playing solo “has been the biggest challenge for me. I love surprises, but it’s difficult to surprise yourself when you’re holding the sticks…The stuff I like is typically chock full of mistakes, tons of space…I enjoy droning, slow, satisfying building of musical content. Contrast. But mainly, I want to feel some mystery. This was the impetus for adding electronics to some of my solo work… ‘What happens when I push this button?’…then deal with the consequences.”

Rosaly has a predilection for working with groups, particularly when improvisation is the means “to get a crowd excited.” He is “a sideman at heart.” He has played with some great and well-established musicians…”gentlemen” as he calls them. Yet, Rosaly is also involved with an endless line-up of self-generated projects. At present, he hopes to record with each of three of his own groups in 2011: Green and Gold, Viscous, and Cicada Music, all of which involve some top Chicago musicians, many of whom are Rosaly’s contemporaries, who sparkle with as much fervor and musical intelligence as their leader does.

Musicians Rosaly has played with praise him. Cornet player Josh Berman and vibist Jason Adasiewicz first met Rosaly right after he moved to Chicago; all three played together at the Jazz Record Mart, the jazz & blues landmark owned by Bob Koester, the pioneer behind Delmark Records. “On Frank,” Berman says, “He is simply one of the best drummers I have ever heard. His instincts as an improviser are incredible. He’s always reaching…” Adasiewicz “sees a lot of [him]self in Frank”…relative to the way they each handle their percussion instruments. Says Adasiewicz: “Frank has a way of playing where he is almost using his breath like a horn player does. His sound cuts off and then it begins again, like he is breathing through his instrument.” Holding a spot in Rosaly’s Cicada Music and also leading his own bands, bass clarinetist Jason Stein compliments Rosaly: “Frank is a master of good taste and that is a beautiful and valuable thing to experience, particularly as a bandleader. What makes Frank so special is his sense of aesthetic and style. He is extraordinarily adept at interpreting what will sound best and what the composer is looking for on a given piece.”

Cellist Fred Lonberg-holm, whose impact on Rosaly is immeasurable, believes that “…Frank has a “deep vocation for the music…that comes from inside of him…It’s not a medulla thing with Frank… He places the pulse, lays things against it and shifts it around. I can really play ‘with’ him…He is always aligned with the present moment.”

When Rosaly dances with his drums, he choreographs the unfinished pathway leading to the future of improvised music. His resistance to remaining in one place, musically and conceptually in order to stay “a student of the music,” ensures that his growth and maturation will continue. And with that very process, he will create new drumming standards for other students of the music to come.

Originally Published