Image via YouTube

The only video on Ian Chang’s YouTube channel is a musical-electro-visual shout toward the future. Titled “Spiritual Leader,” it features Ian sitting behind his drum set in total darkness—until he raps the drum with his sticks, and a lamp behind him splashes him with light in coordination with the beat. Tapping slightly outside the center of the snare causes a burst of electronic notes to ring out; a wash of blue light jumps onto the clean white background. You should really check out the rest when you have the time.

On April 20, Princeton University’s Musicology Colloquium invited Ian to discuss fresh and exciting ways of connecting the computer to the organic body in performing and composing music. Ian is no stranger to Princeton: he graduated from the nearby Lawrenceville School, got a degree in Jazz Performance from New York University, and has even played two shows at Terrace in recent years. 

Ian adjusted his travel schedule to meet with me before the colloquium. After waiting for someone to finish practicing, we sat down in Woolworth 106 and he fleshed out many of the ideas he would later explore at the guest lecture. On stage, Ian’s an absolute machine, hunched over his kit with his head down as if he’s in some sort of rhythmic trance, but in person he was serene, and came off as the kind of person who thrives on a sheer interest in things. I had actually first seen Ian when he played with the indie-brass-dance brigade Rubblebucket at Union Transfer in Philadelphia, back in January.

“That band, I only did one tour with,” he explained. “And the way that process went was they had all this music (and it’s, like, a lot of music), and they sent me a Dropbox and said, ‘Learn it all. We’re gonna have one rehearsal, and then we’re gonna go on tour.’”

Ian is a voracious member of the Brooklyn music scene, where he met Kalmia Traver and Alex Toth of Rubblebucket. After graduating from college, he played hip-hop gigs and released material with Father Figures, which was formed at NYU in 2007. They delivered jumpy, crisp, blunt-force jazz to NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert in 2013. Ian revisited that same studio two years later as a member of the trip-jazz-drone outfit Son Lux. He has also released material with Landlady, is working on a solo project, and recently signed to Kowloon Records.

But “Spiritual Leader,” with its entirely electronic production and intense visuals, was a completely new undertaking. The visuals were created by Adam and Sara Heathcott of the visual studio “Endless Endless.” He explained the creative process behind the video:

“It started with the concept of ‘Doing It.’ I wanted to do something that killed three birds with one stone: I’m tracking a song, I’m making a music video, and I’m also…well, maybe it’s just two birds. [Laughs] But in tracking it, I wanted to create a situation where it’s essentially self-producing in the moment. I did some mixing afterwards, but it wasn’t anything super intense. It’s what my solo project is based around—being able to perform fully-formed, produced, electronic music that’s completely not acoustic in any way…without having any kind of backing tracks. It’s totally freeform and completely linked to human physicality.”

Completely not acoustic. Indeed, the drum heads themselves are mesh—totally silent. Clipped onto the rim of each drum is a sensor that picks up on where and how the drum is hit—the surface of the drum is mapped into up to ten “sound regions,” not unlike the “taste map” of the tongue taught in elementary-school biology. The sensor is connected to Mac or PC software that allows the user to connect any sound they want to each region of the drum, similar to a MIDI controller. This is Sensory Percussion, a hardware-software interface designed to close the gap between physical drumming and electronic sampling: “It’s almost like you build this instrument and kind of get to know it.”

Early machines such as the player piano interpreted music through a mechanical lens. Musicians created compositions specifically for these machines, which could play complex music that human beings were physically unable to perform. Ian noted that similar technology is still around today:

“They have this thing I’ve seen online where you can hook it up to your drum set, and then if you program something on your computer, the machine will essentially play the kit, like a robot drummer. It’s got, like, these little balls, and they just, like, ‘PAH!’ They hit the drums.  Now this drum set can suddenly play crazy stuff that someone programs.”

But Sunhouse, a new music technology company, designed Sensory Percussion with the human in mind, shaping it to be as physically intuitive as possible. Not only are samples mapped according to the user’s taste, but they react to touch—the sound swells as the region is tapped harder or faster. Ian noted that current sampling pads don’t have quite the same range—he felt instantly connected to Sensory Percussion, and was beta-testing it while filming “Spiritual Leader.”

“I spent my whole life learning and refining drumming and figuring out my own style,” he said. “When this came out, I was like, ‘Wow, this really captures that [style] I’ve spent so much time working on and can really translate it to any kind of sound world that I want it to be.’”

Ian’s personal musical style is the physical factor in an ongoing conversation between human physicality and electronic music. Growing up, he learned to play classical piano and percussion. In high school, he gravitated toward jazz, which he pursued in college. Studying jazz deepened his appreciation for improvisation—particularly, the “free form” of flirting with the looseness of meter:

“I think jazz in general—rhythmically and in many other ways—is way more elastic than any forms of popular music right now. Everything is basically made to a clock now and is generally more rigid. Having that education taught me to play very dynamically and very gesturally. Instead of always playing beats, there can be flourishes and stuff like that…almost very visual, to me at least, musical kind of ideas.”

When asked to name some of his hero drummers, Ian remarked that he was “bad at picking favorites.” He cited some of the jazz greats: Max Roach, whose 1966 album Drums Unlimited showcased the melodic potential of a solo drum kit; Tony Williams, the 17-year-old polyrhythmic prodigy of Miles Davis’s “Second Great Quintet”; Elvin Jones, a member of the John Coltrane Quartet; Art Blakey, the bandleader. “You know, the usual suspects.”

He also made note of musicians who are active in the modern music scene, such as jazz drummers Brian Blade and Mark Guiliana. Multi-instrumentalist Deantoni Parks, like Ian, combines the acoustic with the electronic, working the snare and hi-hat with one hand and playing chopped vocal samples on a MIDI controller with the other—a prime example of the physical-technological gap that Ian and Sunhouse aim to close.

But one of the most notable influences on Ian Chang was not an acoustic drummer, but a producer: the legendary hip-hop sampler J Dilla. His groovy, almost sloppy approach to beatmaking has been integrated into Ian’s playing—a flexible groove that Ian describes as “displacement.”

“If I were to characterize my playing…something that I’m into, in general, is being very elastic with the way I play and the way I play with time, while knowing where the clock is at. A lot of these concepts come from hip-hop and the way people produce beats, where it’s not like—” He beatboxed a straightforward drum machine beat one could probably hear on an ‘80s hip-hop record. “It feels drunken. Sometimes the timing is slippery.”

Suddenly, the human-computer discussion in music was flipped right on its head. Sensory Percussion was a platform through which physical drumming influenced electronic music. But in implementing the slippery grooves of J Dilla’s hip-hop anthology into acoustic drumming, Ian explored the influence of the computer-generated—the chopped-up, the sequenced—on human physicality. 

“I think there’s this conversation that’s been happening for decades.  It’s reaching a pretty cool point right now, where technologies like Sensory Percussion and other ones that are very into translating the vast world of computer-based, electronic music [are] bringing human expression into that [translation] in a more meaningful way than before.”

J Dilla’s effect on drumming was evident as early as 2000, when D’Angelo’s neo-sexy-funk-soul album, Voodoo, was released. On the album, drummer Questlove was influenced by J Dilla in a very similar way—he was advised to loosen his grip, to not play straightforwardly, to embrace the languid, unpredictable grooves that give the album its distinctive drunken funk.

But Ian incorporated more than just hip-hop into his drumming, as he would later demonstrate at the colloquium. On his acoustic drum set, he rattled off the stream of hi-hat flurries and disjointed kick drum beats that propel trap music. A snare drumroll suddenly dipped in volume right as the kick drum hit—a production technique called sidechaining. And, bewilderingly, he even managed to make the “sss-THWAP” of a drum being played backwards, by rattling the bottom of the snare drum and stopping it with the snap of a drumstick. It was almost like he was aiming to redefine what a drum could sound like, and to some degree, the meaning of “sound” itself.

“I love not knowing what a sound is when I hear it. The way that music is produced now, there’s this kind of spatialization that’s special to me. Like, back in the day you’d listen to the recording of an orchestra, and it’s just capturing the thing that happens in a room that’s a physical space. The trombones are over there. The violins are closer. Percussion’s way back. That’s how people experienced music, similar to seeing it live. But with electronic music, or any music made with computer—which is most music, whether it’s electronic or not—it could be like, ‘Oh the snare’s here, but the reverb is over there.’ The spatial aspect of it is totally fragmented.”

Image of Brandon Bakus via thrdcoast.com

Fittingly, the sources of Ian’s sound samples, as distorted as they are, are incredibly hard to pinpoint. A crisp blast of notes sounds like an icicle shattering. Tapping the rim of the drum elicits the sound of someone beating on a hollow, upside-down garbage pail. These are all just approximations, of course. They all fit within a “sound environment” that he creates through the instrument. After getting to know it, he can start experimenting.

“I’ll sort of find themes that I’m drawn to. And when I do, I’ll find a way to string them together.  From there, I kinda just do a bunch of takes, and when there’s a really good one, that’s it.”

This breaking apart and stitching together of sounds can be found in rock, pop, and, of course, electronic music. Current artists implementing this kind of fragmentation include Perfume Genius and Rahm, who is signed to Terrible Records along with artists like Solange. Ian particularly praised Rahm’s new record, Fault, saying it has “a lot of sounds that I just have no idea what they are…A lot of moments where things feel totally degraded and then the carpet’s swept out from under you.”

But even with all the recent development in technology—the ability to chop up, distort, and sample at an increasingly instantaneous manner—Ian in no way feels limited when playing just a classic, acoustic drum set. “I love that stuff almost more than ever.  Recently, I was asked to do an improv gig where I’m playing with another drummer, and the other drummer’s actually the guy who developed Sensory Percussion…And we looked at each other, and we were like, ‘Do you want to bring your Sensory Percussion setup?’ We’ve both been spending so much time on it that we were like, ‘Fuck it’—sorry. [Laughs] ‘Screw it! Let’s just play acoustic drums.’ And it was so fun.”

Next steps for Ian include more collaborations, production work, and projects involving choreographers and other forms of discipline. And although he’ll continue to dabble in visual art, he still considers music his “first language.”

“I have an Instagram and I got into using it in…I want to say 2012. ‘Cause I was bored on the road—you’re just sitting in a car every day, for five hours. I’d take a picture of pretty things that I’d see…I kept a visual diary of my life. I wouldn’t call myself a visual artist. I’m interested in aesthetics and stuff, but I’m definitely a noob.”

As for what he wanted students to take away from the colloquium, he kept it freeform and improvised: “The goal is really just to communicate what it is that I’m excited about and how I got there, and hopefully they’ll relate to that…There isn’t, like, a super clear moral of the story or anything that I’m trying to get people to walk away with, but hopefully it will be interesting.”

Talking to Ian honestly felt more like transcendental meditation: live outside of time. Redefine what a “sound” is. The only next logical step would be to ascend onto the astral plane, or something like that. But at the end of the colloquium, Ian made it clear that at the center of this musical-technological discussion, a sound groove ultimately dwells within a sound body. He imparted some wisdom given to him by his former teacher, composer Vince Di Mura: “He said, ‘One piece of advice for touring: Eat well.’ I was like…what? I thought you were going to say something like ‘Stay inspired.’ ‘Warm up.’ Something like that…But if you’re taking care of this…”

He gestured toward his entire body.

“Everything else is way more likely to work out.”