The Librarian

Rhythm philosophy

From time to time an announcement comes out of the blue, heralding new music that will be available in just a matter of weeks. So it was in April 2005, when announced that a new record was available for pre-order. ‘The release is a new 12″ vinyl single featuring the work of two acclaimed musicians – Burnt Friedman and Jaki Liebezeit. This 12″ release features a mix of one of the tracks from the very exciting forthcoming project that David Sylvian and Steve Jansen have been working on along with Burnt Friedman. The vinyl features three tracks by Burnt Friedman and Jaki Liebezeit, one of which is entitled ‘The Librarian’ which was co-written by and features vocals from David. Though this is a different mix to the one that will appear on the Sylvian/Jansen/Friedman album, it provides a hint of what to expect from the new record which is due later this year on samadhisound.’

It would be another six months before the Nine Horses album would surface. In the meantime, there was this unexpected collaboration to enjoy and time to explore the music of these new musical partners. Ex-Can drummer Jaki Liebezeit was a familiar name from the ambient work with Holger Czukay earlier in Sylvian’s career, but it was immediately evident that Jaki’s contribution was much more pivotal here. Indeed, his assured rhythms were what really hit me as I listened to the ‘mini-lp’ for the first few times. The percussion was… well, a bit weird, unlike anything I’d experienced before. I found it strangely unsettling.

The Out in the Sticks release was in fact part of a project that had begun with the album Secret Rhythms by Friedman and Liebezeit on Friedman’s Nonplace label in 2002. This would become a series with Secret Rhythms 2 following quickly after Nine Horses, and ultimately a fifth volume released in 2013 over a decade after the initial instalment. I immersed myself in the first album, a series of instrumentals with a distinctive ensemble – bass guitar and drums (but this was no regular rhythm section) supplemented by programmed beats and heard alongside clarinet, trombone, vibraphone and guitars. A quite extraordinary blend.

When Snow Borne Sorrow arrived many of these elements could still be heard, but the obvious difference was that Steve Jansen took on drums throughout, with Jaki Liebezeit’s performance on ‘The Librarian’ replaced with Steve’s playing. Indeed, David Sylvian described in interviews how some of the time signatures of the pieces were altered in the process of exchanging one drum part for the other. To this amateur musician, it was mind-bending to contemplate that this might even be possible.

For well over a decade now I’ve been fascinated by the roots of the Nine Horses project in Secret Rhythms. What a thrill then to dive deep into this topic with Burnt Friedman recently. It turned out to be a masterclass in the philosophy of rhythm from a deep-thinker and long-time experimenter.

‘Jaki and I shared an interest in “non-Western-informed” ways of music making, especially in the field of drumming. We came to realise that there are obvious commonalities in grooves and their execution between non-Western local ensembles all around the globe, even though those groups haven’t heard of each other. That’s why we began speaking of universal laws of motion.’

Fascinating! So what does Burnt see as the fundamental difference between the approach to music in the West compared with that in the wider world? ‘The main general distinction, apart from the instrument itself, is the use of sheet music, notes, etc. [in the West], as opposed to sheer practice. Or, in philosophical terms, “theory abandoning its phenomena” on the Western end, and musicians succumbing gladly to the natural laws of motion on the non-Western end.’ Those ‘natural laws’ lead to a breadth of rhythmic possibilities far beyond the 4/4 or 3/4 time that so dominates most of the music we hear in the West.

In order to embrace this culture of rhythm beyond established norms, a complete transformation was required of the instrument itself – the drum-kit. ‘In 2000, when I called Jaki to start this project, he made himself comfortable with a radical drum set-up, abandoning pedals and footwork in order to investigate further the basic rules of drumming. The American drum-kit, that has spread the Western hemisphere and beyond to this day, effectively asserts itself as normative on drumming styles and theory.’ To break the shackles, Jaki constructed a new kit which Burnt describes as, ‘a basic tom-tom kind of drum-kit, intentionally stripped of cultural layers. It was conceived by a former jazz and rock drummer whose work was orientated towards – and whose heart leaned towards – a universal or cosmological grounding of musical phenomena, and music as a tool in enlightenment and spirituality.

‘To put it simply, as Jaki often tried, we are not camels walking on four legs, but humans walking on two legs only, hence one has to reach elsewhere.’

That’s an analogy requiring exploration! ‘What Jaki meant is, to create a rhythm we must not use legs and hands, but can do it with the left and right hand – and using a low and a high impact, like bass and tom. The American drum-kit, for jazz and then rock, is too difficult to handle naturally; and thus inherently against the laws of movement – how the energy wants to flow. Look at a rock/jazz drummer, their hands cross over – right hand to the hi-hat playing metric and left hand reaching to the snare playing ‘off’ beats – and the right foot hammers towards a big drum triggered by a mini-movement of the feet with the most enormous impact. The snare sound goes straight into the face; the big bass drum goes to the other side, away from the player. This constellation alone couldn’t be more awkward, conducive to anything but balance.

‘One dances on left and right foot, too; so, in order to balance properly while dancing or drumming one relies on the motion pattern created between the poles left and right, or vice versa. The technique is fundamentally different and I conclude that one can’t execute odd time signatures naturally on an American kit. By “naturally” I mean that every stroke and its pause is the result of a balanced motion pattern, not merely invented, inserted or imitated. A jazz or rock drum-kit sound idiom would stick out unequivocally, just like an Indian classical instrument tuned to rock would not create rock music.’

In order to execute beats in such complex metre, Jaki also developed a new methodology for visualising what should be played. This became known as the E-T code, as Burnt explains, ‘E being depicted as dot and T being dash, derived from the Morse Code as signs indicating “time interval value 1” and “time interval value 2”. In other words, it represents the octave in rhythm.’ As I understand the notation system, a dot dictates a strike with one hand, whilst a dash requires two hits by the other hand with the duration of two dots. Accents are only possible after a dash. ‘This binary code was sufficient to memorise all sorts of motion formulas that helped Jaki to perform his grooves and have influenced the sequenced materials that I produced according to that schema.’

Jaki Liebezeit and Burnt Friedman, By the Lake, Berlin, 2015, photograph by Thomas Jauk

I will forever regret missing the opportunity to see Jaki Liebezeit play live at Cafe OTO in London in 2015. Work or general busyness must have intervened. I’d have loved to have experienced the then 77 year-old drummer constructing his signature hypnotic beats with a precision that – by all accounts of those who witnessed it – defied belief. Sadly, Jaki passed away early in 2017.

So, how did Burnt and Jaki work? ‘We were looking for new grooves, something we would want to listen to. Either I came to the rehearsal with sequenced layouts stemming from studio creations a day before, or Jaki would point out a groove that he had figured. The idea of instant music was paramount, meaning that we would “improvise” but rely on a pattern as an unfolding musical motion-schema. Such grooves, basal motion patterns, or periodic formulas – especially when odd numbered – are inspiring in a very particular way. Whenever those numbers are engaged, it allows the players to take different perspectives each time they play; it is a continuous learning process that doesn’t come to an end. Rhythms are conceived as cyclic, within which accent points shift naturally according to perspective.’

The question of unconventional odd-number time signatures strikes to the heart of the difference between the Friedman/Liebezeit version of ‘The Librarian’ and the Nine Horses one. But first, what was the origin of David Sylvian’s involvement? ‘Flanger, was a duo between Atom™ and me, starting in 1996. It was the drum programming on Flanger’s Templates recording (Ntone/Ninja Tune 1997/8) that attracted David and Steve to work something out with me I believe. I know that this record was what caught their attention. My memories might also be inaccurate, but I remember that I was in the middle of the Secret Rhythms production, working on something that Jaki and me once laid down, named ‘120-5’ – later ‘The Librarian’ – when David reached out. I provided David with a variety of sketches, five tracks I believe, from the current odd-numbered sequences and melodies, under the impression that David wanted to contribute to the project – ‘120-5’ amongst them.

‘This was when, in fact, but without yet knowing, we started working on parallel records, me mixing for Friedman, Liebezeit, Sylvian; whereas David, Steve and me were producing a trio that turned into Nine Horses. ‘The Librarian’ became a part of both records, in two pretty divergent interpretations though.’

In each version of the song the drums come to the fore as Sylvian sings:

‘We will lie back
On a pillow of the whitest snow’

Listening to Jaki and Steve’s performances at this point, they differ markedly. Jaki’s pattern displays the mesmeric cyclical quality founded on those ‘universal laws of motion’. You can visualise the balanced, continuous movement across the tom-toms that Burnt describes: circular and repeating. Steve’s part is more linear and develops using the distinctive range of a kit embracing pedal-work and cymbals. How unique it is to be able to listen to how two master-craftsmen approach the same composition.

The Friedman/Liebezeit version of ‘The Librarian’ was counted in five. Sylvian and Jansen decided to employ a different ‘motion formula’. Burnt: ‘They “updated” the rhythm mode (scale) from 5 or 10, to 3 or 6, which is more appropriate to the jazz kit that Steve is playing. I was not involved with the mixing once Steve had played a new drum groove over my ‘120-5’/’The Librarian’ sequences. I gladly passed over to David and Steve to handle the mixes.’

From its first bars, ‘The Librarian’ introduced us to a new cast of musicians with whom we would later grow familiar on Snow Borne Sorrow. Hayden Chisholm’s breathy clarinet opens the track, and towards the end of the original version he contributes a near manic section of fast-repeated notes which are matched with an equally energetic pattern from Jaki. Morten Grønvad had been working with Friedman’s Flanger incarnation since 1996 and brings his distinctive 1960s vibraphone sound. Guitarist Tim Motzer had come to Burnt’s attention through his concerts in Cologne with Ursula Rucker, recording his parts for the collaboration back home in Philadelphia. His clean guitar sound is central to both versions of the track, but for the Nine Horses mix Sylvian and Jansen repeatedly use a three note progression of what sounds like electric guitar (first heard at around 2min 50 secs) which gives the piece momentum as it dovetails with their percussion treatment. I’ve never identified this part on the original despite it being a hallmark of the later version. As well as Jaki’s drumming being removed from the Nine Horses mix, the original bass from Daniel Schroeter is replaced with new playing from Keith Lowe.

I put it to Burnt that this was an unusual mix of instruments and musicians from different backgrounds. How did this come together and why these choices? ‘All of the instrument players’ takes were put down in a second recording process. The original basic track is Jaki’s drum pattern and my sequencer layouts, which then were overdubbed, edited and torn apart. This may explain the sometimes rather surreal atmosphere. “Different backgrounds” is by all means a welcome premise. The short answer to your question is that I write what I enjoy reading.’

Given how central Jaki Liebezeit’s inventiveness was to the original concepts and recordings, it seemed to me that it might have been difficult to ‘let go’ of the pieces and allow them to be transformed for the project with David Sylvian and Steve Jansen. Also, whilst as listeners we got to know Snow Borne Sorrow as whole, there are clearly tracks that started off life as part of Secret Rhythms, and others that were Jansen/Sylvian collaborations for their intended album together. Can all this possibly come together as a cohesive whole for Friedman? ‘The quality and essence of a piece depends on its hermetic structure, so that I can only compare between each single title, not between the groups of attributes. My favourite tracks from that album do not completely match with my own contributions.’ Was there one he felt worked particularly well? “Wonderful World’ is a piece I really like, hence my extended remix.’

Secret Rhythms 2.1

On Secret Rhythms 2 there is a ‘cd version’ of the Friedman/Liebezeit mix of the ‘The Librarian’. It runs straight into ‘Mikrokasper’ which is sub-titled ‘120-5’ and was also derived from the original sketch shared with Sylvian. As ‘The Librarian’ becomes ‘Mikrokasper’, Friedman’s programmed percussion takes over from Jaki’s playing, and we hear how his electronics continue to employ the same geometrical language. I have these tracks on my playlist, preceded by ‘The Sticks’, an evolution of the track ‘Out in the Sticks’ from the mini-LP release.

Following my discussion with Burnt I’ve been listening to his first release with David Sylvian and to the Secret Rhythms series with a whole new perspective on the philosophy of rhythm employed. New layers revealed through fresh insights shared.

‘The Librarian (120/5)’

Hayden Chisholm – clarinet; Burnt Friedman – Ms20 synth, kid piano, programming, steel drum, percussion, melodica; Morten Grønvad – vibraphone; Jaki Liebezeit – drums; Tim Motzer – electric guitar; Daniel Schroeter – bass guitar; David Sylvian – vocals, lyrics

Music by Burnt Friedman and Jaki Liebezeit. Lyrics by David Sylvian.

Originally from Out in the Sticks, Nonplace, 2005

Lyrics © copyright samadhisound publishing

Download links: ‘The Librarian’ cd version’ (bandcamp); ‘The Sticks’ (bandcamp); ‘Mikrokasper’ (bandcamp)

Physical media links: Out in the Sticks vinyl (nonplace) Secret Rhythms 2 (nonplace)

Grateful thanks to Burnt Friedman for sharing his insights. All quotes are from our 2019 conversation.

Burnt has contributed in depth to the book Jaki Liebezeit: Life, Theory and Practice of a Master Drummer by Jono Podmore. The book, crowdfunded through Unbound, was published subsequent to my interview with Burnt and can be ordered here

‘I come to the conclusion that “traditional” music is the most radical form of music making; so I very much lean towards the non-Western approach which sheds light on musical universals instead of repeating cultural imprints.’ Burnt Friedman, 2019


7 thoughts on “The Librarian”

  1. ‘They “updated” the rhythm mode (scale) from 5 or 10, to 3 or 6, which is more appropriate to the jazz kit that Steve is playing.

    I wouldn’t put it like that. The kit set-up is — to my mind as a drummer and composer — wholly irrelevant to metre and time signature and I’m positive that musicians as well-travelled and eclectic in their tastes as Jansen/Sylvian had no interest in some kind of cultural dominance of the West. That idea seems very laboured. The simple fact is the original track does not groove. It is not enough simply to play in a odd-numbered time signature. As Steve Reich will tell you, it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing. The original tries and fails to swing. The Nine Horses Version swings. But Jansen/Sylvian did not update anything: the 6/8 phrasing is in the original, laid awkwardly across the 5/8 in the manner of someone who has just recently read about polyrhythm but failed to master it in any practical way. Jansen and Sylvian simply see the potential there, pick it up and underpin it with the drums and vocal line so the song can groove. What began as close and awkward becomes light and airy. What began as intellectual posturing becomes instinctual, atavistic and emotional. That is and always has been their approach.


  2. The relationship between Jaki Liebezeit/Burnt Friedman’s rhythm counted in 5 and our inclination to recognise more familiar beats in 3 (or 4) is at the heart of the changing time signature of ‘The Librarian’ from its original version to Nine Horses. Following the publication of Jono Podmore’s book, Burnt kindly drew my attention to this interview on Jaki’s theory and practice with drummer Bryan O’Connell in which he demonstrates how we might hear a beat in 3, when in fact it is counted in 5 once another pattern is overlaid:

    As I said in the original article I’m grateful to have both versions and to be able to hear how the different patterns employed change the feel of the song.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great article/interview. The only thing I take issue with is that it’s somehow impossible to play odd-meter rhythms on a standard kit. Jaki’s own work belies that (i.e., his work with Jah Wobble), as do many other drummers, from Joe Morello to Bill Bruford.


  4. Fantastic article as always, have put ‘Sticks’ in my Bandcamp wishlist, love this version of ‘The Librarian’. I’m no musician, but I love rhythm & this is superb. Thanks as always for opening my musical ear.

    Liked by 1 person

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