Perfect Sound Forever

David Van Tieghem interview

by Jason Gross (February 1996)

David Van Tieghem first remembers making music with pots and pans on the kitchen floor when he was about five years old. As a teenager, he taught himself to play drums, and then studied percussion with Justin DiCioccio, of N.Y.C.'s LaGuardia High School of Performing Arts. He later attended Manhattan School of Music as a student of modern percussion pioneer Paul Price. From such modest and humble origins, Van Tieghem has had a very impressive career.

You started out by banging around some kitchen items when you were a kid. How did that turn into a career of music for you?

I always had this feeling as a kid that I would be on stage, although I never knew what I would actually do on the stage. It wasn't until the Beatles and the British invasion coincided with a case of 4th Grade mumps, which allowed me to listen to the radio all day long, that I became hooked on music, although I never thought I'd be a musician. At one point, I asked my Dad if I could take drum lessons, although I don't remember where I got the idea. Anyway, that caught on, and later in high school as a drummer in rock bands, I was luckily also exposed to other types of experimental music by composers such as Xenakis, Partch, Stockhausen, Reich and Cage, and my direction changed again. I started collecting anything that made an interesting sound (and was also inexpensive), which included scrap metal, children's toys, and various pots and pans - which is when I realized how prophetic, in a way, my early percussion experiments were. I was amused to find myself doing the same thing as a professional career...

That's interesting when you mention using "non-instuments" to make music. Do you think that there's too much of a division between what we think of as "instruments" and any items we can use to make sounds?

In short, yes - at least for me. I think of all sound as being available to me. Unusual sounds are not just a novelty or a flavoring or an effect for me. There's potential music in everything.

You've chosen drums as your primary instrument. In African countries, this instrument has a lot of social meaning and language to it. Do you see playing drums as having a different meaning here and with your own work?

Well, certainly in Western society, the idea of drumming (or music or dancing) being sacred, and an integral part of daily life, has changed into thinking of it more as a form of entertainment or an art form in/of itself. Of course, popular music can communicate very strong emotions and ideas, and can be very spiritual. I guess I am looking to move people in some way with my percussion playing and my music, perhaps to help them hear the world in a new way. What exactly it communicates is not alway easy to verbalize - but that's why we need the music to articulate it, because it's pre- or post-verbal.

It's also just purely pleasure to play drums - the immediate connection between your body and the rhythms.

I also see myself as freeing the voices of the instruments I play, because the beautiful ringing of some old ashtray would just remain inert without my attention, and my mallets (unless somebody knocks it on to the floor and it speaks by accident). Rather than trying to tune the objects I find so that they fit into a culturally imposed intonation system, I'm attracted to the idea of using the sounds as I find them. I try and let them lead me into discovering how they are best played, so that all the potential sound (voice/language) within might be revealed and shared.

Going along with this then, do you really think then that just like the way you can play an instrument that the instrument itself can play you in some way?

Not play me so much as guide me, or give me clues or inspiration. They may speak, but it's up to me to create the appropriate context for these voices. I also feel like I use percussion instruments to do my speaking for me in a way, so the roles are blurred a bit.

Do you think that in an electronic age that acoustic instruments (i.e. percussion) can still have any kind of meaning, especially as synthesizers, sequencers and drum machines produce a lot of music we hear?

Yes, and perhaps they have even more meaning now because of this...

What kind of projects have you been working on now?

"The Grey Zone" is a play by Tim Blake Nelson, directed by Douglas Hughes, now playing at MCC Theater, 120 West 28th St., NYC. (Reservations: 212-727-7765). It's been extended until at least Feb. 10, probably until Feb. 24, and might move after that. I wrote the music and did the sound design. It's based on a true story taking place at Auschwitz, 1944.

"Sabina" is a play by Willy Holtzman, directed by Melia Bensussen, opening March 6 at Primary Stages Theatre, 354 West 45th St., NYC. It's about Freud, Jung and one of Jung's patients. Again, I did the music and sound design.

Besides the new album I'm working on, these are the two main things going on. There's also a WNYC-FM live broadcast from Merkin Concert Hall on West 67th St., NYC, featuring Peter Gordon's Love of Life Orchestra (who I'll be playing drums with), and Laurie Anderson, on Feb. 15 at 8 p.m.