Jaki Liebezeit: Life, Theory and Practice of a Master Drummer
By Jono Podmore
An exploration of the life and legacy of Can drummer Jaki Liebezeit.
Publication date: January 2020Support this project
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Jaki Liebezeit is remembered as the groove and power behind Can, but he left another legacy – a complete practical theory of drumming.
This theory, often referred to as E-T after the Morse code symbols for dot and dash, is based on natural principles of movement that Jaki observed during his lifelong ethnological research into drumming. Producer Jono Podmore and journalist John Payne had been pestering Jaki for a number of years to write his theory down, but he always replied he’d do it when he was too old to play the drums. That never happened – his last gig was just weeks before his death on Jan 22nd 2017. Shortly after Jaki died Jono and John contacted Jaki’s drum group Drums off Chaos and long-term collaborator Burnt Friedman to see if the complete theory could be pieced together before it was lost or corrupted. Fortunately the basic principles had already been transcribed, and with the help of Jaki’s widow Birgit Berger and discographer Bryan O’Connell, we’ve been able to amass a comprehensive overview of not only the drum theory, but also Jaki’s profound theoretical and practical vision as applied throughout his life.
Jaki Liebezeit: Life, Theory and Practice of a Master Drummer includes:
· a full biography with exclusive, previously unpublished material, identifying themes and trends in Jaki’s life that manifested in his thinking and playing · an explanation of Jaki’s E-T theory · an in-depth discussion with Drums Off Chaos introducing the technical and craft aspects that were the expression of the system · an exploration of the philosophical aspects of Jaki’s work and outlook · an overview of Jaki’s selection of drums and percussion, highlighting his modified and hand-made equipment · the first ever complete discography of Jaki’s recordings · a selection of illustrations including previously unseen photos of Jaki and reproductions of his own artwork.
Jaki was a scrupulously ego-less man and we are careful not to beatify him, or worse promote ourselves on the back of his work. All proceeds from the book will go to Jaki’s estate, to be used to fund future creative ventures based on his thinking.
Jono Podmore (editor)
Producer, composer, musician and professor of music, Jono (aka Kumo) has been at heart of the underground since the 80s. While working with artists from Jamiroquai to Can to Jose Padilla, Jono’s own music has explored more experimental areas, including the analogue electronic collective Metamono. He runs the label Psychomat and is a regular contributor to online music magazine Getintothis.
Los Angeles-based veteran journalist and former music editor of the L.A. Weekly, John’s writing on the vanguard of contemporary music has been seen in the L.A. Times, Mojo, EQ, Arthur, High Times, Drum! and many other publications.
Drums Off Chaos
Jaki’s drum group and inner circle: performing, recording and studying together since 1982. Current members are:
Former member of Drums Off Chaos and first to transcribe the E-T system.
One of Germany’s leading electronic musicians with a career spanning almost 40 years, his 15 year partnership with Jaki resulted in pioneering electro-acoustic craft and a musical vocabulary that stands apart the formulas of Western European and Anglo-American music.
Bryan is a drummer. Jaki’s music and E-T system have been essential in his own work for several years. He lives and works in Ireland.
Extract from biography by Jono Podmore:
I first got the job of writing Jaki’s biography in 2003. I was living in Cologne at the time and the maternal engine of Spoon Records, Hildegard Schmidt (wife of Can founder Irmin) had decided a biography of each member of Can should appear on the Can DVD we were preparing for release. She knew Jaki and I got on well since we had worked together under her watchful eye in Irmin’s studio in their home in Provence.
Punctual as ever, Jaki made it up to my 5th floor flat in Bonnerstraße. What followed was an exercise on what not to include. Applying the reductionist and ego-free approach that he practiced in all other spheres of his life, like teenagers deciding who we wouldn’t invite to the party, we had side-splitting fun scratching names like Depeche Mode, Chet Baker, Michael Rother, Eurythmics and Brian Eno out of his biography. Überflüssig – superfluous – was my new German word that week.
As far as he was prepared to divulge, his life began at the age of 30 in 1968 when he joined Can…
Extract from discussion with Drums off Chaos:
Jaki Liebezeit, best known as the master timekeeper of Cologne’s legendary esoteric-rock unit Can, pursued over a decades-long career an enduring fascination with the core truths of time as expressed via rhythm. Not just a musician who wished to perfect a technique or expand his range of drumming styles, Liebezeit took his fascination deeper, to realms in which the very whys and wherefores of rhythm’s true place in any musical mode were of paramount substance –– as was by extension its metaphorical relationship to the human being’s role in larger, collective society.
From his revered Can recordings and live performances, along with the numerous other drum-centric musical projects that followed right up to his death in January 2017, Liebezeit had become famously known as the drummer whose sense of time was so accurate that he was far better than any mere drum machine. This is a reputation he sometimes laughed about, though one could see a twinkle in his eye that suggested that just maybe he suspected it was true. Jaki knew that deep down he and potentially all of us can be flesh-blood-bone analogues of programmed drum machines, a piece of equipment that, after all, simply executes the rhythmic patterns it has been programmed to play.
Why not, thought Jaki, apply the schematics of what a drum machine does to a codified set of rules for human musicians so that they too could play with more accuracy than a programmed rhythm box? His own playing –– astonishingly spare and to the fleshy ear note-perfectly precise –– had benefited enormously from applying a strictly held-to set of do’s and don’ts for the proper order and exact placement of drum notes in any given musical scenario. In addition, and perhaps more profoundly, Liebezeit came to a realization that such a codification of rhythmic method would at core build upon a foundation of harmonic hierarchy –– i.e., drum notes, he found out, are not just beats, they’re like friendly cousins in the overall harmonic texture of a musical composition.
Liebezeit, who never considered himself a teacher-type as such, found himself the centre of a group of fellow drummers that gravitated towards him and his system: Drums Off Chaos. A few years ago one of the group, Gero Sprafke, transcribed the system in detail. Roughly analogous to Morse code, Liebezeit’s system is referred to as E-T, the E and the T coming from the Morse code to represent the dot and the dash respectively.
Extract from the theory, collated by Drums Off Chaos:
The primary characters are ‘dot’ and ‘dash’. These form the smallest possible units of the rhythmic system.
First rule of play:= A hit with one hand - relative time value of 1.= Two hits with one hand - relative time value of 2.
These two units contain in themselves fundamental dynamic information, which will be explained later step by step.
The entire rhythmic system is inseparable from movement and the effect of inertia on the arms, hands and sticks as well the rebound from the drum head.
In order to be able to understand the dynamic profile within the rhythms, an exact analysis and awareness of the basic physical processes and movements is vital.
Following the rules of the game without a working understanding of the physical context would be contrary to the spirit of the originator.
”...do what the stick wants.” (Jaki Liebezeit)
- 19th September 2019 We’ve gone to press - and an Update to the Update!
The book is now at the printers - another massive step has been taken!
Meanwhile, in the last update “Launch Party 8/11/19” I mentioned that:
“Copies of the hard back will be available on the night and still available on pre-order.”
It turns out it will actually be the paperback trade edition for sale on the night.
Sorry about that.
In fact, as we’ve now gone to press…17th September 2019 Launch Party 8/11/19
The book is now ready for print so tickets are now on sale for the Launch Party!
More info and tickets here:
We’ve managed to put together a star studded line-up for what will be a very special night,…3rd January 2019 Tribute Concert video
Happy New Year!
On January 22nd 2018, the first anniversary of Jaki Liebezeit’s death, musicians from many of the diverse avenues of Jaki’s musical life, including many of the contributors to the book, gathered to play a tribute concert to a sell-out audience at the Philharmonie in Cologne. Fortunately for those of you who missed it, the event was filmed, and a trailer, including interviews, is…7th August 2018 Manuscript received!
Just a quick note to let you know that the manuscript for the book has been submitted and received by Unbound; which means the painstaking but now irrevocable process of publishing now begins!
The book will slowly become a reality over the next 12 months and I'll keep you updated at various milestones along the way. It was a very exciting moment when we pieced a ll the chapters from…17th May 2018 Jaki's cassettes - audio!
We're 94% funded now - so hopefully we'll be able to go into production very soon.
One of the chapters in the book is an overview of Jaki's highly specialised collection of drums and other equipment - and an important piece was his cassette machine. Here's an extract from the text:
"The essential Jaki studio. Real low tech. A mono cassette recorder connected to a speaker Jaki had made…27th April 2018 celebrating 90% and a new chapter
We’re now on 90% funding so we’re nearly there!
Thanks to a generous pledge from the Jaki Liebezeit Foundation which is currently in the final throes of being established, we now have little more than £1000 to raise before going in to production. Thank you so much for the support so far.
Meanwhile the book itself is expanding! We’re going to add another chapter: JL notes by Manos Tsangaris.…19th October 2017 Tribute Concert - new pledges
Thanks for your support so far!
We've just updated the site with 2 new pledges, both concerning a fabulous star-studded gig in Cologne...
On the first anniversary of Jaki's death next year there will be a Tribute Concert for Jaki featuring some of the many wonderful musicians he worked with over his long career, including
2nd October 2017 Extract from Biography
- Jah Wobble
- Damo Suzuki
- Irmin Schmidt
- Gianna Nannini
To celebrate reaching 40% of our target funding, here's a further extract from the biography section of the book, covering the years of Phantom Band (78 to 84) aka Stunde Null. If you enjoyed this then please pass it on! Further extracts from other sections of the book will appear as we progress with the funding.
Alongside a burgeoning career as a session drummer (playing on…
These people are helping to fund Jaki Liebezeit: Life, Theory and Practice of a Master Drummer.
Steph Le batteur