Brussels Philharmonic | an intimate connection with an instrument

an intimate connection with an instrument

It is often said that a musician must 'reinvent his instrument'. Glenn Gould's piano is not Martha Argerich's piano, for example. David Gilmour's guitar is not Keith Richards' guitar.

According to Tom De Cock finding your own style, or 'becoming yourself', for a musician is: reinventing his instrument.

Curious to experience Tom De Cock and his team live? Book your ticket today for A Walk into the Future on Saturday 18 June at 20:00 in Bozar.

In 2018, Tom De Cock was slowly approaching 40, and he felt the need to reinvent his instrument. This turned out to be 'Micro-percussion'. "It's not very complicated, but it's just my instrument, the instrument in which my existence as a musician has crystallised," Tom says.

Tom shaped the 'micro-percussion' arrangement in two phases: first from musical experiments with Gerrit Nulens, his fellow percussionist at Ictus, and with the choreographer Noé Soulier, for a dance performance called 'The Waves'. That was in 2018. Then Tom received a FRArt scholarship from the FRS-FNRS fund to build on his intuition.

The idea of micro-percussion is first and foremost pragmatic: Tom was tired of those percussion sets that fill up a whole truck. He wants to be able to take the train or plane with his instrument in a suitcase, like a flutist!

my aunt's bowl

The second idea is more ideological. It is also an aesthetic choice. The Western approach to percussion in contemporary music is generally associated with 'monumentality' and perhaps a certain 'visual bluff'. The same thing happened in the 1950s with electronic music culture - think of those photos of composers posing in front of their mammoth synthesizers! It's a whole idea of power, of mastery... In the field of non-Western percussion, on the other hand, the emphasis is more on an intimate relationship between the performer and the object on which he or she plays. The personal bond between the player and the chosen instrument is of great importance.

"This idea of an intimate relationship with the instrument can go very far, you know. For example, in my current setup there is a singing bowl (a Tibetan singing bowl) that is cracked, but it was a gift from my aunt. A cracked instrument doesn't sound good. But I realised this: if I turn it around and rub it with another singing bowl or a crotch, the sound is beautiful, totally new, and above all it is mine! Because in that sound is a part of my story, a story that no one else could tell in my place" says Tom.

Composers under 30 understand this in an instant. It doesn't take long to explain. Today's composers are more interested than ever in 'making music with everything': matches, rubber ducks, water bowls, shells, spoons and forks, ... The field of percussion is almost limitless, as John Cage predicted: "People may leave my concerts thinking they have heard noise, but they will hear unsuspected beauty in their everyday lives". Everyday objects or found objects now become percussion instruments in their own right.

focus on the skin

The third idea is acoustic. Tom has worked a lot as an orchestral musician, and he realises that distance 'erases' much of the beauty of the percussion sound. More specifically, you lose the whole lower and lower-medium register of the spectrum. What is left of a gong at 30 metres? High harmonics, especially, a very nice 'zuuuuuum', but the whole 'body' of the sound, the weight, the flesh, is gone. That's why he uses proximity microphones in my micro-percussion set, which capture the sound. He wants to hear the detail of the body of the sound. Film has taught us to appreciate the lines of a skin, the detail of a stone, or the breath in a voice. So it is in Tom's relationship with percussion.


The music he plays with Gerrit (Nulens) on the micro percussion set was composed with the choreographer Noé Soulier. It is first and foremost a music of 'gestures'. Noé works with gestures, actions, tasks, not with 'movement'. When Tom says 'movement', think of something geometrically neatly executed in space. Or think of an old Egyptian painting! Tom levitates: "For example, I describe a circle with my hand. But when I say action, it is something else: think of a sportsman throwing a ball. It's a different quality of movement, because there is a goal. Noé Soulier builds a fascinating choreographic career on a few basic actions: throwing, hitting, dodging, preparing. That's it, it's not much if you like, but this list of four actions supports thousands of variations."

During the studio work for 'The Waves', Noé asked his dancers to prepare fifty 20-second 'sentences' around these actions, hit, throw, prepare, dodge. Gerrit, Noé and Tom then composed 50 musical phrases that became the musical identity of these danced phrases.

Noé then filmed the dancers in silence while they improvised on this material. From this improvisation he extracted a series of moments, which he edited like a film editor and then gave to the dancers and musicians, like a score. There was a whole zigzag journey between improvisation and writing, between the collective and the individual. Our music comes from this unforgettable adventure with our dancing friends.

Interview with Tom De Cock by Jean-Luc Plouvier (mei 2022)