Experimenting with Sound

Italian drummer Nico Lippolis talks about his story, his music, and meeting the Teachings

nico lippolisMy name is Nico Lippolis and I’m from Italy but I’ve been living in Berlin for 20 years. I play drums and run a drums school in Berlin as well as doing research on sound and music in general, music therapy and stuff like that.

I started music when I was 6 years old with piano. My father insisted I study some musical instrument and decided I should study piano because it was more a classical study. After a while I discovered a need for rhythm in my body, so I left piano for percussion and drums because I listened to the rhythm in all the music I heard. So it was a real spontaneous change from the piano to the drums.

At the beginning, I was good at piano so my teacher was really surprised when I said I did not want it anymore. Perhaps because my nature is freer and classical training is really strict so somehow I did not really like this way of teaching, but drums gave me this feeling of freedom and gave it really fast. Actually when I first tried, I didn’t really start on the drums, I would just bang everywhere, and with my sisters we started a small band in our dreams in which I was the drummer, one was playing a fake keyboard and the other was singing. It was our game, but I started to get involved with rhythm.

I would always watch drummers on television or in some live concerts, which were rare at the time in South Italy, but I really absorbed this in a spontaneous way. No one was telling me what to do, it was my interest. When I told my father that I wanted a drum set, he said, “You’ve never played drums, if we buy a drum set you won’t know how to play it. So let’s go to a friend of mine, he has drums.” So we went to the house of my father’s friend, and when I saw the drums I just went behind them and started playing as if I already always knew it somehow, there was so much preparation inside of me. So we got the drum set even though it was an old cheap set but then I started working with a band and since that time I’ve never stopped playing.

At the beginning I started playing with bands and friends. I did my first concert for a school party in a big theatre in town – the whole school was there. When we finished everyone was excited and for me this was the sign of what I wanted to do: I wanted this feeling and to share these emotions and this energy with people in this life situation through drums. And this is what I did.

I started studying the instrument and for a couple of years I did this path alone, listening, playing and rehearsing with bands. It was getting serious and I started studying jazz. I was lucky to find this old jazz drum teacher, a very experienced one, who had lived through the whole swing era, after the war, when American and Afro Cuban music came to Europe and all the music changed. He really transmitted to me his love for this period of music and I am still completely a fan of the 50s and 60s, the bebop stuff, and for me this was the most revolutionary period in the history of drumming and music, also related to the political movements of the black Americans who were pushing this music in clubs and it became a real culture that traveled all over the world.

However, as I was growing up I noticed that the political situation and cultural movement in Italy wasn’t really happening or was really closed. I was 18 and I had already played some concerts with a couple of bands in Italy. I was studying music but found that the situation in Italy and the music scene there was too limited. I wanted to expand, learn about other languages and cultures because I always saw music as strictly related to life experience, so I decided to make my own experience and find the teacher, the school I wanted in Europe or the world.

The reason I specifically chose Berlin was because I had heard there was a big experimental scene there, the biggest in Europe. For me at that time experimental meant that people with nothing do something that is interesting on an international scale, with less material reality, only with creativity, and dedication, doing something extraordinary. Berlin is a really big city and there is always a feeling of change, the time of revolution and evolution. Berlin had experienced WW2 and then the Russians divided the city and now it is changing again. It is always developing.

It was 1994 when I came to Berlin. I started to meet musicians and go to clubs and the whole story started really spontaneously, every day was always a new surprise, connections with people who were similar to me, or were looking for the same kind of aspect. I think this kind of characteristic is the same one that is still alive in Berlin today, which is why Berlin is a kind of magnet for people who are looking for something different or creating something – it is a very inspiring city somehow. There are the conditions for that. IMG_0731.GIF

I am a very open minded musician and like to play many styles so for this reason I’ve had the opportunity to play in many different kinds of bands. I also have my own band and of course I do music that I like to play. When I hear people play and I like their music I play with them and we start collaborating together.

nico 3 jpeg cropRight now I’m working on six or seven different projects such as “The 2930’s” (http://www.the2930s.de), “Ur-” ( http://tideofsound.net/ur/) and a new experimental record with the artist Giovanni Verga (http://fieldoscope.com/album/foreign-presence-in-the-system) that range from punk rock, to 60s rock and roll, to bebop jazz, to experimental and electronic music, self-made instruments, in a really broad range with international bands like Kamikaze Queens, a punk rockabilly band with two female vocalists and an upright bass player, a guitarist and drums. With this band we have recorded two albums, a couple of 45s, and traveled all over Europe and twice in the States, playing at festivals and with great bands like Queens of the Stone Age or Motor Head. We’ve also played in clubs, we’ve had experiences playing everywhere. It is a very nice successful band also with a cult status. Right now we are taking a break because one of the two singers is having a baby and my girlfriend has also had a baby, so we’re having a baby break.

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At the moment I’m involved in an association called ‘Peninsula’. Because Berlin is a platform and magnet for so many international artists, we found out that there are many contemporary artists from Italy living in Berlin. We called it ‘Peninsula’ because it was founded by Italian artists and Italy is a peninsula but we work with international artists not necessarily Italians. When we met we discovered that since we share the same interests in various fields such as contemporary art, visual arts, music and composition or whatever, it would be good to have some kind of platform where we have a name, where we can organize. Last year we started working on it so now the association is becoming more concrete and physical.

This is what we did with our first event when we presented ‘Peninsula’. Each of us invited another artist, not only Italians, so we had artists from all over the world, including some big names. The event was mainly visual art with painting, installations, videos, and then we had a party with a DJ. To create a transition between the exhibition and the party, I did a set of experimental sound leading the people from the very intellectual way of seeing all the works of the artists to the active part of the party but still creating a special sound for this occasion.

It turned out to be a really nice event with a lot of interest, also from institutions. We had meetings with the Italian Embassy in Berlin, the Italian Cultural Institute, and received several invitations to the contemporary museum of art in Rome where we will be doing a project at the end of 2015.

My musical development has always been accompanied by philosophy and reading, sometimes even more than rehearsing drums or listening to music. Then about ten years ago I read a translation of the ‘Tibetan Book of the Dead’ by Chögyal Namkhai Norbu, in Italian, and when I heard the explanation of the Bardo Tödrol, liberation through hearing, I thought it sounded really interesting for a musician or someone who works with sound all the time. I was already researching the shamanic cultures, especially the function of the drum in all these cultures, and how the shamans use the drums to go into a certain state, to help people and heal people.

I read this book and it was the beginning of several other books, and then gradually I started to apply what I read, with myself, with meditation, with practice, and this manifested into meeting Namkhai Norbu in Berlin when he came for the retreat about two years ago. It took me a while. I was aware of what he did, of Merigar, but knowing through reading, however, when I had the chance to experience I did. This was a great and beautiful experience. And now again here in Dzamling Gar even more, because Rinpoche is always around.

So I always try to apply these concepts [of the Teachings] to music – the concept of creating music, visualizing sound, hearing sounds and going deep into the quality of sounds, also when I play drums. Developing this awareness and concentration, which is also what I teach because with drums you really have to be aware with your body because you play with four different limbs and they do different things. Even in this exercise you have to have some kind of abstraction because you have to be able to watch what you are doing, to analyze a bit what you are doing, but then at the same time if you want to play in a musical way you also have to let go and be relaxed in your physical body. And then the music comes out, the instrument starts to breathe, because drums can be an awful instrument if you don’t play them properly or touch them properly.

IMG_0735When I started to apply these methods my way of playing changed completely. Physically I was more relaxed, I was more focused and probably less ego involved, because you can imagine in a band situation everyone wants to emerge somehow. And this makes the difference between a professional mature musician and a beginner – to play for the music, for the people, to give a positive feeling, to feel it by yourself, too, to be in the state of calm, of awareness and being one with the instrument. I have really studied this a lot and through practice of the instrument, practice of meditation, through reading, applying teachings, it is still a very interesting path to take and I am really happy to be able to do it. Let’s see where it takes me.