Katharina Ernst on polyrhythms, electromagnetic field recordings and motherhood

Born 1987 in Vienna, Katharina Ernst is a fine arts/painting graduate. She started playing drums at the age of nine. Her artistic practice is richly varied, taking in various forms of performance, choreography, and visual art along the way. Previous musical collaborations include the likes of Ken Vandermark, Peter Kutin, dieb13, Christina Kubisch, Martin Siewert. 

Ernst unites abstract composition and polyrhythmic solo performance on her absorbing debut solo album, Extrametric. The basis of the recording initially comprised drum exercises requiring deep concentration to propel separated elements forward into richly patterned grooves. Extrametric is the result of a long-lasting process of personal focus – the oldest rhythm on the record dates back a full 7 years – Katharina having dedicatedly refined her practice to focus on unusual structures and polymetric beats. The resultant performances reveal hitherto unexplored rhythmic layers. Tellingly, the artist refers to these pieces as études – musical ‘studies’ – describing the album as based more around a concept than any musical genre.

You started playing drums very early. Why do you think you gravitated to this instrument?

I think I just fell for the drums because it’s such a great instrument. I was nine years old and my mother, who is a musician too, took me to a jazz workshop. To me, drummers seemed to be the coolest of all students and I admired them. Also, even at that early age, I realized that it was more of a boy thing to play drums and I think I wanted to break that idea. But I remember that coolness played a major role.

How has your drumming style developed over the years? Can you talk about the techniques and technical aspects of your work?

I’m glad that already my first teacher always kept an eye on how I was sitting on my throne, how I was holding the sticks etc. For me, the physical aspects of drumming are becoming more and more important the longer I play. This is where I learn a lot about myself. Sometimes practicing even feels like a physical meditation, going deeply inside without thinking, trying to reduce blocks and improve playing. Sometimes I actually feel the drum set is like an extension of my body. I started with basic drum exercises, stick control, rock grooves and stuff like that. Everything was in 4/4, four bar forms etc. Then came the Jazz and the comping, soloing and transcribing other drummer’s playing. Still mostly in 4/4 or 3/4. But very soon I started to get interested in odd meters, subdivisions and polyrhythms. I have always been attracted to complex things, and additionally to the music I was practicing and playing with the bands I had, I started to practice triplets, quintuplets, septuplets and simple rhythmical layering (three over two, three over four) without actually applying any of those yet. Over the years, this practice has come increasingly into my focus, and I released my solo debut LP Extrametric, a conceptual album with polyrhythmic compositions only.

On your record, Extrametric, the oldest rhythm is seven years old. What does this entail? How do you arrive at a certain rhythm, research it, subvert it, how do you personalize a rhythm?

Polyrhythms are complex rhythms, and it is difficult to play them because basically every limb has to play independently, or, better, interdependently. It takes a long time to develop, compose and practice a polyrhythmic figure that is playable for a single person on the drums (without loops or a computer) to the point of being able to perform it on stage or record it. This is where the seven years come from. Before, I usually had to construct those rhythms, but nowadays, after years of practicing uneven and odd meters, n-tolics and all that, it happens that they come to me naturally. This is what I prefer. Once the rhythmical core is clear, it’s all about orchestration and arrangement. Which sounds/instruments do I want to use? Which elements do I need, which frequencies? When are they coming in? etc. Sometimes I have to appropriate new instruments or techniques, eg. a drum synthesizer.

You have collaborated with many noteworthy music/sound artists, among them Ken Vandermark and Christina Kubisch, a noted sound artist, professor, composer from the first generation of sound artists. Can you talk about the collaboration with Christina Kubisch, in particular?

Christina Kubisch and I started working together in 2018. We met in Vancouver in 2016 and liked each other’s performance. When we discovered that we both live in Berlin, we decided to start a collaboration. We began exchanging sound material in early 2018, and met for tryouts several times. She composed a piece for drums and a playback track for me and her from what we had done. It’s called undercurrents, and the idea is that my acoustic sounds mingle with her electromagnetic field recordings, so that sometimes it gets hard to tell where the sounds are actually coming from. In the end, there is something like a rupture and I start playing a groove using a drum synthesizer. We are currently working on our second piece that is going to confront electromagnetic field recordings of security gates with polyrhythmic drumming and some new sound technology to control the tempo of backing tracks.

What projects are you currently working on and planning this year?

My plan for this year was to try to focus on my solo and the work with Christina Kubisch, including the production of an LP. I always used to have a million projects at a time, but since I have become a mother I have to carefully select what I do, because time, especially, and energy are more restricted now. But, actually, I realized that there a lot going on this year. I’m planning a “comeback after the baby break” with my band Ventil, including the production of an EP, a second record with my duo ALSO with Martin Siewert, and an A/V Project with Les Femmes Savantes and Kaffe Matthews around the idea of the Catwoman, to name a few.