Olivia Kieffer, the drummer for the Clibber Jones Ensemble and a member of Chix with Stix, is a talented and well established musician. Realizing her love for drums at an early age, Kieffer aimed her education at music, studying with great teachers, and most recently, becoming a staff member at Reinhardt University. Kieffer’s sense of movement, stability, and awareness behind the drums, shows off her amazing talents and understanding of the instrument.
Tom Tom Magazine: Can you say a little bit about yourself? How did you come to pursue percussion as a profession?
Olivia Kieffer: I grew up in a family that loved music, though no family members pursued music professionally. My older brother played the drums, which I thought was really cool, and I would go down to the basement and play on his drums. In Junior High, a band director/timpanist named Mike Ross moved into town, and he started up a citywide high school percussion ensemble through the Arts Academy at Lawrence University, and I joined right away. That’s when I first really fell in love with percussion music. I had so much fun in those rehearsals! I would go to the Public Library and try to find percussion music in the CD section. It was a boon; they only had about 10 CDs, but it was the music of Steve Reich, Edgard Varese, and John Cage. I listened to those CDs constantly and made mixed tapes with pieces like “Drumming” by Steve Reich followed by “Imaginary Landscape No.2” by John Cage, and then some Pearl Jam. Mike Ross was my high school band director, and he is a wonderful man, a wonderful teacher, and one heck of a musician. He sent me off to NHSMI, a 5-week long high school music camp at Northwestern University, the summer of 1997, and that’s the moment when I decided I wanted to become a professional percussionist and pursue music for the rest of my life. I have been drumming, teaching, and more recently, composing, ever since then.
You are both a percussionist, and drummer. How do the two disciplines
differ? What do you do differently, or the same, when playing percussion repertoire as opposed to rock?
I am always conscious of myself physically. No matter what the musical situation, whether I am playing the softest triangle roll or the loudest pounding drums, I retain my technique; my body-movement technique, not just the hands. So much of drumming is physical, on a whole-body level. Being comfortable, safe, and aware of myself physically are huge priorities for me. When I do that, it doesn’t matter what instruments or genre I’m playing, because it all feels the same, in one way or another. Paradoxically, being aware of my body actually sets me free; I often find myself in a childlike state of unselfconsciousness when I am in the middle of playing. “Classical” percussion and rock drumming are inter-related, but they often don’t cross. Jazz drumming is the socially acceptable bridge between percussion and drumset. I don’t think it needs to stay that way. As a college teacher, when people learn that I play drums, they assume that I play and teach Jazz drums. That’s because they are viewing me in a classical context. Coming from the other direction, when people who see me banging away on the drums find out I am a University percussion teacher, they assume I am teaching Orchestral rep. Well, I don’t do much of either, Jazz or Orchestral! I do play a lot of Contemporary Classical music, which is in fact a tremendous bridge between traditional Orchestral music and Rock music. A drumset is a multi-percussion setup. That’s the way I think about it. So I change my touch, feel, style according to the music I am playing, and since I play a diverse set of music on a regular basis, I find switching between different ensembles to be easy and fun.
As you know, time, feel, and perception is something of great interest to me in my own work, but I wonder if the perspective of a saxophonist differs in any significant way from a percussionist. Obviously jazz, and much African American music for that matter, incorporates a very specific approach time. Do you find a difference in time feel between playing in a rock band, with the presence of a Rhythm section and steady pulse, and contemporary chamber music, where the rhythms may become more nebulous?
In contemporary music that doesn’t involve my part lining up with the parts of others, time and feel are still relational to the other musicians. In any non-solo music, there’s a time-feel relationship between the musicians, whether we recognize it or not. The way I feel time is different according to the musicians I am playing with, and according to the music being played. Sometimes I will adjust my timing to fit the timing with other musicians. That’s a must in chamber music, but in rock music, it’s my job to keep the time. It is all a matter of practice. I do not practice playing behind or ahead of the beat, but I would like to start practicing that! It’s so easy with a metronome, it is not easy with real people. When I’m drumming in rock music, time is a physical feeling. If it’s quiet chamber music, it’s the same amount of physicality, but compressed into a smaller area. For example, playing quietly is like a Karate master using all of their power to break a block of wood, where playing loudly is like breaking the block of wood with a big axe. I find it much harder to keep consistent time when I am playing steady rhythms quietly. That takes practice too!
Your two main performing projects are Chix with Stix and Clibber Jones Ensemble. How did you end up in Atlanta? And can you tell us about joining Chix with Stix and starting up the Clibber Jones Ensemble, as well as your teaching position at Reinhardt University?
I attended the Cincinnati Conservatory for my undergraduate studies, where I ended up studying with Allen Otte of the Percussion Group Cincinnati. The years at CCM were a fantastic, intense time. I made some lifelong friends there, many with whom I still collaborate. I then went to grad school at Georgia State University and studied with Stuart Gerber. I met a many area musicians through him, and was given great opportunities. During my first few weeks in Atlanta, I met Karen Hunt, who asked me if I would like to join the Chix With Stix Percussion Group. I played all over the SouthEast with the Chix, and we still play out today. All the gals in Chix are great percussionists and are central to the Atlanta freelance musician scene. I am blessed to be working with all of them! We have a lot of fun making music together.
I am on faculty Reinhardt University, where I teach lessons to the Percussion studio, run the Percussion Ensemble, and teach other music classes. It’s a great, close-knit music school within in a small liberal arts college. I love teaching there!
Clibber Jones Ensemble came about at my husband’s encouragement. I had been writing electronic music, as Clibber Jones, for a few years, and Isaac told me I should arrange the music for live musicians. So, I started doing that, and wonderful musicians appeared! We play mostly music that I composed, but recently we have branched out into doing some arrangements of music by other composers. We’re a 7-piece ensemble: drums, percussion, bass, guitar, keyboards, saxophone, and flute. The music tows the line between contemporary classical music and rock music, which are my two favorite types of music. We are releasing our EP soon, and have more performances and collaborations in the horizon!
By Tim Crump, the saxophonist for Clibber Jones Ensemble for Tom Tom Magazine