Two of the year’s most nourishing albums have come from Andrea Belfi, a drummer whose recordings don’t necessarily make you think about drumming. Alveare, released in January, and Ore, released only a few weeks ago, were both made almost entirely by Belfi, using percussion and electronics. He manipulates tonality and attack in tiny increments to create work that is both peaceful and wired. If you had to guess who or what Belfi was, you might come up with any number of things before saying “improvising drummer guy.”
Belfi is a thirty-eight-year-old Italian living in Berlin. As a kid in Verona, he played in punk bands while studying privately with jazz drummers. He went to the Academy of Fine Arts in Milan to study Matthew Barney and sound art. In 2009, the Montrasio Gallery in Milan arranged for Belfi and a friend, guitarist Stefano Pilia, to do a residency at Harlem Studio for a month. The gig petered out after the two had created several sound installations, but Belfi had also connected with David Grubbs, who lives in Brooklyn. The trio performed at Issue Project Room that year and have recorded two albums. By email, Grubbs described Belfi: “As a drummer, his fundamental orientation seems to be toward the resonance of a kit, often playing surprisingly gently in order to make the whole thing hum just so. His approach to electronics comes about through sustained close listening to acoustic instruments, at which point analog synthesis is added for tone color and subtle timbral counterpoint. I have been happy to listen to him play for hours on end.”
Alveare (which means “hive” in Italian) is a collection of work recorded between 2007 and 2016, but it is nothing like an odds-and-sods compilation. The dominant feeling is liquid and irregular, sweetly dissonant; this music brings to mind metal rods lying across dodgeballs. Belfi has a buttery way with toms, often playing them with mallets, and favors long-held electronic tones that vary only slightly. On “Passo,” he hits a gong every ten seconds or so, and the fluttering intonation of the metal has the same binary blink of an oscillator waving away. “Grigio” features a guest, Audrey Chen, who contributes cello to a gnarl of organ and sustained pitches. You hear the constituent pieces of a drum set — a ride cymbal, a dark snare, a darker kick — without hearing anything like a backbeat. The drum sounds all feel like the far end of a line begun by another instrument. Things move at a regular tempo without that tempo being particularly emphasized. There is tension without anxiety.
On Ore, the drums have been so well recorded — by Matthias H. Franz Hahn and Simon Berckelman — as to have a presence that’s as much sculptural as musical. One of Belfi’s sets was made by the Finnish company Saari; as Belfi describes it by phone, from Berlin, the kit duplicates the sonority of drums made in the early twentieth century. What that means to the ear is that the drumheads flap and the beaters thud rather than clicking on impact. The word “warm” could be used, though the effect is more of a humid cross-breeze.
Anxiety has been added back to tension on Ore. None of the compositions is remotely like a traditional song, yet the album feels like a collection of songs, in the sense that single ideas are stretched over time and you’re left with sensations specific to each track. On “Ton,” Belfi plays fast sixteenth notes through a stereo delay, first on his hi-hat, then on the ride. Below that, the kick lands in a syncopated sequence. Between these two very consistent patterns, a tensile web stretches, leaving space above for the modular synths to sing. The scene is full of action — and yet little happens for twelve minutes.
“Anticline” is a gorgeous document of the materiality of drums, which might sound hopelessly technical until you hear what Belfi actually does. (There is some analogy in the difference between a Dubuffet in person and Dubuffet on a postcard.) The first three minutes are like a slow pan across the equipment: The electronics whistle and knell while Belfi very slowly moves around the kit, with no particular shapes forming. Then, after about three minutes, an octave starts to pulse out of some box and Belfi inches very close to playing a beat. He may, in fact, play a beat. Portishead could probably do something with this track. By the end, there is a distinctly harmonic relationship between all the howling-wind tones, and a motif emerges. Belfi underplays it and avoids an obvious peak. The track dissolves on the sound of chattering metal.
When discussing referents for his work, Belfi mentions the “very slow changes” of meditative synthesizer composer Éliane Radigue and In a Silent Way, by Miles Davis. It is very hard, when invoking a work that approaches the sacred, not to seem a thirsty fool. But Belfi has found a way into the space of In a Silent Way, one where listening is as important as expression and you need a damn good reason to make a big noise. A small sound can clear out an entire world.