The Squid's Ear Magazine

Arnal, Jeff / Curt Cloninger: Drum Major Instinct (Mahakala Music)

Finding common ground through independent work in Asheville, NC, drummer Jeff Arnal and modular synth experimenter Curt Cloninger started exchanging musical ideas, developing their concept to add powerful rhythmic elements into patterned energetic synthetics, building a language to improvise together and rework their material into these rich and exciting compositions.

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Jeff Arnal-percussion

Curt Cloninger-modular synthesizer

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UPC: 195269173784

Label: Mahakala Music
Catalog ID: MAHA-034
Squidco Product Code: 32242

Format: CD
Condition: New
Released: 2022
Country: USA
Packaging: Digipack - 3 panel
Recorded in Asheville, North Carolina, by the artists.

Descriptions, Reviews, &c.

"Drum Major Instinct is an experimental music duo from Asheville, North Carolina. Jeff Arnal plays (mostly) percussion and Curt Cloninger plays (mostly) modular synthesizer. The Wire describes Jeff's drumming as a "highly original concept" having "a balletic sense of time and imaginative deployment of colour;" and Byron Coley says Curt's modular synthesis "moves like blocks of radioactive adobe being shifted around by architects in space suits." But, of course, nothing is ever that straightforward. The resultant music is about waves of energy, patterns within patterns (within patterns), sounds from the natural world, and running the voodoo down."-Mahakala Music

"There aren't many duos who utilize the drums and synth as their weapons of choice. Of those, the only ones I can admit to digging are Silver Apples and Tom Surgal's White Out. But that was before I laid ears on Asheville NC's Drum Major Instinct (DMI), whose debut release is in your deserving hands this very moment.

Drummer Jeff Arnal, now based in Asheville NC, has been on the scene for a while. He began getting underground note soon after finishing his masters degree at Bennington College, under the tutelage of the legendary Milford Graves. Moving to NYC in the '90s, Jeff co-founded the Improvised & Otherwise Festival, as well as the Generate Records label, and played in a wide variety of improvised situations. Like Graves, Arnal's playing has a multi-dimensional aspect, dictating a sort of floating/fluxing time signature with light side strokes and cymbal work, interspersed with segments of grounded power. Jeff played and recorded regularly for the first dozen years of the century, before family and work required more of his attention. Drum Major Instinct is his first new release in a decade.

Synthesizer player Curt Cloninger, also based in Asheville, is a new media artist, who works in a variety of fields. He is probably better known for his writings, videos, installations and performances than for his synth work. At least right now. Because his playing here is quite amazing. It has a linear, but disassociated approach to event-generation that's striking and unusual. The only player it really reminds me of is the early work by Pere Ubu's Allen Ravenstine, whose efforts have rarely had any parallels.

The idea for Drum Major Instinct (the name comes from a Martin Luther King speech about re-directing the universal urge to lead) was born of the COVID era. Jeff and Curt had known each other for a while, but it was only while holed-up that they began swapping sound files back and forth. Curt would send material he'd been working up on synth, Jeff added drums, and both mixed in elements of their own field recordings.

All three pieces on Drum Major Instinct were recorded in Asheville at various points in the Lockdown of 2021.

"Walking in Rotterdam" is a track resulting from the duo's early file swapping days. It mixes field recordings of birds with Jeff's lightly dancing drums, while Curt layers circular patterns of key-triggered synth tones, some extended and glowing, others functioning more like balaphonic note insertions. This gives the synth a fully bifurcated quality, while the drums maintain a brakeless bustle that only comes to a stop when we hear footsteps at the very end of the piece. It has a rather weightless and slightly drunken feel. Which suits the title.

"Modulating Bodies (i-vii)" moves into heavier turf, and is from one the first sessions DMI did in person. Jeff's drumming is more weighted down, though not un-fleet. The dancing quality is still present, but pulses are more defined and the splashes of cymbal smooth transitions. Curt's synth, meanwhile, has developed a fuzzily menacing tone. Its sounds move like blocks of radioactive adobe being shifted around by architects in space suits. Nominally broken into seven parts, the piece remains hard to map. Both the drums and synth shift into different modes as things develop, but they don't evolve in tandem, so if there are indeed seven parts to the piece, I'm not sure these parts are of the same length for both instruments. Whatever the case may be, "Modulating Bodies" is a complex and great piece of work. The synth and drums both run through amazing patterns in ways that overlap enough to make you hungry to hear more of certain sequences. Some of which have a bit of a Silver Apples feel.

"Live at Citizen Vinyl" is a document of the duo's first actual show, presented at a local record plant/store/studio/bar complex. Opening with a curtain of synth-huzz, the drums enter with jazzy emphasis, then the keys break down into something akin to the zonkiest tones Mike Ratledge ever pushed with the Soft Machine. What follows is a most excellent blast into a noisy small format free-prog blow-out that is satisfying in more ways than I can easily name.

The three tracks on Drum Major Instinct are quite different, but all of a piece. Let us hope this the but the beginning of a beautiful friendship."-Byron Coley, from the liner notes

This album has been reviewed on our magazine:

The Squid
The Squid's Ear!

Artist Biographies

"Jeff Arnal studied with noted American composer Stuart Saunders Smith and visionary artist Milford Graves receiving an MFA in music from Bennington College. His music can be heard on a number of independent labels with releases on Mahakala Music, C3R Records, Clean Feed, Editions Brokenresearch, Generate, Leo and Public Eyesore. Arnal has performed and collaborated with a wide range of musicians throughout the U.S. and Europe with appearances at Ausland (Berlin), Berlin Exploratorium, deSingel (Antwerp), Issue Project Room (New York), German Nordwestradio - NDR (Bremen), Hallwalls (Buffalo), MATA (New York, Music Gallery (Toronto), Roulette (New York), and Vision Festival (New York). His collaborations with choreographers have been produced at PS 122, Joyce SoHo, Danspace Project at St. Mark's Church, Chocolate Factory, and Judson Church. In 2002, he co-founded Improvised and Otherwise, a multidisciplinary festival in Brooklyn, NY. Later he organized performances and sound installations at The Chocolate Factory in Queens, NY and served as curator of On The Way Out, a monthly music series he founded at Freddy's Bar in Brooklyn, NY. From 2012-16 Arnal was a Senior Performance Specialist at the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage in Philadelphia, PA. Currently he is the executive director of Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center in Asheville, NC."

-Generate Records (

Have a better biography or biography source? Please Contact Us so that we can update this biography.

"Curt Cloninger is an artist, musician, writer, and Associate Professor of New Media at the University of North Carolina, Asheville. His art uses an array of media combinations to undermine language as a system of meaning in order to reveal it as an embodied force in the world. His art work has been featured in the New York Times and at festivals and galleries from Korea to Brazil. Exhibition and performance venues include Centre Georges Pompidou (Paris), Whitney Museum of American Art (New York), Granoff Center for The Creative Arts (Brown University), Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art (Chicago), Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center (Asheville), and the internet. Curt has been published on a range of topics, including new media and internet art, installation and performance art, experimental graphic design, popular music, and network culture. His fifth and most recent book is entitled, "Some Ways of Making Nothing: Apophatic Apparatuses in Contemporary Art" (Punctum Books, 2021)."

-Psychedelic Baby Magazine (

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Track Listing:

1. Walking In Rotterdam 07:44

2. Modulating Bodies 21:03

3. Live At Citizen Vinyl 22:32

Related Categories of Interest:

Improvised Music
Electro-Acoustic Improv
Percussion & Drums
Piano & Keyboards
Duo Recordings
New in Improvised Music
New in Experimental & Electronic Music
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