Gabor Dornyei and Kornel Horvath’s percussive force
The history of popular music is filled with great partnerships – Jagger and Richards, Lennon and McCartney, Simon and Garfunkel – but what about in the percussive arts? There have been plenty of bands that feature a percussionist and a drummer, but the tHUNder Duo offer something quite unique. Drummer Gabor Dornyei and percussionist Kornel Horvath don’t need a band to make their music. Instead they weave rich fabrics of rhythm drawing upon a stylistic spool that covers the globe. They both hail from Hungary, although Dornyei now calls London home. Horvath first trained as a flautist – he cites Jethro Tull and Ian Anderson as influences – before discovering the joys of percussion in Budapest in the 1970s. “Because back then under the old political system, communism, the country borders in Hungary were closed, it was impossible to see western percussionists or others from different cultural and musical backgrounds such as Latin or Indian music,” says Horvath, “so I had to make my own percussive style, and probably that made my playing more individual.”
Dornyei, the younger of the two, was the only musician in his family. “I had a really, really strong instinct and desire to play the drums, well the sofa actually, so I just carried on playing along to all the records we had at home,” says Dornyei. “I did this to the point that my dear mother took me to the local music school – to a great teacher, Gabor Bedo – and after that I took private lessons from an excellent fusion drummer Peter Szendofi in Budapest.” Inspired by the heavyweights of fusion – including Steve Gadd, Peter Erskine and Vinnie Colaiuta – Dornyei has been pushing his limits ever since and in Horvath he found the perfect musical partner for their voyages into the great polyrhythmic unknown.
What music did you listen to as youngsters that helped to shape your styles?
Kornel: “I feel very fortunate that in my late teens in the middle of the ’70s there was almost like a musical revolution in the world, particularly in jazz and progressive rock. Progressive bands like Chicago, Chase or the greatest jazz artists such as Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock or Joe Zawinul were huge influences on me. In all those jazz bands there were incredible percussionists who blew my mind, such as Airto Moreira, Alex Acuña, Mino Cinelu and others. I’d like to particularly mention a Brazilian jazz duo with Egberto Gismonti and Nana Vasconselos, where Nana’s percussion playing was exceptional and
probably the biggest influence on me. His musicality and onstage presence, vibe and communication really caught me.”
What stands out in your memory from the first time you performed as a duo?
Gabor: “I had an invitation to perform at the Drummer’s Carnival in Budapest in February 2005, and because I had performed there before I thought I should come up with something special this time around. Kornel’s name came up immediately, because I grew up listening to him and thought, ‘Okay, who could take my crazy polyrhythmic ideas to the next musical level and add some very unique sounds and feel to them?’ After he accepted my invitation, we started rehearsing at his house and the chemistry between us was there immediately. Our first performance was a huge success, that wrapped up in a standing ovation and that massively exceeded our expectations. We started thinking, ‘Hmm, maybe there’s more to this than a one-off festival performance!’ The rest is history.”
How did you first become interested in polyrhythmic playing?
Gabor: “In my first ever semi-pro band we played some sort of rock-based World Music with interesting acoustic instruments, such as violin and flute. We also arranged some folk songs for a rocky sounding band, where almost every song was in an odd time signature. So for me playing in odd times has become second nature. Our songs were in 5/8, 7/8 sometimes even in 13/8. I was 17 at the time, practised all day long – eight to 10 hours a day – and picked up any style very easily. Later on I conceptualised it and created a motto for myself: ‘Be anything but average.’ I started playing these odd note groupings and rhythms over 4/4 grooves, which immediately gave me some nice polyrhythmic ideas. The next thing I had to think about was my sound and the orchestration of my playing, because I thought all these different rhythms would sound more interesting and musical with some extra sounds, so I started adding percussion stuff to my kit and a couple of extra pedals. For example I have a cowbell that I play with my left foot and a Pearl Cable hi-hat that I’m using on my right-foot side, next to my double bass-drum pedal. These special additional things took me even further away from an average drumset player, and now it’s my biggest pleasure that at NAM 2016 we’re launching globally the Gabor Dornyei Drum Kit Percussion Add-Ons Set from Tycoon Percussion, which will consist of a Black Pearl Mambo Bell, a Lip Block and aMountable Tambourine, mainly aimed at kit players.”
How did you develop your remarkable facility in polyrhythms?
Gabor: “Well, thanks for that but I’m not sure it’s very remarkable! When you see guys like Vinnie, Cobham or Bozzio playing in the ’70s with Zappa and the Brecker Brothers – not to mention Joe Morello with Brubeck on ‘Take 5’ before I was even born – and 30-, 40-odd years later you’re still impressed with it, now that’s remarkable for me! Respect for the masters is a very important factor in my life. I guess it’s a hearing thing as well. As one of my other favourites Jojo Mayer said, ‘If you want to play fast, you need to hear fast.’ So the same goes for polyrhythms and odd times, you need to hear them and feel them first, then you get into their zone, and start enjoying them instead of sweating. Just last week I received a video from a fan in Italy, who tried to learn the concept of my ‘Alexander Hedgehog’ solo which I filmed on DrumChannel. The left-foot cowbell plays an ostinato in 7/8 and I’m soloing over it sometimes in seven, sometimes in four. It was a really inspiring feeling that someone in another part of the world is taking the time to try to learn and imitate your musical idea, and you know what, he didn’t quite nail it just yet, but he was good! I was so happy for him, and touched. And let’s not forget the most important thing, you really need to practise these things a lot, there are no shortcuts. But it’s always been easy for me, it’s never been a chore. I’ve enjoyed every second of my long practice sessions, since nobody ever told me that I have to do it. I had no choice and I believe that music chose me, not that I chose music. Now that I’m confirmed for a solo global streaming on Drumeo in Vancouver, Canada on 18 January, my missus told me that I’m not allowed to have a coffee machine and food down at my Gabbey Road Studio in our garden in London, because she’s never going to see me up in the house, I’ll be down there practising in the studio 24/7 again, like back in the good old days! And she’s probably right!”
How has the musical chemistry between you changed over the years?
Kornel: “We felt there’s always been a good chemistry between us from the beginning, but it’s obviously improved tremendously over the years and playing together has become second nature for us. We’ve always tried to be as musically versatile and colourful as possible. On top of this, we feel that our dynamics have become significantly bigger and better, and that improves the musical experience a huge amount for the audiences, drummers and all music lovers.”
How does the creative process work? Is it born out of jamming? Does someone come in with a pattern that acts as a starting point?
Kornel: “Both! Every composition and idea has its own story. Normally one of us would come up with a core idea, and either have an all-round sound in his head, which he tells the other, for how he would imagine the entire composition, or he leaves a completely open space for the other member who would immediately have a reflection on the rhythm, sound and the mood of the piece. From there the composition constantly evolves, improves and even during gigs sometimes we change bits, parts, and sections, or after the gigs we
“Through the solo sections we can really express ourselves, our musical thoughts, feelings, rhythms and virtuosity. It makes us feel free and that’s the very point…” Gabor Dornyei
discuss if there was something new and good, and whether we want to keep any of that. Even the compositions on our first DVD, tHUNderDuoWith
DomFamularo, have changed a lot since we recorded them, because we’re constantly tweaking them to make them more musical and interesting.”
When creating a piece for the duo, how much do you approach it rhythmically and how much do you think of the music as a melody?
Gabor: “Both again! In our drums and percussion music both rhythm and melody are equally important, and strongly belong together. When it’s ‘just’ a drums and percussion duo, it’s easy to fall into the trap of being musically and dynamically monotonous, but in our playing, the melodies and dynamics are very important. We believe that quality drums and percussion music can be melodic as well and not only because Kornel plays the amazing Swiss hang drum, which is similar to theCaribbean steel drum in sound, but also because through our dynamics and touch we can explore a certain tonal richness that creates melodies on the percussive instruments.”
Is everything notated or is it done by ear?
Gabor: “Some themes and unison bits are notated – mainly the more complex ones – that really helps the other half of the duo to work out the rhythms and phrases of their own parts. If it’s an easier composition it’s certainly not necessary, we can go by ear, but with some complex odd time or polyrhythmic craziness it is better to have it notated for safety reasons!”
How much of each performance is arranged and how much improvised?
Gabor: “It’s 50/50. Every composition has a main theme, rhythm or unison bit to it, but there are improvised sections in every single one of them. We believe that this is very important, because we’re jazzers deep in our hearts and self-expression is a massively important part of jazz and world music. Through the solo sections we can really express ourselves, our musical thoughts, feelings, rhythms and virtuosity. It makes us feel free and that’s the very point and message of tHUNder Duo.”
Is jazz your primary point of shared reference? And how much does jazz shape the sound and style of the tHUNder Duo?
Kornel: “Jazz is the very style that provides us with the sort of musical freedom and opportunity for self-expression that is extremely important to us. Improvisational music is one of the most important and significant contemporary styles of our age. When we say jazz we don’t necessarily mean jazz in its classic swing form, much rather a modern style that includes influences from all around the world, such as European, African, Indian, North and South American styles in an improvised manner, that explodes in a new and special 21st Century sound. It’s more of an approach. Answering your second question, we feel that this is very intensively present in both of our playing. If you’re a jazz player you’re going to approach your instrument differently, your phrasing, sound, style and touch will be different from the rock guys, probably your dynamic scale will be slightly wider as well and you’re going to have different musical ideas. We still love rock as well though!”
Is it tricky to find opportunities to rehearse and create together, given you live in different places and both have other gigs?
Gabor: “It has become significantly more difficult since I relocated to England over eight years ago, but we’re doing our very best to use every minute for rehearsals when we’re together on tour. The internet and the charts and notations help massively; we can send each other ideas and sometimes we even rehearse via Skype from my drum teaching studio, Gabbey Road.”
How have you shaped and influenced each other’s playing over the last decade?
Kornel: “The duo format is a very exciting one – one of my favourites. It’s a hard one because everybody’s equally important and unlike in a larger ensemble you cannot hide! Listening to each other is vitally important; musical intelligence and respecting each other and the music are necessary. We’ve come far in that respect too over the last decade. We’re constantly improving it as well, but most importantly we’ve been enjoying playing together since the very first moment we formed tHUNder Duo.”
What has been the most surprising effect of playing with each other?
Gabor: “I’m not sure about Kornel, but I’ve
“We ignore all sorts of cultural or geographical borders in our music, so we’re taking inspiration from literally everywhere, therefore anything can happen” Kornel Horvath
certainly become a generally quieter drummer since we’re playing together in the duo, and I’m more aware of the dynamics and general volume of my kit because that was the only way for Kornel to avoid breaking his hands and fingers! On a serious note, Kornel is a real inspiration for me. His commitment, dedication, incredible knowledge, hand technique and speed are second to none.”
Kornel: “Playing with Gabor is something else because it’s like playing along to a full-on drums and percussion ensemble! His refined technique and multiple independence resulting in this exciting musical climax – which has been new for me at first.”
Do you have to be aware of leaving enough room for the other to play in?
Kornel: “It is absolutely necessary when you play in a small duo format to leave enough room for each other and listen to each other. Because improvisation is a very important part of tHUNder Duo’s music we’re often changing parts, grooves and whole sections instinctively and naturally during gigs, and that will inspire the soloist to play different things and explore different musical directions. So, both the soloist and the backing member can be leader at the same time.”
You both draw upon a huge range of rhythmic traditions when you play. What inspires you now and how do you continue to find new ideas to bring to the table?
Kornel: “Because our musical window is wide open, it’s fairly easy to find new ideas and inspirations for future compositions. We do it deliberately because we’re aiming for musical versatility and would like to avoid categorisation that we’re a ‘Latin duo’ or ‘funk unit’ or whatever; there is room for everything in our music. We ignore all sorts of cultural or geographical borders in our music, so we’re taking inspiration from literally everywhere, therefore anything can happen in tHUNder Duo’s music at any point! It also keeps us on our toes.In our upcoming second DVD, we’re opening the door for some electronic sounds as well.”
How do you research different rhythmic traditions?
Kornel: “We’re always trying to go back to the roots and listen to authentic styles that inspire us to go more deeply in that genre of music. The world of rhythm is so tremendously colourful that after you learn from players and styles with an open mind from all around the world, you’ll have the chance to create your own style and something new! That’s probably the most important and the most difficult thing in creative musicianship.”
What do you have planned with electronics?
Kornel: “Currently I’m using the Wave Drum from Korg. That provides me with countless exciting sound possibilities that direct me to new dimensions. In the future we’re planning to create new compositions and broaden our spectrum with the aid of these great new sounds. On our current tHUNder Duo 10th Anniversary Tour we’re already playing one of the new songs on Wave Drum and acoustic kit.”
Gabor: “I like the Roland TD-30s, and I use them in several different ways. In tHUNder Duo I’m planning to have some extra sounds that you cannot possibly get out of an acoustic kit – timpani, chimes, gongs, orchestral bells or even bass lines. It’s a fascinating musical experience to say the least! But also, because the world slowly moves towards acknowledging the achievements of technology, and I receive an increased number of requests for private Skype drum lessons from all around the world – which I like and appreciate, and also I’m Head Of Drums at DIME-ONLINE – I find the Roland TD-30 extremely useful in online music education. Their volume is easily controllable so you can talk through/ above them and still sound great as if playing on a drum kit, while if you were playing an acoustic kit, its volume would be significantly louder, causing distortion on the other end via Skype. So they are
great for online education purposes as well and helping me out a lot.”
Do you think you both feel time in the same way? Is there ever any push-pull between you in terms of the time?
Gabor: “In our music and in the duo format in general, the common time feel – almost like breathing and pulsing together – is very important. We always follow each other whatever happens and try our very best to make the music pulse together. We have a very similar time-feel naturally and it doesn’t matter who’s right or wrong for us, the most important thing is that we’re playing together as a unit and supporting each other regardless of who’s rushing, dragging or making any mistakes. Of course we trust each other and know that nobody’s going to do anything extreme, so it’s very easy. We just enjoy playing together a lot, we play the music that we believe in, we’re having fun and that’s a great state to be in.”
Do you mainly perform at events geared towards drummers and other musicians? Is it important for you to reach beyond an audience of devoted drummers?
Kornel: “It is crucial for us that our percussive music reaches out to everybody. We’re aiming to play for all members of the audience who enjoy music and rhythm and strictly not only for drummers. We’ve often received a great reaction from fans who are just coming to our gigs and getting into the vibe, zone and energies of tHUNder Duo’s music and performance. As much as you like to be acknowledged by the players and musicians, that’s probably the biggest acknowledgement and compliment that a drums and percussion duo can get.”
What have been the highlights of your partnership as tHUNder Duo?
Gabor: “Wow, we’ve had quite a few but to name probably the most significant ones, we would certainly mention that on top of all the sold-out clinics, performances and international festival appearances over the years, the signing of our first DVD, tHUNderDuoWithDomFamularo, to Hudson Music was one of the first great, inspiring pleasures. And we started this year 2015 – our 10th anniversary year – on a really high note since we were invited by our good friend and supporter Don Lombardi to record at DrumChannel in LA, which went really well. On the top of that, one of our favourite drummers, Professor Peter Erskine, invited the Duo to give a performance and clinic at the University of Southern California in LA, which wrapped up in a standing ovation. These are the things it’s worth doing it for and wonderful memories we’ll never forget.”
Kornel: “Every composition and idea has its own story”
Says Gabor of playing in a duo: “I’ve become a quieter drummer, more aware of the dynamics of my kit”