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Sandra Kluge Taps Into A New Kind Of Instrument

Written by on March 30, 2022

Photo courtesy of Andrew Freedman

“I don’t like to explain what my creative works are about. I think they should speak for themselves. If I have to explain something that is meant to be abstract and associative with mind-based words, I find it very redundant.”

– Sandra Kluge

Tap percussionist Sandra Kluge breaks ground with her debut single “Clementine.”

Brooklyn-based German tap percussionist Sandra Kluge has captured international attention with her debut single “Clementine.” Originally tapping as a dance form, Kluge began using tap as an instrument starting in 2015.

In “Clementine,” Sandra Kluge taps her feet as both solo and accompanying instruments. Together with dreamy strings, synth and keyboard harmonies, Kluge sings, “Clementine colored skies are my oasis when the darkness of life comes like a wave.”

We had the chance to chat with Sandra Kluge after she was featured on Vocalo’s “Poised To Break Through” playlist for March 2022. We got into how she uses tap as an instrument, how she fights creative block and the importance of challenging herself.

Photo courtesy of Taylor Steele.

Where are you from?

I was born in Bremen, Germany, and grew up mostly in the northwest of Germany, close to the North Sea and the Dutch border.

When did you start tapping? Did it begin as a form of dance for you, or have you always used tap as an instrument?

I started when I was 10. I come from a musician family — both my parents and three of my grandparents were and are musicians — and my mom has been tap dancing for decades. So I learned the first steps from her. For the first few years I viewed it more as a dance form, even though the sonic aspect was always the most intriguing. As I matured, I slowly moved more and more into the direction of tap as a music instrument.

I think what really made me fully go into that direction was taking Heather Cornell’s Rhythm Tap Intensive in 2015, where we spent an entire week exploring how tap functions in a band setting, with different musicians every day. This experience helped me give myself the permission to treat tap as a music instrument. I started composing, listening, studying and developing my own approach to how tap can
be both a soloing and an accompanying instrument. A few years ago, I then realized that what I do isn’t quite “tap dance” in the classical sense. That’s why I started calling myself a “tap percussionist.” I use the vocabulary of tap dance, but in a way that is pretty different from the traditional steps and combinations.

“I started composing, listening, studying, and developing my own approach to how tap can be both a soloing and an accompanying instrument. A few years ago, I then realized that what I do isn’t quite ‘tap dance’ in the classical sense.”

– Sandra Kluge

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Tell us about the recording process for your debut single “Clementine”. What was it like recording the tap percussion? Which techniques worked best?

I’ve been recording tap since 2018, so I’ve definitely experimented with lots of different setups and approaches. I recorded all the tap, vocal, piano and synth parts at home and had Tonio Geugelin, a great violinist from Germany, record some string parts.

In terms of recording the tap percussion, I divided each part like a drum set. Meaning, I recorded separate parts emulating the role of a kick drum, snare drum, hi-hat, etc. I try to get as close as possible to how a drum set would be mic’d. The difference between a drum set and Tap Percussion, however, is that a drum set consists of separate elements that have a distinct sound profile and can be mic’d separately, while tap is basically like one drum that consists of multiple different frequencies. Spatially, that creates a challenge. That’s why I record each frequency spectrum separately, at least for the accompanying parts. Now the tap solo is recorded as one whole take, because it would be impossible and flow-disrupting to dissect an improvised solo into all its different frequency parts.

Can you explain to us how tapping can act as several different instruments? What do you do differently when tapping for the melody versus the bass?

Tap doesn’t act as several different instruments, it’s always the same instrument. To me, the distinction is all about soloing versus accompanying. Most often, tap dancers view themselves in kind of a “featured soloist” role, like a singer. That will, of course, entail different choices than viewing yourself as a part of the rhythm section. For example, if you’re a featured soloist at a jam session, you’ll probably play the head of the tune, take the first solo, and stay tacet until it’s time to take the tune home.

On the other hand, if you’re part of the rhythm section, you hold down whatever groove it is that the tune calls for, add in your fills and embellishments, and then take the last solo (just like a drummer would), before coming back to the last head. When I accompany, I don’t try to play exactly what a drum set would be playing. Instead I aim to fulfill the same role. I’ve meditated on this a lot. Fulfilling that role means creating a steady groove carpet, a foundation that the rest of the band can build on top of.

To do that, it’s important to operate mostly within the same subdivision and not leave too much space between notes (because too many pauses will draw more attention than you want for an accompanying instrument), as well as being very clear about the high and low notes, how to build and release tension, and how to complement what’s already being played without imposing too much. Then when it’s time to solo I can play with pauses, shorter phrases, and all the other things that wouldn’t work while I’m accompanying someone else.

What I play also depends on the general instrumentation of the band; certain instruments can easily compete with tap percussion because they occupy the same frequency spectrum. So I have to be very intentional with who is playing what role.

What is “Clementine” about?

[My press release says] it’s about connecting with the things that get you out of survival mode and into a state of presence and appreciation of the beauty within and around you. It’s about embracing one’s struggles as an opportunity to grow instead of running away from oneself and one’s obstacles. At least, that’s what it’s about to me.

My actual answer is: I’m not prescribing what any of my music or art is about, because I trust whoever is interacting with it to have their own associations and make it their own. I don’t like to explain what my creative works are about. I think they should speak for themselves. If I have to explain something that is meant to be abstract and associative with mind-based words, I find it very redundant.

What was it like working on the video for “Clementine?”

It was so fun to work on it. I’ve been making my own videos for years now, and so I came up with the concept myself. Then I got Kayleen Bertrand, an amazing videographer, involved to do the actual video shoot and editing.

It was a wonderful experience to outsource the things that I’m not an expert at to someone who actually is. This is one of my big lessons at the moment: Asking for help and working with others is so much more fulfilling than thinking I have to do it all by myself.

You’ve performed at an impressive number of venues around the world. Which was
your favorite and why?

I think tanzhaus nrw in Düsseldorf, Germany. I might be biased because I used to live in Düsseldorf for a few years and made lots of great memories and friends at the tanzhaus. Especially at the annual tap festival, which has been around for 25 years now. It’s always a celebration of the international tap scene outside of the mainstream, and creates opportunities for new and interesting work to be shown. Performing at the festival gala multiple times was a great joy and something I had wanted to do since I first visited the festival as a student at age 14.

Can you tell us about your 30-day challenge on Instagram you did back in November 2021? What did it entail? How did it help you as an artist? What was challenging about it?

Yes! I challenged myself to create a little something — a groove, an exercise, a beat — every day for 30 days and share it on my Instagram. I did this with the intention to start forming a habit of daily creation, without any specific expectation.

One of my big themes these days is getting out of my head and into my body, and so this challenge was meant to do just that.

It was most challenging to film something on days that were already very full. At the same time, taking time to work on my own thing was self-affirming, especially after a day of working more on other peoples’ visions.

I definitely realized how product-driven our society is. In a way, the challenge took a little bit of the pressure off of me, because it helped me see that a masterpiece is rarely created in a day.

Now, a few months after the challenge, I find myself creating more consistently with less expectation. It feels good to intentionally take a day off sometimes and then continue whenever there’s a little inkling of inspiration. I also recently read the book Atomic Habits by James Clear, which was a great continuation of the subject of how little actions add up quickly.

We saw your visual arts page on Instagram! When did you get into collaging? What is your favorite part about it?

Oh, thank you for checking it out! Visual art has always been an important part of my life. I got into collaging over the pandemic because I was looking for some new impulses for my visual art, aside from drawing.

My love for cutting out things goes way back. As a child, I had many different projects that involved me ravenously cutting out anything that didn’t resist: A gigantic universe of Playmobil cities that needed groceries cut out from weekly supermarket ads; an imaginary organic store that needed pictures for their catalogue; a gourmet restaurant that served meals I cut out from recipe magazines; and outfit designs I put together with clothes I cut out from fashion magazines.

Today, making art through collage is a wonderful way to practice composition and color because I can rearrange my choices as much as I want to. I’m also intrigued by the notion that anything we see becomes what we think it is. A picture of a blanket from a furniture magazine might become a fuzzy texture that evokes abstract associations of a soothed heart. Deconstructing reality and rearranging it into something new is fun, and I also deeply resonate with the concept of upcycling.

Do you ever experience creative block? If so, how do you get out of it?

Absolutely! My two main strategies are kind of opposites, which would make sense because we’re all in a constant state of maintaining balance between two polarities. My first strategy is to completely detach from what I’m doing and focus on other things as long as I need. I think we all know that the more we try to force something, the less it’s going to happen. Focusing my energy on something completely unrelated, even something like baking, exploring a new place, or
rearranging my living space, can be very refreshing and get my creative juices flowing again.

My second strategy is to just do without thinking. Kind of like during my 30-day challenge. Often little actions like opening up Logic and recording one little idea is a gateway to more, and suddenly I’ve found myself spending two hours on making a beat. It also helps to jam with other people. My own inner world is already so vibrant that sometimes I forget that, but playing with someone else is quite expansive and gives me some new perspective.

I’m also trying to embrace that our lives are cyclical, and that I can’t expect myself to be equally productive every single day. Especially as a woman, being in touch with the cycles and seasons of life can be helpful to feel more in tune. There is a time for sowing the seed and a time for harvesting the fruit, and lots of time in-between those moments.

“Especially as a woman, being in touch with the cycles and seasons of life can be helpful to feel more in tune. There is a time for sowing the seed and a time for harvesting the fruit, and lots of time in-between those moments.”

– Sandra Kluge

What are you currently working on? Anything listeners can look forward to?

I’m currently in a season of sowing new seeds for new projects… working on new solo looping material as well as band repertoire. I’m also experimenting with ways to combine my music with my visual art, for example, as meditative beats that come with a calming animation. So nothing concrete at the moment, but be sure to follow my website and social media for future announcements!

Follow Sandra Kluge on Instagram and stream “Clementine” on Spotify below!

Interviewed and edited for length and clarity by Milo Keranen

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