Explore Minimalism With Helicopter Copter's Michael John McKee

Eileen Pfefferle
Michael John McKee keeps things simple.

“If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four,” the avant-garde composer John Cage once said. “If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.”

That quote resonates with Denver percussionist and drummer Michael John McKee, particularly in how it relates to minimalist music, which often uses repetitive patterns or phrases. McKee — who has done some experimental recordings and mixed-media art projects under the moniker Helicopter Copter and worked with local acts like Strange Americans, Paul DeHaven, Kid Reverie and David Burchfield — has long been drawn to minimalism.

“If you give yourself the opportunity to really experience something as simple as a single shaker being played, if you really get into deep listening, to allow yourself into the practice of deep listening, there are so many fascinating things that you’ll notice that you hear," he says.

With his latest project, Helicopter Copter Perc Ens, McKee released the three-track EP Hear Yourself, inspired by minimalist composers Steve Reich and Terry Riley. The record includes McKee playing a marimba, a drum set and hand percussion. The title of the EP refers to McKee's experience listening to minimalist music.

“It’s almost like my brain gets mesmerized, and my thoughts start to wander,” he says. “It’s almost like this music is letting me hear myself. For a long time, a working title for the EP was If You Listen Closely You’ll Hear Your Own Thoughts. And I thought that was such a long title and unrealistic, so I shortened it to Hear Yourself. That’s kind of the experience I have with minimalism as a whole, and I think it’s powerful, and I think if people give themselves permission to be bored, then they might have a novel experience with some of these tunes.”

McKee says the EP is very experimental; he composed it on the fly.

“I might play this marimba part, and then I’ll play this tambourine part,” he says. “And then I’ll be like, I don’t know if this tambourine part is the perfect complement, but let’s give a shot. And then later on, I could do the same combination. But instead of a tambourine, I’ll do a snare drum. And what you’ll learn is that original marimba part takes on a different identity in conjunction with the new piece.”

Although McKee recorded the songs in late 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic and social distancing, when he decided to release the 23-minute EP amid a massive shutdown, he was thinking about how we might once again share space.

“I think it’s going to be really interesting for us as individuals to have new understanding of our individual identity in how we are in concert with others,” he says.

McKee says the composition “Form Above” models the possibilities of re-emerging as social creatures; it starts with a single shaker, and when two other instruments are added, it suddenly has a new identity and new character.

With Hear Yourself, McKee was also trying to create interesting music that represented more of a narrative instead of traditional musical structures like verse, chorus, verse, bridge and intros and outros.

“I was trying to experiment with the idea that music can be cool, groovy, and you’re only in this song for four minutes, but you’re only hearing this thing once and it’s gone,” he says. “So there’s this kind of fleeting impermanence nature to the compositions, too.”

McKee also wanted to show that there can be a valuable experience, for example, in hearing the same note played on a marimba over and over again.

“That experience is enough,” McKee says. "It doesn’t have to be eight things happening at once to be interesting music. That’s something about minimalism that I think gets overlooked. I think what most people think about minimalism as a music genre or a movement in music is the idea that the thing that’s happening is repetitive and potentially a simple format, although the rhythms and the melody or the chords or the key changes...although that might be complex, the structure and the identity of music is simple. I think what is overlooked about minimalism is that a single instrument at a time is also worth our attention.”

Listen to Helicopter Copter and more favorites from Westword writers on our Westword Staff Picks playlist.