Wednesday, May 28, 2014

In Search Of Rhythmic Humanity

Although I've had more than my share of luck and success as an accidental jazz pianist, I was very interested in the drums. I recall that during my frustrating freshman year at Peabody Conservatory, I had secret fantasies of transferring to Berklee College of Music or The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music and switching my major to drums. I did graduate from Peabody with a degree in Trumpet and Music Education, however, by that time, I was pretty much on my way to playing piano full time. ( I actually sold all of my trumpets upon graduation in 1991, and didn't own a trumpet again until 1998.) Even so, I still maintained a fascination with drums and drumming. I believe that rhythm is the essential and distinctive element of American music. It's the most primal and universal regardless of simplicity or complexity. ( I have a great memory of hearing Steve Coleman's group at the Jazz Gallery many years ago. I had ingested a large quantity of Nyquil, as I had a terrible cold. I didn't know what meter Coleman's music was in, but I really enjoyed the grooves and the angular improvisations. Coleman's music is based on drum chants, which are essentially complex "claves" similar to African or Afro Cuban music, and it gives the music a foundational structure from which to expound upon. I remember thinking that people could have easily danced to this music if it wasn't a "jazz club.")

I'm still interested in developing my skills as a drummer. One thing that drummers spend a lot of time
doing is practicing rudiments or exercises with a metronome. The metronome is a device which we use to set a mechanically consistent tempo and play selected passages along with the device so as to make our timing as consistent as possible. Although there were earlier attempts to invent such devices, the metronome as we know it was invented in Amsterdam in 1814 by Dietrich Nikolaus Winkel, although someone named Johann Maelzel may have lifted the idea and patented it himself in 1815. Beethoven was the first famous composer to write "metronome markings" in his music ( for example, Quarter Note= 150 and so forth). Now, stand alone metronomes are quite advanced; musicians use things called "Dr. Beat" to program odd meters and other complicated rhythmic training exercises. Furthermore, the use of computer software has given a whole new meaning to the idea of rhythmic precision. Studio drummers are expected to be able to play along with "the click," or "click track." (I've had to do this in various studio settings as a drummer, and it is not easy. Many "jazz" drummers have a hard time with this.) In fact, the use of virtual software instruments has gotten to the point where if you want your drum track to be absolutely 100 percent precise, you can just program drums that sound almost exactly like real drums, thereby eliminating the need to make a drummer sit there and try to "play with the click."

It's interesting that when I looked up "metronome" on Wikipedia, I discovered this controversy:

Human beings seldom play music at an exact tempo with all the beats exactly the same. This makes it impossible to align metronome clicks with the beats of a musically expressive performance. This also has led many musicians to criticize use of a metronome. "Metronome Time" has been shown to differ from "Musical Time". Some go as far as to suggest that metronomes shouldn't be used by musicians at all. The same criticism has been applied to metronome markings as well.

And there were several interesting quotes which were against the metronome:

The metronome has no real musical value. I repeat, the metronome has no value whatsoever as an aid to any action or performance that is musical in intention. [...] refer by analogy to the sister art of drawing. Graphic artists understand well enough the essential and generic difference that exists between mechanically-aided drawing on the one hand and freehand on the other. Similarly, musicians ought to distinguish between (1) the sort of timing that results from dull, slavish obedience to the ticking of a soulless machine, and (2) that noble swing and perfect control of pulsation which comes into our playing after years of practice in treating and training the sense of time as a free, creative human faculty.
The Amateur String Quartet by James Brown III
 ... this series of even, perfectly quantized, 16th notes, is no more evocative of samba, than a metronome would be. In fact, this representation neglects what makes up the samba essence in the first place — the swing!
Understanding the Samba Groove by Pedro Batista
 [...] using the metronome as a constant guide to ramp up the speed or to keep the rhythm. This is one of the worst abuses of the metronome. [...] If over used, it can lead to loss of your internal rhythm, loss of musicality, and bio-physical difficulties from over-exposure to rigid repetition
Fundamentals of Piano Practice by Chuan C. Chang

Reading these quotes makes me very conflicted; one of the first things I ask my students who are having trouble with rhythm is, "Do you practice with a metronome?" (It's also weird because I don't practice with a metronome very often, although I did when I was younger. I used to spend a lot of time recording seqence tracks on keyboards and then in the computer program Logic, so I spent time "playing to the click," so to speak.) My students will say that they use the metronome, but It's hard for me to tell. I think you should use the metronome for practicing certain grooves or passages, but it's true that you also have to develop your own sense of internal time; you can't use the metronome as a crutch. You can't(well, you shouldn't....) have a metronome on stage while you play( I realize some bands play to a click....). You need to develop your sense of how to play with others. This might be actually more important that having good time. Bands that sound good fluctuate TOGETHER; they shift with each other as they play. I also suggest playing along with recordings, which I think can be highly beneficial for young musicians.

I found something called "In Search Of The Click Track" which really blew me away. The site shows various drummers performances with the tempo fluctuation interpreted by a graph. The real human drummers had lots of fluctuation, while the pop songs with "The Machine" were flat-lined. Stewart Copeland, the drummer from The Police, had a lot of fluctuation, as did Bernard Purdie on James
Bernard Purdie, one of the most recorded drummers
Brown's "Say It Loud(I'm Black And I'm Proud)." It just made me think about whether we want our music to be metronomic or just have a good feel and not worry about it so much. I think if you are rushing or dragging enough to where it's really noticeable, then it needs to be addressed. However, I think having a little bit of wiggle room is good for the future of music made by humans rather than by computers. Computers and metronomes are tools for humans to create music. We shouldn't be slaves to them.

On that note, I leave you with a decidedly human track from a forthcoming album I'm working on. This features my band Theoretical Planets, which is Jon Lakey on bass, Nicole Glover on tenor and soprano saxes and Joe Manis on tenor and alto saxes. Enjoy!

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