beats into pieces so small,
fast pulse becomes slow.
beats into pieces so small,
fast pulse becomes slow.
“I guess I just wanted to record what I was doing live. Basically when I got into the studio to record those tracks I found myself playing around with the patterns more, playing around with the samples more, trying to find what was particularly gripping, or dynamic. I wanted the tracks to have this sinister empty energy; I wanted them to sound quite cold.” – Laurel Halo
Halo’s recent recording Chance of Rain (Hyperdub 2013) is a collection of propulsively rhythmic instrumental tracks. Track two, “Oneiroi”, is a particularly focused piece that packs a constantly shifting punch. The piece moves in 4/4 time at 130 beats per minute. There’s a boom-rumble sound on beat 1 of each bar, low-res 16th-note hi hats insistently ticking away, a syncopated cross stick sound, small shards of cymbals and voice samples on the off-beats, a single tom-tom, and noise ambiance. The 4/4 grid never relents, but the sounds and their patterns keep changing up. The cross stick begins by playing on every quarter note, but gradually melts into a new sound (is it the same one played backwards? pitch-shifted down?) and eventually reappears later on offbeats. The hi hat comes and goes, now open, now closed, the shards of cymbal and voice samples change position, the tom-tom pattern builds up into something that resembles a paradiddle, and the noise ambiance ebbs and flows. Every rhythmic part fits into the 4/4 grid and could function independently as a timeline or bell pattern on its own, and the parts never sit still so the grid sounds dynamic and alive. In sum, “Oneiroi” is a groove with enough continuous rhythmic change happening that its seven minutes fly by.
An interview with Halo about her working methods can be read here:
“Sometimes faults can be turned to good advantage. A musician is the total not only of his good things but his faults too. And when you can understand your faults and live with them and turn them to creative use, that can be of interest.” - Bill Bruford
The two things that made the drummer Bill Bruford, now retired, so steadily compelling were his touch and his time. Bruford’s playing had a snappy and limber meticulousness about it–his hands in motion looked like praying mantis limbs. And his musical choices always seemed considered, in the moment–as if you could hear him thinking, always thinking about how to best design the passing musical Now. Bruford devised new approaches to drumming conventions: his drumsets were arranged as unique constellations of acoustic (and at times, electronic) percussion instruments, their angles and one-off sounds (a snare, a Roto tom, an Octoban, a slit drum) offering invitations to drum outside the conventional boxes of popular music timekeeping. In interviews, Bruford said that he “imported” his musical roots via a stack of Blue Note jazz records. This may be so, but in his numerous musical collaborations he also consistently went his own third way, finding a space between the swing of jazz and the thump of rock where he could explore pulse.
In the documentary video Bruford and the Beat, we see and hear this thoughtful drummer solo and talk about his musical métier circa 1982. The video opens with Bruford soloing (0:00-1:56). The first thing we notice is that his collection of instruments isn’t homogenous: in addition to a snare and bass drums (one acoustic, one electronic) and no hi-hat cymbals in sight, Bruford has a few electronic drum pads tuned to specific pitches, as well as Octoban tube drums, a Roto tom, and a single-headed gong drum. The second thing we notice is that the solo has a four note melo-rhythmic theme on the electronic drum pads that opens and closes the improvisation. The theme is stated, repeated, and then becomes the basis for flights off onto the other drums. The theme fragments and shape shifts, only to reappear again some time later. The solo, in other words, is a little journey.
Bruford then explains (6:44-8:58) three different approaches to soloing on drums/percussion. The first approach is to solo over a steady pulse. Here, the hands can explore complex and lengthy phrases that “embroider” over a “dance pulse” provided by the foot playing a bass drum. A second approach to soloing is to go free form. Here, the drummer strings together phrases with “no steady metrical pulse.” In other words, there is no rhythmic anchor for this type of playing, just movement among the drum set’s various percussion instruments. A third approach to soloing is to create call and response between the different instruments of the drum set. Bruford likens this “more textural” strategy to setting up “master drummer figures” such as those played by the lead drum in a West African drum ensemble. These figures are “calls” to which the rest of the ensemble drums reply with their “response” patterns. All three of these approaches to soloing–patterns over a steady pulse, free form without steady metrical pulse, and call and response–inform Bruford’s playing in his brief opening performance.
A little later in the video (15:45-18:53), Bruford demonstrates how combining a complex hand pattern on the snare drum with a steady bass drum pulse achieves the best of both rhythmic worlds. He shows how a 17-beat pattern (played with a mallet on the snare drum with snares off) over a steady 4/4 pulse is both interesting and groovy. But it gets better. Bruford next plays the same pattern on a pitched wooden slit drum, and finally, moves his hands between the slit drum and the Roto tom, distributing the 17-beat pattern between two different sound sources. With just a few considered moves of the hands, Bruford has added new dimensions to an already interesting pattern. “It’s liquid” he says, “and yet the accents are sufficiently complex not to feel a sense of repetition.”
In sum, Bruford and The Beat drums home an enduring musical message: approach. An instrument approached in a novel way–touch-wise and time-wise–can yield all manner of compelling sounds, patterns, and urgencies. Think about your approach anew and you may find surprising strategies for making music.
One night I was playing my part, listening to the part of another musician. All systems were running smoothly, and we were in sync. Then, suddenly, I had a sense that the other musician was pushing the time, just a hair.
My ears perk up: Oh, this is interesting.
I was sure of my sense that the problem was with him, not me. Why? Because I felt my sensation to be well, true. Then it occurred to me that maybe the problem is me. Why? Maybe my sensation could be misleading me.
So: Is he pushing the time or am I dragging it? The more I thought about this issue the more it became vexingly interesting.
It would be easy to tell you, with some confidence, that I can trust my sensations of musical time because I have experience playing this particular piece not a few, but thousands of times. I know how it’s “supposed” to feel and sound, and my perception of the piece’s tempo and flow is by now pretty acute. I could even back up my claim of knowing the time feel of the music with recourse to a sense of what my hands are doing on my instrument. “The feel in my hands doesn’t lie!” I might tell you. And there is something to that.
But all this just brings us deeper into the issue: How can we judge the musical time of others from the vantage point of our own imperfect sense of time? How can we have any objectivity at all–aren’t we essentially trapped within our own time perception? And how can we accurately make judgements about the time of others while all of us are inside the temporal flow of our making music together?
Having said this, it still feels like I was right–more on than off, not dragging but in the pocket. But who can know for sure?
I’ve had analogous experiences while running and wearing a GPS watch. I feel swift, yet the watch is telling me that I’m incrementally slowing down. I can’t perceive this slowing accurately because in my fatigued state my perception of pacing–the musical time that is one’s running tempo–has been altered. There are also days when I feel like I’m just hobbling along, yet my GPS–the runner’s metronome–tells me that I’m actually flying fast.
Whether playing music or running, in each case I mainly rely on my hands and my footwork to give me a sense of my time. But I also get feedback from that other musician whom I perceived to be dragging and the GPS watch that measures relentlessly (and tells me I’m dragging). This feedback comes up against my own sensibilities and awareness of what I’m doing as I’m doing it. In the end though, while musical time and running speed can certainly be measured, and while our own sense of our unfolding actions is certainly not perfect, sometimes we still just want to go by feel.
Music is fortunate to have inventors like Roger Linn. Linn has designed or co-designed a number of drum machines–such as the LM-1, the LinnDrum, the Akai MPC series of sampling workstations, and Tempest, a recent venture with Dave Smith. Linn is skilled in making instruments that musicians can, and do, use with ease in musical ways. And in every interview I find, Linn always exudes a laid-back curiosity and quiet earnestness that keeps coming back to the intersection of technology, design, and music making. Linn definitely makes my short list of interesting and singular voices.
Linn’s thinking is on display in a recent interview at Attack magazine as well as in a talk he gave with DJ Carl Craig at Dubspot. In the Attack interview, Linn discusses the topic of how his drum machines groove through his “swing factor” quantization. (Quantization, by the way, is another Linn innovation from back in the 1980s and refers to the “rounding off” of beats to their nearest note value.) The Attack magazine interviewer asks Linn about the secret to the MPC’s distinct groove or rhythmic feel. Linn replies that the key was the design of his machines’ “swing” feature. Here, swing entails delaying by various amounts all the even-numbered 16th-note subdivisions within a beat. While this might not be how a drummer conceptualizes musical time, it’s a straightforward explanation of Linn’s machines’ apparent techno-musical magic. Linn:
“Swing – applied to quantized 16th-note beats – is a big part of it. My implementation of swing has always been very simple: I merely delay the second 16th note within each 8th note. In other words, I delay all the even-numbered 16th notes within the beat (2, 4, 6, 8, etc.) In my products I describe the swing amount in terms of the ratio of time duration between the first and second 16th notes within each 8th note. For example, 50% is no swing, meaning that both 16th notes within each 8th note are given equal timing. And 66% means perfect triplet swing, meaning that the first 16th note of each pair gets 2/3 of the time, and the second 16th note gets 1/3, so the second 16th note falls on a perfect 8th note triplet. The fun comes in the in-between settings. For example, a 90 BPM swing groove will feel looser at 62% than at a perfect swing setting of 66%. And for straight 16th-note beats (no swing), a swing setting of 54% will loosen up the feel without it sounding like swing. Between 50% and around 70% are lots of wonderful little settings that, for a particular beat and tempo, can change a rigid beat into something that makes people move.”
In the Dubspot talk, Linn provides an informative overview of the history of drum machines over the past 80 years. Here is the talk:
Music is also fortunate to have had musicians like producer J Dilla (1974-2006) whose approach to achieving swing was to avoid using quantization altogether. In fact, Dilla was known to finger-drum his beats live and pretty much leave them raw and unquantized. In Dilla’s music, you can hear a good sense of groove, and this groove depends on little timing variations and inconsistencies that are very much audible in the performances. Dilla’s approach has also inspired amateur musicians to think about how certain machine-made grooves move the way they do. For instance, at futureproducers.com in 2008, a musician named samplesbank threw a question out into the ether:
“So I listen to a lot of hip hop and noticed cats like j. dilla, madlib, black milk, flying lotus and a bunch of others….they have this off-beat sound to their tracks like the snare is late or early and the high-hats seem off but on at the same time. I got access to an mpc 3000 [co-developed by Akai and Roger Linn]…and I’ve been trying to get that sound by using no quantize and having the metronome off…but still can’t get that vibe. What’s the secret???”
Listening to various recordings, samplesbank then hypothesizes that perhaps the producers are “shifting all the snares a tiny bit early…”? Another reader named guilty j comes to the rescue and sets the record straight on behalf of Dilla et al:
“[The producer is] not shifting anything he’s just playin live like a real drummer would. Just leave ya quantize off and play in a good rhythm, you’ll get that off-beat sound.”
Here, then, is Dilla’s track “Lazer Gunne.” Listen closely and you can clearly hear the odd drum hit that is “off” –pushing ahead or pulling back–just enough to keep the groove so very on:
Last week I found myself thinking about the effects of listening to music while exercising. I run a lot but have never listened to music while doing so. The reason I guess is that I want to listen to the cadence of my feet and hear ambient sounds around me for safety reasons. My attention is diffuse enough as it is–I don’t need more distraction!
Anyway, I was wondering specifically about syncing one’s athletic movements to the tempo of music. (I wrote about music and entrainment a while back here.) What would be my ideal running music? I thought about how I take between 180 and 190 steps per minute, my feet functioning like a steady metronome click. But 180 beats per minute (bpm) is a super fast musical tempo. Here’s a classic drum ‘n’ bass track by A Guy Called Gerald called “Fever” that clocks in at a mere 162 bpm. It’s really fast:
Maybe music with a half-time, 90-95 bpm tempo would be my ideal running soundtrack? (BTW: You can hear a half-time, 81 bpm feel in the Guy Called Gerald Track too: drum ‘n’ bass always had those two layers of musical time going on.) The music would have a lot of delay effects thrown in too to up the dub quotient. By the way, my walking pace is just slightly faster than this half-time pace, falling in the 105-108 bpm range.
A recent Wall Street Journal article discusses research on the optimal tempo for workout music as being between 125 and 140 bpm “when people aren’t trying to time their movements to the music.” Music with this tempo–such as a lot of contemporary pop–has been found to reduce one’s sense of fatigue as well as boost motivation. And when we do synchronize our movements with the tempo of the music (whether fast or slow), the sounds can increase endurance–our wherewithal to keep going– by altering our emotions and attitude just like any stimulant. The findings of this research, says David-Lee Priest of the University of East Anglia in England, is that music is well-designed to divert our attention away from whatever “unpleasant feedback” exercise presents us with by way of a neurological mechanism. Music interferes with transmission of unpleasant sensations from exercising, such as having difficulty breathing, sweating or stiff and tired muscles.
The full article is here.
“Practice, repetition, and repetition of the repeated with ever increasing intensity are its distinctive features for long stretches of the way.”
– Eugen Herrigal, Zen in the Art of Archery
Reduced to its essentials, drumming is fundamentally about repetition.
Imagine for a moment that you’re a drummer. You stand in front of a snare drum (snares off), sticks in hands, poised and ready to play. You raise your right stick about twelve inches above the drum and make a single downwards stroke: waack. Nice. It’s a full and resonant sound and you bask in it for the brief moment of its sharp attack and fast decay. But as a musical event, this single snare drum stroke is cruelly evanescent in that it has disappeared almost as soon as it has sounded. So what do you do?
You strike the drum again of course! But this time you follow your right hand stroke with a left hand one, its mirror image: waack, waack. Using your two hands you have cloned that initial drum stroke, turning one beat into two. Two beats convey more musical sense that does one in that the interval between your right-and left-hand waacks suggests some kind of timing or pulsation. But your left hand following your right was only a one-off occurrence. The whole waack-waack sequence of sound is still quite brief. You want to extend this moment somehow, if only because playing the drum and hearing it sounding is so enjoyable.
You begin striking the drum again and this time you keep your hands moving steady in a right hand-left hand alternation: waack, waack, waack, waack…over and over again. Now something is happening: the repeated waacks suggest a regular pulsation and tempo. They also create their own kind of flow. This feels good. You don’t want to stop playing, for why would you want to destroy your own flow and enjoyment of the drum sound?
So you keep repeating—keeping you hands moving at a steady tempo. As you repeat you notice things that weren’t apparent when you played just a single snare drum waack or two. First, you notice the shape of the sound you’re making. Repetition affords you the opportunity to aurally observe your sound in motion, each waack like a specimen offered for your inspection. Each waack sounds similar, but subtly different too. You notice that your right and left hands don’t make exactly the same sound, and that the waacks change depending on where your sticks land on the drumhead. It’s something to pay attention to simply because it has your attention. Second, as you listen to the drum strokes and the shapes of their resonance, you notice the spaces between the strokes as a kind of negative space created in the brief absence of sound. You never noticed these spaces before, probably because you thought more about the moment of striking the drum. Finally, you notice that the space between your strokes has some relationship to the movement of your hands and arms. Specifically, the spaces align themselves with the upward movement of your hands and arms as they ready the sticks for the next stroke. In a shift of perception, you realize that what you thought was a simple right hand-left hand waack, waack, waack, waack alternation actually has more depth to it and the hand and arm movements required of you to play repeating strokes contain within themselves a way of subdividing the pulsation of your playing. Paying attention to the spaces between the notes and the upward as well the downward movements of your hands you now hear something different: waack (and) waack (and) waack (and) waack (and) . . . Your waacks now feel like a kind of breathing. Through repetition, you are not simply striking the snare drum; you’re keeping time.
Thus, when I speak of drumming as being fundamentally about repetition I mean to say that it only begins to offer its perceptual lessons when we allow ourselves to make a percussive gesture and then repeat it. A single stroke on a snare drum is one thing (and in great hands can be an awesomely beautiful thing). But repeating it, and then repeating that repetition for long stretches allows for an interesting series of transformations in our attention to take place.