“Knowledge has to be laid down in the brain in overlapping and criss-crossed layers. You need the underlay before you can have the carpet and then—then you can abandon the analogy because it’s completely unsustainable. Everything has gradually to become a kind of sediment in the brain, its ocean floor—a place so dark and mysterious that the fish aren’t even really fish, just creatures without eyes or brains, flattened by the dead weight of water-knowledge pressing down on them.”
“Let me tell you the secret that has led me to my goal.
My strength lies solely in my tenacity.“
– Louis Pasteur
At the risk of overthinking things, I take notes about my work as I’m making it, with the belief that reflecting on process sharpens one’s focus and elevates the next session’s prospects enough to make such reflecting worthwhile. If, as Louis Pasteur says, chance favors the prepared mind, then assessing one’s workflow is a good way to prep for future composing.
I document my reflections in an Evernote file titled “What Worked.” Here I list everything I’ve tried within my music software that produced an interesting–that is, musical–result. Many of the entries are pedestrian, such as:
“grouped all tracks together (except bass) and added reverb to them”
“softened attack on sub”
“working at tempo of 155-177.”
The What Worked list is an example of function preceding form and theory following practice: every technique is something that I used while making music. Occasionally there’s a technique captured on this list which, over time, proves to be especially useful. For example, the “echo” track idea I used to expand upon existing material:
“‘echo’ tracks that are copies of initial improv
but move at different rates of speed and transposition.”
But for the most part, maintaining a What Worked list is a reminder of how little I’ve done—that is, how unadventurous and uncurious I’ve been considering the many, many unexplored possibilities offered by my ever partially understood tools. For example, I may have
“chained two distortions together”
…but why didn’t I try five distortions, or combine the two with a few other sound manglers? The missing entries in What Worked suggest a creative cautiousness, and their lacunae also spur me to try more things the next time.
By now, the habit of adding to the What Worked list is strong and longstanding enough that I’m primed to notice, and build upon, genuinely new (to me) techniques as I’m exploring them. For example, recently as I was building a long effects chain (“built long effects chain” had made it into What Worked a while back) I thought to reverse the order of the effects in the chain, then save the result as “long effects chain 2a” etc. And the variations needn’t stop here. What would it sound like if long effects chain 2a were combined with those two distortions I mentioned earlier? Or what if the echo tracks were inverted, or played backwards? In sum, the power of documenting your work as you make it lies in the feedback loops you’ll configure between what you’ve done and what you’re thinking of trying next.
“I like styling with something that’s really intricate and complex, sound‑wise. Like dragging a whole finished song into a granular synth. So, you’re starting from a point of real intricacy and trying to find order in it, as opposed to coming from a pure sine wave and trying to add intricacies. I like going the other way around more.”
“No matter how mundane some action might appear, keep at it long enough and it becomes a contemplative, even meditative act.”
“The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism.
I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.”
– Haruki Murakami
Occasionally I wonder about how musicians who aren’t percussionists or drummers think about music, and how they think about their physical relationship to their craft. Are singers hyper-conscious of voices, even when they aren’t singing, noticing the tone and intonation of others’ speech? Do string players feel melodies as long, bowed tone gestures? Do wind players gauge phrasing in terms of a breath? Do recording engineers notice prominent tones in the 250-900 Hz range of a boxy-sounding recording and wish they could temper them?
Percussionists and drummers are generally most attuned to matters of timing and tempo. We focus not only on particular rhythms and meters, but also the feel of those rhythms. When we hear a percussionist or drummer play, we wonder how did she play that? But we also ask, Why does it feel the way it feels? And when we hear a synthetically-generated rhythmic texture, we are immediately suspicious of its provenance, imagining playing it ourselves. (Like as if someone would play that, I’ve sometimes heard myself think.) The difficulty or ease with which we can imagine ourselves playing what we hear becomes our index of the beat maker’s knowledge of acoustic drumming.
When I’m playing a show I can always tell when there’s a substitute drummer in that day because their timing differs from the (rather effortless) timing of our regular drummer. The substitute drummer’s timing is not bad, but neither is it great, because in frustratingly small ways, it’s minutely unpredictable. The timing lurches and falls forward here and there, or hesitates and hangs back sometimes—just enough to bring itself to the attention of other musicians, to prompt them to think about it. (Dragging drummers tend to play louder, which just makes the situation worse, I’ve noticed.) When I’m playing, I’d prefer to not have to think about timing. I’d prefer for the drumming to carry me along on a wave—so I don’t have to think about anything but locking into its flow. But when the rhythm wave is not quite stable enough to lock into without thinking, I have to stay on my toes, listening and adjusting to another musician drifting like a slightly wonky metronome.
Matters of timing and tempo are also key to running. It’s said that there’s an optimal number of running steps per minute: somewhere around 180. This optimal cadence is like the runner’s foot strike BPM, or beats per minute. Related to steps per minute is the runner’s tempo, which is generally measured by how long it takes a runner to cover one mile. And there’s also other levels of pulsation going on, including the piston swinging of the runner’s arms, breathing patterns, and heart rate. An easy run might have you breathing slow and deep, with your heart rate in the 115-130 beats per minute range, while a quicker pace has you breathing quick and your HR around 150-170. When you run, you turn yourself into a flexible, perpetual rhythm machine. You start slow, giving yourself time to warm up your body while you shuffle along. Then you gradually increase your tempo to reach different intensities of effort, stride length, and speed. While every runner has their own default tempo, training over time alters it somewhat. There’s no better feeling than feeling sluggishness melt away as the warmed up running body hits a flowing, swift pace.
Running, like drumming, offers repeated opportunities to think about rhythm, and at times insights appear as if a by-product of running itself. Here then, are a few ideas.
First, running form—that is, one’s bodily style in motion—is fundamental. While every body has its unique style, there are certain ways of being in motion that make running easier, foremost among which is to remain relaxed, centered over one’s feet at the moment of impact, and to keep your movements easy, minimal, and repeatable. Great runners have a form that looks relaxed at all times.
Second, a single running tempo can feel differently depending on how you breathe; slower breathing generally results in a fast running tempo feeling calmer.
Third, the repetition that’s inherent in any running, but especially in running longer distances, is transformative–or what the novelist Haruki Murakami calls “a form of mesmerism.” Just as a musical rhythm comes alive only when you repeat it, so too does running come alive when you do it for a while. For example, on a short run your body-mind protests: I’m not warmed up yet! How much longer? But the further you go the more the body-mind understands what it has to do to make the distance doable and agreeable. In service of enduring the workout, the body-mind has no choice but to become quiet and turn its attention to the rhythms within itself. This is why the longer you go, the more you feel as if you were made for this (which you are).
Fourth, when your running body-mind feels like it’s made for this, thoughts are free to go on their own journeys. Bits of conversation or music may play themselves for a while, then disappear. You’ll think of the past as if it were today. And you’ll problem-solve, juxtaposing ideas that normally don’t cross your mind at the same time. It’s a moving meditation.
Finally, running brings you somewhere outside where you encounter a landscape and engage with the physical world. No interior space can match this experience.
Occasionally I wonder if insights regarding form, tempo, breathing, repetition, thinking, and encounter are unique to running, or do they also arise while making music? I don’t have an answer. But for me, the experience of making music is maximally interesting when it leads me to the kind of insights I experience while running. Ultimately, what drumming and running share is an uncanny, almost alchemical power to transform movement and repetition into what feels like perceptual revelation.