“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.
“To not work in a linear way when making a track. It’s better to just start somewhere and explore from there, don’t try and write a song from start to finish, make it random. And also don’t be afraid to get theoretical when making music, especially electronic music. There is a lot to be found in classical theories for composing which can be inspirational, and also surprisingly fun.”
(left to right: musicians playing harp, pipe and tabor, organistrum, and portative organ)
Recently I was working on a mix for a piece of music with eight parts: percussion, piano, vibraphone, bass, pad, and voices. The piece has two percussion parts, the first comprising a kick-snare-clap-hi hat drum pattern, and the second a top loop part, which is a beat (extracted from another, earlier piece) consisting of mostly high frequencies. I was listening to the point in the piece where the top loop enters the mix, joining the main drum pattern, and was finding the loop a smidge too loud, so I turned it down. But, surprise surprise, now it was too soft, so I readjusted the volume by ever smaller increments to see if I could get the loop to blend just right with the drum pattern.
As I adjusted the volume and listened I noticed that I was listening to the two parts in a new way: I was listening relationally, weighing one against the other, listening to them together, listening to them as a composite, foregrounding them against all of the other parts in the piece as if I had put the percussion in an aural spotlight. In listening relationally I heard each sound within each percussion part interacting and interfering with the other sounds. I noticed that when two or more drum sounds are sounding simultaneously, calls and responses emerge between them. For example, the hi hat sound dovetails with part of top loop because they both share high frequencies, my ear drawn to their dialogue. While the respective volumes of these treble elements were about right, I heard other mix options to create contrast, such as making one sound darker by rolling off its high end. Here was a lesson to apply to all the sounds I could notice within the percussion patterns: make timbre adjustments so that each sound in each part is articulated without ever obfuscating any of the other parts.
What I’ve so far described is a part of mixing a piece of music so that each of its elements can be heard optimally, yet never exclusively. Listening relationally leads me to adjust volumes and timbres, but it also spurs me to make quick arrangement decisions. At several spots in the piece, I began muting percussion hits to reduce the number of simultaneous co-hits, where sounds from the two percussion patterns play at the same time. Thus, I muted kick drum hits on downbeats (the most conventional place to place them) and reduced an every off-beat cymbal to just once in a while. Muting hits opens up space in the composite drum part and changed once more how I hear the texture. Now, in addition to a call and response quality, the two percussion patterns have a more intentional feel: I can hear them trying to be mindful of one another’s sounds, interlocking in a synergetic way. In other words, the sequences sound more human–like real musicians listening to one another in the moment.
After this tinkering with the two percussion patterns for a while and assessing the results, I reintroduced the other six parts of the piece to hear how the percussion would interact with them. Now, with piano, vibraphone, bass, pad, and voices added in, another relational listening was necessary. The percussion talked well along themselves, but would they listen and respond to what the other parts were saying? Some of these parts needed nudging, either volume-wise or timbre-wise. For example, the lower vibraphone notes disappeared while the highest ones stuck out like shrill bells, so I boosted and reduced here and there (by drawing in automation) so that notes never vanished or got annoying. The pad sound could be too wall-of-sound-ish, so I thinned out its lows and mids. The bass volume proved tricky, because in this piece I want to feel it more than hear it. But even as I finess the vibraphone, pad, and bass parts so that they are all co-present in the mix, the voices must be front and center. This means that their blemishes are always on display. Voices can go from being just the right level to a tad too soft or loud in an instant, and the effects on them can easily verge into cloying territory—are they in a small cathedral or a gigantic cave?—so I spend time micro-adjusting dynamic contours and effects levels so the voices seemed emphatic yet natural.
At some point I began listening to the entire piece to hear the mix of all my changes to the piece’s individual parts. Finally I could hear the relationships among the sounds. The spaces opened up by the muted percussion allows the piano to ring on the downbeats, the boosted vibraphone low tones brings out their harmonies with the piano, and pad is transparent enough to let the voices shine. Subjectively speaking, the mix is sounding more coherent and has more synergy, but it’s hard to know for sure. I keep listening relationally, alternating my attention among the two percussion parts, the vibraphone, the bass, piano, pad, and the voices.
Can I hear what I need to hear when I need to hear it?
Are all the sounds cooperating?
I’m on the inside of the music, hearing it as if standing among musicians playing around me in a virtual room. But when I share the finished piece, will others hear what I hear?