On The Ergonomics Of Music: Reflections On Flow In Steve Reich’s “Drumming”

“But how the paths sounded to me was deeply linked to how I was making them. There wasn’t one me listening, and another one playing along paths. I listened-in-order-to-make-my-way.”
-David Sudnow, Ways of the Hand (MIT Press 2001, p. 40)

Every once in a while warming up before a show I noodle around by playing a bit of Steve Reich’s Drumming on the marimba. Composed in 1971, Drumming is over an hour of continuous percussion music entirely built on just a few pitches arranged in a constellation of eight beats over twelve pulses. This is the core melo-rhythmic pattern:


As I played Reich’s pattern I thought about what makes it so idiomatic for the drummer’s hands. First, there its short-short-long-long rhythm whose composite sounding has the feel of a three against two polyrhythm. Next, the truncated scale: four notes of a minor one, but without the other three notes that would tell us more about specifics. Finally, Reich’s pattern on these four notes bring my left hand on an out-in-out motor pattern, moving from the g-sharp (out or away from me), up to the b-natural (in or towards me), and then from the b-natural down a semitone to the a-sharp (in to out). Simply put, while the right hand stays perched up on the c-sharp, the left hand motor pattern traverses a small in-out path that flows like crazy!

As I played and enjoyed the flow of the pattern I wondered how it would sound and feel in different keys, so I transposed it downwards one semitone at a time to try it out on eleven other starting pitches. But none of these transpositions felt nearly as natural as playing the pattern on g-sharp. Interesting. In fact, some of the transpositions–starting on b-natural, for instance–were seriously awkward to play. Now I wondered: Would Drumming have worked had it been done in a different key? Had it been tried in different keys? Was motor pattern flow a factor in deciding on its key? (So many questions.)

Playing the core pattern of Drumming had me thinking about some other matters related to composing and playing musical instruments. Had the pathways of this pattern, in this key, on this instrument (and not the tuned bongo drums that are featured in the piece’s opening movement), been the impetus for Drumming? I also reflected on how it is that a piece of music that works so well–that sits so well in the hands–can help define a lexicon of movements that are possible along the terrain of an instrument. If you write music for marimba, it’s difficult to ignore the enduring influence of Reich’s distinctive syncopated patterns on your understanding of the instrument’s idiomatic potentials and expressive sweet spots. Even if you’re just noodling around, warming up before a show by playing bits of Drumming, the fact that the piece continues to sound and feel as good as it does as ergonomic percussion music is enough to make you reflect anew on how closely writing and performing music are connected.

Here is part two of Drumming:

On The Paths Of Spirit Music: Ken Hyder’s “How To Know”

“It’s not the music which creates the magic, it’s the magic sitting over, under and all through the music.” – Ken Hyder

Ken Hyder is a Scottish percussionist and shaman. His brief but sparkling e-book, How To Know, is a story about his journey through percussion, shamanism in Tuva, and what he calls Spirit Music. Along the way, Hyder touches on issues of teaching, energy, musical time, listening, and perception. For a sixty-five page book, there’s depth here.

One of Hyder’s first drum teachers, John Stevens, once told him “Go where the energy is.” And so he did, finding energy or Spirit in disparate places. One early path was the Gaelic psalm singing tradition of the Western Isles of Scotland. Here is a clip about that tradition:

Hyder also hears energy in some jazz music. In particular, he cites two “classic Spirit Music” recordings: John Colltrane’s A Love Supreme (with Elvin Jones on drums) and Albert Ayler’s Spiritual Unity (with Sunny Murray on drums). Building on these examples, Hyder describes good jazz drumming as having everything to do with musical time: “There is a tension between precision and looseness…The paradox is that the tempic differences which create the swing are also in fact very precise, and this tension between strict-tempo and loose swing is something which goes throughout music-making.” Hyder describes Jones’ drumming as a flurry of polyrhythm, while Murray’s drumming is “more polytempic than polyrhythmic. He disoriented the listener by speeding up and slowing down.”

Here is Coltrane’s “Resolution” (part 2 of A Love Supreme):

Here is Ayler’s “The Wizard” (track two on Spiritual Unity):


Eventually, Hyder’s own Spirit Music-oriented jazz trio ends up performing in Tuva where Hyder learned that the art of shamanism was there waiting for him to learn. Shamans in Tuva are healers who use frame drums called dungars as their musical/therapeutic tools. “You know, you can heal people from a distance” says one of Hyder’s Tuvan teachers, Kungaa. Hyder learns their craft mostly by osmosis and is on his own when it comes to both the shaman’s way and specific drumming techniques. “None of the shamans who taught me” he says, “ever gave me even a hint of a lesson on how to use the drum. It’s more that they facilitate how you can learn for yourself. Giving you the answers is not the answer.” Hyder learns a lot from his teachers though:

“Everything you do can be part of your spiritual knowledge”;

“a question of how you access what’s inside of you as much as how you access the spirit outside of you”;

“Energy is all around us and we can access and use it in different ways”;

“Getting information through light trance is a complex kind of transmission.”

What, then, is Spirit Music? Hyder says that sometimes it’s difficult to say. Ultimately, determination of the spiritual, “is analogue, and not digital. Spirit is very hard to define, and pin down. You must recognize what you recognize, and go with your feeling.” Still, Hyder is weary of the whole enterprise, even while apprenticing as a shaman in Tuva. “I was very, very skeptical. It was important not to fool myself.”

Despite Hyder’s skepticism about his pursuits, he passes along to us some interesting observations about drumming. Hyder describes the sound of the dungar drum as being “spectacular” at a very close distance. This is the kind of observation only a musician could make–after all, what we hear is never exactly the same as what listeners hear out there (in the audience, on the recording). And the experience of drumming “becomes a part of the psychic state of the shaman. It’s an audible reflection of the unseen psychic state.” Not only this, but the drum itself can function as “a kind of guidance system” for the shaman/musician/mystician.


Reading Hyder as someone with a fairly active musical life myself, what I found most to the book’s point were two passages near its end. In the first, Hyder describes a thought process familiar to anyone who has performed–especially improvised–music: “Decisions. Decisions. Decisions. Based on what? Spiritual considerations or musical considerations?” Here, Hyder articulates the magnitude of what it is musicians grapple with in their evanescent, time-bound work. By what means do we “think” as we play music? One can make a strong case that the best performers tap into some flow zone that resembles what Hyder has experienced in his shamanism studies. Still, there are so many ways to go about making music. You can read the notes, play the patterns, rely on muscle memory, draw on tradition, make it up as you go along…There are many paths.

In the second passage near the book’s end, Hyder has some useful advice for us: simplify. When you feel yourself “nearer to accessing spiritual energy, you make a decision to strip everything down. It is at that point you might consider narrowing your path.”

Here is a short documentary on contemporary Tuva, Tuvan music, and shamanistic practice that’s worth watching. One of the featured shamans, Dugar Suron, says that the twenty-first century “will depend on people coming to understand that we’ve become over-civilized.” At 10:25 we see him perform a healing ceremony for the son of the film’s host.


From The Archives: Bill Bruford’s “Bruford And The Beat”

“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.

From Faucet-Playing To Prepared Drumsets: On The Musicking Of Glenn Kotche

I recently watched an entertaining commercial for, of all things, Delta Faucet, that features percussionist Glenn Kotche playing faucets in a musical way. As he turns on the taps one by one, water streams out of them and strikes inverted pots, pans, and colanders to produce sustained pitches. With the help of a few overdubs, Kotche works up a liquid version of Four Tops’s classic Motown song, “Reach Out: I’ll Be There.” What is interesting to me is how every once in a while percussion and percussionists come to the attention of the rest of the world–through TV commercials or what have you. There’s always a bit of surprise embedded in this attention–a surprise that making percussive music on all kinds of things (even faucets!) is even possible in the first place. Which reminds me of a time I went to see the Scottish percussionist Evelyn Glennie perform a solo concert. At intermission I overheard a lady say: “I didn’t know percussion could play melody.”

Here’s the Delta Faucet commercial:


Kotche is an engaging percussionist no matter what he’s hitting. He is best known as the drummer for the alt-rock band Wilco, but he has also collaborated with numerous other musicians across the pop-classical spectrum and released solo recordings that showcase the breadth of his musical imagination. As I searched for the Delta Faucet commercial online I found an older video of Kotche playing a fourteen-minute drum solo. But this isn’t your regular, drum-bastic kind of thing where the drummer connects a string of free-floating displays of technique. The title of the solo, “Monkey Chant”, references the famous Balinese dance and vocal performance piece known by the same name–or as kecak–in which a large group of male singers render a battle scene from the Ramayana Hindu epic. Why did Kochte chose a piece of Balinese vocal music as his model? I don’t know. But kecak/”Monkey Chant” is a staple example in world music classes that demonstrates intricate vocal hocketting (interlocking patterns using the syllable “cak”) and singers rendering the sounds of characters from the Hindu story. It’s an amazing piece on its own. To start then, here is a video of the Balinese kecak:

Next, here is Kotche explaining how he specially prepared his drumset to make the unusual sounds used in his rendition of the Balinese piece. This is quite interesting in that it gives some sense of how percussionists seek out and create new timbres:

Finally, here is Kotche playing his kecak rendition. Notice a few things: how he sets up a nature soundscape of chirping cricket toys (!) as a background texture for his solo; how he uses kalimba (thumb piano) and crotales to simulate, I’m guessing, the melodies of Balinese gamelan (an orchestra of metallophone instruments); how his snare drum functions as a resonator for all kinds of metallic sound effects; how he keeps the dynamics of his playing constantly in check and mostly at a moderate volume; and how he keeps a rolling triplet-feel with his hands to mimic the hocketting “ceks” of the Balinese singers while his feet play an unwavering steady pulse. All in all, it’s an elegant, thoughtful and subtle rendition of a famous musical tradition from a compelling and curious percussionist listening in.

On Advice To A Repetition Hater


“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.

Real/Fake Drumming On A Fake/Real Keyboard: Thinking About Virtual Musicianship

The photo is me–playing a percussion part on the keyboard. This is one of the stranger wonders of the digital turn in music over the past quarter century: triggering sounds with instruments or controllers that themselves have nothing to do with those sounds. I don’t mind playing drums on the keyboard though. In fact, I’ve become pretty adept at it–learning to play snares, kicks, tom toms and cymbals by switching among those plastic black and white keys. Sure, I could get a fancy controller with squishy rubber pads to drum on (and maybe I just will and report back to you on that), but squishy rubber pads are still not real drums now are they?

I took this photo while in the middle of working on a project precisely because I was so immersed in the moment, experimenting with different tom-tom patterns. Like a deep sea diver coming up for air, I suddenly gasped at the strangeness of me drumming away on a plastic MIDI keyboard and not really caring about it one way or another, so focused I was on the sounds and the patterns. How far I’ve come in my electronic music enculturation! Or should I say: How low I’ve fallen! Whichever it is, how did I get to this musical place and is it a good thing or a bad thing or a neutral thing that I’m here?

Having been a percussionist for a fairly long time now, I still filter any music I hear or make through whatever skills and sensibilities I have at acoustic instruments that I can strike. Here’s a simple example: When I listen to the drum/percussion part of a song, I imagine the physical moves required to play this rhythmic pattern on an instrument like a drum set. It makes little difference if the part I’m hearing is human- or machine-generated–either way I hear it as a physical possibility. In this sense, I resonate as if in sympathy to the pattern, trying to feel it as I might execute it.

This is as it should be: acquired music making skills shape how we listen to music. But there are limitations here too. Indeed, how hard it is to free ourselves of thinking through our existing musical skill sets to imagining worlds beyond them! This, of course, is one of the reasons why musicians practice all the time: to keep expanding the range of what is possible to do at an instrument (and therefore imagine at an instrument). Practice is one way to expand. But what my plastic MIDI keyboard points towards is ways of accessing putting together rhythms that have nothing to do with the experience of drumming.

I find this prospect both fascinating and dismal. Fascinating because just about anything is theoretically possible when patterns can be programmed instead of played. Dismal because I wonder if the Royal Order Of Musicianship is ultimately under long-term threat from the programmers. I’m kind of joking with all that haughty capitalization, of course, but I’m serious about some kind of oral tradition lineage ultimately being endangered. (Seriously: What are the stakes for our using electronic simulacra of acoustic musical instruments?)

What is ironic is that I’m negotiating this landscape of worry myself as I make music on my computer, thinking about how my musical skills are simultaneously atrophying in some ways while truly expanding in others. And I can feel the tension as I cling to older ways of making music. For example, I still build my patterns “by hand” as it were, playing them one note at a time on the keyboard, because it’s only in the process of playing that I feel like I can exercise my musical sensibility. I could draw the notes in or cut and paste them around, I suppose, but these processes don’t feel real enough for me. It’s easier to just play and see what I can come up with on the spot. Playing also encourages me improvise and build phrases that lean towards longer than shorter.

This, finally, is why I took the photo of my finger drumming on the keyboard. It’s just a lot more fun to play something than to turn a knob, or tweak, filter, or process a sound. And so that’s what I was doing in that musical moment: playing a pattern, one note at a time.

On Drumming, Primitiveness, Wood, And Overtones: Michael Gordon’s “Timber”

You could make the argument that percussionists are as defined by their musical actions as by the objects of those actions–by the fact that they percuss on whatever can be percussed upon. And they don’t just play snare drums, timpani, and xylophone either. Partly thanks to the influence of “world” percussion traditions (of Indonesia, sub-Saharan Africa, India, the Caribbean) on the aesthetics of twentieth century classical composers like Henry Cowell, John Cage, Lou Harrison, Steve Reich, and many others into our current century, there is by now a substantial body of music for percussionists hitting everyday and unusual objects (not to mention indigenous instruments from musical cultures outside the western classical canon) to make music. As long as the object–a flowerpot, a brake drum, a plastic tube–is somewhat resonant and sounds good, you’re in business and ready to make music.

It’s easy to forget that it wasn’t that long ago that percussion a played mostly decorative role in orchestral music–marking the tonic and dominant on the timpani, cymbal crashes at climactic moments of symphonies, and so on. It seems like it wasn’t until the mid-twentieth century that percussion in classical music was allowed to come into its own, be itself, and not have to play, umm, second fiddle to anyone else in the orchestra. As Nicole V. Gagné points out in her fine essay, “The Beaten Path: A History Of American Percussion Music”, by the early twentieth century percussion in European classical music was “valued for its association with an idea—or rather, an ideal, be it mechanical prowess and progress, or non-industrial freedom and innocence.” So it was primarily those American composers such as Cowell, Cage and the others mentioned above (plus a few from overseas: Frenchman Edgard Varèse, and the Greek Iannis Xenakis), who helped expand the palette of what “counts” as a percussion instrument and as percussion music.


American composer Michael Gordon’s Timber (2011) is scored for six wooden 2 by 4s mounted on stands and amplified by small contact microphones. The pieces of wood have ancient precedents in the semantron, a long piece of resonant timber of Greek origin.

Pre-dating church bells, semantrons have been used for over a thousand years to call worshipers to prayer; indeed, versions of them are still used today in monasteries across Eastern Europe. So common are semantrons in monasteries that the historian Edward V. Williams describes them as “aural icons of orthodoxy.”

In light of semantrons’ ancient roots, it’s perhaps not surprising how often the word “primitive” comes up when Gordon and some of the percussionists who play Timber discuss the piece for six 2 by 4s. Here’s Gordon in an interview about the sound he was after: “I was almost imagining something primitively electronic.” And Michael McCurdy, percussionist with the Mantra percussion group: “There is a bit of a primitive feel when you’re playing this.”

So here we are in 2012 and Gagné’s primitive ideal is still with us: simple, ancient percussing, percussion instruments and percussive sounds signifying “non-industrial freedom and innocence” and marking a path of musical escapism. I don’t know the source of the primitive-drumming connection, but if I had to guess: drumming is an inherently more violent action than say, bowing the strings of a violin or blowing across a flute. Or maybe it’s that drumming is the most ancient of the instrumental musical arts. Or maybe we still unknowingly carry with us traces of the Eurocentric mindset of early European explorers and missionaries in distant (colonial) lands, unable to make sense of the “noise” of the “primitive” musical cultures they encountered. Suffice it to say that the percussive field–to use a phrase from John Mowitt in his book Percussion: Drumming, Beating, Striking–is still contentious and still has great social and psychological depths in need of comparative cultural study. After all, if we don’t think of ourselves as primitive, how can we continue to talk about music in such terms?


Nonetheless, Gordon’s Timber is neither primitive nor simple in its musical design and sound. The composed piece’s score gives precise directions to the performers, it has five movements, and runs for almost an hour (in this regard recalling Steve Reich’s four-part, hour-long 1971 piece, Drumming). Timber‘s structure makes use of repetition, shared rhythmic motifs and gestures passed among the players (e.g. moving from the outside edge towards the middle section of the 2 by 4s, or vice versa), and forms that audibly expand or contract. All of these elements help propel the piece forward and keep it interesting. In all, Timber is a pretty rapturous though at the same time austere piece of music that makes for challenging listening.

But the real star of Timber is its timbre or sound quality. One of the most compelling acoustic qualities of so-called “indefinite-pitched” percussion instruments such as cymbals, gongs, most types of drums, and semantrons is the complexity of their sounds. This complexity derives from the fact that the instruments produce not only a fundamental sound (the main pitch you hear) but also an array of overtones or harmonics (multiples of the main pitch that can also be heard). It’s these overtones that make a gong sound so mysterious and ineffable; indeed, overtones are the main reason why no two gongs sound the same.

So while Timber is not really a pitched piece with clear melodies and harmonies, those resonant 2 by 4s produce a complex field of overlapping, swirling and humming overtones that steal the show. If you attend closely to them you can perceive slow-moving, cloud-like melo-harmonic apparitions. In this way, Timber is spectral, ghostly music. Mantra percussionist Michael McCurdy again: “Part of the beauty of this piece of music is the harmonic chorus that floats out into the audience and creates an absolutely rich timbre and texture and this amazing sound palette.”

Here’s a video about the piece:

Click here for another clip featuring a performance in the lumber department of a Lowe’s hardware store.