Notes On Russell Hartenberger’s “Performance Practice in the Music of Steve Reich”



I first heard Steve Reich’s music in the early 1990s when I was studying music at the University of Toronto. At a used record store I bought an LP of his Six Marimbas and Sextet, and a CD of his early tape pieces, Come Out and It’s Gonna Rain. The music sounded otherworldly—as if half-human, half-machine—and it was all about the pulse. On Six Marimbas and Sextet the marimbas and vibraphones sounded like MIDI sequences, so precisely were their polyrhythms calibrated and performed. The tape pieces were etudes in feedback loops and mutation, sounding like they had spun far outside the composer’s control. What impressed me most about Reich’s music though, was that I wasn’t sure what I was feeling as I listened to it. There was nothing Romantic about it, nor was it concerned with expressiveness in any sense I was familiar with. Yet the music had undeniable power, a listen to the process kind of power. 

While music critics and theorists have been writing about the pulse-based music of American composer Steve Reich for several decades now, until recently there existed no insider’s account of how the music works, the experience of playing it, and how its rhythmic complexities connect to the structures and aesthetics of other, non-Western musical traditions. Russell Hartenberger’s Performance Practice in the Music of Steve Reich (Cambridge University Press, 2016) is an uncommonly clear distillation of Reich’s music based on the author’s forty-five years of close association with the composer as a percussionist in his ensemble as well as archival research (at the Paul Sacher Stiftung Research Center in Basel, Switzerland). The book is focused “through a percussion lens”, reflecting Hartenberger’s interests in “Western and non-Western music, rhythmic theory, and minimalism” (xxiii). Hartenberger examines Reich’s early compositions Drumming, Music for 18 Musicians, and several other works “from the point of view of a performer and looks at the ways a musician might think in order to play rhythms accurately and with a good sense of time” (ibid.). These works provide the book’s impetus and framework. Moreover, Reich’s music “represents a nexus of ideas” that circle around questions about rhythm: “What makes a rhythm interesting? What makes music rhythmically engaging to listen to and to perform? How does one develop the ability to play rhythms accurately and with a good sense of time? What goes on in my mind and body when I play rhythms?” (7-8). These questions are answered over the course of the book, and they ground Hartenberger’s excursions into related areas of fascination including musical time, rhythm perception, percussion musics from West Africa, South India, and Indonesia, and philosophy (particularly Wittgenstein). There is a wealth of material here that will be of interest to fans of Reich, minimalist music, percussion performance pedagogy, and more broadly, to readers (like me) interested in the connection between music and body-mind wellness. Performance Practice is a probing and practical study that is both informative and inspiring. If you’re a drummer or percussionist, you’ll want to get hold of this book!

Listening back on the era now, especially to works the so-called minimalists, it’s as though the 1960s and 70s experimental music scenes were searching for ways out of the expressivity box—as if there was something un-modern about the Romantic conception of creativity. I hear Reich’s early music as if it was proposing alternate ways of being through sound. In his book, How To See, the artist David Salle suggests a rationale for artists leery of self-expression: “From 1958 to the late ‘60s, many roads artistic were headed in the direction of removing or a least minimizing the subjective as an organizing principle. This was happening not only in art but also in music and literature…A lot of serious-minded people wanted to avoid the trap of self-expression, and the trivializing narcissism it implied” (110).

The story begins with Hartenberger describing how he met Reich through a serendipitous confluence of events, his world music studies at Wesleyan University (particularly West African and South Indian musics; Hartenberger wrote his dissertation on the rhythms of mrdangam, a South Indian drum), a research trip to Ghana, and forming the pioneering (and still active) Nexus percussion ensemble. It was during this time that he began forging a career that combined his training in Western and non-Western musics. “I realized that the study of non-Western music would help me in my understanding and performance of rhythm in Western music and that the study of the performance techniques of these non-Western instruments would give me insight into the skills necessary to improve my performing abilities on Western percussion instruments” (7). In the spring of 1971, Hartenberger began commuting from Middletown, CT to New York City to attend Reich’s weekly rehearsals for Drumming, a piece-in-progress that the composer was teaching to musicians by rote at his Soho apartment. In Chapter 1, Drumming, early days, Hartenberger recounts these rehearsals, the musicians involved, as well as premieres and early tours to Europe. Among the details of equipment and personnel, there are interesting sub-sections describing what would become enduring themes. For instance, Hartenberger recounts how he occasionally practiced yoga with Reich during this time, and noticed the composer’s interest in the counting aspect of yogic breathing exercises and their potential musical applications. “This was the first time I had ever thought about why music, at least most of Western music, was created with eight as its base” (12). Hartenberger interweaves recollections of this period with research on Reich’s composing sketchbooks from the early 1970s. In Chapter 3, The process of composing Drumming, we learn how Reich came up with the core rhythmic pattern for Drumming as well as its “resultant” patterns that emerge from this core like perceptual sonic gestalts. Hartenberger shows how notation experiments documented in the sketchbooks reveal that “Reich’s development of the Drumming pattern was at least as much an evolution as it was a revelation” (42). The sketchbooks chart how Reich “tried out different resultant pattern possibilities” (ibid.), writing notes to himself on ideas to pursue. One note reads: “‘a series of short drumming all starting from the same place going to different conclusions or reduce by eliminating resultant figures then add by phasing’” (43). Here, as elsewhere in his book, Hartenberger locates the tantalizing bits (including photos of sketchbook pages) to illustrate the lengths Reich went to systematically think through the possibilities of his core pattern and the potentials of his music. In one passage, the composer advocates for the virtues of Drumming’s acousticity by comparing it to electronic music, which, he says, “doesn’t have the emotional depth that instrumental sound has…” (45).

Reich’s pulse-based music sounds like it was conceived on a grid—like sequenced music made without sequencers. It brings to mind the work of visual artists such as Sol LeWitt who also worked with grid forms (cubes). In her 1979 article, “Grids”, the art critic Rosalind Krauss says that grids express spatial and temporal modernity in twentieth century visual art. Krauss provides many examples of grids (such as the work of Agnes Martin), and suggests that they convey a specific stance towards the world. “As we have a more and more extended experience of the grid” she notes, “we have discovered that one of the most modernist things about it is its capacity to serve as a paradigm or model for the antidevelopmental, the anti narrative, the antihistorical” (64).

In Chapters 4-7, Hartenberger discusses the four sections of Drumming in more detail. The first section is scored for tuned bongos played with sticks. Hartenberger explains how Reich settled on bongos and decided on what pitches to tune them to. In part, these decisions were pragmatic: bongos were widely available percussion instruments with an ideal, mid-register tuning range, below which they sound slack and unfocused. Of the several qualities of Drumming that make it a sui generis achievement, the most important is its compositional austerity: all of its parts are derived from a single eight note core pattern played over twelve pulses. Drumming is literally a musical process in which this pattern is built up and down repeatedly through various canonic relationships over the duration of the piece. Hartenberger explains how this core pattern was conceived and assigned to four drummers playing four sets of bongos, and shares his strategy for conceptualizing the build of up of Drumming’s pattern as “as each attack is added to the pattern” (57). This will be of particular interest to percussionists struggling with how to hear the rhythm as they play it. Learning Drumming from Reich by rote, without notation, taught Hartenberger to think “of all the patterns in the piece in a more abstract but also more visceral manner than if I had learned it from notation” (60). He reminds us that freedom from notation “is one of the keys in the development of highly sophisticated rhythmic systems in the music of many non-Western cultures” (ibid.). The second section of Drumming is scored for marimbas and women’s voices—a scoring decision Reich decided upon after having aurally hallucinated (!) the sound of women’s voices singing resultant patterns over the sound of marimbas while he was composing. The third section moves to a higher register and is scored for glockenspiel, whistling, and piccolo. The fourth section combines the instruments from each of the preceding sections to create a dramatic finale. The full piece takes about one hour to play.

An interesting quality of Drumming is that while its process design may have roots in Reich’s 1960s tape experiments, its realization as a compellingly organic piece of music could have only happened with the help of the skilled musicians who played in Reich’s ensemble. These musician in effect learned how to adapt a machine aesthetic to rhythm.

Chapter 8-10 consider the acoustics of Drumming, the anatomy of a phase, and matters of performance practice. Acoustically speaking, Drumming is fascinating for how it produces multi-layered and polyrhythmic sound clouds. Hartenberger explains how the attack sounds of sticks and mallets on the bongos, marimbas, and glockenspiels “become acoustical phenomena that accompany the pitches that are played on the instruments and duplicated by the voices” (90). As for the science of these acoustical phenomena, musical instrument designer and fellow Reich ensemble percussionist Garry Kvistad hypothesizes possible causes, including the presence of “difference tones” (91). “I think the reason Steve’s music has so much of [difference tones] flying around” Kvistad notes, “is due to the abundance of consonant intervals” (ibid.). A second quality that makes Drumming unique is that it incorporates a rhythmic displacement (i.e. canonic) technique Reich calls “phasing”, in which one musician ever so slight speeds up his playing against that of another musician who maintains a consistent tempo. Phasing produces a momentary out-of-sync-ness that eventually leads to a new, out-of-phase rhythmic relationship between the two parts. In chapter 10, Hartenberger describes in detail how he approaches phasing his parts in Drumming, including what he thinks about while playing, and little tricks for keeping himself on track such as always feeling the first note of his pattern as beat one (95-98). In what is perhaps the book’s most suggestive sentence, Hartenberger says, “I sometimes stay in an irrational relationship for a while if I feel comfortable there” (97). If you have played Drumming, or have listened to it and wondered about how the musicians are keeping it all together when they phase, this irrational relationship idea aptly captures the perceptual chaos of being out-of-sync mid-phase—that is, between the safety of two well-defined rhythmic relationships. Next, the chapter outlines eight common mistakes musicians make when phasing, such as losing track of beat one or going too far in a phase (100-102). The chapter also shares the results of a lab experiment on phasing. For the experiment, Hartenberger and percussionist Bob Becker performed phasing sections from Part I of Drumming with sensors attached to their bongos to chart the exact timing of their drum strokes. The study’s timing analysis, notes Hartenberger, “confirmed my feeling and Becker’s contention that he pushes slightly when I phase in order to create time resistance, and my feeling that I push and pull during phasing” (106).

I’m obsessing on this point a bit, but to what extent was Reich’s phasing inspired by technological malfunction? The composer once explained how the idea crystallized when one of his reel to reel tape recorders went out of sync with the other, creating a slithering, echoing sound. The process of tape machines going out of sync generated a kind of impersonal, electronic expressivity—an acoustic fact in need of a perceptive composer to notice its musical potentials!

In chapter 10 Hartenberger considers performance practice minutiae of Drumming. He begins by explaining his thinking about dynamics, tempo, and attack placement. Prior to playing the first note of Drumming, Hartenberger primes himself with a series of questions (thirteen in total) to prepare for the music about to unfold (119). The last of these questions is the most probing: “Am I prepared to subjugate my ego and let this first attack sound by itself with my arm functioning only as the instigator of the sound?” (ibid.) Reading this section I learned about the extent to which Drumming requires its musicians to simultaneously focus and give themselves up to the flow of the piece. Once Hartenberger has sounded the first drum attack of the piece, a new series of questions present themselves. He explains how he draws on both his training in Western percussion, specifically Fred R. Hinger’s notion of time and motion, and his understanding of non-Western aesthetics, specifically the Japanese concept of ma or silence. “Through this externalized technique of moving my sticks and hands in a constant motion in the precise amount of time it takes to arrive at the next attack, I am able to internalize ma and thus shape the line of the phrase” (123). These moments of thought fusion are among the book’s most revelatory, showing its author constantly synthesizing lessons from the varied terrain of his musical life. Hartenberger also considers issues of hand patterning and phrasing (126-132) in Drumming by explaining Reich’s fascination with George Lawrence Stone’s snare drum book, Stick Control, and compares the process of learning and teaching Drumming with his experiences learning and teaching West African drumming. Drumming and West African drumming are similar in several respects: they are learned by rote, they are built out of polyrhythms, and they make complex perceptual demands on the percussionist.

The term minimalism has often been used to describe the music of LaMonte Young ,Terry Riley, Reich, Philip Glass, as well as the work of various painters and sculptors. But minimalist style may have been merely a surface by-product of other, deeper concerns. Reich and Glass demonstrated through their work how seemingly disparate traditions could be synthesized through perceptive analysis and transformed into new acoustic facts. Was minimalist style just a resultant pattern of a thought fusion process?

The most interesting section of chapter 10 considers matters of concentration, endurance, and perception. Hartenberger explains that the performer of Reich’s music faces a unique problem: “the ambiguity in the music creates interest and the repetition can create a meditative state; but these qualities also require the player to develop heightened concentration in order to play the part correctly and still enjoy listening to the sound of the ensemble” (134). One way to cultivate heightened concentration is through focusing on the flow of one’s physical movements. These movements are “a great help, and in many cultures essential, in maintaining a mental time sense while playing rhythms with accuracy” (ibid.). Hartenberger also zooms in on the micro-moments of hand-stick-drum contact, whereby he has “developed an awareness of the connection between my mind and the moment my sticks or mallets actually struck the instrument” (134). I imagine this moment as having a time-slowed-down, Matrix-esque kind of focus, though I’m not sure. Most impressive is Hartenberger’s technique of “energy-shifting”, which he employs to play Reich’s music for extended periods of time without stopping. Originally developed while practicing snare drum rolls, energy-shifting involves focusing on tension spots and then moving them “from one part of my body to another” (137). But concentration and energy-shifting are only part of the puzzle that is performing Drumming. What the percussionist needs to do above all is play repeating parts in such a way to maintain the music’s intended “ambiguity of perception when possible” (146). With Drumming, as with all of Reich’s music, the performing goal is to always create a sense of momentum (138) while at the same time avoiding “the trap of consistency and monotony” (146).

Contrary to all the attention repetition in Reich’s music has received, there is in fact a lot of action and change in it. Sometimes this change is structural (musicians switch from one pattern to another), other times perceptual (you notice something that was there all along). But the end is the same: the music keeps you thinking. In this regard, Reich’s music is a useful metric by which to evaluate other musics. Sometimes I’ll toggle back and forth between a Reich piece and say, a new electronic music track to in order to compare the rate at which the music articulates new ideas. Then I ask myself whether or not the music compels me to think about what is happening in it. Reich’s music sets a high bar for how it answers its own question: What is this music doing as it goes along?

Chapters 11-14 examine some of Reich’s other early pieces, Clapping Music (1972), Music for Pieces of Wood (1973), Six Pianos (1973), and Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices, and Organ (1973). Hartenberger explains how Clapping Music was inspired by Reich’s seeing a flamenco palmas performance at a club in Belgium and realizing that he could score a piece for the musician’s body as percussion instrument. Similar to Drumming, Clapping Music shows Reich devising “a rhythmic pattern that had many of the elements of a sophisticated West African rhythm but was his own creation” (167). Hartenberger also connects Clapping Music to clapping practices in West Africa, applause in Western concert halls, and to other rhythmic uses in the musics of North and South India. In chapter 12 we learn about the genesis, instrumentation, and performance practice for Music for Pieces of Wood, while chapters  13 and 14 consider Six Pianos  and Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices, and Organ. I was surprised to learn that Six Pianos is a scaled down version of a piece Reich had hoped to write for an entire piano store (!). The piece, which was eventually adapted for marimbas (Six Marimbas), also marks the first time Reich had composed in 4/4 meter.

When you listen to a number of pieces by the same composer you realize that what they have in common is that which is renewable—the concept, the aesthetic, the technique, or in more poetic terms, all those things combined that produce the music’s distinctive voice. Reich’s sound—his voice—is intimately connected to the processes that unfold in his music. I think it’s this process idea that has proved so influential outside of Western classical music. Case in point: electronic dance music DJ and laptop performances are often structured like unfolding Reich processes. Even the modular “clips and scenes” architecture of music software recalls the one-measure repeating parts of Reich’s early scores.

Chapter 15 considers what is perhaps Reich’s best-loved work, Music for 18 Musicians (1976). The piece is more elaborate in instrumentation and structure than Drumming or Reich’s other early works. In addition to using percussion and voices, it incorporates pianos, woodwinds, and strings. The structure of the piece is also more involved, opening and closing with a series of eleven pulsating chords whose harmonic implications are explored throughout the different sections of the piece. As Reich violinist Audrey Wright puts it, Music for 18 takes the listener on a journey, and “reminds us that the knowledge and the beauty of [the music] are really in the process” (233). The chapter begins with Hartenberger explaining Music for 18’s instrumentation, ensemble members, and initial rehearsals. As with Drumming, Reich composed Music for 18 at the same time he taught it to his ensemble (190). While this suggests a laboratory-like set up where musicians were free to contribute ideas, Hartenberger notes that “very few musical changes from the musicians were suggested or incorporated into the composition” (191). I found this interesting in light of Reich’s early interest in composing music that was non-hierarchical, eschewed soloists and conductors, and was community-oriented. Comments by musicians in Reich’s ensemble suggest that maintaining sole authorship of the music was paramount for the composer. As violinist Shem Guibbory recalls, “You could never say, ‘we wrote this, or we wrote the idea;’ it was not like that” (191).

When any music can be sampled and looped and made the ground for a new compositional figure, what happens to the idea of musical authorship? If creativity is understood as a complex system of cascading feedback loops, where one small change from somewhere in the system can have huge implications down the musical line, is the composer still the composer? (Does it matter?)

The rhythmic engine of Music for 18 is its pulsing marimba and piano parts. We get a sense of the philosophical rigor of Reich’s thinking when he observes that “the pulse is the perfect state containing all patterns” (212). We also learn why it is that in Music for 18 (and other, subsequent pieces) Reich chose to divide the pulsing parts between two musicians. “There’s that buoyancy” [with two musicians] he says in one of the book’s many interviews with Hartenberger, “and with hand alternation it’s a bit leaden and mechanical” (213). Hartenberger explains the complexities of playing the off-beat pulsing part in Music for 18, noting that he is “constantly making minute adjustments in relation to the on-beat in order to keep the subdivision of the beat accurate” (217). Two of his perceptual tricks for keeping his part buoyantly on track: think of the off-beats as “pick-up to the next on-beat rather than a response to the previous on-beat” (ibid.); and “think of the off-beats in larger groupings” (ibid). Despite these tips, playing the off-beat pulsing part is a fiendishly demanding percussive task. (I would certainly prefer to be the “on-beat” percussionist.) In the final sections of the chapter, Hartenberger connects some of the rhythmic complexities of Music for 18 to his experiences with West African drumming. We learn that, according to one of Hartenberger’s teachers, Ghanaian master drummer Abraham Adzenyah, drummers often keep track of the music’s “hidden beat” or “invisible conductor” (228) to orient themselves within the music’s time flow. We also learn about Reich’s interest in the 12-pulse bell pattern for the traditional Ewe drum and dance piece, Atsiabekor. “It’s compelling because it is so ambiguous…After a while you don’t know [where beat one is]” he says (230). Twelve can be divided in multiple ways, which means that different metrical feels “are all possibly present” (ibid.). Drawing on the work of Srinivasa Ramanujan (1887-1920), a mathematician from South India, Hartenberger explains that one reason twelve is a “magic number in rhythm” (ibid.) is that it is a highly composite number.

The pulse as the perfect state containing all the patterns, the hidden beats, the power of ambiguity, the multiple metrical feels all possibly present, the magic numbers in rhythm—all of these qualities of polyrhythmic, pulse-based musics have found their way around the world over the past half century. As the musician and scholar John Collins observes in his film Listening To The Silence, it’s as if sub-Saharan African rhythmic concepts were a perceptual time bomb that detonated inside (and out) of Western music, changing how we hear musical time.   

In the book’s final chapter, Inside Rhythm, Hartenberger sums up the significance of Reich’s music in terms of the perceptual effects of its rhythmic designs. His main finding is that of the qualities that make a rhythm musical and interesting to listen to, “perception, ambiguity, and intuition are all intrinsic elements that lie beneath the surface of the music” (235). Each of Reich’s pieces have this rhythmic ambiguity that makes considerable demands on the listener. In his early compositions, Reich used the techniques of phasing, resultant patterns, and building rhythms up and down, one beat at a time, to create changes in rhythmic perception through “gestalt flips” and generate a feeling which Reich calls “magic time” (237). Ultimately, rhythmic ambiguity is the quality that makes magic time magic, and the perceptual in-between-ness of ambiguity, says Hartenberger, “is something that can be created in a composition through technical means” (235). At its most potent, ambiguity can even create a sense of “spirituality in the form of culturally specific musicality” (237). In sum, as I read Performance Practice I was struck by the similarities between its flow and the gradual unfolding of Reich’s music. The smooth surface of Hartenberger’s writing belies the layers of experiential, theoretical, and anecdotal analysis that lie underneath. Like the percussionist drumming out resultant patterns heard in the polyrhythm mix, one phrase at a time, Hartenberger makes a case for the ways in which music “with rhythm as one of its primary structural components can be spine-tingling and beautiful” (239). Performance Practice is a systematic and nuanced unpacking of the thinking, structures, and playing techniques involved in Reich’s early works, leading us “beneath the surface of the music to the joy of rhythmic beauty” (ibid).   

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.