IASPM: Panel: Drumming, Drum Kits and Drummers (Gareth Dylan Smith, Matt Brennan, Bill Bruford)

A Phenomenological Study of Drumming. Gareth Dylan Smith (Institute of Contemporary Music Performance, London)

The presenter – a drummer in punk, blues, and riff-rock bands – explores the real-time, spatial, embodied experience of playing the drums, in an attempt to convey the essence of what it feels like to make music on the instrument, alone and with others, in various musical situations. The presenter draws on audio, video, metaphor, analogy and rich, intimate personal descriptions to convey the intangible – but known and, to many, familiar – sense of what it is to be a drummer in time, body and space. He uses the writing of Merleau-Ponty as a framework to discuss the ‘re-creation and re-constitution of the world [and of music] at every moment’ (Merleau-Ponty, 1945: 240). Also referencing ‘trancing’ (Becker, 2004), ‘groove’ (Feld and Keil, 1994), ‘listening’ (Jean-Luc Nancy, 2002), and the ‘magic ride’ (Hart, 1990), the presenter argues that a phenomenological lens is an essential element in understanding the art of drumming. Evidence from other musical instruments and disciplines is considered to build the case that such a view of how music is realised may be crucial to understanding musical experiences in cultures around the world, including in popular music where the drum kit and its emulation retain central roles

Gareth begins by discussing the challenges of defining practice as research, practice based research, and phenomenological research based on practice. He, like all our presenters in this session, is a drummer, and author of the book ‘Drummers and Drumming: I Drum Therefore I Am’ (Ashgate, 2012).

The paper then moves into a discussion of learning/knowledge as it relates to the physical process of drumming or learning to drum, and he contrasts the ‘immediate’ feedback given from a musical instrument with the more considered feedback available from more intellectual forms of learning. This is supported with some quotations from extant (music) PedR scholarship and some reflections from drummers themselves – what it feels like to be in the song, in the moment.

Gareth advocates a ‘from the inside out’ approach in scholarship – that in order to understand embodied cognition in players we should consider working outward from the instrumentalist’s experience. Although the methodological approach was not specified clearly in the presentation, Gareth states that he is currently developing this in response to the first evidence base (retrospective interviews) provided in the book.

“Instruments of a lower order”: Historicizing the double status of the drum kit and drummers. Matt Brennan (University of Edinburgh, UK)

Hector Berlioz, in his influential 1844 Treatise on Orchestration, distinguished between two kinds of percussion: “the first kind comprises instruments of fixed and musically recognizable pitch; the second comprises those whose less musical sounds can only be classed as noises designed for special effect or for rhythmic colour.” In the former category were instruments like the timpani and glockenspiel, and in the latter were the drums, cymbals, and “traps” that would eventually be regrouped together as the first ever drum kits, or “trap drummer’s outfits”. These “less musical sounds” and “noises” (and the drummers who played them) had a profound role in shaping the music of the twentieth century, but all too often they are overlooked in scholarship. Drawing from work on the social construction of technology and organology (Pinch and Bijsterveld 2003; Dobney 2004), this paper proposes a re-assessment of the drum kit and its history, and explores the historical development of what I call the “double status” of the drum kit – its marginalization on the one hand in areas ranging from copyright law to higher education, and its ubiquity on the other as it has provided the rhythmic foundation for Anglo-American popular music over the past century.

Matt opens with a drummer joke, which I won’t kill by transcribing here, but it was the one about ‘I should ask you to think carefully before you tell me a drummer joke, because I’m a drummer…”.

He then contextualises the work and explains his approach to the ‘double status’ of the drum kit – it is simultaneously central (to the rock/jazz ensemble) and marginalised (having a highly functional role in popular music). He cites Nick Lowe’s attempts to “get away from the tyranny of the snare drum”.

Moving on to an historical approach, Matt cites Hector Berlioz’s (negative) views of drums and percussion, bass drums in particular, and quotes he latter’s 19thC denigration of the pitchless status of untuned percussion. This is followed by Hermann von Helmholtz’s discussion of drums in his book The Sensations of Tone (1877). Helmholtz attempts to link aesthetic value to acoustic science, which Matt acknowledges has a long tradition going back to Pythagorean scale theory. He [Helmholtz] amusingly described the timpani as needing tuning only ‘to avoid injury to the harmony’. Other similarly anti-drum critics are cited, including Henry Krehbiel and George Grove (of dictionary fame). Alarmingly, the drum kit did not appear in said dictionary until 1984 (!).

Bringing us rapidly (almost) up to date, Matt cites the case of Mike Joyce, who was in the 1989 court case described by Morrissey as someone who can “be replaced, like one of the parts of a lawnmower”. Interestingly, Matt asks the question of why Joyce did not go for a songwriting credit, inferring reasonably that he was unlikely to win, especially perhaps given the non-virtuosic nature of his drumming style and technique. He then alludes to an imaginary world whereby (simple) drum accompaniment could be protected in copyright. Citing Jane Gaines, he points out the rights and ‘creativity’ problems such a world would create. He spectacularly concludes that the devaluing of simple drum accompaniments has itself played an important and, dare I editorialise, instrumental role in the development of popular music IP.

Creativity at the Margins: A case study exploration of one drummer’s contribution to popular music. Bill Bruford (University of Surrey, UK)

The work of western kit drummers has hitherto been somewhat marginalised in scholarly enquiry, with there being only a handful of extant publications. Musicological analysis in popular music studies has tended, with very few exceptions, to focus on lyrical content, harmonic progression and overall rhythmic movement, rather than on the contribution of drummers. Through the lens of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s systems model of creativity (Csikszentmihalyi 1997), this paper will step towards an understanding of creativity in drumming through the study of one practitioner, Max Roach. The presenter, himself a kit drummer, will argue that Roach is an exceptional case, and that drumming cannot in most instances be understood in the terms set forth by Csikszentmihalyi. An argument is put forward for an adapted, expanded model of creativity that accounts for the particular practices and context of ‘communities of practice’ (Wenger 1998) that exist in popular music performance. 

Bill begins by situating drummers in the domain in which they operate, and describes an historical reticence to ‘claim creativity’. Theoretically he sites his work within Czikszentmihalyi’s Systems Model of Creativity and Boden’s Historical and Psychological models of creativity. Within this framework he asks questions regarding the extent to which we, as listeners, or drummers themselves, can consider a drummer’s contribution to be ‘creative’.

This framework (particularly the Systems Model’s Individual/Field/Domain paradigm) is used to look at a particular drummer – Max Roach (1924-2007), and Bill goes on to discuss Roach’s work as an exemplar of ‘excellence in creative practice’. Importantly, he starts by looking at the prior influences on Roach’s work, discussing postwar music and the contemporaneous tension between art music and popular music. He then gives us a brief and interesting history of the development of the drum kit, from a sonic and ergonomic point of view. Roach’s position in drumkit history is important, because he began drumming at a time when a ‘conversation’ (a common noun, apparently, in discussion of Roach) between snare drum, ride cymbal and bass drum could occur, responding to the musical information carried in the main melody and other instruments. It was Roach, Bill asserts, that was the first drummer really to see the drum kit as a single instrument, using it as a form of musical punctuation.

Bill now plays us an audio excerpt of Roach’s Blues for Big Sid, and credits him as ‘moving the locus of continuum from the right foot [kick drum] to the right hand [ride cymbal]’, and ‘reframing the drum solo in terms of structural design [Blues for Big Sid being an entire 32 bar standard with no pitch instruments, melody or lyric!]’. These innovations, he asserts, were selected by the Field for inclusion in drumming practice, and remain to this day.

He continues with a challenge to his own argument, firstly contending that the ideas may not have been original, but are instead derived from prior work, and acknowledging that truly (philosophically) ‘original’ music cannot be said to exist. Secondly, he describes other contemporaneous drummers ‘Big Sid Catlett’ and ‘Klook’ as being influential also. Thirdly, in a related point he poses the question of whether such Domain-changing developments may be attributable to one individual.

The paper concludes with a critique of failings of the Systems Model itself, suggesting that it is too coarse-grained to account for real-world change in creative domains (particularly socio-cultural creative domains). His summary argues that Roach’s work is an exceptional case in that it supports a Systems Model interpretation of drumming creativity, but that we need more tools to look at a lower creativity threshold.

[blogger’s ethical dilemma – should I tag this post with ‘songwriting’ or not? Better play safe to keep on the right side of this room full of drummers].

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