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Art Lande: Revealing the Infinite

By Published: September 17, 2012
Playing Piano and Drums

AAJ: You play the piano and you play the drums. Can you speak a bit about your relationship with each of those instruments and also how they bounce off each other?

AL: Well, they do energize each other. I started as a pianist, and I started playing the drums more when I was in my mid-20s. I think the attraction to the drums was that with the piano, with all its 88 keys and all these notes and all these chords and all this precision, I can't even bend a note. I can't even go "woooooo" on a piano—well, I try! But just the specific-ness of the piano, the complexity of it—it's wondrous, it's an orchestra, and it's really great to be a part of this gigantic universe, but sometimes it's too much responsibility for me.

Then I go to the drum set, which might have seven notes, on the face of it. Of course, there are gradations of where you play your snare drum or where you play your cymbal, or there are different tones. But for me, playing drums is like suddenly having a piano with only seven notes on it. Then you get creative in a different way because your choices are simplified. It's like playing a little piano. And I really like that. Maybe I should do that—just strip 81 notes off the piano and say, "I'm only using these seven tonight!" I do that, of course, on the piano sometimes. I strip it down for periods of time because I don't want such a big universe, I just want a little room. Not that the drums are small by any means, but in terms of pitches or sounds, the drums are less daunting than the piano.

The other thing is that the drums, maybe again partly because of their nature and their history, and because they have such a strong rhythmic component, is that they have something to do with the motor of things. As a drummer, that's what I focus on. I do care about the other things the drums can do, but when I play drums it's kind of like: If this piece is an animal, how does it move? Is it a fast thing? Is it slow? Is it limping? Now it's slowing down, and now it's getting stronger. So without all these notes and chords and things, I can just focus on being the motor. Like, how does this baby want to move?

If a piece of music would be a character, the piano would tell all these things about what the character says and does. With the drums, it's more: Is the character angry or running? Or is it dark in the room? Is it light? I can communicate those things on the piano, but they're not as potent as on the drums. The drums are more a feeling space. With the drums, I can affect the general mood and atmosphere more by doing less, by doing some very simple decision about speed or timbre. And I like that. It simplifies; it brings out my musicianship in a way which is sometimes more heart, more feeling, more physical and less brain and less detail than piano.

So to me, the drums are more primal, more basic. The specifics of the drums are not so refined, to me. I mean, of course they are; but for me, that's why I like to go back and forth. Then suddenly it's like, "No, I want the 88 notes! I'm going to play a D-flat." I can't play the D- flat on the drums. I can go "Rrrr!" I can go "Bom bom!" Or I can go "Ding!" But I can't play D-flat—or maybe I sort of can! So when I want that, then the piano is a good place to go. Then we can talk about exact syntax; then we can talk about how D-flat relates to C-sharp. So it's a little different brain-and-feeling level that I go to on each instrument. And they refresh each other.

The physical part of both instruments is very similar because there's a lot of independent skills on both piano and drums. Being able to play what you really want to play on each instrument has to do with independence of body parts, and I like that challenge. The hands are doing different things, or the hands and feet are doing different things. And the two instruments help each other: the fact that I can do certain things with my hands on the piano, I can do them on the drums, too. The feet are involved on the piano, too, at least for me, because pedaling is such an important part of my piano playing. So they're the same thing.

AAJ: What about in terms of composition? Are your compositions piano based?

AL: It depends on the band. In a band where I'm the drummer, the compositions are coming out of that. I play in a number of bands with no piano, so then I'm hearing that ensemble. I don't know if I'm thinking more about my instrument; I'm thinking about all the instruments that play within the band. If I write for the band, I want the band to be intriguing, to sound exciting for that ensemble, so I write with that in mind. Then with the compositions that I write from the piano, it's the same process—I think of the band that I'm playing with. But I'll also just write because I have an experience, or some guest is coming who plays the trumpet, and I hear trumpet in my ears. So I write for specific people, for specific ensembles and for specific events. I might write a Halloween song or a birthday song or a song of fall.

I was just thinking of this trio that we had with saxophonist Peter Sommer
Peter Sommer

sax, tenor
and bassist Derek Layes, which is no piano—just drums, saxophone and bass. So those compositions have a lot of counterpoint music with different lines intersecting—and no, there's not chords in these pieces, because we had no chordal instrument. Whereas if you had a band with a guitar and a piano, then maybe you'd do something very different that suits that sound. So you conjure up that sound and those people in your mind, and then you write something that'll bring some fun, that'll give people joy to make that music.

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