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Uncharted: Creativity and the Expert Drummer

David A. Orthmann By

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Uncharted: Creativity and the Expert Drummer
Bill Bruford
282 Pages
ISBN: #9780472053780
University of Michigan Press

Uncharted: Creativity and the Expert Drummer isn't the place to look for colorful, gossipy stories about Bill Bruford's celebrated years as a prog rock architect and drummer with Yes, King Crimson, Genesis, and U.K.; or, his tenure as a leader of highly regarded, if less commercially viable, electric and acoustic jazz units. The book is reminiscent of a semester in college spent in the thrall of a favorite professor/lecturer. Bruford traded his sticks—and perhaps his iconic status—for the persona of a scholarly educator, confidently striding through a term's worth of dense, theoretical material, consistently making points filled with "ah hah" moments, and dazzling impressionable undergraduates with the depth and breadth of his knowledge. Based on a 2016 doctoral dissertation at the University of Surrey that was conceived of, researched and written after his retirement from public performance, Bruford has constructed a grand, sprawling, elaborate, circuitous, and overarching model of Western kit drummers' creativity. Pity the poor student who isn't attentive or fully engaged with the material yet assumes they'll slide by with a passing grade.

Bruford introduces issues germane to drummers, performance and creativity in modes that consistently intersect and overlap. To quote the poet Alan Dugan, nothing is plumb, level or square. Juggling a number of primary concepts and an abundance of related information is imperative to understanding his work. For the most part Bruford eschews technical, drum centric analysis in favor of wielding an arsenal of academic resources, including action theory, cultural psychology, and systems theories of creativity. His use of these resources pulls the reader away from entrenched assumptions and common ways of looking at trapsters and compels us to examine matters in a different, more complex, if somewhat speculative light.

Among other things, the book is a systematic rebuttal to a host of negative perceptions about drummers and drumming. Contrary to the dogma of history and Western culture, drummers are not primitive noisemakers who pummel unpitched instruments in a mindless, uninformed manner that pales in comparison to the dignified, musical and creative efforts of their pitched instrument counterparts. (p. 13, 133, 134) Bruford argues that "musical rhythm is as much a mental as a physical matter. Deciding when to play a note is as much a matter of thought as deciding which note to play." (p. 135) His insistence, following Caroline Palmer, that Western kit drummers have "intentions to convey" (p. 3)—that is, routinely make choices of what to play from a wide variety of temporal, metrical, timbral, and dynamical options—is one of the cornerstones of his analysis.

Bruford widens the range of the discussion and imposes additional levels of complexity by introducing three original frameworks, which reappear in various forms throughout the book. The SDCA framework illuminates aspects of creativity—Selection, Differentiation, Communication and Assessment—that are necessary for the realization of creative music performance. (p. 23-24) An integrated model of the circulation of meaning examines the constant flow of performance judgments and appraisals that move between the efforts of individual drummers and the gatekeepers of an established drum culture. (p. 35-37) The functional/compositional continuum is a means of examining the qualities of drummers' performances relative to the degree of their control over various live and studio performance situations. (p. 38-40) And in his quest to shed light on what drummers do and why they do it, Bruford weaves excerpts of interviews with nine internationally known, peak-career drum set practitioners into this wealth of academic and theoretical constructs.

Perhaps the best way to begin to appreciate the substance of Bruford's work is to examine how he employs the concepts of action, experience and meaning in ways that rub against and illuminate one another. They're so tightly knit that it's almost inconceivable to consider one without keeping the other two in mind. "The fundamental nature of music lies in action, in what people do," he asserts. (p. 29) Action is a social activity in which performers connect, share and communicate with one another. (p. 137, 198) These fairly obvious points gain traction when Bruford adopts a tenet of Glaveanu's action theory of creativity: ..."action is structured as a continuous cycle of 'doing' (actions directed at the environment) and 'undergoing' (taking in the reaction of the environment)." (p. 29)


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