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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
2018

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)

For drummers this ongoing cycle entails the accumulation of an extensive amount of lived experience that is essential to making appropriate, in the moment performance choices within the context of various genres and styles—not to mention imbuing these performances with creative intentions and content. (p. 3, 116) With regard to creativity, "Everything the performer has done, lived, thought and performed up to and during the moment of performance constitutes the experience that is expressed...during the creative moment." (p. 140)

Upon making these choices both the individual and other parties within the extended community of drummers interpret, assign, circulate, and exchange the meaning and significance of the performance experience. (p. 37, 131) This is tied into one of Bruford's fundamental points: Creativity doesn't exist in the isolation of the human mind or in the confines of an individual's private practice space. It must be brought out into the open, communicated, and ultimately judged in terms of how it stacks up against the efforts of other practitioners. (p. 191) On an individual level, meaning—whether interpreted by Self or Others—is essential because it potentially forms "the basis for reflection" and possible change in practice (p. 35), in terms of what works and what doesn't.

In a larger context, various constituencies of the drum culture, such as ..."other eminent practitioners, manufacturers and retail store owners, magazine editors, record company executives, teachers, and music critics" (p. 166) weigh in on meaning by passing judgment on the importance of the efforts of individual performers from the past and into the present day. The drum culture has its own mythology, icons, technological language, pedagogical language, narrative and literature (p. 131-132), all of which ultimately impact drummers and their performance. These opinions and pieces of information provide concrete examples of standards for individuals to imitate, absorb, and incorporate into their own identities as players.

If these constructions seem a bit removed from the workaday realities of drummers, Bruford brings things a little closer to home by situating drummer choices and the potential for creativity within the degree of control he/she exercises in a range performance situations. He points out that creativity is not always welcome. The drummer who takes interpretative license in a tribute band or circus band will soon be looking for other means of employment. The left side of Bruford's functional/compositional continuum (FCC) describes the requirements of a live gig or recording session in which a drummer must play in a purely functional manner. A bandleader and/or producer directs the action, expects a specific style to be executed within strict parameters, and rejects any individual flourishes or personal expression on the part of the drummer. (p. 40, 41) In these situations the professional trapster assumes the role of a craftsperson (p. 46), drawing on multiple options from past experience or, armed with "preexisting rhythmic templates" endorsed by the drum culture, to deliver an appropriate performance. (p. 45, 83)

The opposite pole of the FCC depicts the compositional mode of practice, in which drummers "determine and perform individual, self-created parts, composed long before, just before, or in the moment of performance." (p. 38) While working in situations as or without a leader (p. 53), they make choices—often simultaneously—in terms of composition, time, meter, timbre, and dynamics. (p. 45) Keep in mind, however, that untethered artistic license is not a legitimate goal in nearly all performance situations. Not unlike a player hired to execute a purely functional part, a drummer operating in the compositional end of the spectrum is—first and foremost—committed to making the music work (p. 80), prior to inserting anything that can be construed as creative or individualistic. Though the individual may perform in a manner that ultimately "push[es] boundaries, question[s] understandings, challenge[s] assumptions, [and] contest[s] and define[s] style" (p. 45), none of these things are welcome if the music as a whole isn't served.

Bruford doesn't posit the FCC as an either/or proposition. Functional and compositional performances are not opposing forces, staring contemptuously at one another over a great divide. In terms of creativity, most playing situations lie somewhere in the middle of the two poles. Peter Erskine, one of Bruford's interviewees, finds creativity in the functional performance mode by "'enabling' others to do something or accompanying them while they do it." (p. 58) There is a substantial amount of creative potential in the "infinite amount of choices that he or she can make" (p. 58) while "making it feel like music," and "making the leader sound good." (p. 61) Instead of regarding creativity only in terms of extroverted sounds which readily draw attention, "Expert drummers see creative variation as available in the smallest gestures, in the tightest corners." (p. 65)

Nearly all of the expert drummers in Bruford's study make a conscious effort to develop an individual identity, which entails occupying the compositional realm of practice. (p. 92) For most of these drummers the road to individuation—playing in a manner that can be regarded as different than their influences, or anything they've heard—involves a conscious effort to avoid what other drummers are doing (p. 119); or, to use the example of Cindy Blackman-Santana, it means the desire "to 'go further' or 'take it further' by means of the deployment of a series of creative strategies." (p. 122) Once again, keep in mind that drummers constantly make choices even while they deal with the foundational requirements of the music. Manipulating temporal, metrical, dynamical and timbral elements is essential in developing a different sounding voice (p. 99), as well as in holding down the purely functional aspects of making music with others. Likewise, Bruford refers to the expression of experience as the "something else" (p. 99) that serves both basic responsibilities and entry into creative, compositional activity. The experts (or, for that matter, any accomplished drummer) draw from "the years of experience that provoke the innumerable small selections from among possibilities... that lead to (and to some extent become) the work." (p. 140) The creativity in these selections may consist of the "abrupt changes in conceptual direction" favored by some of Bruford's interviewees; or, it may constitute concealed creativity (p. 96) that doesn't draw attention to itself or even register with some listeners.

It's not particularly difficult to envision ways in which Uncharted can serve as a useful tool for a variety of interested parties. Scholars in the field of ethnomusicology or jazz studies are likely to absorb this groundbreaking study of Western kit drummer creativity and incorporate it as a basis for further research. Drummers will appreciate the book for a number of reasons. It's proof positive that popular music and jazz drumming are serious endeavors, as worthy of scrutiny as other performing art; it explains why drummer creativity can be cultivated in a wide range of performance situations; and Bruford's tome serves as a point of entry into the complexities of the interactions between drummer performance and the drum culture. Lastly, the layperson may find him/herself recalling some of Bruford's formulations while watching and listening to a drummer (say, in the intimate surroundings of a club), and in doing so serendipitously experiencing both the music and answers to long held questions regarding what drummers do and why they do it.
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