Inspiration: Clarinet

I love clarinet. I think it’s primarily the tone — a bit thin compared to brass, rounder than double-reeds; ecstatic as opposed to joyous; instead of longing, despair and lonesomeness1 — which strikes me, more than most instruments, as being shaped precisely as it sounds.2

The tune that brought clarinet to the front of my mind this week is “Pamela’s Holiday”, a bright, shimmering number. Summer music.

rush & hustle
“Pamela’s Holiday,” Wendell Harrison & Mama’s Licking Stick Clarinet Ensemble, Rush & Hustle, 1994.

Some of you will recognize the brand of 6/8 at work here: I tend to think of it as the “My Favorite Things” feel established by John Coltrane’s quartet.3

Another favorite clarinet performance of mine is from the François Houle 5’s In the Vernacular CD, a collection of compositons by John Carter.

in the vernacular

“Morning Bell (prelude),” François Houle 5, In the Vernacular, 1998.

I’m not sure what to say about this piece except that it’s one of two records I’ve ever bought because I heard it playing in a record store. I had never heard anything like it before. Whatever avant-garde energies are at work, it is the attention to tone that compels the musicians.4


  1. As opposed to *lonely*, a word whose connotation is far more personal to me than *lonesome*; *lonesome* connotes a kind of performative distance between the subject and how alone the subject truly is.

  2. Trumpets, for example, look much longer and flatter in my mind’s eye and ear than they actually are; flugelhorns much taller and rounder, more akin to a french horn held aloft and upside-down. G-d only knows what I make of saxophones, though suffice it to say that they’re subjected to rather telescopic, elastic redesigns by the time my ear is through with them.

  3. Which group, I might add, made a signature of that time signature. Paul Desmond’s innovative “Take Five,” performed by the Dave Brubeck Quartet, preceded the Coltrane Quartet number by two years but it was the latter’s understanding of this relatively long swing that brought some muscle to bear. The Harrison track seems to draw from both sides of the feel, buoyant and soaring, unafraid to assert itself when needed.

  4. For what it’s worth, the other Houle work I know is far farther out than this set. F.H.’s devotion to Carter’s compositions is fierce, loving.

Energies: Taking it from the Top

Before cable television and VCRs, to say nothing of the internet, music was, at the very least, a primary source of entertainment. In my home, the radio was frequently on, playing NPR or Top 40 AM radio, or else there were records being played. 1

From my father’s record collection, I heard jazz: Max Roach, Clifford Brown, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis (especially the latter’s Gil Evans sessions) were handy in our house.

porgy+bess
Miles Davis, “Summertime,” Porgy and Bess, 1958.

My mother brought singer-songwriters and popular music to the scene: Arlo Guthrie, Melanie, Ray Charles, John Denver, James Taylor, and Jim Croce were favorites of mine when I was young. 2

jt-sbj
James Taylor, “Fire and Rain,” Sweet Baby James, 1970.

It is impossible for me to diminish the importance of my mother’s listening habits, which consisted, at times, of bringing home a 45rpm single of a song she liked and playing it, more or less, over and over again. Which is to say I grew up in an environment which supported broad listening as well as the cultivation of favorite songs. Though the music from my father’s collection has perhaps proven to be more enduring for me as a musician, my mother taught me how to listen to music.


  1. Growing up in Rochester, NY provided unique listening opportunities: the Eastman School of Music and the musicians in its orbit brought consistent classical and jazz performances, as well as a variety of dance and dance-related performances, sometimes in conventional halls and auditoriums, sometimes in public parks, sometimes on visits to schools. I grew up in an environment that not only embraced music as a cultural, social, and/or popular phenomenon but also from which I came to understand it as a thing people attended and attend to, a thing people do.

  2. John Denver’s “Black Box,” an irritant in adult life, still lingers in the back of my head as a piece that frightened me but which I could not resist; Melanie’s “Lay Down” paved the way, no doubt, for my ongoing alliance with fervor. Such examples are among the countless shadowy presences in my crowded music-memory.

Inspiration: Afrisong

afrisong
“Hymn to the East,” Muhal Richard Abrams, Afrisong, 1982.

I picked up Muhal Richard Abrams’ Afrisong LP yesterday, and though I was not familiar with this record, I liked the cover and have had good luck with other India Navigation titles in the past 1.

Frankly, I couldn’t be more pleased. Abrams’ playing here lands for me somewhere between McCoy Tyner and Keith Jarrett; that is, he appeals like the former in his chords/rhythms and the latter in his flight, for lack of a better term 2. Communicative and uplifting.


  1. e.g. Arthur Blythe’s The Grip, Anthony Davis’ Lady of the Mirrors, and Cecil McBee’s Alternate Spaces, three of my favorite not-too-far-out recordings from the late 1970s and early 1980s.

  2. I’m lying. I think flight is a terrific term and means, for these purposes, exactly what I trust it implies: his energy, his lift, his movement.

Brahms on Craft

brahms

“In some of [your music] you seem to me too easily satisfied. One ought never to forget that by perfecting one piece more is gained and learned than by beginning or half-finishing a dozen. Let it rest, and keep going back to it and working at it, over and over again, until it is a complete finished work of art, until there is not a note too much or too little, not a bar you could improve on. Whether it is beautiful also, is an entirely different matter, but perfect it must be. You see, I am rather lazy, but once begun I never cool down over a work until it is perfected, unassailable.”

— Johannes Brahms, 1876, from a letter to Georg Henschel.

Energies (Polyrhythm)

Syncopation refers to the practice of inverting or otherwise shifting accents in an established rhythmic pattern. Polyrhythm, on the other hand, describes more than one rhythmic pattern occurring simultaneously. Though these elements frequently appear in tandem, especially in larger groups, I think their distinction from each other is worth pointing out.

Here’s some polyrhythm:


Orchestre Poly-Rythmo De Cotonou, “Sé Wé Non Nan,” The Vodoun Effect, 2009.

To my ear, the drums resolve in a 2/4 (two quarter notes to a measure) shuffle while the other instruments are played in 6/8 (six eighth notes to a measure). This polyrhythm yields syncopation for the ensemble’s total sound, though each rhythm sticks to its accent-pattern.

The resulting energy of the tune is sustained within the push-pull of the time signatures: the drums are steady but seem to push the other instruments, which in turn seem to drag the tempo. This is not the same thing as playing ahead of or behind the beat. It is, in fact, a difference of measure, which term should be read literally: it takes the horns longer to get back to the top of their phrase than it does the drums.

Once the vocals come in, however, the group coalesces into a collective 2/4, following the drums instead of the horns. The guitar, percussion, and organ, in the meantime, opt for a 4/4, bridging the gap between the drums and the other instruments.

If this is math, it is also rhythm. The fact that it can be quantified does not disqualify the energy and emotion it provides and amplifies. Rather, it confirms the energy and emotion, and one additional absolute truth: music does not exist outside of time.

Energies: Time

The first step towards defining new criteria for craft 1 is to establish the criteria of composition.

Context provides meaning. Much in the way a composition’s key determines its note-relations, its time signature determines its feel. This latter determination is where things get interesting for me as a drummer.

Hayden Carruth, in an essay on writing poetry in syllabics, sums up the situation most tidily: if a poetic line is bound to a specified number of syllables, it is, within that limitation, free to contain any number of stresses, any meter, any number of words, as long as it conforms to the syllabic proscription.

So it is, more or less, with time signatures. If one is drumming in 4/4 time, the only limitation is that the measure is derived from 4 equally distributed quarter notes. Within this measure, one can play any combination of notes on any part of the kit, bearing in mind that in any event, one must start over in a total of 4 beats.

This is rhythm.


  1. I continue to sweat the term craft because I believe it to be a generally-accepted term whose use describes the favorable degree of a piece of music’s  energy generation, distribution, and sustainment.

Energies (A Brief Adumbrative Interlude for J.R.)

Our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.
— Friedrich Nietzsche

Musical performance is, in every case, a bodying forth of energy. Though it might rely on electrical or electronic means, it is, at bottom, a physical act. We do it with our hands, our limbs, our voices — at some point or other, we bring the sound into existence.

Though taken out of context (he was talking about working on a typewriter as opposed to writing everything out longhand), I think Nietzsche’s remark describes the condition under which music is played.

For example, I play a drum kit, not hand percussion or any other percussion instruments. I have at my usual disposal a snare drum, a kick drum, two rack toms, a hi-hat, two crash cymbals, and two ride cymbals. I strike these items with sticks, except for the hi-hat and kick, which are pedal-driven (or both struck and pedal-driven in the hi-hat’s case).
All the noises I make are derived from a combination of my body and the preceding array. Therefore, I can, within the limits of my mind, strength, and dexterity, strike any combination of these items simultaneously or in succession, in any order, at any volume. On the other hand, I can refrain from striking any or all of them as I see fit. The subsequent fitness results from my choices.

Those choices are guided by the energy at my disposal, from my personal fitness, the sounds of my drum kit, and the fitness and sounds of my collaborators. Collectively, the energy will be, by definition, greater than its contributing parts. If we are to remain humble and effective in the face of music, we must keep this result in mind at all times: no single collaborative expression is more important than any other.

Energies (Craft)

To reiterate: the problem is not  generating the energy but rather managing it. Taking a moment from a drum-centric view, I think it’s worth considering how energy is presented in songs which handle it more or less the same way, though to different ends.

In the case of early Hardcore, for example, there are two conditions under which the energy is maintained. First, the tempos are unusually fast. Second, the songs in this style generally contain all the same elements as conventional popular songs, they just occur more rapidly. So there are verses, choruses, bridges, solos, or codas, all occurring in the space of under two minutes instead of the usual three or four.

out-of-step

Minor Threat, “Out of Step,” Out of Step, 1983.

The aim of the accelerated tempos is clear: manage the energy by forcing a burst of it and nothing else. A limitation to the style is that each song must be short. The aggression and compression makes longer songs unthinkable.

A variation on this style appears in a certain vein of popular folk-derived music (Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Mark Kozolek, et al.) . In these songs, pace and duration are determined by the song’s lyrics and the singer’s style; that is, the manner in which s/he sings and how long it takes to sing everything. Gillian Welch’s “Dream a Highway” is an example of this practice, as is her “My Morphine,” whose yodel might be the slowest such call ever recorded. It is aloof, nostalgic, self-absorbed, slow, sweet, remorseful.

revelator

Gillian Welch, “I Dream a Highway,” Time (The Revelator), 2001.

haty

Gillian Welch, “My Morphine,” Hell among the Yearlings, 1998.

Both the folk-derived mode and that of Hardcore, however much they swing to extremes of tempo and duration, still stay close to the form, if not the structure of conventional songs. I suspect this is due, in large part, to their reliance on singers. In the above cases, the vocals and music reflect each other mutually: the first voice can’t keep up (or thinks he can’t), the second dreams at her own pace, the third sings from the depths of a dope habit. The music is frantic, contemplative, and stoned, respectively.

In any case, I think this mutual reflection is a sign of the quality of songwriting — the high level of craft — at work here. Each of these songs continues to resonate with its fans, even after many years and with no obvious distinction from its peers. 1

Most of the time, if someone in a conversation about music brings the term “craft” to bear, they’re talking about singers and popular music. I suspect further that what they’re responding to is the fact that they are moved in some notable way by the music in question even though they know precisely where the tune is headed. This notion of craft, then, describes to me the effectiveness of a song’s distribution of energy according to its conventions: if the song does precisely what we expect in an unexpected way, we praise its craft.

I contend that craft is defined by its unique relevance to an established practice. Once one abandons the parameters of a given practice, one must establish, from the outset, the parameters of the new practice. These parameters will result in a new definition of craft.


  1. e.g. most Hardcore fans like several bands in their preferred genre, which all sound identical to the uninitiated ear — one has to learn to hear it; the same is true for slow, long, Americana or roots music: get hip or get lost, which is further true, upon reflection, of most things worth knowing. But I digress…