Energies: A Note on Music and Utility

I am, like many people I know, a person whose identity has been discovered, determined and formed through the music I listen to. This is more than the cigarette-smoking or various haircuts and wardrobes I adopted to suit my nascent rock-and-roll, metal, or punk phases; it is in fact the way I have learned to view the world and be a part of it. By which I mean that without music, there is little doubt that I would have ceased to exist some time ago. In this way it has been and is useful to me.

Of course, the criteria for utility vary according to need. Hollis Frampton, in an essay whose title I cannot currently recall, describes art as a practice whose utility has become obsolete. His example, as I recall, is painting, which initially appeared on cave walls as warnings (“Keep an eye peeled for bears!”) or narrative (describing, perhaps, a hunt). From there, it evolved into religious iconography, and only later into a secular mode of entertainment, expression, or reproduction. He distinguishes photography as falling outside this progression, positing that it moved in reverse, from expression (a substitute for amateur painting) to utility (a recording medium whose veracity was intact without question for nearly a century).

Music falls somewhere in between or alongside those media: music has sustained its utility throughout its history, as prayer, as communication, as entertainment, as expression, as rallying point. That is, rather than evolve from utility to art, music has remained a utility and evolved into art simultaneously.

Energies: A Note on Records and Listening

My record-buying and listening pattern is a combination of impulse, artwork, artist, review, and genre. I tend to listen exhaustively, by which I mean I latch on to an artist or group and pick up whatever I can from them until their music is either assimilated into my listening-repitoire or the buzz of the new music simply fades. Most music falls into the latter group but it doesn’t matter.

Reckless Records, Chicago, IL

As Ezra Pound once said, art of any kind in any era requires journeymen, whose works serve “to sustain the art.” Likewise, these eventually-mediocre records serve as journeymen in my listening. They keep things moving, keep me in the habit of listening and seeking, keep things afloat. Once they recede from the turntable and playlists, I’m left with the indefatigable records that are useful and endure.

Energies: Authenticity & Slow Culture

Further thinking about slow movies1 has brought me to both a more general and a more specific idea about the distinction of slow culture, inspired in part by this insightful piece by Matt LeMay.

Slow media 2 are not necessarily the same thing as slow culture, though they are certainly related. The term *slow media* as I’m using it here refers to a direct, physical contact with a medium’s material; *slow culture*, on the other hand, is not so limited and refers to a culture which produces reflective, meditative, deliberate, and/or restful gaps in its material. Mainstream culture’s works bear revisiting because we look forward to the known satisfaction of their resolution; how we get there is less important than that we know it’s coming, and, for the most part, the sooner the better. Slow culture’s payoff comes generally in the works’ process. That is, slow culture gives its participans and audience members a chance to think about what they’re participating in while they’re participating in it. This thoughtfulness is essentially creative and mutual, an investment by the artist in the audience as well as an investment by the audience in the work.

Though the formats and modes suggested by the *slow* terms are generally appreciated by many people, they exist outside the main channels of production, exhibition, performance, broadcast, and spectatorship: it’s cool to know they’re there but they’re not the money-makers of their fields.
They remain, nonetheless, characteristic of a kind of hipness that is less obsolete than it might seem.3

I’ve digressed from my original intention but not irrelevantly. We’ve grown accustomed to the speed of not only cultural works themselves but also their accessibility. Even though the ideas here can probably be applied to any aspect of artistic or cultural life, for the purpose of this piece, I’ll stick to music.

The last decade has yielded an exponential increase in the number of musicians and musical artists and a subsequent increase in recorded and performed output. And yet there has been little *new* music in this period.4 We’ve seen new ways of getting it, new ways of making it, storing it, and distributing it; new places to discuss it, new places to see it, new places to bring it. But the music itself tends toward retro/nostaglic styles 5 whose chief asset is described according to the artists’ *authenticity*.

So from the soulful voices, hard or smooth MCs, sassy cheerleaders, brooding journeymen, laptop-toting maestros, cool popsters, forthright post-punkers, and whoever else has shown up in the last ten years, we learn that many of these artists write their own songs, or that their talent first emerged in early youth; that they heard the call of G-d to sing out in His name. Yet none of these experiences is unique to them or artists in general.

Let me be clear: I do not mistake the experiences of these artists for pretense. On the contrary, I believe we have all been moved by our faith, our youth, our need to find or build a community around what we fear separates us from everybody else or might, however tenuously, connect us. But for these expressions and performances to be meaningful takes time, and what’s been increasingly absent is a culture willing to take the time to think while it listens.

Observed from a different and more pointed angle, the artists, captivated by the availability of recorded music’s entire history, give or take, are deliberately making derivative music. This is not simply the case of punk bands sounding like their predecessors or tenor players adopting the modes of post-war heavies, which practices are rooted in identity-formation, alignment, alliance, homage, tribute; in most such cases, the younger artists anticipate finding their own voice through inspiration. What I’m trying to get at is the widespread assumption that copping styles from older music is good enough. It is not. The standard for original playing has unfortunately been replaced by a standard of authentic fandom, which is fine for fans but diminishes the prospect of hearing anything new when held to by the people who make the music.


  1. See my brief entry on slow movies here.

  2. e.g. LPs, a preference for movies in which people who don’t say very much don’t do very much, books as opposed to magazines or the internet, live performances in small venues

  3. That is, hipness to the kinds of material described above; knowing that vinyl is cool, for example, does not mean that one is buying any. To be *Old School* is, a surprising amount of the time and somewhat paradoxically, to be hip.

  4. Jaron Lanier discusses this subject with great intelligence in his book, *You Are Not a Gadget*, a terrific if sometimes opaque manifesto on life online, its evolving homogeneity, corporate control, and a host of other relevant cultural and economic stuff. Worth a look.

  5. e.g. the last-several-years’preponderence of so-called *psych* music; the americana boom at the turn of the century; hip-hop’s relative stasis compared to its evolution from, say, 1980-2000; the odd mini-boom of British soul singers highlighted by Amy Winehouse, Adele, and Duffy; the mostly-Madonna-derived successes of Lady Gaga and Katy Perry. Other genres present their own examples, which are surely known to their constituents. This note sticks to the well-known to avoid confusion.

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.

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…

Energies (First Thoughts)

Listening the other morning to McCoy Tyner’s Expansions, I was reminded of an aspect of my playing that defies, much of the time, a basic tenet of jazz. Bill Evans once said that jazz is defined by the following equation: it is music in which one minute of composition equals one minute of performance. For my part, I have never, according to Evans’ or any other definition, been a jazz drummer. My playing is too loud, my strokes too discrete, my approach too aggressive to flourish in an environment that requires the high level of trust I admire in jazz.

There is, however, an element of jazz to which I cling and from which I derive a fundamental quality of my practice. I mentally refer to this quality as banking, and it works something like this: any piece of music, however worked-over or spontaneous, should have as its goal the creation of energy. The goal of this energy might vary but its presence must be assured by the performers. So if I set out to provide a beat for my bandmates, my aim is twofold. On the one hand, my beat is additive, complementary to the existing parts, confirming their energy and directing it with my own. On the other hand, I’m exerting my energy to overwhelm the other parts, not to bury them but rather to contain them, to mete the energy we create together. This containment, this reserve, amounts to a banking of energy; that is, if you will indulge an analogy, the energy is held in escrow until such time as the deal is closed.

One obvious way to handle this reserve is dynamic, the loud-quiet-loud mode, for example, that many of us practiced through the 90s. It continues to be a useful approach, though I sometimes think it exhausts itself too quickly, expressing its energy before there’s been sufficient time to build it in the first place.

I have come to better appreciate duration as a banking means. There was a stretch several years ago when I held to a belief that a given tune should only be as long as was required to express a single kind of energy. So if it took two minutes to perform a piece into a recognizable state, then the tune would be limited to a two minute duration. Since that time, mostly after working with my friend, the guitarist Joel Wickard, I have learned to work out longer ideas, to accept the unwinding of ideas, and to engage energies that might take longer than a couple of minutes to take effect. Lessons learned from film and video artists (Chantal Akerman, Bill Viola, Tsai Ming-Liang, et al.), to say nothing of the musicians and composers who have captivated me in their durational or repetitive studies (Philip Glass, Peter Gabriel, The Eternals, Do Make Say Think, David Grubbs, McCoy Tyner, et al.), I strive to keep the available energies in proper reserve, in scale with the group’s intention. So if it takes several minutes to manage the energy of a given piece, the duration is only prohibitive if a) the banking and meting of energy is poorly paced; and/or b) there is some proscriptive limitation on the piece’s duration (e.g. commercial radio).

Energies: A Note on Music and the Music Industry

I do not accept as axiomatic that all musical performances and recordings that are for sale are part of the music industry, or what my friend J. calls the Competitive Music Industry. I do not believe that all performances and recordings are in competition with each other, nor that any performances and recordings are in competition with each other unless they opt into the Industry.

In contrast, opting out of the industry provides musicians and their music the opportunity to be heard by a community who shares aesthetic, social, cultural, and political ideals. The fact of the performers and the fact of the audience are literally in concert, qualitatively equal.