February 29, 2016
Last week I published a video featuring something I have been practicing for a while - drumming while listening to podcasts. Now I will write something to try to make some sense out of this activity.
I have been delaying the shooting of such practice session for a long time. Although I was excited by the way it was developing my drumming, I couldn't help but notice this is an experience that yields very strange drum solos. It is required from a drummer that they can keep a rhythm, or at least keep the tempo. However I seem to fail constantly at this, and I have been failing at it more and more each year. I am nonetheless happy with this feature - and I am not thinking of changing it. Allow me to explain.
This is a subject that I feel I should handle with care. I might either come up as being apologetic about the way I play or sounding like I'm some sort of illuminated soul and it's the audience's fault for not understanding what I'm playing. I strongly feel like being neither of these.
I'll start by agreeing on my apparent inability in keeping a steady tempo. Even when I'm editing my own drumming I question myself if I should ever release tracks like this. I mean, just listen to this snapshot of the kick drum from this solo:
Not even the second derivative of the tempo is a flat line on this clip1. However it does makes sense together with what's happening in the podcast. As it is common on the pre-shows of ATP, the three hosts are having some light conversations outside of the main topics and at this particular time the three of them are briefly intervening one after the other. The way I interpreted it, it sounded as if each host was running out of thoughts on the (impromptu) subject and therefore their interventions where getting shorter and shorter - which is expected behaviour at the end of a pre-show section. This makes the conversation more chatty, which impelled me to intervene as well - resulting in this stressed out kick drum along with a screaming hi-hat.
There is something about this style of drumming which makes it fundamentally different from what is usually expected from... well, from the drums. I've been describing it as being of the "melodic" type, as opposed to a "harmonic" type. By this I mean that when deciding on the note to play next I'm primarily concerned with the note I just played, rather than which sounds are being played simultaneously. I can and certainly do play in the "expected" style. I'm not trying to pretend this is not the main purpose of the drums in almost any music language, nor am I trying to say this is in any way easier or minor when compared to a "melodic" style. But I do say that this is a very different way of approaching drums and therefore should be graded using different scales.
From the podcasts I've been listening to while drumming, ATP seemed to be the one that defined clearly a different style for each host. John Siracusa's ability to spit out clear and well thought out arguments not only at a high speed but also with an outstanding rhythm always begged in my mind for a high-paced solo on the toms.
Perhaps due to his fondness for Phish, I always converge to a funky rhythm when listening to Marco Arment speaking. Plus, due to his also known fondness for not following (some) rules, sometimes I throw a hint of punk into the mix.
In my mind, maybe because of the handsomeness and preference in drinks, Casey Liss sounds very classy - and what's more classy than a swing?
It is true that due to this clip being taken from the very beginning of the show it doesn't feature any long intervention from each of the hosts and therefore there was no opportunity for any of these rhythms to "breathe". Still I love how the three very different voices work together in a conversation, and how the drums can highlight these particular traits of their personalities.
Joining the Conversation
I have been referring to this video as a drum solo. However saying so is misleading. It is true that this practice method could lead to the crafting of a solo, but the way I played it is still a conversation between three people with a drum set trying to get in on the action. It should be underlined that this is indeed a practicing method, therefore the ideas are still raw and often you can hear me tripping over myself. In the following sample I completely fell from the rhythm I was playing before and ended up landing in a slower one after syncing back with John's rhythm.
In this other example I continued playing after a break on John's speech, consequently adding a pause and therefore lagging the rhythm on the drums.
This last sample shows how the drum part gains from this bending of the tempo. John is thinking about what he has just said and maybe fishing for something else to add to this subject when Marco, who was doing some thinking of his own, interrupts him off-tempo. I was surprised and therefore the resulting drum part sounds a bit glitchy.
Without the original audio, the glitch on the drums is less justified and sounds more like I didn't have control over the tempo I was playing at.
These examples illustrate not only what I like in playing while listening to podcasts, but more importantly they illustrate what I like about free improvisation. I approach it as a conversation, and with any conversation there are times when we are secure of what we have to say, but many times there are changes of tone, lagging, mumbling and so on. This is the feature I most enjoy in this style of drumming.
How to calculate derivatives of tempo is a subject for another time. ↩