Friday, May 20, 2011

Rudimental drumming as conceptual art

Here's a rudimental snare drum piece which I've been trying to get my head around for a couple of days now. Written by Ken Mazur, a champion drum corps soloist of the 70's who went on to be an instructor, clinician, and judge, as well as author of The Technique and Mechanics of Competitive Rudimental Snare Drumming, an epic ~350-page rudimental drumming manual (sorry, no link for that- the book does not seem to be commercially available- if you're interested, you should try to contact Mazur directly). He's a good writer and highly knowledgeable, with some interesting scholarly pieces which I'll be taking a look at in the near future.

He also seems to be a fairly controversial, Bobby Fischer-esque character in the drum corps community- brilliant, but personally difficult- perhaps even a little bit[?] of a crank. Maybe that's a totally unfair characterization; my drum corps world revolves around people associated with the Santa Clara Vanguard from the early 70's through the late 80's, and until this week he was unknown to me personally.

So this piece, Lazer Beam, was played by Mazur when he won the solo snare drum competition at DCI nationals in Philadelphia in 1976:

I'll give you a few moments to stare gape-jawed at that, then after the break I'll share whatever coherent thoughts I can muster about it.

So. A few observations:
  • Mazur would've written it before he was 21, when he was a performing member of the Phantom Regiment drum and bugle corps. 
  • Don't panic, it is quite unreadable. Really I think it was written for the author's own use, probably with an eye on dazzling competition judges (who I believe would have been given a copy). It's hard for me to imagine anyone else negotiating this into a performance, though I believe the notation is explained in Mazur's book. 
  • Features frequent meter changes, includes brief passages of unmetered "free verse", frequent tempo changes, frequent accelerandos (including an accelerando during a rest) and ritards. Meter changes are unrelated, making it impossible to use a regular metric modulation. In the first eight measures the piece goes from quarter note = 220 to 300, to 140, to 180, to 50, then accelerates back to 180. 
  • The multi-line and two-part passages deal with visuals or special techniques. 
  • No recurring musical theme, and no repetition whatsoever that I can detect.  
  • Tempo and meter are utterly dismembered from their normal musical functions. Tempos change frequently, and before they can become established, which causes them to act as purely rhythmic governors rather than as orienting pulse, their normal function. Variations in rhythm are actually largely achieved via the tempo changes. I think this is my biggest problem with this piece: musicians tend to be very skilled at accurately playing a wide variety of rhythms against a steady pulse. They do not tend to be able to nail unrelated changes in tempo with anything like the same level of precision. It would be more possible to make an accurate performance if the piece was notated with more complex rhythms and fewer tempo changes.  
  • Unfortunately there is no recording available on line, but here you can view a brief video clip of Mazur playing the beginning of the piece
  • Notation is extremely dense on the page, forming a nightmarish web. That and the over-sized deco font used for the time signatures begin to give the page the illusion of depth, like a cubist painting, or a work by Mark Tobey. In fact, the piece is most interesting to me as visual art. 
  • I can't escape the suspicion that if I mentioned Mazur and the piece to my late instructor Ghost, he would have something to say about the variety and quality of weed/LSD circulating among the corps at the time. 

What is the purpose of a snare drum solo? I come with a strong bias that it should be a piece of music or a study for developing musical skills, and I think that's what is giving me problems with this, which is actually purely a vector for competition, made with an eye on advancing the history and/or craft of rudimental snare drum, and possibly for "working the refs" with an intimidating, unreadable chart.

View and download the complete piece (and lots of other great stuff) at


Anonymous said...

There is a recording on Rudimental Believe or not the sheet music is accurate to what is being played.

maxfiglio said...

Ok, when I saw the sheet music for Lazer Beam, I thought that it was absolutely impossible to play AT THE MARKED TEMPO (i.e. first two measures @ 220 bpm). Turns out...I WAS RIGHT. I put the recording at at about 160 bpm. The video on this site might be a bit faster, maybe 175. While the solo is severely difficult at these tempos, the difference increases the number of drummers in the world capable of playing it from ZERO to, who knows, maybe a dozen. It perturbs me that dci-level drummers would overlook the tempo discrepancy. In a sense, the difficulty of a solo depends almost entirely on its tempo.

Tarthur said...

Maxflingo, I doubt that the recording is from the 70's. Ken has said that the piece resembles the skill level he was at the current time. I bet the tempo were right on at 1976.

Tarthur said...

I must say I'm a little bit disapointted with the conclusion. All that analyzing and description of the piece, and you just brush it off as vain. IF you learned the piece (let it take few years), could you really honestly say "you learned nothing"?

Ken states in his book, that he is also a painter: the piece is not only an auditive art piece, but audiovisual art piece. Musical piece and a painting. That aside, HAVE you written the piece clean? It'd be self abuse to try to learn the solo from that sheet music. Writing it clear makes it clearer.

I'd start learning it by writing it clear, listing all the rudiments included (and tempos they have to be played at, so you can train them to those tempos), and starting really, really, REALLY slow. A big project to work on, slowly crawling to the end.

Todd Bishop said...

That's fine. Rereading it, I stand by what I wrote. I did not use the word 'vain', nor say that I 'learned nothing'; I did mention that the page was interesting as a piece of visual art.

I'm not sure I follow you in re: 'writing the piece clean.' It's actually the composer's job to create a readable score, not mine. But, frankly, I have no interest in learning the piece-- to all appearances it has basically nothing to do with anything I am interested in in music.