Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Playing free

“No chaos, damn it!” —Jackson Pollock
responding to a critic who called his work chaotic.
Here at CRUISE SHIP DRUMMER! there are some subjects we don't talk about much— not because they're not important, but because it's hard to talk about them. It's hard to say anything real specific about how you go about playing so-called free jazz— totally improvised music. But that type of playing has been a a big part of my thing for many years, and I think all players should learn how to do it, so I'll give a few guidelines.

While there are areas of free playing where the drummer plays similarly to regular “non-free”  music, the way of playing I'm talking about is largely textural, unmetered, without a defined tempo, and— here, just go listen to Interstellar Space. We're talking about how to play that vibe. Following are some suggestions for how to approach it, think about it, and how to actually “execute” it.

“Free Jazz” is not supposed to be a style, but it is sort of a style— people expect a certain ballpark thing. You're not supposed to go in and play a Polka beat or clave all night. Get some records and get an idea of the parameters of the music historically, at least. It helps if you actually try to like the music and get excited about it.

What's going on? How to I sound like that? Start by playing the drums, moving your limbs in an uncontrolled way. Make a mess. If you dedicate some time to that, eventually the stuttering racket will begin to organize itself, and you'll be playing some things you couldn't have arrived at any other way.

Try to copy the vibe of some free playing you like. If you look at videos of those players, you can see that many of them will use a kind of naive technique at least some of the time— they play like they don't know how to play. You can do that too.

The “Action Painting” concept— that results didn't matter,
and that painting was all about just the physical action of it
— was bullshit. De Kooning spent a lot of time looking
between every few strokes you see here. The goal was always
to make a painting in the traditional sense.
Listen to the people you're playing with more than you listen to yourself. Listen more than you think about what you're doing.

This music is usually considered to be “tempoless”, but that's not right— the things you play, together with the other musicians, create a kind of tempo feeling— a sense of velocity. You can't avoid it, so it's best to understand that it's happening, and work with it. Like with normal, metered music, you can do certain time-stretching things that will sound like cross rhythms, creating musical tension; also, if you violate the implied velocity too much, things break down, and you begin to sound directionless, meandering, boneless, and you're on your way to an unsatisfying musical experience.

Normal rules of phrasing apply— by which I mean, the audience is going to perceive phrases, so as you play you may as well be aware of the occurrence of the free jazz equivalent of two, four, eight, or sixteen measure phrases. The length of the horn player's breath is a natural phrase length that happens even if there are no other structures in the music.

A good strategy for developing ideas, as well as cohesion and coherence, is to repeat whatever you play until you have a reason to change to something else. Whatever first random thing you do, keep doing it, allowing little changes happen to it— if you've gotten comfortable with that type of semi-controlled playing I described above, that development will happen on its own.

You should realize, as you and your friends are going bananas, that in doing this type of playing, you are actually composing a normal piece of music with a beginning, middle, and end. It's happening whether you intend it to or not. Everything you play = the composition. Do what you will with that information. You can use normal composer tactics of repeating and developing motifs, contrasting sections, intros and codas, whatever.

Pointillism: making a
painting out of discrete dots.
There are some drummers who make a career out of the full-time hell-of-a-racket approach, but most will be bored by that. You can change things up between “tunes” by switching to brushes, or mallets, or hands, or to mainly-drums, or mainly-cymbals, whatever. You can also suggest broad approaches to the other players— let's play long tones, or let's play pointillistic, or let's try to sound like a bird attack*, or a gladiator fight*, or like pleistocene megafauna*.

* - All ideas used by me. I'll play you the record sometime.

Free improvisation is not a new way of making music, and it is no longer avant-garde.  Avant-garde refers to a form of expression that the artist understands before everyone else— the artist gets it now, soon everyone will get it. In 2017, everybody gets it, and no sophisticated or sympathetic listener will be affronted by it. There are some anti-social types in the free music community who seem to think that being deliberately hard to listen to is the same as being avant-garde, and it is not. Avant-garde is a term used by historians to describe an artist's personal expression that was out of step with the taste/standards of the time, and turned out to be historically significant.

There's no special significance to this music, or to this way of playing, and nothing to know that you're not already learning in other areas of music. It exists for your playing and listening pleasure. There are books you can get (kof  FREE PLAY) that tell you how great free improvising is, and what a rich, wonderful world of exploration, freedom, and self-discovery it is. I advise that you never open books like that more than a few running steps from the nearest bathroom. You don't need those books and no verbal explanation or theory will help you get it. Please just listen and play.

Here is some listening to get you started:

No comments: