Friday, August 25, 2017

Our interest in old music

Is this what you want us to be, Bishop?
It occurred to me that most of the music we cover on the blog is fairly old: 20-70 years for the most part, with not a lot from the present century. It's good to be explicit on what that's about. We're not into old music for its own sake— we're not pining after the music of our youth, or some mythical golden age before we were born. It's primarily about taking in the whole modern history of our instrument, the way people in all other creative fields do. Painters don't question the value of looking at artists one, two, or five or more centuries old. Writers don't resist reading authors so old modern English hadn't even been invented yet.

In my thinking, the modern era of our instrument, the drum set, runs from roughly 1945 to 2017; about 70 years. On the blog we're most interested in the middle 40, about 1955-1995. In the mid to late 40s, the drumset became more or less standardized in its modern form, and the language of drumming evolved into what we currently use— even when playing earlier music, drummers now largely use language developed in the 40s. At that point drummers became perhaps more pure musicians— the players we like to follow had mostly lost the show drumming and Vaudeville elements that were a feature of earlier playing. And the actual style of music played then is still played today— bebop is regarded as the foundational style for jazz musicians, and it's widely taught in college. Also in the late 40s the LP format was first used to record jazz, allowing each side of a record to be more than 3 minutes long. At the same time recording technology improved fidelity to the point where engineers could record full drum sets played normally, and the drums could be heard clearly on the recording.

We are not enamored with fedoras
literally or metaphorically. 
So drumming of that period and after is easily studiable, and is directly relevant to currently-played music in an obvious way. Before that, a more archeological approach is required, and more education, to figure out what you're listening to, and why it's relevant to current drumming. We could consider the music of the teens-30s to be drumming's ancient world. The evidence is more fragmentary— the constraints of the recording technology of the time have left us with less to study. I wouldn't take that idea too far— we're still talking about a period of history within the lifetime of, for example, my grandparents (b. 1890s-1910s), and music that is still performed and still in the culture. It shouldn't be dismissed, but it's more of a challenge with regard to learning from the drumming.

Since we're into the job of playing the drums, we also are most interested in music that highlights that— a drummer playing a complete tune from beginning to end. We also like a fairly natural sound, in which we can visualize the actual performance. That's the reason we don't really get into much drumming involving a lot of electronics, or sampling, or very artificial production and processing— all increasingly prevalent since the 80s.

So what does this mean for us as artists? If we're just into music from 40-50 years ago, aren't we going to sound old fashioned? Aren't we just doing things that have been done?

Not really. Whatever is the formal history of something you play, you're playing it in the moment, in interaction with other players, in the context of a living musical event. And present drumming is heavily reliant on the drumming of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Sampling has made drumming stylistically of that period directly relevant to modern music. The actual content of modern drumming has not radically advanced; things played by, say, Tony Williams or Jack Dejohnette or Jon Christensen in the 60s or 70s are conceptually as modern as anything played since.

Once the future of men's fashion.
I consider it a creative advantage to not be too caught up in transient stylistic things, which often have not been real useful in the field (see any number of drumming trends popular on the internet), and generally do not live up to their hype longevity-wise: the Jungle thing (in the future, all tempos will be very fast), the glitch thing (mimicking an electronic form of “swinging”, which has evolved into something kind of stupid), tonal melodic playing (actually one player's signature thing), all of which have come and gone as the new future of drumming.

There have been, and continue to be many great, individualistic players working more or less within a language and concept developed in the 60s-80s. It's not a problem. Painters did not stop painting after the 1950s, by which time the frontiers of what could be done with pigment on a two-dimensional surface had been fully explored. The historical imperative to do the next most formally radical thing is exhausted, and people are free to paint what they want, drawing from the entire history of the medium.

No comments: