Thursday, October 13, 2022

Brute force freedom

Not Mickey Roker, never will be
In the Josef Hoffman piano technique post I said: 

We read this now and put an emphasis on the freedom part, but he's talking about freedom through massive technical abilities— the music he's playing, and the setting in which he performs it, demands that. And there are definitely drummers active now who agree with it, e.g. Mike Mangini. 

It occurred to me that most people now probably agree with that— you simply dedicate your life acquiring a massive amount of skill, and you'll then be free to play whatever you want. It's popular among segments of the drumming community invested in drumming being as difficult as possible— possibly to explain why they're never able to do it very well. 

But if that's how FREEDOM works, why does Mike Mangini always sound like Mike Mangini? Why does he never sound like Max Roach, or Elvin Jones, or Roy Haynes, or Stewart Copeland? Like, even a little bit? Why can't any of the hyper technically able people sound like Mickey Roker? 

Answer: They can't, and don't, because it's a false concept of freedom. 

There's a video of Jim Keltner hanging out with Terry Bozzio and Vinnie Colaiuta and some other seriously able players, and he talks about his place among players like that. Paraphrasing, he said I can't do what they do, but they can't do what I do. We're so worshipful of ability that it sounds like false comfort, but it's absolutely true— they cannot do what he does, and they don't get called to try to do what he does. 

The acquisition and the non-acquisition of massive technique both shape what you do in ways you have no control over. Both your playing and your career. The massive technique people usually have no desire or inclination to be great in the way the non-massive technique people* are great. None of them are trying to be Connie Kay or Al Jackson Jr. Most of the time, judging from what I hear on recordings, the massive technique people aren't even learning how to use their instrument more effectively, or in a more personal way. 

* - “Non-massive technique people” = most drummers, great and not great, for all time. Massive technique is a historically exceptional weird pursuit

And the reality is that we've got one timeline to work with. One person can really only do one thing at a time, and the path you commit to takes you that way. Mike Mangini is a career prog guy and technical superstar guy, and that's it. He will never be a any kind of rock musician, jazz musician, studio musician, whatever other category you would think he'd be able to fulfill given his abilities. The name Mangini = massive chops, and no one is going to ask him to do those things in any kind of meaningful way. So where's the freedom?   

High art to me doesn't just include concert pianists and massively technical prog drummers. It includes Delta Blues musicians, some rock & rollers, night club musicians, pygmy musicians. A lot of people who don't necessarily dedicate their entire lives to the acquisition of technique. And you can't do what they do just by acquisition of massive technique. 

When you have great music that is impossible to duplicate being made by average non-professional humans, all bets are off. Anyone can create great art— art that was worth more than the time and attention it took from you. How much that is in an individual's control is the question. 

I think freedom is more of an attitude than a technical achievement. The artist Jasper Johns said: 

Sometime during the mid-50s I said, 'I am an artist.' Before that, for many years, I had said, 'I'm going to be an artist.'

He didn't say as soon as I reach X Y and Z technical goalposts I'll be an artist. He's saying what I do is the art. It may be up to others to decide if it's good or bad art, and if it's worth money, but what I do is what it is. It's not on its way to being what it is. 

Where gaining abilities becomes an issue for us drummers, is when we want to become professionals— then there are certain realities where we want to be able to play a lot of different kinds of jobs, and have a lot of knowledge so we're able to teach. That overlaps with the thing of learning the instrument, and music, for its own sake, as a lifestyle. That describes what I do pretty well, and a lot of my peers. I don't know if “freedom” is the goal— I think the motivation is way more complex than that— but developing as players is what we do. 


Michael Griener said...

Great post!
Just got back from a gig and I'm too tired to comment, but will do soon.
And yes, nobody sounds like Mikey Roker!

Todd Bishop said...

You work more than anybody I know! I'm listening to your records, by the way-- can't wait for the full blown studio recording of the dual bari group-- disappointed your tune was at the end though, I want that right up front!

Anonymous said...

Some of the over technical drummer stuff reminds me of 'crossfit' where doing the workout is the goal, rather than doing the workout to help condition a person for sport. Not that theres anything wrong with mastering technical exercises or workouts.

Unknown said...

I love this post AND this discussion!

-Ted Warren

Anonymous said...

Slightly off-topic, but not completely unrelated, I would add that the more technically advanced players are sometimes categorized as 'talented' and how this implies they're just innately good, which can obscure the amount of work thats gone into playing at that level. We have aptitude for certain things, and maybe thats what people mean by talent, but that aptitude has to get fed over our lifetime.