Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Improvisation, Part 4 - Bettine, McCoy, Heuer

Let me start out by saying that improvising is a very personal thing. So what we have here, is my take on what I do. I'm sure you have different ideas floating around in your head. You might like what I played, you might not—I didn't like everything I did over the course of the day. But that's a big part of improvising, you have to accept the great with the not so great ideas played.

The idea here is to take a peek inside my brain, inside my creative process and hopefully understand how I approach music, especially improvisation. And maybe you can glean some ideas and inspiration to propel your own musical explorations.

Video Analysis

Alright, here we are, the video of the 1st improv session recorded, and my analysis of what I was doing. The video is only of myself, but the audio features both John McCoy and Sarah Heuer on electronics and samples.

It was a little after 9am on a Saturday morning. I had just hauled in and set up 13 cases/bags of percussion. I had no idea what to expect, because most of the people I was going to record with I had never met before. A few I knew, and knew how they played/approached music, and 2 of them I had played with before. But this was a blank slate, so I tried not to bring too many expectations with me.

The video features my voiceover explaining what I was doing and what I was thinking. It turned out well and I hope you can get a feel for how I was working that morning. 1 down, 30 more track to go.

I took the mixed down track from Jason Wietlispach and dropped onto the video. By luck/intuition, it was synced on the 1st try!

↵ Use original player
← Replay

There you have it, a 1st look into my creative process. In Part 5, we'll explore another video.

~ MB

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Improvisation, Part 3 - Tools Of The Trade

Sparks Shooting Off In My Brain

Before we get into the actual dissection of the music and what I played, I think it's important to take a look at the gear I brought with me. The Gong rack and bass drum are my main set up. I chose my usual set of Gongs, but also brought 4 others to swap out as needed. I also looked through my bags and boxes of small percussion, looking for interesting sounds that I felt would fit with the various instruments I was going to record with.

For me, this is never a haphazard process. I look at things, maybe play them, and then imagine how they might sound in the context of what I'll be doing. This is much like how a painter might choose their color palette. And that's a big part of my thought process—I'm thinking colors, shapes, texture, shading—so much more than just rhythm

I love rhythm, but I usually look beyond just playing rhythms. When I'm in the midst of improvising with someone, I'm always carefully listening to the sounds and rhythms they make. I'm then presented with choices: 

  • Play something the same, or similar, in sound/texture/rhythm, trying to match or blend into what they are doing. 
  • Or I can look for something that stands apart and is a counterpoint to what they are doing. 
  • Or, a combination of both of those ideas.

Tour Of The Set Up

So here is a detailed description of the instruments I brought with me. I think this is important so you can have a context for what I'm doing in the videos. You can also see a lot of the different mallets (mostly from Mike Balter) that I used. There's also a cello bow in there somewhere.

My gear set up, L-R, going around in a circle:


Top: Singing Bowls, Trigon & Bells
Bottom: Floor Gamelan (small Gongs) & child's cymbals, REMO Spoxe

Trap Table: Bells, shakers, kalimba, wood block, & noise makers. Mallets from L-R: Balter CDB5 (brown),
Vic Firth BAMS (bamboo), Birch mallet handles, Balter BB9 (red rubber-medium), Balter BB8 (blue rubber-hard).
In the upper left are a pair of Regal Tip Jingle Stix.

26" bass drum sound table with 14" & 16" Chinese cymbals.


The main Gong rack
Extra Gongs on the floor: 18" Custom Tone Heavy Steel, 
22" Wind w/bowing hole, 
22" Custom Tone Stainless Steel, 22" Paiste Accent
(Note: cat is not part of my set up, but she made herself at home amongst things,
so I had to play around her a few times)

China cymbals, Cup Chimes, spring drum, nut shakers, Jing cymbals, toy hammers, various mallets.

More mallets, string of old cymbals, rosin, tea cup & Black towel.
Because someone will ask, here are the mallets from L-R: All Mike Balter, except as noted. Super Rub (yellow & orange), Gong Rollers (black), Wind Gong (large blue), Ensemble13B (small blue), BB6 (red cord), GM3 (large grey), Large padded Vic Firth (red & brown handles), and very far right, Balter modified CM2 Chime Mallet).

Under bell plate: various pieces of sheet metal, whirly tube & 22" REMO frame drum, with a better view of the Balter CM2 Chime Mallet.

Here is the mic plot for the session: L&R stereo overheads, 
singing bowls/floor Gamelan,
bass drum, and 4-mics on the Gong rack

In part 4, we explore the video of me performing with John McCoy & Sarah Heyer.

~ MB

Friday, November 13, 2015

Improvisation, Part 2 - Developing A Rhythmic Language

Much as we speak, each of us has our own musical language. In this second part on Improvisation, I'm going to look at what makes up my musical language. These are the ideas that I use to create what is a very personal view of music. You may use some of the same, or you may use completely different ideas. But this is what works for me.

The 3 Point Method

In art, color can be broken down into 3s: Additive Color uses red, yellow, and blue (the primary colors) to create all other colors. Subtractive Color (like your home printer) uses yellow, magenta, and cyan to create all other colors. Then there are the 3 attributes of lightness, saturation, and hue that further affect color. 

In Euclidean Geometry we have the point, line, and plane. In real life, we have the point where we are, and then also up & down, left & right, in & out, etc. So too in music, many ideas can be broken down into 3s. While this is all a simplistic explanation, it serves the purpose of denoting that we often have 3 options to work with.

Percussive Perspective

The drum, Gong, and many other percussion instruments can usually be broken down into 3 zones:

The 3 main tone centers

In general, the center has a deep, focused sound, while the edge has a bright, ringy sound, with the middle a blend of the 2. Note that this is all variable by the use of different sticks/mallets/fingers and muffling. With striking implements, there are variables such as small to large, soft to hard, and different materials: wood, metal, plastic, yarn, cord, felt, etc. On a drum, there are also many different types of heads that will affect the sound and tones available. Other variables are striking, scraping, rubbing, shaking, etc., or combinations of these. 

For me, it's all about listening. I'm always listening to my instruments, listening to the sound in the air/room, and listening to any other musicians I am playing with. I'm especially listening to how the sounds interact. Even when playing solo, I'm listening to the interaction of my sounds, because I often have well over 50 different types of sounds/textures available to me.

In my mind I'm also asking questions:

  • Do I want these sounds to blend?
  • Do I want them to stand out?
  • Do I want sound and/or rhythmic contrast?
  • Do I want a combination of the above?
And these questions happen in real time, as I'm playing. Often they are not conscious thoughts/decisions, but they are impulses and intuitive motions based upon years of practice and performance. And that's incredibly important: you have to put in your homework. You just can't start hitting and shaking things, thinking it will sound great!

For example, if I'm playing with someone else, and they start playing a very smooth melodic idea. Some of my possible choices are:
  • Follow them and try to blend what I am doing with what they are doing.
  • Look for a sound contrast: if they are smooth, maybe I'll play something sharp and bright, like a shaker or high pitched bell/cymbal.
  • Look for rhythmic contrast: if they play something smooth/legato/arco, I'll play something staccato and/or something syncopated.
  • Look for texture contrast: if they play melodically, I'll play some noise sounds.
But nothing is perfect. Sometimes I'll start playing something and realize it's not working. I then have 2 choices:
  • See if I can modify what I'm doing to make it work.
  • Abandon what I'm doing and try to seamlessly move on to something else.
And sometimes the best thing to do is to have restraint and not play anything at all! As drummers, this is perhaps the most difficult thing to do, because we are trained to sort of play non-stop rhythm. Sometimes it's nice to just stop and listen.

In Part 3, we'll look at the set up and instruments I used for the recording session. In part 4, we'll look at some video and analize what I did.

~ MB

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

An Inside Look At Improvisation - Part 1

This is the first of a series of blog posts on creativity and improvisation. Improvisation is one of those sort of intangible things: you can't teach it as much as you just demonstrate it and show people examples. Musicians can only learn it through trial & error & experience.

What I will be writing about here is my own personal experience and adventure in the world of improvised music. While I've played in all types of bands, and all different styles of music, what excites me the most is improvising. I especially love improvising with people I've never played with before, or never even met before. It's a challenge to find some sort of common ground, common language, and hopefully produce some compelling music. It doesn't always work, but when it does, it's amazing.

Rarely have I ever been in a situation where the music fails to appear and things fall completely apart. In almost all cases, magic happens, even if only for a few minutes out of the larger whole. But even what is not magic is interesting because it is necessary for the magic to appear.

Recording at Jason Wietlispach's studio. Jason setting a mic.

I was recently a part of a recording session set up by my friend, Jason Wietlispach. After a session I did at his recording studio a few months ago, he approached me about doing an all day session where I would improvise in various duos and trios with different musicians for each. I ended up playing with 18 different musicians, having played with only 2 of them before. 4 others I knew, but the remaining 11 I had never met, or knew anything about. 

Needless to say, this was a challenge, not only in endurance (the session ran around 10 hours), but in being creative. I brought 13 bags/cases of Gongs, drums, and percussion with me. My approach was to try and not repeat myself in sounds, over the course of the session. I wanted to give each duo or trio its own sounds. I also wanted to give each one its own rhythms.

For the most part, I succeeded. There were some Gongs used in almost every track, but I varied the way they were played, using different mallets and implements. I also brought extra Gongs that I switched out for different tracks. When I used the same instruments again, I always tried to play them in a different way, coaxing different sounds and rhythms out of them. And there were a few times I did almost the same thing because the music called for it. And that was always my guide: what did the music call for?

As a percussionist, it's so easy (and tempting) to just grab something and start playing it: a shaker, a bell, a small drum. But for me, it's a process of always listening to what is going on—both rhythmically and sonically—and basing my instrument/rhythm choice on that. A lot of that is just intuitive to me: I hear a sound and I react to it. But that intuition is backed up by 40+ years of playing music and paying attention while making that music.

One thing I did was bring my video camera. I recorded all but 1 of my performances (I forgot to hit record!) with the idea of using some of these videos for this series. The plan is to dub in the finished audio mix and then talk about what I was doing, what I was thinking, why I played what I did, etc. This way you can get an inside look into my process of what improvisation is about.

I'll talk about what I did in relationship to what the others played, and my ideas on working with other musicians. I'll also talk about what worked, and what maybe didn't work. This will all unfold over the next few months. Then I'm off to Australia for a few weeks and I'll blog about that (I get to improvise with some great musicians I've never met!)

So next up is Part 2: Developing A Rhythmic Language

~ MB

Sunday, October 11, 2015

There is No Such Thing as Perfection

I'm a reformed perfectionist. 
I've said it. 

And being a perfectionist almost destroyed any sort of creativity I had. My neurological make up is predisposed to looking for the little things that aren't quite right and then magnifying them out of proportion. That's not an easy thing to get over.

I know that in the past, it has kept me from moving forward, kept me from playing or releasing certain music, writing or publishing certain things, and in general, held me in a state of suspension. In the back of my mind was always the idea that, “If I do this, it will be better.” Even after I finished something, I just couldn't leave it alone. I had to keep tinkering with it under the misguided assumption that it could always be better

I remember when getting ready to send off my final draft of a magazine article, that I would edit it one more time, just in case I could improve it. Trust me, this tendency is no fun. I have a lot of what is most likely great work just sitting here because it needs to be tweaked just a bit more. 

Perhaps the most important thing an artist in any discipline can learn is when to let go.

Learn when to let go.

There comes a time when you have to trust, trust both yourself, and trust your work, that it is complete. 

And you need to realize that it probably isn't perfect. But perfect is a myth. There is no such thing. Perfect is something you can chase forever and never catch up to.

So tell yourself that you are not perfect. Your work is not perfect. But everything is good enough. You are good enough. And keep moving forward.

~ MB

Monday, October 5, 2015

The Art of Being Yourself

In any sort of art form, it's important to find your own voice. If you look at your heroes, chances are you admire them for the unique qualities they have, not for their ability to copy others. 

When I was first starting out on this journey, I often tried to be whatever was needed, molding myself to each project, changing like a musical chameleon. This was fine when I was younger, but it ultimately left me feeling like something was missing. I had no real identity.

Over the subsequent years, I worked hard to find and establish my own voice. It didn't just happen by itself, but was the result of various conscious choices I made. And even at this point of my career, I haven't stopped. I'm not standing still. I keep refining what I do, working to expand my own vision of what I imagine my music as.

As a result of this, people know who I am. They know what I do. And when they hire me, they know what they will get. 

I am hired to bring my own unique voice to the proceedings

In the studio, being myself. (photo by Meg Mullaney Vartanian) 

So if you are an enthusiastic young musician, keep working at it, keep refining what you do. Keep looking for your own unique voice that you can contribute. 

And if you are an older, established musician, the same advice holds: keep working at it, keep refining what you do. Keep looking for your own unique voice that you can contribute. 

Remember that your career is a continuum that hopefully will have a long arc. And this works at all levels. You don't have to be a globe trotting superstar to have your own voice. Even within your own, small music community, you can bring your uniqueness to share with them.

~ MB

Monday, September 21, 2015

The Continuum of Your Musical Career

Some of the best advice I've heard for young musicians is, 

Always play with people who are better than you. ” 
This makes a lot of sense, because as young musicians/artists, we need mentoring, we need guidance, and we need to work with people who's experience and talent will help pull us up, help challenge us.

When I was younger, around 17-20, I regularly played with older, more experienced musicians. I often subbed for a big band that was comprised of mostly high school band directors from the area. It was a challenge, because they knew the charts inside and out. They played all the old big band arrangements authentically, so there was no room for me to slack. I had to be on my game. I had to go back and listen to the original recordings so I could play the correct style/feel. But it was a great experience because the band was so on all the time. 

Another group I regularly played with was a Dixieland Quartet, led by a pianist who was in his late 60s. It was piano, clarinet/sax. double bass, and drums. Again, these guys had it down and I had to do my homework in order to play the right things.

And there where other situations throughout the years, where I had the chance to work with older, more experienced musicians. Each time was like going to school. I looked upon them as opportunities to learn, to grow, to become a better musician.

Now, at this point in my career, I'm at the other end of things. I regularly play with younger musicians who are the same ages as my sons. I play with a lot of musicians in their 20s and early 30s. I like it. I like the energy they bring. I like the openness they bring. And I like the fearlessness they often bring. It keeps me on my toes. It gives me new insights. It makes me a better musician even today.

I hope that I bring the same sort of mentorship to them that I received so many years ago when I was the young kid in the band. I talk to them. I encourage them. And most importantly, I play the best I can and hope that by doing so, they may be inspired and become better musicians. I also try to lead by example, by always being on time and easy to work with. 

I thinks it's important for older musicians not to be divas or jerks to the younger musicians around them. If you've made it that far, it's important to be generous by working with younger musicians and passing on what you know. I'm sure most of us, when we were younger, got some good advice, or a thumbs up, from an older musician that meant something to us and helped us move forward. 

Share it. Pass it on. Be encouraging.

~ MB