Creating in Context

In the fall of 2014 I read David Byrne’s book “How Music Works”.

I don’t recall how I came across this book, maybe I saw it mentioned on another blog or it popped us as an ad on someone’s sidebar.

I like Talking Heads so I read a brief synopsis and from that synopsis decided this book would be something I would enjoy reading.

I found the book very interesting and would highly recommend it to anyone who has a love and passion for music.

In the first chapter David Byrne wrote about the creation of music and how what is written/created is a product of the context it was written in.  It is a product of the time and situation when it was created.

Music that was written during times when it was performed in great cathedrals could not have key changes due to the amount of natural reverb produced by the mammoth venues.  The natural reverb would sustain the sound for seconds and key changes would result in unpleasant dissonance.piazza-del-duomo

He wrote about jazz and the creation of the solo or jam was because the music was being performed in clubs and people were dancing.  The musicians needed a way to extend the popular parts so the audience could continue to dance.  Hence the guitar or keyboard solo over the dance groove, something we take for granted today.

It’s not that the song creators are any smarter now or then it’s just they had to write to fit the context of the times they were writing in.

This got me to think about my playing and how my playing and all performance is a product of context.

When I first went to Pittsburgh to be a full time musician I was told that my hi hat needed work.

It’s not that I wasn’t aware of what other drummers were doing on their hi hats.  I heard some very good hi hat work on records over the years.

But up to that point and even for years afterwards I wasn’t doing any studio work.  I was always playing live and my kit was rarely mic’d and if it was the stage monitors and mix were less than adequate.

The audience couldn’t hear the details or subtle changes of the opened and closed hi hat, the pressure applied or the stick work that created different sounds due to the angle of my sticks.

Hell, I couldn’t hear it.

What did I focus on?  What I could clearly hear on stage, the drums.  In particular the snare with the 2 and 4 back beat.  That had to come through all the sounds on stage and in the room.  That’s the backbone of the groove.

So over the years I’ve developed a very prominent and punchy back beat.

One keyboard player best described it like this.  We had just finished jamming together for the first time.  After the set he walked over to me and said, “Man, I thought you were going to punch a hole through the back beat.”

So my playing style was a created in context.

Then one day I played a benefit gig where they actually had a real professional sound system and sound man.  My drums were properly mic’d and I had a great monitor and monitor mix.  This is one of the few times in my entire playing career that I experienced this.

As I am playing I’m hearing every note on my hi hat and I think to myself if I’m hearing every note then they’re (the audience) hearing every note.

Immediately my playing and creating became more focused on my hi hat.

And now home recording and the ability to pick up subtleties on all my drums and cymbals has changed the context.  I can already see how it is affecting my playing and I must say improving my playing and my creating.

© Otis P Smith and About the Groove, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Otis P Smith and About the Groove with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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