Uncharted: Creativity and the Expert Drummer
By Bill Bruford
“I’m in a band… three musicians and a drummer.”
If you’re a musician, you’ve probably heard that one before. If you’re a drummer (like me), you learn to shrug it off. Honestly, we drummers get no respect. No respect at all.
Well, some do, one being British drummer Bill Bruford. You may know him as the original drummer for Yes during their groundbreaking “Roundabout” and “Close to the Edge” days. Bruford’s later excursions into into progressive rock (King Crimson, B.L.U.E., David Torn, and his eponymous band), jazz (Earthworks, Michiel Borstlap, Kazumi Watanabe, Ralph Towner, Al Di Meola) and various all-percussion excursions (Peter Lockett, World Drummers Ensemble, New Percussion Group of Amsterdam) challenged listeners to keep up. After 40-plus years breaking the drumming mold, he’s clearly as creative as anyone else in the band… right?
Apparently he wanted to find out. In his new book, Uncharted: Creativity and the Expert Drummer (University of Michigan Press, 2018), Bruford dives deep to uncover the answers. In the process, he also asks: What makes a performer or a performance “creative”? And more specifically: What do drummers do—unique from other musicians—in the creative pursuit of music?
In 2010, Bruford was approached by the University of Surry to receive an honorary degree. He declined, instead offering to earn the diploma. Dr. Bruford’s new book is an outgrowth of his of post-graduate thesis. And like much of his drumming, it is not for the fainthearted.
Considerable notations and references to leading psychological, sociological and cultural authorities can make for a difficult, scholarly read. But there is considerable reward for those who stick with the ride. Focused squarely on the qualitative experiences of the expert-level modern western kit drummer, Uncharted features a wealth of insightful observations from leading drummers such as Chad Wackerman, Peter Erskine, Mark Guiliana and Cindy Blackman Santana.
Bruford postulates neither the classical definition of creativity—that it is divinely bestowed to a select few for us mortals to appreciate from afar —nor the popular contemporary view that “everyone is creative.” For Bruford, creativity is more the process than the thing. That process consists of four steps, the first being selection—that is, the drummer has to choose what and how to play from a range of sounds, musical contexts, performance environments, personal aesthetics, motivations, and techniques available in the moment.
The second step is differentiation—not change for change’s sake, but a conscious decision to somehow advance the art. Even in a totally improvised setting, the drum performance, according to Bruford, depends not so much on where it might have come from, but on where one is taking it to.
Third is something perhaps obvious, but essential: communication. Whether that is between two musicians or in a big band in front of thousands—or live or via recorded media—is immaterial. As Bruford writes, “We musicians are what we do, and what we do is embedded in a complex social matrix of people, action and artifacts.”
The final step is assessment. Someone—the audience, other musicians, the press, perhaps years later by music historians—has to evaluate the performance and put in the context of what has come before. This in effect makes it potentially “creative.”
There are degrees of creativity, of course. The difference between “creativity with a small c” and “creativity with a Big C” is in how much the needle moved, something often only apparent with the passage of time. Was the performance merely a notable moment? Or did it somehow advance the art of drumming? Carl Palmer’s eight-minute “Drum Solo Con Brio” during ELP’s 1974 Welcome Back My Friends tour might qualify as “little-c creativity.” Max Roach’s 1945 performance of “Groovin’ High” —with the ride cymbal leading the beat instead of the conventional four-on-the-floor kick drum—“Big-C creativity.”
Bruford isn’t finished there, however. He and his interviewees paint each step across a matrix of four performance contexts: playing for a leader, where the drummer follows very strict direction and performance constraints; playing with a leader, where exploration and evolution is solicited from the drummer; playing as the leader, where the drummer is the boss and his/her decisions drive musical decisions; and playing without a leader, such as in a totally improvisational scenario.
It can be a lot for the reader to keep straight, and that may be part of the greater point: The expert drummer has to.
Uncharted is worth the mining for any serious drummer (or other non-drumming musician… Bruford doesn’t discriminate). It is available from The University of Michigan Press, and from Amazon.com in both printed and audiobook form.