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Sunday, November 12, 2017

Creativity in Craftsmanship

the following is a brief talk that I gave as part of a Zildjian/Vic Firth morning session after PASIC 2017. Josh and I were tasked with tackling the concept of creativity. He talked about composing music from scratch, and I dealt with the craft of interpretation and collaboration.

Most of what we mean when we think of “creativity” is creation as an original act. The song or composition is created, and is still identifiable through many possible iterations. If you rearranged Paul Simon’s song “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” with the same words, melody, and harmony, but without Steve Gadd’s iconic drumbeat intro, Paul Simon would still get his royalty check as the songwriter. But we can’t imagine that song without this drumline-cadence opening, can we?

In this case, Gadd as the drummer offers creative input, and actually contributes something wholly original to the composition, but we see this contribution through the lens of the instrumentalist-craftsman enhancing the original work, not as a work in-itself.

Although the members of Sō Percussion now frequently write original music for ourselves and our collaborators, our beginnings as an ensemble come out of the “classical” tradition, where composer and ensemble inhabit separate realms.

In working with a living composer, you have an opportunity to influence the nature of what they create. This is especially true in percussion chamber music, where the first question in the composing process is “what sounds should we use?”

This is my favorite mode of creativity. I LOVE trying to figure out how to enhance other people’s original ideas.

One of the most vivid experiences with this in our career occurred while collaborating with Steve Mackey on his percussion quartet It Is Time. Steve thought composing for Sō offered him an opportunity to do something unique, and possibly even unusual.

He asked each of us in turn to describe how, and more importantly what, we liked to play within the percussion realm. Most of our repertoire up until this point had demanded uniformity, but Steve now encouraged us to find individuality within the ensemble. What he cleverly asked us to do was to show him what it looks, sounds, and feels like when we play the instruments we are interested in.

It takes an extremely confident and savvy composer to solicit this much input from the ensemble. Too much, and you can lose your distinctive voice. Steve had to know that he could come out on the other end with his own style and ideas intact.

Although we had worked very closely with composers before, I don’t think anybody had ever asked “hey you, Adam Sliwinski, what do YOU want to play in this piece?”

I told him that I liked to play marimba. Jason opted for drumset, Josh for Steel Drums, and Eric for a hodge-podge of weird sounds and miscellaneous techniques.

The resulting work ended up as a kind of concerto for each of us in turn. It wasn’t only written FOR us, it WAS us in a fundamental way.

Here is the entire work:

For Eric’s movement, he and Steve experimented with unusual ways to integrate very unlike instruments. He had always wanted to learn to play musical saw, which they worked into the entire piece as a melodic instrument.

For his solo section, he and Steve created a strange china cymbal hi-hat which, instead of clashing against another cymbal when coming together, actually muffled itself against a towel. At the same time, he would often be working a pedal organ to place melodic notes on top of the rhythms. He and Steve worked with an analog metronome, processing delays that would multiply the rhythm.

In Josh’s steel drum movement, it was given that Steve would take advantage of Josh’s virtuosity on the instrument. Steel Drums are completely unique in the percussion world due to their layout - almost none of the physical playing patterns you learn from other instruments transfer over. So it seemed like an opportunity.

But he and Josh took things one step further. Steve asked Josh if there was any way to detune the instrument or to create microtonal relationships. Josh told him that it was tricky, because the single sheet of metal in each drum means that tones must be tuned sympathetically with each other.

They stumbled upon a unique solution, which was to place two identical lead pans beside each other, but to tune one of them exactly one quarter tone sharp from the other. This created the possibility for a 24-note scale, but utilizing a familiar layout for Josh.

This excerpt features the normal double seconds.

My movement was the most familiar territory for Steve. He was once married to Nancy Zeltzman, and was thoroughly familiar with writing for 5-octave marimba.

Our challenge was to realize a concept he had in mind, which was to represent the gesture of a bouncing ball coming to rest. It was easy enough to do one gesture – each bounce was closer together than the last. But Steve wanted to trigger multiple bounces at the same time, and vary the relationships. He asked me if we could do this with a more general gestural notation. I told him that I’d prefer it be notated exactly as complicated polyrhythms, that I would actually be MORE comfortable learning those overlapping gestures as polyphony rather than gestures.

Jason’s movement presented both familiar and unfamiliar challenges for Steve. He and Jason had been improvising together as an electric guitar and drumset duo, so he was intimately familiar with Jason’s playing. He understood how Jason’s drumming would sound within his concept, and set forth realizing them within the piece. He also knew that Jason’s fascination with rhythmic polyphony and coordination on the drumset would allow him to make some fairly unreasonable requests.

You’ll hear in this excerpt that Jason is playing a modified bell pattern with his foot on a mounted cowbell while all kinds of other craziness is going on.

The result of these labors is a work that is both undeniably Steve Mackey’s and yet also inhabits a completely unique place in his output. Every note on the page is one that he thought about and chose. But it is also undeniably a work for Sō Percussion, and not a general percussion quartet.

We wondered collectively if it would ever be played by anybody else, since it was so uniquely crafted for us. To our surprise and delight, it has been. Our own idiosyncratic practices have become encoded in a fantastic composition, and now other players, in learning to play this piece, also learn something of how we ourselves play.

I think it has always been this way – creator and interpreter as two sides of the coin of idea and practice. We are best served by recognizing how healthy and productive this relationship can be for our art form.

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