The following fairly complicated question came in, and I thought it might be good to try to air an answer in public. It’s a bit long, so I split the answer in two parts. This is the second – the first was posted here in VIEWS on 19.03.2011.
Would you mind addressing how you compose a drum part for a song and let us know if you plan everything including fills, breaks and specific patterns that repeat consistently on purpose and become the final part? What is your method and is it the same way you approach composing a song? I saw you rehearsing your composition with the Buddy Rich orchestra and it was brilliant. I guess the bottom line is when you listen to the drum parts in “One more red nightmare”, were those breaks improvised over different takes and you decided that you liked the one that we hear and you re-learned it as the final part or was it totally planned from preproduction of different ideas?
If there are featured drums, such as One More Red Nightmare from K.C’s Red, or Indiscipline (from Discipline: King Crimson) or Earthworks ‘Revel Without a Pause’ (Earthworks: Sound of Surprise) it’s one or two passes and hope for the best. In my day there was almost never the time, money or patience to keep a room full of musicians waiting while you overdubbed or edited or manipulated your ‘best’ lick into the proceedings.
If you were lucky you got a few goes at it; a little concentration and fast thinking could give you an acceptable result – defined as something you could live with. My generation did it jazz-style, all in the room at once. The one-take solo on Revel Without a Pause (Sound of Surprise: Earthworks) worked for me, and that’s about as good as I got at ‘live’ drum-action. The drum breaks in One More Red Nightmare (Red: King Crimson) were improvised, and would have been different on other takes. The take that was kept happened to contain those breaks.
Sometimes there are just ballads with discreet gentle rhythmic movement, but a lot of focus on the melody and harmony. (Come To Dust from Earthworks’ Sound of Surprise; Sarah’s Still Life from Earthworks’ A Part and Yet Apart; Palewell Park and Forever Until Sunday by Bruford). On these the melody is paramount, and I’d spend a lot of time at the piano trying to get it just right.
With much of early Earthworks, my electronic kit could produce a colourful confection of pitches, chords, sqeaks and yelps that implied melody and harmony, and I could go to the others in the band and say “I’m playing this – play what you want on top” (Bridge of Inhibition – Earthworks).
In King Crimson, the blueprint for the type of building was usually defined by Robert Fripp, and the musicians generated their own appropriate parts as the building was going up. Everybody was self-contained. It was unlikely I’d suggest something for Tony Levin to play – he’d have plenty of ideas of his own. And vice-versa.
We seldom played anyone’s wholly-written tunes because it wasn’t that kind of band. Idiosyncratic and highly personalized input was required. That could be a slow method, and could cause problems. I might offer a possible foundation (or floor-plan) which produced a second and third floor designed by others. Having seen round those two excellent new floors, though, I might want to change the foundation, which might cause the whole thing to wobble for a bit. I was routinely informed it was ‘irritating’ working with me! Probably true, but in my defense I was only trying to go that one step further.
The process in the older rock groups has been likened to four architects designing the same building, or four novelists trying to collaborate on one book. There was inevitably a lot of horse-trading – “I’ve got this great chorus and riff, but you hate my riff. I could live with your words which I don’t care for if you could think again about my riff”. Try doing that with four creatively muscular people in one room, and life can get tough.
Later in jazz, the musicians could sight read. That changes the music immediately because more complicated harmonic structures can be assimilated quicker off the paper. Jazz tunes are generally written by the one composer. You all play his tune and take a vote on whether you want to do it. If not, fine, we’ll play some one else’s or a standard, and play the first tune next week. A looser and quicker style of operation altogether.
The loosest of all is instant composition without rehearsal, sometimes known as improvisation. Over time I abandoned preparation of ideas altogether, preferring to hear whatever it was that my inner-man might produce in the moment. (The Art of Converstion, The 16 Kingdoms of the 5 Barbarians, both by Borstlap-Bruford).
I began to write music because Yes’ Jon Anderson was always encouraging, if a bit forceful. He maintained there were two kinds of musician; the kind that originate the composition and play it, and those who are just functionaries following orders and playing what they’re told to play, or what the composition requires they play. I simplify, but you get the drift. So I started by banging out bass riffs on my piano, which would eventually find there way into And You and I or Heart of the Sunrise, (Yes). Being always keen on unusual time-signatures, I suspect I had something to do with the odd-metered motif at the beginning of Siberian Khatru (Yes: Close to the Edge). I provided the slow sinewy odd-metered bass line that worked well in Starless (King Crimson: Red).
Encouraged, I got bolder, but it wasn’t until after many hours with piano harmony and the appearance of my own band Bruford that I started to use whole instrumental compositions of mine, such as Either End of August (Bruford: Feels Good to Me), or Fainting in Coils (Bruford: One of a Kind). On three or four occasions I even went all the way to the stars and tackled all music and lyrics (Seems Like a Lifetime Ago: Bruford, Feels Good To Me; The Sliding Floor, or Plans for J.D.: Bruford: Gradually Going Tornado).
So there we are. Above are some of the very personal ways I’ve gone about creating music, but there are many others. I’m a strong believer in the drummer writing all or part of the music, if only because it’s great to hear your musical ideas brought to life. I encourage all younger musicians to get as deeply involved in all aspects of the music – rhythm, harmony, melody, timbre, arrangement – as possible. Too often the younger drummer has little or no idea where he is in the harmonic framework of the music. That’s deplorable, and there’s no excuse for that. Piano or keyboard is a great second instrument for drummers. Courage, mes braves! Get to it!