A Conversation With Bill Bruford. Part Two: Composer

Written by: BILL BRUFORD and SAKU MANTERE

Part two: Composer

In the first part of the conversation, Bill and Saku focused on the creative work of a drummer. In this second part, we focus on composition. During the early part of his career, Bill was a co-creator of classic pieces by Yes, King Crimson and others. In becoming a bandleader, composition became a central part of his work. Bill’s compositions often mix rhythmic intricacy with ample lyricism.


Read first part of the series here.


Saku Mantere (SM): Let’s talk about your career as a composer.

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Bill Bruford. 2003.

Bill Bruford (BB): The word “composition” was appropriated by uncultured, uncouth rock musicians from supposedly cultured and couth classical music around the time I was starting in the late 60s.  We began to play “concerts” in which to perform our compositions, full of “suites” and similarly elaborate classical affectations. I’m sure we thought we should be taken more “seriously” than pop groups. The word composing brought with it all sorts of cultural baggage and its use over-aggrandized our processes of music generation. Certainly in the early days it was a lot about pushing and shoving – elbowing to get your idea or suggestion into the fragile composition as it began to appear in the rehearsal room. Latterly I did indeed sit at a piano, more in the traditional sense of the “lone creator”, and tried to find things that would appeal to me and my colleagues, and with the hope that someone in the audience might like it too.

“The word “composing” brought with it all sorts of cultural baggage and its use over-aggrandized our processes of music generation. Certainly in the early days it was a lot about pushing and shoving – elbowing to get your idea or suggestion into the fragile composition as it began to appear in the rehearsal room.”

SM: You told me that rebelling against the stifling role expectations by the “drum culture” compelled you to prove that you were a “real” musician by writing, arranging and recording music under your own name. Indeed, you led a number of jazz groups, and these groups played your compositions and those of your bandmates. Your groups did not, to my knowledge, ever play jazz standards. So, it appears to me that composition remained a clear priority to you throughout your career.

BB: I think what remained a priority was securing through fair means or foul a steady supply of gigs. Latterly that meant the steady production of repertoire to perform, which, as I’ve indicated elsewhere, I felt obliged to produce if I’m to have my name on the marquee or at the top of the album cover. So, life was in two parts: performance first – I wanted to play – and then everything else that was needed to make that happen, only one of which was composition.

Incidentally, on hearing my words return to me, like a boomerang, I would caution against the casting of some of my perceptions too much in stone.  I may have found the drum culture stifling on occasion, and that may have driven some, including myself, to prove we were “real” musicians by writing, arranging and recording music under our own names. Evidence here is largely anecdotal and a bit shaky, and I’m not entirely sure I was “compelled”: it was perhaps a solution to that particular problem.

“Life was in two parts: performance first – I wanted to play – and then everything else that was needed to make that happen, only one of which was composition.”

SM: Earlier, you referred to John Dewey, and defined art as the communication of experience. Were your experiences of improvising on your instrument similar to the experiences of composing music? You pointed out that variation and improvisation are values that you held very dear during your career, and your “trying to play ‘Close to the Edge’, for example, in a ‘different’ way on a nightly basis eventually caused irritation.” In your Autobiography, you also note that touring with Genesis felt difficult because you had to play the same parts every night. As improvisation held such a special significance for you, did it influence the way in which you approached composition?

BB: In one respect the embodied experience of improvising with or without others on an instrument is entirely different to that of sitting alone and quietly at a piano in some act of composition. But yes, I suspect I saw space for improvisation as an essential component of any tune I was likely to complete or sign off on for the band’s use, so in that regard improvisation influenced my approach to composing.

Actually, a helpful word at this point is interaction. There are for me, with my performer hat on, two kinds of popular music. The first precludes interaction other than at the most fundamental of levels, that of playing in time and tune with others. To illustrate: were I to stop playing, all other contributions to the music from co-performers would continue exactly as if nothing had occurred. An interactive style of music would, by contrast, accept my sudden silence as a radical shift in the soundscape and large and small adjustments would be made by my co-performers to accommodate this rupture. As in conversation, I hear what you say and respond. I then respond to your response. The studious silence of one party in a two-party conversation would typically precipitate a perfectly natural interaction or reaction from the respondent. Music without such interaction sounds somewhat unnatural to me.

As in conversation, I hear what you say and respond. I then respond to your response. The studious silence of one party in a two-party conversation would typically precipitate a perfectly natural interaction or reaction from the respondent. Music without such interaction sounds somewhat unnatural to me.”

SM: Thinking about your career as a composer, I have been drawn back to one of my favourite songs, “Dewey-eyed, then Dancing” from the Earthworks album A Part, and Yet Apart. I have listened to the track a couple of times every day this week, and the more I listen to it, the more I find myself spell-bound by it. What’s fascinating about “Dewey-eyed” is a timeless quality in its melodies: it captured me instantly when I first heard it, but the more I listen to it, the more I like it. It has an uncommon structure for a jazz-tune as it saves its juice for the B-section, which is almost like a chorus from a rock song.

You said earlier that “in the production of art, complex doesn’t necessarily mean difficult, nor simple mean easy”. That chorus-like B-section is a case in point. Built out of a set of melodic sequences, it modulates in surprising ways without losing the listener. It sounds simple, but packs a lot of harmonic punch, which is evident in the solos. Saxophonist Patrick Clahar’s Breckeresque delivery lifts the melody up and makes it soar. This song is a jazz-standard; it would deserve to be played over and over again on bandstands across the world.

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Uncharted: Creativity and the Expert Drummer. Originally published 2018.

BB: I think your thought about it “soaring” is entirely apt, especially in Patrick’s solo which I love, and try to sing from memory. It’s very singable and so very memorable! Funnily enough I’ve only just noticed the double ‘Dewey’ connection: first, the nod to saxophonist Dewey Redman with whom we had shared the backstage at a festival around the time I was writing that music, and whose saxophonist son Joshua’s visceral acoustic fusion of the 1990s had given me energy to refuel Earthworks and record A Part and Yet Apart after a four year gap between the first and second editions of the group; and second, the pragmatist philosopher John Dewey, from whose book Art as Experience I had borrowed heavily for Uncharted: Creativity and the Expert Drummer.

SM: For some reason, “Dewey-eyed” reminds me of Lark Ascending by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Those soaring pentatonics in the B-section. That pastoral beauty in the harmonies. I suspect that a sense of melody and the aesthetic preferences attached to it are often acquired early in life: the music that one hears growing up. In your Autobiography, you talk about the progressive rock bands of your youth being inspired by English landscapes and Anglican Church music. I sense a pastoral lyricism in the melodies of many of my favourites among your compositions: “Dewey-eyed”, the title track and “Somersaults” from the Towner/Gomez trio album, “Either End of August” from your first solo album, for instance. These songs have an uplifting lyricism to them, an unabashedly direct melodic quality. Are you aware of particular influences to writing melodies? Can you think of a melody, written by another composer, living or dead, which you wish you had written?

BB: What is it that runs through the mind of artist when she opts to retain that first artistic gesture? Why does the creator – the first user, if you like – deem this gesture worthy of retention and not that one? The first splash of paint upon which she builds; the tiny fragment of melody which, with just these few notes around it, is given value; the extra dollop of clay removed from her maquette. I have no real idea as to why I find this little run of notes more worthy / useable / sufficient / beautiful / ugly than that little run. I rely on instinct and a deadline to provoke me into settling: “That’ll do, for now”.

King Crimson had, albeit rather self-consciously, put clear blue water between its improvisational style, more to do with the European tradition of the aleatoric, the whole-tone and the timbral than the North American pentatonic, blues-based style that informed the work of say, Eric Clapton. I was aware that Europe, and even Britain, might have its own regional jazz, drawing on regional melodic history if you like. The Anglican Church provides a magnificent body of simple, white-note popular hymns, designed to be sung, that school-kids like me grow up with, or used to. “Somersaults”, “Either End of August”, “Palewell Park”, a Django Bates tune called “Hollyhocks”: they all reference an imagined pastoral idyllic soundscape, picture-postcard perfect, very English, burnt into my consciousness as a little boy, verging on the sentimental, two millimetres away from the saccharine:

autobiography
The Autobiography. Originally published in 2009.

“As a young boy, I’d beaten silent time with my fingers along with the windscreen wipers on my father’s Morris Oxford. I’d shivered excitedly as I watched the rollers and the tides come and go on the longer rhythmic cycles to be found on Polzeath beach in Cornwall. As a teenager, I would synchronise my being with the clickety-clack of the fast train up to London from Sevenoaks to Charing Cross in London. Rhythm seemed to be everywhere, but no one else seemed to notice it. And if it did raise its head, people pointed, looked the other way, and hurried on by. Instinctively, I knew it wasn’t to be found in machinery but in the human heart – each one with its individual, measurable rhythmic pattern (Bruford 2009: 27).”

If, at the piano, a run of notes, falling under my fingers, struck that particular tuning fork, my insides would hum gently and would eventually make me feel, well, dewey-eyed and then dancing. I think contemporary musicians, be they Finnish, Russian, English or Hungarian, ignore their respective culture’s folk songbook at their peril. It is always a rich source of compositional connection. Ask Bela Bartok.

“King Crimson had, albeit rather self-consciously, put clear blue water between its improvisational style, more to do with the European tradition of the aleatoric, the whole-tone and the timbral than the North American pentatonic, blues-based style that informed the work of say, Eric Clapton. I was aware that Europe, and even Britain, might have its own regional jazz, drawing on regional melodic history if you like.”

SM: While you characterize composition as a means of pushing against the drummer stereotype, another significant aspect of your compositional signature is of course your use of rhythm. In your letter, you note that you have “always had considerable interest in time signatures and meters, much less in metronomic tempo”, and that playing a straight-ahead 4/4 beat in the King Crimson song ‘Heartbeat’ was “entirely out of your comfort-groove”. You are one of the innovators who pushed the boundaries of meter in rock music, writing much of what became the rhythmic idiom of progressive rock. Among musicians, ‘Beelzebub’ (at least among those young musicians that I used to know and play with) is a definitive compositional statement that demonstrated new metric possibilities for both rock and jazz musicians.

How would you characterize the influence of “odd time signatures” on you as a composer? On your website, you report that “The Wooden Man Sings, and the Stone Woman Dances” is one of your favourite compositions. I think that piece is a good example of that signature element in your compositional style: the use of complex meter (I suspect that A-section is in 9/8 but I may well be wrong). Earlier, when you discussed Joe Morello’s contribution to Dave Brubeck’s band, you noted that Brubeck “provided the conceptual framework for [Morello’s] forthcoming rhythmic innovations on western drum kit”. I guess one key innovation that Morello delivered was making 5/4 and other advanced time signatures swing. Do you recall how you were first introduced to counting to a five or to a seven in a piece of music? Was it through Morello’s work in Time Out and Time Further Out? Was this something that you discovered yourself, or was it initially a part a framework that someone else provided, as was the case with Morello/Brubeck?

BB: Well, I provided very little for myself; everything was provided for me from my record-player. All music started from there, the BBC, and an influential group of older guys I was hanging out with when I was 13 or 14. They were jazz heads so turned me on to stuff, not least the magnificent Joe Morello and his boss Brubeck. It just always seemed easier to me to find something interesting to play in 5/4 than 4/4. So something interesting in an odd time seemed like a good place to start, compositionally.

“It just always seemed easier to me to find something interesting to play in 5/4 than 4/4. So something interesting in an odd time seemed like a good place to start, compositionally.”

Bill_Bruford_Feels_Good_To_Me.jpg
Feels Good To Me (1978)

SM: I would like to explore how you approach harmony in composing. I recall reading the liner notes of an early Bruford album where we find you hard at work, learning new chords. This suggests that you invested heavily in learning harmony at some early stage of your career. Has this been a continuous process throughout your career, or did you do an intense period of study around the time of the first Bruford line-up?

BB: For most young students of popular music performance people there is an intense period of activity between about age 14 or 15 for about ten years. I invested heavily in learning all aspects of music as thoroughly as possible, not just harmony. The beginning and end dates are not arbitrary: as a young teenager one is just becoming mature enough to realise what’s going to be needed for useful performance, and ten years later one is likely too busy working and coping with the demands of life to acquire further technical knowledge in depth.

But yes, having booked musicians for an album I really had to shed for a while so I could pretend I knew what I was talking about. You can fool some of the people all the time, and all of the people some of the time… But by now it’ll come as no surprise to you that interest in acquiring further technical capacity in any part of music-making was entirely driven by wanting to do or hear something that I couldn’t do or hear. As soon as I could do or hear it, my interest in sweat for the sake of sweat at the piano or drums rapidly diminished.

SM: I must also ask about your approach to voicing chords. On the acoustic Earthworks albums, even on the faster tracks, the chord voicings have a lyrical quality that I find really makes the music approachable and appealing.

BB: Are you certain it is their voicings that give you that feeling, or is perhaps their movement from one to the next? I was too illiterate to own an approach to chord voicings. As before, as soon as it felt right, and grown-up enough to present to my colleagues – Dave Stewart, Django Bates, Steve Hamilton, Tim Garland  that was it. Incoming musicians to all my groups were fully entitled to, and expected to, upgrade that and improve on things, but the music would work if they chose not to. They only ever made it better, as might be expected.

Incoming musicians to all my groups were fully entitled to, and expected to, upgrade that and improve on things, but the music would work if they chose not to. They only ever made it better, as might be expected.

earthworks2
Earthworks Edition 2: L-R Steve Hamilton, Bill, Mark Hodgson, Patrick Clahar. Pic: Matthias Ketz

SM: You have done significant work as a co-composer. In Earthworks, you were generous in giving opportunities to your band mates to compose for the group, and also co-composed pieces with them. You also contributed to a collective process of composing and arranging in the rock bands that you played in: it seems to me that this was the case in all the line-ups of King Crimson where you were present, as well as Yes. I recall that in a Yes-related video interview, you expressed satisfaction with the way “Siberian Khatru” was put together, because it had a logical structure to it.

How would you characterize your role in process of co-composing? Based on what you have already told me, I suspect this has a lot to do with the internal dynamics of which community of practice you were participating – you said that groove is not “something I possess so much as something I create and share with others.” So, I suspect that you will have approached co-composition from various positions. Did you, for instance, alternate between the role of “ideas man” who introduced new content to an evolving process, with that of an “integrator” who pulls together ideas that others have introduced, giving them form and structure? In reading your Autobiography (and apologies if I am over-interpreting), I get the sense that you had something of an integrator role in Yes, and often played the role of the “ideas-man” in King Crimson? I would suspect that when you led your own bands, the integrator role was more pronounced. Am I right?

BB: Maybe! I don’t recognise this “ideas man’ / integrator dyad” which sounds like it is borrowed from business management studies. I’m reluctant to comment because you may mean something quite specific by it, but it sounds to me less like an “either/or” and more like a “both/and”. Paul R. Lawrence and Jay W. Lorsch assert, in the November 1967 issue of Harvard Business Review, that “While the advances of science and technology are increasing the tempo of change in some complex business organizations, the requirements for regularity and standardization remain in others. This continuously increases the need both for greater specialization (differentiation) and for tighter coordination (integration). However, complications arise, since these two needs are essentially antagonistic, and one can usually be achieved only at the expense of the other”.

Certainly I had ideas; too many of the wrong sort in Robert Fripp’s view.  An integrator? Maybe. Did I resolve interdepartmental conflicts? I tried to, but I may have exacerbated the situation! I think the responsibility is to not only have the idea, but not bother forwarding it until and unless you can see a practical use for it and explain how that might be enacted.

SM: While almost all of history’s great composers have been instrumentalists, for some of them, the connection to their instrument was more pronounced than to others. Monk’s compositions seem to be inseparable from his playing style. Paganini and Vivaldi were violinists and this seems to have shaped the way they write. Bach, Mozart and Beethoven were keyboard virtuosi but while they wrote for the keyboard, they also wrote music that seems less determined by their instrument. It seems to me that as a composer, you have also written music that varies in its relationship with the drums. “Beelzebub” is a percussive piece, based on intense exploration of rhythm, but “Dewey-eyed” is a celebration of melody and harmonic subtlety. So my question is: how do you yourself perceive the relationship between your artistic identity as a drummer and a composer?

I was, perhaps, a composer in private – with the benefit of the atelier, able to revisit and re-work to my satisfaction out of the public gaze – and a drummer in public, very much in the public gaze, unable to re-visit anything, to my ultimate dissatisfaction.”

soundofsurprise.jpg
The Sound Of Surprise (2001)

BB: Well spotted: I think your two examples are entirely valid, and a function of my available technical ability – pre-digitalization in particular – on drums and keyboards respectively. The more harmonically involved material tended to be slower-paced because my fingers would only work at that speed. Towards the end of my time, MIDI software helped me break out of that with much of the music, for example, on the Earthworks album The Sound of Surprise.  I was known publicly as drummer. Others performed my compositions in ensembles of which I was usually a part. So my compositional identity was inevitably somewhat concealed. I was, perhaps, a composer in private – with the benefit of the atelier, able to revisit and re-work to my satisfaction out of the public gaze – and a drummer in public, very much in the public gaze, unable to re-visit anything, to my ultimate dissatisfaction.


Read part three here.

 

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