We Ignore the Diminishing Value of Interactional Music Performance at Our Peril
With the democratization of music performance, we are all music inventors now. Anybody with a laptop and the ability to whistle a tune may invent the next musical genre without ever finding her way to a rehearsal room. For centuries, however, the music eco-system has entertained the notion of the dedicated performer. This individual plays one or more instruments (including the voice), with the benefit of some training or none. Before the digital world arrived, you were Liszt or Liberace, Satriani or Santana, Hendrix or Holiday, Marley or Madonna, violinist, bassist, or saxophonist, or you aspired to being one of those, or assisted one of them in your role as a skilled support instrumentalist. Now that facsimiles of all these people are in our laptops, are we still making fresh ones? Are they an endangered species? Do we have enough already? Why do we need more? In brief, why do we need instrumental performers?
Danger Up Ahead
Performance skills seem to be little valued at the point of origin of a track or song (notwithstanding that those skills may acquire more value at the point of its public reproduction), being apparently easily emulated through music technology. Instrumental popular music performance, as evidenced by the laying on of hands to wood, gut, skin, and silicone in real-time collaboration with others, appears to be at something of a digital-age split in the road. One signpost points to ossification and redundancy, the other to re-evaluation and creative utility.
To master a musical instrument to a level that affords minimal creative options is seen as literally unaffordable because it takes too long. A cyclical reduction of skills (fewer are needed so fewer are provided so fewer are needed) condemns the limited performer to the constant repetition of the handful of gestures necessary to invoke the three chords and a backbeat paradigm. Most drummers, for example, are obliged to perform much the same thing most of the time. This is both a wasted resource and an unnecessary reduction to which they have acceded because they both underestimate and are unwilling to assert their cultural importance as catalysts for musical action.
Drummers are well placed to resuscitate, to breathe life, to bring life to collective performance, but they remain too ready to abandon training, instinct and intuition at a moment’s notice, to accommodate another’s worldview. They tinker away in the engine room of the music to little effect—an abandonment of their traditional area of influence that borders upon a dereliction of duty. Such dereliction cedes power to others (client/producer/programmer) and eliminates the participatory discrepancies that make a performance unique. It halts the interactional scrabbling for the song-specific component that transforms the mechanical into the magical, the uncreative into the creative. To follow that road for a few more years will rightly consign the drummer to oblivion and do a calamitous disservice to popular music. Current practice, thus reduced, is susceptible to imitation by computer. Future value lies in the production of artefacts the computer cannot produce. What can the performer do that the computer cannot?
It’s About Interaction, Stupid
Reversal is possible, however, given awareness of the situation. Research among expert drummers suggests that the answer lies in their specialist knowledge of rhythmic matters combined with sophisticated collaborative interactional skills that brings life to the music, preserving it from the dead hand of the oscilloscope. To communicate effectively, music needs interaction, be it intra-human, or human-computer. Music that includes interactive performance seems to be more affective than that generated from a technological alternative. Thinking around rhythm and drums has almost completely ossified in “mainstream” drumming, notwithstanding the fact that a thin top slice of expert players embody and exemplify the full range of creative expression possible across all genres.
High-level interactive abilities render performance outcomes effectively irreplaceable and irreducible, less prone to reproduction. I do this because you did that, or are continuing to do this. I may have misinterpreted your intention, but now we’ve both got something that previously did not exist in our imaginations or fact. I never much liked the first thing anyway. I think it’s good; you think it’s hopeless. How to resolve the problem? Let’s agree to disagree, put it on one side and start afresh with the lyric. Why are you stammering about m-m-m-My Generation? Great idea! Why a bass solo break? Because the man has an amazing sound with the Rickenbacker round wire strings. We could use that. From the employer’s point of view she never thought of doing it that way.
Alive to the Situation
Music education can help here. If creativity such as this is to be part of learning, a greater appreciation of what it means and feels like to collaborate creatively should be inculcated within popular music education: too heavily geared to the acquisition of technical ability as a creative tool, too little geared to the socio-cultural framework within which music creativity is typically enacted and distributed. A re-balancing would stimulate a reconsideration of the core purpose and value of performance such as continues to be found at the highest levels in popular music, but whose benefits are not being communicated further down the food-chain.
As digital-age music inventors move further from pre-digital notions of performance, there seems to be an uncomfortable and unspoken feeling that things were somehow “better” in the “old days,” that the analog 8-track Who and the Kinks rocked harder than their over-dubbed and down-loaded contemporary counterparts, and maybe there really was something about this business of playing music together with others that we dispensed with at our peril. Music students might be better introduced to the subtleties of human musical co-operation, that transformation of knowledge that takes place in the rehearsal room that gives life to the artefact at hand. In my mind, that’s what music performance is about.
The Call to Arms
Much of the above has focussed on drumming and the drummer, but is applicable to any instrumental performer. We need these people, and we need them to stand up and be counted. We need them to dive deep into their instruments to mine glistening new sounds and mint fresh possibilities for them. We need them to make a performance both unique and greater than the sum of its parts. We need them like the oyster needs her grit, the irritant that gives access to the previously unimaginable. I doubt Liszt could have imagined Hendrix, nor Mozart Stockhausen. The steps connecting each to the other were rough-hewn in part from the intervening decades of instrumental performance. We need performers to do what the computer cannot. Currently, computers aren’t great at interactional skills, but even that window may shut soon. Notwithstanding all the computer power at our fingertips, it’s hard to imagine four machines producing the Who’s My Generation or Miles’ Bitches Brew. Above all, we need instrumental performers to interact with each other, the producer, the listener, and the world.
Some say a society gets the music it pays for; others that it gets the music that it deserves. I think it gets the music it can imagine. The music inventor needs collaboration with instrumentalists. That way he may be confronted with ways of doing things he’s never imagined before.
Without such interaction, the music outcome is a lesser thing, bereft of its staff of life. Society ignores the value of interactional music performance at its peril. Video gaming is now replacing music as the most important aspect of youth culture: we musicians have practically invited it to do so. Music can use all the help it can get. Bold, breath-taking, imaginative, and skillful instrumental performance can offer a lot. Come on players, your country needs you. Let’s get to it.
Bill Bruford, Ph.D., has an international profile as a bandleader, composer and drummer across multiple popular music ensembles over four decades. Retiring from public performance in 2009, he acquired his doctorate from the University of Surrey, UK, in 2016. He has written on the topic of music performance and creativity, and lectured extensively at European and North American institutions. billbruford.com.
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