A Conversation With Bill Bruford. Part One: Drumming


Foreword by Saku Mantere

Bill Bruford’s retirement from music became effective in January 1, 2009. To me, this came as a shock. Bill’s music had impacted me significantly and still does. He played in many of my favourite rock bands: Yes, King Crimson, U.K., where his lithe and intelligent groove had been an essential component. Bill’s work as jazz composer and leader of jazz groups had been even more important for my musical development. Feels Good to Me, the first album from his group Bruford was my gateway to jazz. Tunes from that album such as “Beelzebub”, “If you can’t stand the heat” and the sublime ballad “Either end of August” remain archetypal examples of jazz composition and performance in my book. The next album I bought was Bitches Brew by Miles Davis, and this launched a journey that still continues. When Bill’s direction shifted from electric jazz fusion into more acoustic jazz performance, many of his quartet albums became favourites as well. Because of these two impacts combined, despite the fact that I have not been taught by him, Bill may well be the single most important influence in my musical development. The combination of rhythmic complexity and melodic lyricism seems to express what I too search for in music.


The Autobiography. Originally published in 2009.

I read and re-read the witty and entertaining Autobiography Bill published to announce his retirement, and expected that this would be the end of my engagement with the work of this artist. Then I got word that Bill had published a doctoral thesis, and his retirement was from musical performance rather than from music itself. Bill had started a second career as a musicologist, conducting research on creative practice with a focus on drummers. This meant that in a way, the two of us had become colleagues. After finishing a doctorate in work psychology and leadership, I had spent more than fifteen years studying various kinds of work in all kinds of organizations. Even though I had not yet looked at musicians, I had personal experience of writing music for, and playing guitar in, several musical groups, and I was familiar with many of the methods and theories that Bill was using in his research.

I absolutely had to learn about the insights that Bill had accumulated during his “second musical career” as a musicologist. I was particularly interested in learning how he viewed his own artistic career. To my immense delight, Bill agreed to an interview, which grew into three rounds of extensive emails. In his first email, Bill wrote that:

“You’ll understand that this response from the mature man might not withstand scholarly scrutiny. It originates from memory, a notoriously unreliable source, and may be coloured by all manner of vanities. What I think I think now may not chime with what I thought I thought then. With hindsight it is too easy to ‘tidy up’ what was essentially a messy process; the slow metamorphosis from the arrogant, youthfully exuberant beginner to the ‘scholarly explorer’ you suggest I became. While as a young man I was infused with romantic ideas of the artist suffering for his art – the strung-out jazz musician, the self-harming painter, the opium-addled poet – I certainly don’t remember developing ideas about art, creativity, doing, undergoing, and the communication of experience as Yes and King Crimson got underway in the early 1970s. Rather it was all pragmatic: overcoming obstacles, staying in business, making it work, just taking the next step forward, until a comfortable royalty stream and advancing experience afforded broader, deeper thinking about what drummers do and why they do it.

Your purpose for this interview, you state, is to learn about any insights that I may have gained about my artistic career from my academic pursuits. I’d make two points at an early stage. First, and with respect to the ‘artistry’ that you impute to my efforts behind a drum kit, I think it is possible but rare for the drummer to have an artistic career. It requires the sort of sure-footed, high-level conceptual thinking of the kind exemplified by, for example, Strønen, Guiliana and Erskine in my recent book (Uncharted, 2018). Most drummers continue to function as brick-layers to the architect of the popular song.”

To aid the reader make sense of the interchange, I have translated the three rounds of exchange into a continuous flow of question and answer. The interview will be published in three consecutive episodes. In the first episode, we discuss Bill’s thoughts on his career as a drummer. The second episode focuses on his career as a composer, while the third and final episode looks at his reflections on leading and playing in musical groups.

1. Drummer

Saku Mantere (SM): Even though you were offered an honorary doctorate, you chose to pursue the academic curriculum and write a PhD thesis. This sort of response to an offer of an honorary doctorate is not common in the academic world. Yet, reflecting on what I know of your career choices as a creative artist, this seems much less surprising. Pushing the boundary of knowledge, and doing things the hard way seem to be as good a way as any to characterize your musical identity. I would use terms such as “inquisitive”, “probing”, and “intricate” to characterize your playing. In other words, it seems that you were doing research behind the kit, exploring the possibilities in each composition and in each band that you were interacting with.

Photograph Paul Pugliese, 1998

Bill Bruford (BB): I would agree that your characterization of my practice as “inquisitive”, “probing”, “intricate”, “doing things the hard way” is about right. You go on to say it seems to you that I was doing research behind the kit, exploring the possibilities of the composition and the band that I was interacting with. I would also agree with that, with the proviso that even if that is rare among drummers, it is an adequate description of the everyday work of many musicians who identify as “jazz” players. Informal practice-as-research asks questions of the performer, her co-performers, her music, her skills and her tools, which of course lays her open to the charge of “over-thinking”- an indictable offence! I suspect my academic pursuits have helped me acquire a greater understanding of what I did, and what other drummers may be doing, framed within the broader context of the psychology of music performance.

SM: In Uncharted, you write about such cultural archetypes as “icon”, “iconoclast”, “guru-teacher”, “movie star” and “drum hero”. I would argue that you yourself pioneered a “scholar-explorer” archetype, which I am not sure existed before, in rock drumming at least. Neil Peart was called “the professor” after you had blazed the trail. Gavin Harrison, whom you mention alongside Max Roach and a few others as an innovator, seems to be also appropriate to mention here. I seem to recall that you were influenced by Joe Morello’s work in Dave Brubeck’s band during your formative years: would you say that he embodied any aspects of such a “scholar-explorer” archetype before you?

BB: I was probably, and I’m guessing, just trying to be a progressive musician. My considerations were likely: “Is this something no-one else seems to be doing? Can I get away with it? Will the other guys buy it?” Joe Morello, I speculate, was probably thinking along similar lines. Clearly his employer Dave Brubeck was providing the conceptual framework for his forthcoming rhythmic innovations on western drum kit much as Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker did for Max Roach. The extent to which Morello’s and Roach’s creativities can be forensically examined and evaluated in isolation, detached from the musical context in which they were born, is a subject in need of further research. The symbiotic relationship between the creative framework and its realization through action implies that the two are mutually dependent, both ineffective as art without the other.

“I was probably, and I’m guessing, just trying to be a progressive musician. My considerations were likely: “Is this something no-one else seems to be doing? Can I get away with it? Will the other guys buy it?”

One good anecdote helps to illustrate the relatively low esteem of the kit drummer among his or her co-performers. After a move from his native Springfield, MA to New York City, Morello’s technical control soon got him jobs with an impressive list of employers ranging from Tal Farlow to Stan Kenton, and on to supporting singers such as Marian McPartland. His elegant, unhurried and understated style, that was to be such a suitable match for the chamber-like dynamics of the Brubeck group, soon came to the attention of Brubeck’s colleague and alto saxophonist Paul Desmond. Smith (2011) states that “in an oral history recorded for the Smithsonian Institution in 2007, Brubeck described meeting Morello. Desmond had suggested that he and Brubeck go and hear him during his engagement with McPartland. “He was playing brushes”, Mr. Brubeck recalled in the interview, “and Paul just loved somebody that played brushes and didn’t interrupt with some hard licks with sticks and clashing cymbals”. Not for the first time, nor the last, was a drummer hired for something he didn’t do!

SM: In reading your academic work, I wonder about your own relationship with the “drum culture”. Based on the interviews I’ve read from when you were a practicing drummer, it seems to me that throughout your career, you were always a reflective practitioner of your art who did not shy away from engaging it from an abstract and discursive standpoint. Did you find the drum culture at the time limiting during your career? You write that drummers are communal, and there are particularly strong external expectations towards their creative performance. Were these influences sometimes stifling?

BB: Indeed so. The characterization of drummers as a “breed apart and breed below” other instrumentalists is valid, I think, and perpetuated as much within the culture as without. That may have driven some, including myself, to prove we were “real” musicians (defined as those who play pitched instruments) by writing, arranging and recording music under our own names and in my case, I suppose, fulfilling the “scholar-explorer” archetype that you posit, although of course I would not have recognized my activities as such at the time.

SM: Rock historians tell us that you left Yes because you had explored all that was to explore in that setting with those musicians, took a risk and sizable financial penalties from Yes to continue exploring in King Crimson. Looking back at your practice back then, do you find similarities to doing research as you conduct it now, pushing the boundary of your knowledge in pursuit of understanding the practice of drumming? As you look back on the early parts of your career, before you became a bandleader, how did you approach the music back then?

BB: Hopefully like a child who has yet to be told it should not or cannot be done, or you can’t go there – the intrepid explorer element.

SM: There is something instantly recognizable in your playing, even for a non-drummer such as myself. I recently heard “Lucky Seven” from Chris Squire’s first solo album for the first time. What made me guess that it was you in behind the kit? That song is mellow, but for me there is a signature element that can be found in more intense songs such as “Thela Hun Ginjeet”, “One More Red Nightmare” as well, a groove, which I might best describe as “restless” or “searching”. Do you think that your groove retained a distinct identity throughout your career, from those early Yes records all the way to the final Summerfold releases? If you compare your playing on an early track such as “No Opportunity Necessary, No Experience Needed” to a mature performance, say “Tramontana” from Random Acts of Happiness, do you find commonalities in how you groove in those two pieces?

BB: Everything changed to some degree or another in my 41 years, including a love of music-making that diminished very gradually over time. I’m not sure my conceptualization of groove sees it as something I possess so much as something I create and share with others. I am thus unable to assign it an “identity”. However, the performer might choose to construct an identity which he or she quickly learns to sublimate or project as the music situation demands.

“Restless” and “searching” implies necessarily setting up camp on the fringes and being prepared to strike camp and move on as the spirit moves, or if you’re suddenly and obviously too rock for jazz and too jazz for rock, as the axiom goes. I spent much time counterbalancing the conflicting demands of two feelings: on the one hand, the desire to be more fully a part of something, to be committed (to rock, or to King Crimson, for example), and on the other, an equally strong feeling of standing apart from something while not necessarily wanting to be standing apart (c.f.  Earthworks’ A Part and Yet Apart.) Serious drummers of any generic persuasion must possess and display absolute conviction in what they’re doing – ambivalence of any sort is unwelcome.

“I’m not sure my conceptualization of groove sees it as something I possess so much as something I create and share with others.”

SM: You talk about the drummer’s four “levers of control” in the Uncharted: time, meter, dynamics and timbre. When you look back on your own playing, do you feel that you applied each lever to equal extent, and did this approach change during your career?

BB: This pulling of levers goes on to varying degrees in the musical instant, in the medium term over a song, an album or a tour, and over the full long-term arc of a whole career, at micro- and macro-levels. It changes all the time. I always had considerable interest in time signatures and meters, much less in metronomic tempo. Timbral and dynamic variations were playgrounds of delight, especially with the onset of electronics. As rock drumming became more constrained in multiple ways at the performance level, especially in respect of dynamics, I moved to what I perceived as the greener pastures of jazz.

“I always had considerable interest in time signatures and meters, much less in metronomic tempo.”

SM: To me, it seems that the metric lever played a significant role in your playing, and it is particularly distinctive in your early playing. In those early Yes albums, the drummer sounds like an instrumentalist conversing with the other voices in a manner not dissimilar to, say, Tony Williams’ role in the Miles Davis Quintet.

Yes: Close To The Edge (1972).

BB: I disagree here. The parts on the early Yes albums were tightly organized and it was expected that I would stick to them with little variation in performance. My trying to play “Close to the Edge”, for example, in a “different” way on a nightly basis eventually caused irritation. But I was very young: not realizing that I had inadvertently constructed a framework that would constrain and, as I saw it, reduce my contribution to mere nightly repetition. Others had, and have, no trouble with the concept of repetition, seeing the location, the audience and the performance as the nightly variables that provide creative sustenance. For some romantic reason, the “artist” in me said that it was my job – my obligation as an imagined “creative performer” – to replicate with a difference. I was failing myself and the listener if Tuesday’s performance was identical at the ‘note’ level as Wednesday’s performance.

SM: Even though your kit always had a distinctive sound, the timbral element became more pronounced in King Crimson, in that broken cymbal in “One More Red Nightmare”, for instance; and then of course came the electronics which were highly distinctive; your contribution to David Torn’s Cloud About Mercury is particularly distinctive in this sense.

BB: At the onset of my career, I took the drum kit to be something you selected once and that was that. It looked and sounded very much like the next person’s. Over time and quite rapidly did all sorts of other instruments, both acoustic and electronic, appear on the market, and could be appended to or even replace the standard kit, in the search for sonic difference. Interestingly, and as a side bar, many listeners claimed that I always had a recognizable sound, particularly on the snare drum; this despite the fact that I used many different snare drums and tunings over the years. I think this recognizable quality lay not so much in the sound of the snare drum as its typically unusual placement in the measure. Differentiation, there, by pulling the metrical lever more firmly than the timbral!

SM: When it comes to dynamics, to me it seems that your approach was much more controlled than among rock drummers; even in a massive piece like “Starless”, you were never “hitting things”. As a non-drummer, your control of time seems mysterious as I do not have the confidence to analyse how you constructed your groove; did you accelerate or decelerate the tempo, how you oriented yourself with relation to the beat. Yet, the reason I identified you in “Lucky Seven” still has to do with your control of time. Is there any way you could help me and the readers unlock this mystery: how is your approach to time your own compared to your colleagues?

BB: How I address time is a mystery to me too, and I’m perfectly happy with that. I sit. I play. I like mystery. I don’t analyse my approach to time then, or afterwards. In performance, of course, I was hyper-aware of micro-discrepancies in the performances of other players relative to mine, and did whatever was necessary within my own contribution to make the music work. Elsewhere I have described my pre-computer experiences in progressive rock as calling for an “orchestral” approach to time, whereby the drummer saw himself or herself as the conductor of the ensemble, at liberty to approach the tempo with the fluidity s/he thought appropriate. That is now a second indictable offence: guilty as charged! Jazz performance tends to breathe more, untethered from the tyranny of the backbeat.

I’d suggest that what you found recognizable in that performance of Lucky Seven was my choice of notes, their placement, and the timbre of the chosen instruments. The emphasis on timbral creativity is much in evidence among contemporary drummers, some of whom select and arrange instruments for deployment in their kits on an almost track by track basis in recording studios (see, for example, the work of Blair Sinta in Uncharted).

“How I address time is a mystery to me too, and I’m perfectly happy with that. I sit. I play. I like mystery.”

SM:  Elsewhere you have noted that you prefer (psychologist Csikszentmihályi’s) concept of “flow” over the concept of “fun” in characterizing successful creative performance. As I have watched videos of your performance, you do seem to be enjoying yourself, being energetically engaged with the music. In your Autobiography, you describe participating in Neil Peart’s Burning for Buddy sessions as a stressful experience, but watching a video of you playing in the studio with the Buddy Rich Big Band, you strike me as excited and energetic. Is it that the concept of “fun” does not capture the critical role that proper balance between challenge and skill play in successful performance? Easy can be fun, but insufficient challenge does not enable flow. Am I on the right track?

BB: The fun, enjoyment and engagement I exhibit in my performances on the one hand, and the stressful hard labour that I have subsequently written about, involved in actually getting to that level of performance, are surely the two sides of the struggle /flow coin writ large.  Performing was for me relatively easy; getting there, with the right tools, skills and the knowledge as to their appropriate use, a lot harder. My fun came in the listening back later, sometimes much later, to the captured performance.

SM: In your Autobiography, you appear to be experiencing flow during a duo concert with pianist Michiel Borstlap at the South Bank Centre. You write:

“There is the recurring sensation that I, or we, are not doing enough, that this is too easy – a wonderful feeling that is to be preserved, and one that is easily dispelled, as I have learnt to my cost, by doing more and making it too difficult. I steer around that particular trap. Tonight my accomplished and receptive partner and I are highly tuned – if not of one mind, then closing the gap between us rapidly. Eighty minutes seem like twenty. Drained, spent, soaked, we eventually conclude and stand for a couple of minutes acknowledging the applause in a moment of deep satisfaction.”

I guess many of us, musicians and non-musicians alike, become more patient with age. Research into expert practice (I am particularly reminded of Hubert Dreyfus’ work, e.g. Dreyfus & Dreyfus, 1986) has argued that experts develop tacit knowledge that allows them to process information more effectively with time so that they see through difficulty; there is the story of a master acupuncturist who only needs one needle and a diagnostician who sees intuitively through complex cases. Do you feel that it was easier to avoid the trap you speak of during the latter part of your career? You seem to imply it somewhat by saying you had learnt to avoid that trap “at your cost”.

BB: You cite Hubert Dreyfus’ work to assert that “experts develop “tacit knowledge” that allows them to process information more effectively with time”. I borrow from Pete Erskine who would call that a “knowing what to do”; it brings to mind Csikszentmihalyi’s definition of flow as a merging of action and awareness and thus a convergence of knowing and doing (Custodero in Uncharted: p. 157). Adopting John Dewey’s position, art is broadly the communication of experience. For action to become experience goals must be set and obstacles and constraints overcome – the “artistic struggle”, perhaps. This flowing and this struggling appear to be in conflict. One possible resolution might be to assign the flowing to the action and the struggling to the awareness, but in the real world many an artist appears to have been impaled on the horns of this dilemma.

The description of a flow experience during a duo concert with pianist Michiel Borstlap at the South Bank Centre in London is an example of everything working well, as it should do! Certainly the contraction in the sense of time passing is a key indicator of the presence of a state of flow, and the sense of not having to try very hard possibly a secondary indicator.

SM: I am fascinated by the “trap” you speak of, making things too difficult. There is a subtle difference between “difficult” and “complex”. It seems that your playing has often been complex without being difficult, and encountering complexity seems endemic to doing research. Listening to your recorded performances throughout your career, I have yet to find a single example of “over-playing” or “over-complicating”. Rather, I hear a drummer doing research behind the kit.

BB: I’m aware of the trap of making things unnecessarily difficult because I’ve fallen into it on numerous occasions. If obstacles and constraints are always necessary for action to become experience, and either one or both is absent, it is a perennial temptation for those who wish to be, or be seen as, “artistic” to create them! When I was young, I probably thought that doing things the hard way was, in some puritanical sense, character building. A useful approach if perhaps you want to develop physical and mental strength. But in the production of art, complex doesn’t necessarily mean difficult, nor does simple mean easy. The complex becomes simple when you can do it: the art is to conceal the art. Before you could ride a bike it was very difficult; the minute you could ride it, the complex became simple.

“But in the production of art, complex doesn’t necessarily mean difficult, nor does simple mean easy. The complex becomes simple when you can do it: the art is to conceal the art.”

I was about to say that as I matured as a musician I avoided being too much beyond my reach, but that doesn’t chime with the diminishing sense of confidence as I felt as the years rolled past. Knowing what is and what isn’t attainable in this passage of this song in this concert with these people in this situation becomes as useful a skill in music as in any walk of life. The effort may arise in the original conceptualization, with its execution easy. My experience in music groups was that once I knew what I was doing (tacit knowledge?) relative to co-performers, it was all easy. Until then, it was all impossible. With age and experience, I would say only that I probably got better at recognizing the attainable. The effectiveness of a politician, it is said, lies in knowing what’s possible. Perhaps also the artistically inclined drummer!

“One of the most challenging tunes for me was the medium rock ballad ‘Heartbeat’ (King Crimson) on which I was entirely out of my comfort zone, or my comfort groove.”

With King Crimson. Photograph Jacquie Deegan, 1974

Within the drum community there is much obeisance to “playing for the song”, by which is meant giving precedence to the lyric and staying out of its way with the production of something close to Moore’s standard rock beat (Moore 2013: 51-3). Others did that much better than I. I sought out bands that would accommodate the percussionist as dramatic actor: the terrorist-renegade (“Indiscipline”, King Crimson), the colourist (“Sheltering Sky”, King Crimson), the pitched melodicist (“Stromboli Kicks” or “Candles still Flicker in Romania’s Dark”, Earthworks; much of Cloud About Mercury, David Torn). One of the most challenging tunes for me was the medium rock ballad “Heartbeat” (King Crimson) on which I was entirely out of my comfort zone, or my comfort groove. Whether these characterizations of the drummer’s role were communicated to an audience was of secondary concern – their primary use was in helping me find something to play.

Read part two here


2 thoughts on “A Conversation With Bill Bruford. Part One: Drumming

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  1. Great interview, thanks! One small correction: Marian McPartland was a pianist, not a singer.



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