Drumming, Composing and Band-Leading as Creative Practice. A Conversation.

Written by: BILL BRUFORD and SAKU MANTERE

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

“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.”

2. Composer

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:

“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
Bruford: 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?

soundofsurprise
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.

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.”

 

2. Leader and Contributor

Saku Mantere (SM): Looking at the kinds of contexts where you have practiced your art, I am struck by how so many of these groups consisted of artists with very distinctive individual voices. In particular, the classic line-up of Yes, the 80’s line-up of King Crimson, your first solo group Bruford, and the trio with Ralph Towner and Eddie Gomez all appear to be contexts of intense interchange between strong individuals with recognizable styles that impacted the culture of their instruments.

Bill Bruford (BB): A fair description of my preferred musical sandpit.

SM: You said earlier that during earlier parts of your career, you were “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?”” It seems that you have worked in groups where there have been musicians trying to “get away with” quite a bit, as you put it. How did working in groups that consisted of musicians with so many distinctive ideas shape your own development?

BB: It was simply the waters in which I swam; I knew no other. Only later, when I was able to surface and look around, did I notice that others had wildly different conceptions of what it was that popular musicians were for. The re-establishment of the short song in the immediate post-progressive 1980s tended to constrain whatever unlikely activities the instrumentalist might try to “get away with” in the sandpit. If one skill of the seasoned instrumentalist is to know when to project and when to sublimate his or her musical identity, then the post-progressive period was all about constraint and sublimation to the identity of the songwriter and/or singer.  The game had changed.

crimson
King Crimson in 1973. L-R: John Wetton, David Cross, Robert Fripp and Bill Bruford.

SM: Howe, Holdsworth, Belew and Fripp are all pioneers of guitar culture, “cultural entrepreneurs” rather than mere followers. The same can be said of the influence that Wakeman, Squire, Berlin, Levin and many of the other instrumentalists that you have worked with have had on the practice of their instrument. How does working in a group where every member pushes the envelope of their own instrument shape you as a practitioner?

BB: It makes you want to “push the envelope” of your own instrumental practice as well. Some cite the classic John Coltrane quartet in this regard. If Coltrane, in his “sheets of sound” period, is going to play like this, and the drummer Elvin like that, then McCoy Tyner has to refashion his piano playing into powerful block chords if only to be heard in the maelstrom. The old ways no longer work, so find something new, or at least something that will work. That’s what we progressives thought musicians did. When I started with Yes and Chris Squire, there were no mics on the drums, which were thus the least amplified instruments on stage. To project anything – perhaps not yet anything as important as an identity – I had to find a way of being heard. The high ringing rimshots on the snare drum seemed to do the trick, and quite quickly I seemed to sound less like, or not at all like, others. Surprise was valued as a signifier of creative difference.

“When I started with Yes and Chris Squire, there were no mics on the drums, which were thus the least amplified instruments on stage. To project anything – perhaps not yet anything as important as an identity – I had to find a way of being heard. The high ringing rimshots on the snare drum seemed to do the trick, and quite quickly I seemed to sound less like, or not at all like, others.”

SM: What I read in your Autobiography is that as a leader, you had a respectful and developmental attitude towards the younger players in your own group. Also, earlier you said that “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.” You appear to have sought and nurtured talent, given them freedom and resources to work with.

BB: Yes, I would hope so. I’m far from a leadership scholar, but I am just at the early stages of some work on the topic, for which, as you see, I’ve interviewed a number of recent colleagues with experience of giving and receiving leadership.

To many in jazz performance, the leader is the person who originated the text. He or she may have an ulterior motive for seeking leadership. Saxophonist Tim Garland explains that “I like to know the music really well and from memory and this comes easily when I wrote the music.” If you have ten pieces being played by a ten- person ensemble, and each piece has a different originator, there will be, sequentially, ten different leaders, who may lead or direct the performance of their piece to greater or lesser degrees. When Tim is directing or leading the performance of one of his pieces in one of my groups, my over-arching leadership of the latter takes a secondary position for that musical moment when Garland is in control.

For Iain Ballamy, leadership sometimes “feels like a weighty responsibility, one that comes with a palpable expectation from audience, promoter or reviewer. If your name is on the poster as the leader, there is increased pressure than that of a sideman. I try to put these thoughts out of my head and dismiss it as unhelpful interference.”  In his experience, the knowledge that maximum preparation, rehearsal, effort and thought have gone into the performance helps to counteract or neutralize feelings of imperfection or failure.

blue
Bruford Levin Upper Extremities. Left to right: Chris Botti, David Torn, Bill Bruford, Tony Levin

I was, I felt, always only too aware of my leadership functions, even in the heat of performance. In stark contrast to that, my co-leader in the group Bruford Levin’s Upper Extremities (B.L.U.E.), Tony Levin was cool as a cucumber. He told me that: “When performing, I’m pretty oblivious to my role in the band, be it leader or backup player or some other variation. In the bands where I’ve clearly been the leader (Tony Levin Band comes to mind) I’ll have chosen or written the material and the style we’re playing in, and have chosen players to implement that well, and left the rest to them. So nothing during the performances impacts on that.”

“I was, I felt, always only too aware of my leadership functions, even in the heat of performance. In stark contrast to that, Tony Levin was cool as a cucumber.”

SM: In your Autobiography, you provide vivid insight into how many of your earlier groups worked, e.g., how Yes compositions often emerged in a process of Jon Anderson’s ideas being transformed by the instrumentalists, or how Robert Fripp withdrew from decision-making during the recording of Red. You also talk about how tensions between artists and craftsmen in the group U.K. facilitated creativity and then split the group, leaving the craftsmen.

As a leadership scholar, I am curious to learn what broader insight you may have gained regarding what it is that makes a group of innovators function, and what undermines creative practice in such groups. I was fascinated by the parallel that you drew earlier between organizational integration (Lawrence and Lorsch’s work) and your work in the band context. In organizations, integration is necessary in situations where specialization risks driving different departments into conflicts and common goals need to be actively maintained to compensate for this.

In the context of healthcare, for instance, a surgery team may do a fine job replacing hips, but who assesses the steps necessary to assure that elderly clients don’t fall and break the newly replaced hip after being discharged from hospital? Who assesses whether such operations lead to better quality of life for clients, and under which conditions? Healthcare is a nice context for understanding this fundamental tension in all organizations: we can all relate to the trials of clients trying to navigate within the complex and at times fragmented organisation that is tasked with their care. How do we integrate, coordinate action to refocus on the quality of care as well as performing well in specialized tasks? One way of course is leadership: those responsible for the performance of the entire organization are expected to see “the forest from the trees”; in the case of healthcare, to focus on the performance of the organization in the conduct of its core tasks. I cannot help but see an interesting analogy between leading a group of artists and a complex organization.

BB: A group of collaborating artists is surely a complex organisation although happily a numerically small one!  Usually a group member can have a close unmediated real time relationship with a handful of others, such that several layers of potential large scale or interdepartmental miscommunication are avoided.

There are a number of theoretical frameworks that encompass organisational leadership. At the risk of gross oversimplification, I sketch below three strands of thinking that, woven together, produce a useful framework to understand the various degrees of leadership “fit” in music performance:

First, the dominant – linear – hierarchical strand (a one-way street), exemplified perhaps by the classical conductor and the older jazz and soul band leaders: James Brown, Ike Turner, Buddy Rich, Duke Ellington. Authoritarian leaders impose their rules, their goals and the way of achieving them on the group. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this leadership style is recognized as ineffective in the type of successful peak-practice behaviours of my research participants and colleagues.

Second, the visionary – inspirational strand (a two- way street). In this view the leader establishes trust, appeals to ideological values, proffers intellectual stimulation and high expectations for performance beyond the call of duty. Central here is the idea of exchange (see Leader-Member Exchange theory – LMX).  A high LMX relationship is characterized by mutual trust, loyalty, and behaviours that extend outside the employment contract. A low LMX relationship is one that is within the bounds of the employment contract such that the employee performs his or her job, but contributes nothing extra. Miles Davis exemplifies the two-way street of the visionary inspirational model when he asserts that: “I don’t lead musicians, man. They lead me. I listen to them to learn what they can do best.” In the late 1980’s my own group Earthworks was built upon just such an LMX relationship: “As an older, less skilled but more experienced musician I was able to offer an international platform to younger, more skilled but less experienced colleagues. The exchange was balanced and to mutual advantage, supporting the development of all parties and auguring well for a successful outcome” (Bruford 2018:68). 

Third, the plural – shared – distributed strand (a shared space that minimizes the segregation between multiple leaders and followers). Leadership here is a shared, distributed phenomenon in which there can be several (formally appointed and/or emergent) leaders within a group. There appears to be broad consensus on two issues: (1) leadership is not just a top-down process between the formal leader and group members; and (2) there can be multiple leaders within a group.

SM: Could you say a little more about bands where leadership was distributed between several group members?

BB: In these groups there was a strong sense of leadership being rotational and shared. It existed on a spectrum from a project initiation polarity (the first communication to the first potential co-performer) through to a project conclusion polarity (the last communication to the last co-performer of the decision to continue or terminate the project). The leadership focus at both polarities might be characterized as extra-musical, being centred on everything necessary to enact the next performance. At the centre of the spectrum lies the performance itself. As it is approached, extra-musical concerns fall away to permit an increasingly sharpened focus on the musical. Very quickly post-performance, however, extra-musical concerns are re-established in the form of post-performance reflection, logistics, forward planning and so forth. Extra-musical leadership functions may be distributed around the group in imaginative ways to support a sense of group cohesion.

ballamy
Earthworks in 1991. L-R: Bill Bruford, Iain Ballamy, Tim Harries, Django Bates.

While one might contest the idea that handling the responsibilities for something equates to leadership, it undoubtedly leads to a sense of “group”. In saxophonist Iain Ballamy’s view “It is unusual for people to share the administration, organisation, legwork and musical contributions equally. Someone always has to take the initiative to make things happen.” Ballamy goes on to distinguish between “players of ‘lead’ instruments” who are “often more likely to have learned to initiate than say rhythm section players who are used to being invited to play and spared the burden of the organisation, promotion, administration and presentation that go along with making musical progress a reality.” Emerging rapidly here is a duality of “on-instrument musical leadership” and “off-instrument extra-musical leadership”. Without the latter, the results of the former will likely reach fewer ears. Both are essential components of successful performance, and may require different types of leadership and different qualities of leader.

SM: You have had a front row seat to witness and participate in occasions of both functional and (I am assuming) dysfunctional leadership in highly creative musical groups consisting of pioneering instrumentalists. Are there any lessons that we could learn about what leaders (you, and leaders that you worked for) did to facilitate such creativity?

BB: The topic of leadership, like that of creativity, is seldom discussed within popular music performance, in part because of its many variations and degrees of enactment. So an examination of its several dimensions might prove useful. Typically required to perform quickly, efficiently, at short notice, and with minimal background or contextualising information, the practitioner will benefit from an accurate assessment of leadership and by whom it is being exercised. In Tony Levin’ view, leadership may reside, at minimal, in “the person whose name labels the group” and “who may do as little in the leadership role as simply choose the material to be played.” The wise leader secures the services of the “right” personnel, and leaves the playing to the players. Particularly wise in this regard, in Tony’s opinion, are colleagues and guitarist-leaders Robert Fripp and David Torn.

Nominal, stable and overt leadership roles at a macro level may co-exist with actual, fluid and covert leadership at the micro level. In one passage of music, for example, the drummer leads and others follow. In another, the ensemble “takes its cue” from the singer, “conducted” by his or her body language. The name of the nominal leader may be at the top of the marquee but that individual may have only an extra-musical function. In another instance the backing musicians follow covert leadership from one of their number as a de facto music director or M.D. Leadership is an unstable and many-splendoured thing.

SM: Another thing that strikes me in your Autobiography is that sometimes creative masterworks arose out of what appears to be a pretty dysfunctional leadership practice or perhaps in conditions where leadership was not practiced at all.

BB: In my brief time in Yes, leadership was seen as a gateway to power and permanently contested. Contested leadership may be resolved by the “bravery” of an incoming sideman. Guitarist Steve Howe describes his negotiating skills in an interview with Chris Roberts in a recent issue of Prog magazine (September 2018: 62):

“When I joined Yes, Chris and Jon […] often didn’t get on. They both wanted to run the band. Then I came in, and in a way I said, “Well, okay, I’ll run the band then!” Now none of that went down in that kind of sentence, but I saw two guys squabbling, so I’d say, ‘This guy is right on this’. And they’d be surprised, but take it. Then on another time I’d go, ‘But today, that guy is right on that’. I’d side with the idea, not the person. I helped to make the group strong by bringing it balance.”

Desire for further leadership responsibilities is immediately disavowed:

“I didn’t want to be the leader, but to be a strong voice on the team, brave enough to speak up”.

Going the other way, sidemen may be shackled to a dysfunctional or disputed form of producer/artist co-leadership. Ever the consummate negotiator, Tony Levin suggests finding a compromise part, or way to play, that can be “a growing experience” for both people:

“That is often the case in the recording studio, where there can be said to be two leaders, the record producer and the artist. Both may have ideas about parts on each instrument, and (hopefully they agree with each other) those ideas are a priority for the recording. So I’ll listen gratefully to ideas about my part – and if it doesn’t seem ideal to me, I’ll try to incorporate what’s special about it into my sense of the part. Put a different way, I’ll bring the ‘bass player’ sensibility into their ‘singer’ or ‘producer’ sense of the part.”

SM: In your Autobiography, you write about the creation of Close to the Edge as being an at times chaotic and excruciatingly slow (apologies if I am overreaching) process. History has proven it to be a masterpiece. King Crimson’s Red is another example; reading your account, I get a sense that the formal leader of the group decided to expressly not practice leadership over the music. This appears to have resulted in another undisputed masterpiece. Are there any lessons that could be drawn from such experiences, or do we have to contend to accepting the influence of the hand of fate?

BB: I think chaotic and slow is about right. The self-appointed leader of Yes, singer Jon Anderson, was unfortunately the least equipped with the appropriate music tools to get his strong ideas across. He therefore had to wait for an approximation of his ideas to emerge from the more or less reluctant noodlings of his colleagues before he could take them further, hone them. This was an exasperating and uncomfortable position for him to be in, which occasionally became combustible. The hand of fate should not be underestimated. It delivered the favourable ecology within which we were working in the early 70s: expanding audiences and record sales, developing technology, and a thirst for innovation in the domain by consumer and producer alike.

“The hand of fate should not be underestimated. It delivered the favourable ecology within which we were working in the early 70s: expanding audiences and record sales, developing technology, and a thirst for innovation in the domain by consumer and producer alike.”

A final thought about my own experience of leadership. In ensembles like B.L.U.E, Earthworks, King Crimson, and to the extent that leadership could be said to be present in any shape or form, it tended to be covert, worn lightly, and to be found in the lightest of light touches, the smallest of small suggestions, planted or ignored. All group members contributed in any way that seemed appropriate in the context of the nascent composition, improvised in private in the rehearsal room or in public on stage. Certainly no-one instructed anyone else on what to do. The many years of experience and the recorded options already made in so many music situations, it was assumed, would lead to a satisfactory outcome. All participants reserved the right to change any aspect of their contribution at any time prior to or during performance.

“Leadership tended to be covert, worn lightly, and to be found in the lightest of light touches, the smallest of small suggestions, planted or ignored.”


Bibliography

Bruford, B. 2009. Bill Bruford: The autobiography. London: Jawbone Press. Witty, career-spanning tale that seeks to answer the most typical questions Bill has been heard throughout his career such as ”What is it like working with Robert Fripp?” or ”What do you do in the daytime?”.

Bruford, W. 2015. Making it Work: Creative music performance and the Western kit drummer. PhD Thesis for the University of Surrey. Bill’s Doctoral Thesis. A study of the creative performance based on the cultural psychology of Western kit drumming.

Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/316878612_Making_it_Work_Creative_music_performance_and_the_Western_kit_drummer

Bruford, B. 2018. Uncharted: creativity and the expert drummer. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. Bill develops key insights from his thesis into an ambitious theory about what drummers do.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. 1990. Creativity: Flow and the psychology of discovery and innovation. New York: Harper Collins. One of the founders of positive psychology applies his concept of “flow” in understanding exceptional creative work performance.

Dewey, J. 1934. Art As Experience. New York: Penguin Books. Pragmatist philosopher’s key insights into aesthetics.

Dreyfus, H.L. & Dreyfus, S.E.  1986. Mind over machine: The power of human intuition and experience in the era of the computer. New York: Free Press. Cognitive psychologists explore deepening expertise as the accumulation of tacit knowledge.

Lawrence, P.R. & Lorsch, J.W.  1967. New management job: The integrator. Harvard Business Review, November, 1967. A classic on the problem of how to coordinate the complex sub-goals in an organization in service of common purpose.

Available at: https://hbr.org/1967/11/new-management-job-the-integrator.

Moore, A. F. 2013. Song means: Analyzing and interpreting popular song. Farnham Ashgate.

Robertson, C. 2018. Interview with Steve Howe. Prog Magazine, September, 2018.

Smith, S. 2011. Joe Morello, Drummer with Dave Brubeck Quartet, Dies at 82. New York Times, March 13, 2011.

Available at:

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/14/arts/music/joe-morello-drummer-with-dave-brubeck-quartet-dies-at-82.html?_r=2&adxnnl=1&adxnnlx=1326197020-EKbkB4TDrcKAV2PYGg/Y1Q  [Accessed 4 February 2012]

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