Nonduality and Drumming? Exploring The Distance Between 0 and 1
by Matthew King
Being a drummer for over 20+ years, I’ve wanted to create a post (or feature something like this for a while now). Something that shows how non-duality or awareness relates to musicians or more importantly what some musicians, namely drummers experience during performance.
Unlike most of our articles or features, this particular one is going to be improvised (at least my part). Nothing pre thought out, whatever flows is being committed straight to the page.
On many occasions I’ve been lucky enough to experience first-hand what “being in the now”, “present awareness“ or what I used to simply call being “in the zone” is like.
If there are any musicians reading this, you might be able to relate if you’ve “jammed” with others at rehearsal or in a live setting where there were no rules, or no pre-conceived notions of what you were going to play. I’m not talking about when a guitarist plays a solo during a song or when you play a random drum fill within said song. I’m talking about when you count off 1,2,3,4 and just start to play and go for it. When you have no idea what [any of] you are going to do next…literally. And then you continue to play, playing loud or soft, slow or fast and continue this journey indefinitely.
For me, to completely “forget” that I am playing and or just improvise and “feel” it without thinking is usually 20-30 minutes of straight up improv. For the record you must have some mastery of the drums or a rather solid skill set on your instrument to be able to express yourself and contribute to a band setting and ideally be surrounded by other musicians who have similar chops [skills] on their instrument(s) as well. Otherwise, instead of enjoyable grooviness, you end up with cacophonous noise and your jam session will quickly come to a halt [laughs]! But that is part of it.
I’ve played with a lot of musicians over the years; the deepest or most intense experiences have been while playing with a family member (cousin), so there could be a genetic connection at work. Many of my family members are musically inclined and like to sing; some say it’s in the blood.
For some musicians the thought of not knowing what to play can be rather intimidating and genuinely scary I suppose. Some folks only know how to play by reading sheet music, others [like myself] are self-taught and “feel” the groove and just roll with it. Eventually the groove either works itself out or it doesn’t.
When fully “in the zone” I have no cognizance of time while playing and have no idea how long we played until after we quit and take a break. I often feel a deep peace afterwards. Sometimes we have a small audience and they usually comment on how intense the playing was and or how we looked “out there” for the duration of the session. Our improv time is usually after playing normal songs and or during a long break from traditional performance.
Looking back, of course some of these improv sessions or musical journeys are more satisfying than others. By that I mean that we connected at some point in the journey and with eyes closed (and acute listening) we were able to put it on auto-pilot and or play what some would call “free jazz” perhaps.
Jazz has historically been the obvious genre or style that one would improvise but you can do this with any style or musical setting if the participants are willing to set aside any rules they were taught. If you are actively thinking about the next drum fill or guitar run then that most certainly isn’t IT. If you are merely playing tried and true parts over and over, then that ain’t IT either my friend. Everyone has their repertoire or bag of tricks that they use as needed. It’s when you play something far beyond your ability and [later] astonish yourself and or when you stop at a certain section and “play” nothing at all. The silence between the notes is liberation. Without space there would be no flow. It’s all about the interludes…
On a side note:
Normally when I play drums I always “hear” or see the next drum part or fill in my head (or mind’s eye) seconds before I play or execute it. I have no idea why and or where this comes from, it’s just happens and always has! When fully “in the zone” there is no thinking involved, just fluid body movements. You could say I am at One with the drums.
Without further ado I would like to present a partial transcript of a great Ted Talk video that I randomly stumbled upon. I had sort of a “ah-a” moment while watching as the presenter –Jojo Mayer is kind of hitting upon my topic and interestingly enough describing non-dual awareness [the space between zero and one] without even knowing it. The parallels in non-duality and self-inquiry are uncanny. Even some of the lingo he uses is very similar to teachers or modern-day authors/bloggers who give pointers or describe the indescribable. I am a huge fan of Ted Talks and I’ve watched quite a few of their offerings, but never one with a drummer as presenter though!
Nonetheless, I thought his (obviously improvised) presentation was pretty cool and decided to feature it here on NDA. By the way, yes his drumming chops are pretty intense and what he is doing is not easy peeps. I’m also a fan of drum n’ bass music and was an avid listener, buyer and DJ for this movement in the 90’s as well.
Feel free to read the following text and watch the video or just watch the video, I transcribed most of it for those readers (most I am sure) who do not play drums and or might not fully understand what he is doing and or what he is talking about with regards to electronic music or modern digital studio production.
Jojo will give a brief synopsis on the emergence of rhythm culture and its relationship to technology and communication in the western world. In regards to this, he shares his thoughts on interacting with digital culture and cross examines the relevance of a human performance in the digital age.
Up until the 20th century, drums didn’t have a central function in Western music.
As soon as the frantic rhythms of industrial machinery and urban life itself were introduced, drums and rhythm went from the fringe to the core of Western culture. The catalyst for that were mainly three new technologies.
- The drum set
- Jazz music
- The ability to record sounds
And when those three new technologies came together, they set off this big bang of a [rhythm] universe that kind of expanded the tribe to the entire century.
Decades after the introduction of audio recording, digital technology became the next big revolution in music.
Drum machines, sequencers and computers became a part of my musical vocabulary. Although those new tools changed the landscape of how we produce music and offered a lot of possibilities, still to this date, we cannot replicate the subtle nuances of an acoustic instrument or human performance with those digital tools.
As a way of dealing with those limitations, Electronic music somehow embraced the limitation of electronic synthesized sound and made it a central doctrine of the colloquial expression, so drum computers became a simplified abstraction of a real drummer. So in a way they created a new, but genuine expression with a fake. Which is kind of what art is all about.
In the early 90’s something happened that changed my life as an artist but especially as a drummer when I came across the mind-boggling rhythms of a new electronic sub-genre called jungle and drum n’ bass. Those beats were so radically different and new [understand] that they were no longer abstractions of a real drummer but that they came purely out of the syntax of drum machine programming.
So at that point the vocabulary of drum machine programming had surpassed the vocabulary of real drummers to articulate and express the digital age that had arrived.
At that point I became completely obsessed with the idea to reverse engineer those electronic drum beats and play live on an acoustic instrument. Mainly I did it because I loved those beats so much, that I was trying to find an opportunity to kind of’ consume them physically. So, in the process I became something like a musical John Henry.
“Because I was trying to replicate a machine that could perform statistical density and accuracy, I was just simply beyond my human capabilities. In other words, to play this music is very difficult!” ~JM
In the process of acquiring the idiosyncrasies of drum machine programming I constantly got confronted with my human limitations. But…in the process, I managed to acquire enough technical understanding or maybe even more important…stylistical abstraction that I could create the illusion that I could play like a machine. So actually I also really created a real expression with a fake, just the other way around this time.
When I passed this threshold something interesting happened. The human element that was restricting me actually liberated me. I could add the element of my emotionality and spontaneity to that genre.
When I first performed this to an audience live (with my band NERVE) the response was quite intense. I had an idea that I was onto something. Eventually I figured that something was pointing to the difference in the creative process between programming an automated musical performance or performing music live.
To a big extent, electronic music is still a pre-meditated medium while playing music happens in real-time. And when it comes to playing music, improvisation has always been the most fascinating aspect to me as a performer and the most rewarding one too. Improvisation kind of’ became the key for my current conclusion so to speak.
Drum machines and computers and all digital media are binary machines or systems, which means they compute tasks by assigning between a yes and no. In digital language that relates to zeros and ones.
When we program an electronic piece of music or automated piece of music then we also enter into a decision-making process, but the speed of those decisions does not really have an outcome of the quality of the final product. It’s just the faster we can make those decisions, the more empowered we feel and the more fun it is to do it. The more “in the flow” it is, that’s the word.
When we play music in real-time (especially when we improvise) that same decision-making process gets condensed to fractions of seconds, and to a degree to where we can no longer compute decisions anymore.
When that happens, when enter that magical zone, [pause] which probably could best be described as [pause] an OBE (out-of-body experience). That’s a place where it’s possible to surrender our attentions and let intuition take over.
This is a “zone” where it goes beyond yes or no. This is really a place that exams that distance between zero and one. Which is a zone that a machine cannot compute…[pause] yet.
While we live in a world where digital technology is driving our evolution, reverse engineering digital culture has pointed my attention to the difference between zero and one, or the distance between zero and one, which so far has gotten me the closest to comprehend the in explainable source of my creativity and human existence.
And all of this is what I am hoping to communicate when I perform this short improvisation for you, which is based on digital culture (skip to 12:45 if you just want to listen to the improvisation)
Some interesting takeaways
- At one point when the first apes (or monkeys) began beating on their chest, they did it because they wanted to communicate something.
- There is a theory that humans started to communicate with speech around the same time they started playing the drums.
- The first drum rhythms were probably an assimilation of speech patterns
- Since the amplitude of the drums could reach long distances, it became one of the first telecommunication devices.
- The reason we use drums or what we use it for is cultural esthetics and values.
- A drum beat can build; but it can also destroy
Jojo Mayer, drummer
Growing up in the influence of a musical environment, Jojo picked up the drumsticks at age 2, and learned to play the drums autodidactic.
His pioneering work of reverse engineering programmed electronic music in real-time with his band NERVE and his international bestselling drumming tutorial “secret weapons for the modern drummer” established him as one of the leading voices in the drumming world today.
Besides his work as a musician, he has also contributed award-winning product design for major drum companies. Jojo Mayer lives in New York City and his touring schedule continues to take him to all five continents.
In the spirit of ideas worth spreading, TEDx is a program of local, self-organized events that bring people together to share a TED-like experience. At a TEDx event, TEDTalks video and live speakers combine to spark deep discussion and connection in a small group. These local, self-organized events are branded TEDx, where x = independently organized TED event. The TED Conference provides general guidance for the TEDx program, but individual TEDx events are self-organized.