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Questionnaire: Andrew Drury (2007)

November 2, 2010

1. Have you got any formal musical training, and what do you draw from it now?

I studied drum set first with Dave Coleman Sr. in Seattle (1979-82) and then with Ed Blackwell in Connecticut (1983-86, 87-88), plus one time lessons with Steve McCraven, Alan Dawson, and Aaron Alexander. I am also a composer, but in this area I am entirely self-taught.
The drum lessons feel to me as deeply personal interactions. I would characterize them as “informal musical training,” even though they were very rigorous, technical, and sometimes took place in the shadows of established cultural institutions.  I always had the sense that my drum lessons were modeled on ancient pedagogical practices in which elders transmit culture to younger people.  I imagined, since I was learning jazz, that I was receiving African musical knowledge that had been developed and refined over millennia in African villages.  This sense of lineage is very important to me and provides me with a sense of identity as a person and as an artist.
My relationship with the drum set and percussion has been going on for over 30 years, so what I have learned through studies and playing I have embodied, which is to say it is deep in my imagination and physiology.  It would be impossible for me at this point to play without reference to this experience, though interesting to try to play around it.
My work in free improvisation, however, has led me increasingly to eschew rhythm, meter, drum sticks, and loudness—which is to say, a lot of my “formal musical training.”  I feel that what I draw from in these situations is a fluency with manipulating percussion objects, a foundation of musicality that exists below the specifics of drumming.  In addition to beats and patterns, drumming is very much about managing the dynamics and energy of the group, and that’s where a lot of my focus goes now.  The basics of musical training help  me operate on these other levels, but I think it was the additional thing of going beyond that and having my own musical experiences outside of training situations that  is most significant.
A lot of non-musical influences and training are relevant to anyone’s musical practice of course.  Studying poetry taught me about the love and discipline of craft, and about form and composition.  Growing up in the astonishing beauty of the landscapes and nature of the Pacific Northwestern region of the U.S. gave fuel and depth to my aesthetic desires.  Growing up around carpentry exposed me to an activist sensibility vis a vis materials—i.e. I observed from an early age that people make the things they need.  And also, because my experience working in construction was deadening and depressing to me in some ways it also motivated me to work in a field that I loved.  Being a father and a husband provides me with additional spirit and has helped me prioritize.

2. What kind of equipment/instrument do you use, and what is you relationship towards it? What do you think lies behind your choice of the equipment/instrument?

The situation plays a major role in determining what equipment I use.
In my work in free improvisation I usually use a floor tom and various objects which I place on or near the drum. By striking or bowing these objects (metal dust pan, china type cymbals, a sheet of thin aluminum flashing, a bronze gear, other small pieces of bronze or steel) vibrations are generated and the drum functions as a resonator that amplifies and filters the vibrations.  The filtering function of the drum can be altered by applying pressure to the drum head externally (by pressing objects against it) or internally (by blowing into the drum and tightening the drum head).  Sometimes I generate vibrations by acting directly upon the drum, e.g. by scraping or rubbing the drum head, or by hitting it with something. I also do a lot of blowing into drums, exploring the sounds of wind, exploring the potential of the drum as a wind instrument. I rarely, if ever, use drum sticks in this setting any more. I use chop sticks, shish kabob skewers, threaded rods, hands, and a bow mostly. I also rolled up paper, and other materials and percussion instruments.
For some of my improvisation work (usually in especially loud and/or more jazz-oriented contexts or an instrument provided by a venue) and in more conventional settings (jazz, pop, etc.) I use drum set, often with objects placed on the drums and cymbals. For most of my work in improvised music since 2002, even if I have chosen to use a drum set and conventional technique I still try to manipulate, deconstruct, and re-make the drum set sound.
To my ears the conventional drum set is too loud and resonant for many of the situations I play in. Also its sound refers too strongly to a tradition of drumming that I find distracting from the intent of this music. The sound has a lot of baggage—stylistic, historic… Music is very evocative and symbolic, and the conventional drum set sound conjures too many references to jazz, rock, and other aesthetics that put up barriers to perception both for the musician and the listener.
A word needs to be said about my relationship to material consumption, consumerism, and mass culture in the U.S. These relationships permeate my involvement with music and everything else in my life. Basically I hate shopping.  It bores me.  I don’t like most music stores because I hate commercial hype and the bullshit that comprises most of the information one encounters there, and in mass culture in general.
Also, to be brief, in my formative years the U.S. war in Vietnam was active, the 1960s sense of revolution and the possibility of a better (more green, more democratic) world seemed present.  Material consumption is a central problem of U.S. society and I understood that intuitively from a young age.  I tapped into the counterculture then, and it remains essential to me, necessary for survival in a system that is so powerful and dangerous.
From an early age I was aware that it wasn’t the equipment that attracted me to music, it was the near divine skill and imagination of great musicians.  The equipment was often very humble, which emphasized the genius and skill of the musician.  The humility and creativity embodied by the instrument can be a desirable thing itself, its own field of play.
Still, within a few years of beginning to play the drums I wanted to have my own drum set.  I bought one, from a music store, in 1979 when I was 14 after spending four hours a day all summer digging a room under my parents’ house with a pick, shovel, and wheelbarrow.  It’s basically the only drum set I’ve owned.  At the end of that summer when my mother and I walked into the music store in Seattle to buy a drum set, I picked the first one I saw inside the door without listening to it, knowing anything about it, or trying out other drum sets.  It just looked beautiful to me and I was overwhelmed by the spectacle of the music store and prospect of having to navigate all that and make a choice.  It was pure dumb luck that I picked a good one.
For a long time I was frustrated that my drums didn’t make the classic bebop drum sound, but I never was interested enough in shopping or equipment to try to get a different set.  I preferred to make do with what I had.  Lately, by putting objects on the drums and cymbals and by dealing with the drums in other ways, I’ve found a way with my drum set that feels great to me.  Also, I’ve just become so used to playing this particular instrument that I’m able to do a lot of things with it that I can’t necessarily do on others.

3. What is it that attracts you towards musical experimentation?

I have misgivings about experimentation and am not particularly attracted to it, though lately experimentation has occupied an important role in my work. Drumming is such an ancient and powerful human practice, who needs to experiment? Playing some of the simplest most primal shit can be deeply satisfying and among other things reaffirms my connection to thousands of years of humanity.
There’s often a trade off between experimentation and craft, and I think there’s a lot of value for improvisation in craft. What turns me on the most is seeing a good musician—good craft—someone working with an object with a nearly sublime level of sensitivity, openness, and ability. Someone working intimately and viscerally with an instrument to facilitate ecstatic states.  I think a lot of people get caught up in the fetishization of experimentation and technology.  It’s really boring to watch this happening on stage.
What I love and am attracted to is music—music that stimulates my imagination in some way, music that I consider “good.”  Which is ridiculously subjective. Sometimes this involves experimentation, and sometimes it does not.
I should say my identity as a drummer—as one who plays the drum set and extensions thereof, as one steeped in drum culture—is deeply important to me.  It is deeper than my attraction to any particular style or method of musical practice.  I knew from about the age of 13 that I loved drumming and that I wanted to do this more than anything else in the world.  Pretty much all of my life decisions since then have revolved around or involved drumming. At this point, drumming has shaped me. I feel I belong to a lineage of drumming knowledge and practice that goes back for millennia.
Necessity drove me to experimentation.
I had an epiphany in February, 2002 when playing in a loft in Vancouver, Canada, with the cellist Peggy Lee, saxophonist Wally Shoup, and drummer Dylan VanderSchyff. Peggy didn’t have a pick up—a situation that usually spells disaster for a cellist in a band with two drummers and a horn. I knew from prior experiences playing with cellists (Brent Arnold and Chris Hoffman) that conventional drum set technique is pretty much incompatible with unamplified cello. The drum set is simply too loud and cellists get buried. I had come from New York City to Vancouver to play with Peggy—5,000 kilometers—so the idea of burying her in my sound was pretty pointless and unacceptable. At the same time, I deeply respected the sound of cello and knew that when it is amplified, especially through a pickup, it loses a lot of its character and beauty. After many of these experiences it just seemed deeply unfair to the music, to cellists, and to drummers that cellists should have to sacrifice so much of their sound in order to play with me.
I had a notion that a skilled and intelligent musician should be able to find a way to make music in any situation, that I should be able to play with her and have a blast doing so, that a drum set could work with the cello. To me this meant exploring quiet sounds, sounds that exist below the minimum decibel threshold permitted by conventional drumming technique. I needed to abandon conventional technique and embark on a path of discovering and developing new techniques through which to express my musicality. It was a scary proposition but at that point I was ready to try it. And it worked. That path on which I committed my first steps that night in Vancouver has been a primary focus of my work ever since, and has greatly influenced (and helped!) my “conventional technique” playing too.
Changing gears a bit, there obviously are a lot of ways to experiment with music, or any other activity. It’s all up for grabs. It’s what you make of it.  What are the elements of musical performance with which one might experiment?  Sound, costume, light, body language, space, time, interaction with the audience, on and on. All the signifiers are there to be identified and manipulated.
In 1989, inspired by the “Mirror Displacements” project the visual artist Robert Smithson did in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, I began performing drum solos in deserts and other outdoor settings in the western U.S. I did 21 of these “Earth Solos” from 1989 to 1995.  How could I as a young European-American (white) artist who grew up in the rural, western U.S. be true to my experience and operate in an idiom created and thoroughly mastered by African-American artists from east of the great plains or from the big cities?   At that time I tried to address this by experimenting with the geography of jazz history, with the space (desert, wind, cow dung, and barbed wire as opposed to cool dark jazz club).
Experimentation is a way of keeping things fresh. It’s inevitable.

4. Why are you involved in improvisation, and how do you perceive it?

I’m not sure I can answer this.
Some of the deepest and most expressive experiences I’ve had in music have occurred while improvising. There’s no distance between the performer and the music. One faces the abyss with nothing other than oneself. I’m fascinated with the people I meet in improvisation. It’s cheaper and a lot more practical than composing, rehearsing, and paying people to play “my” music.  Improvisation is part of all the music I do. Life is improvisation.

5. How do you perceive the relation between planning and spontaneity in improvisation?

Planning is anathema. It is totally counterproductive. It blocks the flow and impedes the connection to an inner vital current of musical energy that is essential. I want to proceed from a place of unimpeded perception and mental clarity. I want to be present. I want to allow my intuition, instinct, and love of music to guide me.
What is planning though? One inevitably makes choices—what instrument to bring to the gig, who to play with, how to set up, how to dress, where to play, who one expects to be the audience, etc. etc. This is planning.
After I’m in the performance space and I have chosen what combination of instruments to use, and how to set up, I pretty much try to empty my mind of plans. That’s pretty much the extent of planning. The performance is about trusting the power of music and humans to be able to let go of everything conscious and operate on another level.
As I understand it and have received it through my teachers, role models, and peers, this approach is a descendent of the ecstatic experience of West African religions in which one prepares for the spirit to descend and possess oneself.  For me, since I don’t believe literally in Yoruba gods or anything quite like that, it means metaphorically to be taken over by something larger and deeper than exists in day to day life, to access and embody the divine and transformative power that all humans possess.

6. Do you “practise” for an improvisation, and what are your general thoughts on the idea of “practising” for improvisation?
When you improvise, do you use sounds that you’ve already “tried out”, and how much room is there for actual sound experimentation?

I don’t practice for an improvisation, I improvise.
My practicing focuses on connecting me with my instrument, sharpening my timing and execution, and making me feel loose and able to actualize my ideas. Of course this task is unending. There are some really tedious technical exercises I do, and I absolutely love doing them. And then I also just bash. I’m sure practicing releases endorphins too.
When I have a good practice session afterwards the world feels more right to me. I perceive my relationship to trees and buildings and things in a different more lucid way, a rhythmic way perhaps…the rhythms and forms created between my body and objects in space. This practice is never aimed at free, non-idiomatic improvising—I practice bebop, rock, beats and grooves from Brazil, the West Indies, funk… I try to do things I pick up from watching other drummers. Little of this enters my improvising in any literal way. But when I get around to performing, whether it’s improvisation or not, practicing makes me feel empowered in relation with my instrument.
Improvisation is largely about being with a specific group of people in a specific place at a specific time.  One practices—or prepares oneself—so one can be open, responsive, and able to be present.  I was fortunate to attend a workshop given by Tony Williams where he said (I think it’s a Zen proverb) “good luck comes to those who are prepared.”  So you prepare yourself in a general way to be aware and effective in any situation. If something fortuitous happens you have to be ready.

7. How do you evaluate an improvisation? What is it, according to you, that makes one improvisation better than another?

Evaluation of all music, whether improvised or not, is very subjective and changes with time. I don’t hold to or espouse a single method or set of evaluative standards. I have several ways of thinking about improvisations and these can disagree, contradict one another, and that’s fine.
That said, my intuitive sense of the music while it is being made and just after is certainly significant. And, on the other hand, often I’ll listen to a recording days or months later and hear the music in a very different way than I did performing.

8. When you are recording for a release, does the awareness of being recorded influence your playing, and in what way?

Since I record a lot of my performances, and record a lot of the sessions at my house, I’ve gotten pretty comfortable with recording. Often I forget about the mic. From some of my first experiences in a studio I realized that if I got uptight about the clock or other factors extraneous to the music (which I saw other people doing) it would kill the vibe.
One has to accept that a studio recording is its own thing, that your expectations for it to be anything other than what it is will be disappointed, that things happen there that can’t happen in other settings and vice versa.  I have to be able to allow myself to get silly and take risks and mess around, and trust my musicality and my skill.  Well that’s the ideal and of course I’m far from perfect, but that’s pretty much where I’m coming from.

 

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