Thoughts on the Way

Writings by composer and pianist Mark Isaacs

Category: Music general

You need a very special drummer for it to sound better than no drums

Western non-classical music has evolved to the point where a composite instrument called a drum kit (or set) consisting of several drums and several cymbals of varying sizes is played continuously with four limbs throughout the entire rendition of any given piece (with occasional brief exceptions).

This is quite unusual in the history of music across all cultures. The density of a multi-drum/cymbal set-up and the unique application of four limbs using pedal mechanisms for the feet is equivalent to at least two instrumentalists playing drums with hands. The cymbals would be another player. Leaving aside the special case of actual music for drums alone this use of a drumset in a wider instrumental ensemble is an unusual instrumental balance. Continuous percussion in folkloric musics might come from a single tambourine or hand drum playing with several melodic instruments rather than what amounts to maybe the density of three traditional percussionists pitted against an equivalent amount of melodic instruments. Moreover there is the singularity of the very assumption of the drumset’s necessary constancy in the foreground of the music. Traditional folk musics and non-Western classical traditions like Indian and Arabic musics feature long passages without drums or if the drumming is continuous it doesn’t necessarily have the same degree of constant primacy that it so often does in jazz, rock and related forms. And of course in Western classical music drumming and cymbals are used only very occasionally for punctuation.

Now, the situation with drums as we now know them is all very well and I in no way intend to make a case that it should be any other way in non-classical Western music. But what is the musical purpose of this unusual case of the multiple drums + cymbals playing such a big role all the time?

Drummers need to justify their existence far more. It’s not at all the case that “swingin’ or groovin’” music needs drums inherently. A master folkloric player will groove like crazy without drums. Same for the unstoppable swing of a sublime jazz musician playing alone or indeed the rhythmic propulsion of a great country guitar picker. A certain kind of classical player – I’m thinking of someone like Glenn Gould – can also groove palpably without drums. Orchestras (really good ones) might get you on your feet dancing in certain passages with no more than an odd timpani bump, or not even that.

Clearly an accomplished musician doesn’t (or shouldn’t) need a drummer to keep time for them or to create a groove that they themselves are apparently incapable of generating. Why would it be that way other than lack of skill? All instruments are percussion instruments. Chick Corea once remarked that he liked to approach the piano as if he were a drummer with 88 drums and 10 drumsticks at his disposal. Even a voice can be percussive. So really – as is the case with every other instrument – the drums should bring something truly special of its own beyond the rhythmic dimension that all instruments contribute to anyway.

What distinguishes the master drummers that I know of is that they make sure they are really adding to the music something that it would lack without them. And so mere timekeeping is no more important to them than it is to any player. They play in time and share in the groove along with everyone else, no more, no less. But when music without a drummer is capable of grooving of its own accord if we’re going to have drums all the time it behoves the drummer not to forget that along with everyone else they must make very sure they are at all times adding something of unique value to the timbre, orchestration, counterpoint, dynamics and all the other spectra of the music. And since their instrument can so easily dominate adversely, they of all people need to pay extra special attention to balance.

Let’s strive to be sure the music really is better by virtue of what the drums are playing as it clearly is when Tony Williams – or any other master – plays. Too often the reverse holds, with a bombastic, gormless drummer wringing all the dynamics out of the music, puncturing a carefully spun fabric with boorish ejaculations and drowning out or indeed completely destroying the subtleties, careful pacing and shadings of other players to whom they just can’t be bothered to pay deep attention since the art of accompanying largely evades them. When this lamentable situation is in play the drumming is so far from being special that the music really would sound better without it.

Good Friday, 2009

Musicians do different things – end of story

This article is also published in Resonate magazine

I have what are, on the face of it, some odd experiences regarding genre labels. A few recent examples: I have never argued with the proposition that my CD Resurgence is a jazz recording. Yet I accepted an award at the Classical Music Awards for ‘Instrumental Work of the Year’ for the CD’s opening track Walk a Golden Mile.

A couple of days ago I did a 25-minute free improvisation at the Sydney Opera House as part of the Jazz:Now Festival. Enjoying a new Steinway concert grand, I made a whole bunch of contrasting sounds, damping strings etc. All very abstract and sounding like modernist concert piano music. Yet it seemed readily accepted under the jazz umbrella.

Perhaps one of the keys is process rather than resulting soundworld. Walk a Golden Mile is carefully scored, in much the same way as I would write a concert work. There are no improvised ‘solos’, though accompanying parts are improvised. I constructed a canon between the sax and guitar. It’s a piece generated by a written text throughout, much more so than in a head/solos jazz chart.

And unlike modernist, classical, notated piano music, the solo Opera House performance was, after all, improvised. So, in a way, it’s possible for what sounds like one genre to have more in common with the other one in its generation.

But in the end it seems to me that it is an incidental choice to focus on the differences between genres as being intrinsic rather than of passing interest to note. Of course playing jazz is very different from playing classical repertoire. But playing Bach is very different from playing John Cage. And Dixieland jazz is very different from free jazz. There are as many differences within each genre as between them. Musicians do different things. End of story.

I work with the skill set I have, and with my musical interests. It seems natural to me to want to write ‘classical’ concert works, play jazz, play classical repertoire, try to write some pop tunes and retain an interest in music for film/tv/theatre/musical theatre. As a Western musician growing up in this time, it seems obvious to aspire to do that much at least, yet it’s often regarded as exceptionally diverse. Others choose to master non-Western traditions or play multiple instruments. I’m not as versatile or exceptional as that.

In terms of career development, I’m sure my apparent diversity tends to slow things down. In the classical world, I am thought of as a jazz musician. In the jazz world, as a classical musician. I feel I get a bit of the outsider’s cold-shouldering in both camps. There still seems to be a wall between the two and people are surprised that I can pass back and forth through it again and again as I show up with the perhaps faintly offensive odour of what lies on the other side. I’m not aware of a wall at all. I’m still the 5-year old who heard it as all music, the differences being interesting and necessary to the process of creating it but not at all the main game. In what I would call the “main game” there are no differences. Sound is affective or it is not. The musician is either inspired or not. In trying to interrogate what lies behind those possible outcomes the lessons I learn are identical and precisely applicable regardless of the genre. As an audience member, it’s no different at the other end. Genres are cosmetic. A cut of suit, hairstyle or a bit of a lip-gloss; it all helps with the presentation and stamps in some individuality. But let’s meet the person.

Five 2010 highlights

This article is also published at

  1. This year I got to know some more of the music of Australian pianist/composer/improviser Tim Stevens a little better through some disks that he sent me, including a preview hot off the press of his soon-to-be-released album Scare Quotes. I think Tim’s music is special in a singular way; he has a deep gift for real substance and integrity and creates magical, beautiful shapes in his writing. It’s often all so devotional in its content and feeling. When the trio does free improvisations they’re remarkable essays in economy and integrity. I like that Scare Quotes brings both Tim’s tunes and the trio’s extemporisations together in the one document.
  2. I attended two concerts by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and these made the world look a very different colour. Sometimes you’re just hearing the very best on all levels that human beings are capable of, such as their reading of Mahler Symphony No. 1. Simon Rattle is an extraordinary conductor; often he stops beating overtly for a bit and just lets them play giving the odd linking gesture. I understand that performances of the same piece are significantly different from night to night and from second to second with that band. It’s a myth that classical players don’t improvise just because the notes are the same every time! Whoever imagined music was just about notes? In jazz there’s often pretence toward improvisation, where in reality generic licks or templates are being strung together. It’s a rare ensemble or individual – whether it’s in classical or jazz – that does truly improvise.
  3. I got to know more of the music of William Walton this year, like his Five Bagatelles for guitar solo and his First Symphony (I’ve been into the Second Symphony since I was a kid). It’s part of an ongoing love affair with British composers. I don’t have “favourite composers” but Walton is someone with whom I identify probably more than any other (it kills me that he died as late as 1983 and that in theory I could have met him when I was a young adult). I love the deep, unceasing craft of it all (not least the stunning orchestration) and its melodicism and lyricism that burrows deeply into your soul. It’s so obvious that he enjoyed jazz, even though you don’t hear “jazz” elements so much as just great added-note harmony and suave rhythms. He was/is definitely under-appreciated and any artist who sometimes feels the same (and who doesn’t sometimes?) can take solace that one so mighty was not valued as he might have been even by his own countrymen.
  4. The music of guitarist Allan Holdsworth is an absolute treasure trove. I’ve been listening more to him and discussing the intimate details of his voicings and lines with James Muller. James truly believes Holdsworth is a musician of the stature of Coltrane, and I think there’s a pretty sound case for that. The sheer exhilaration of his inventive sweeps and the bitter-sweet, dark poignancy with which he leavens it all makes me soar above the clouds, as does Muller himself.
  5. Speaking of James Muller, an obvious highlight was being in the studio for two days with James, Matt Keegan, Brett Hirst and Tim Firth recording the new Resurgence band album Aurora. What a band to write for and play in! The sessions were so relaxed and chilled even as we tacked the most intense and difficult music. Recording at Studios 301 is the way recording should be and engineer Richard Lush made it all sound beautiful despite having to be in a wheelchair – he was only just out of rehab after a mysterious spinal illness. I got to live at the studio apartment during the recording and mixing, we brought in a Steinway concert grand and I ended up being the one taking the project through to its release in early December on my own label.

For the Record

I’m happy to have been asked to write of the one CD I “could not live without”. At the moment that honour goes to a Decca recording of Sibelius’ Symphony No. 7 along with his great tone poem Tapiola that was recorded in London March 1982 by the Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy.

The pairing of these two works in this 30-year old recording is perfect. The 7th symphony – Sibelius’s last –  is an extraordinary structure, a symphony in just one movement completed in 1924. Two years later Sibelius wrote Tapiola which could in some ways be thought of as his 8th symphony, also in one movement (his actual 8th symphony was never released to the world and in fact the composer – in perhaps the greatest known act of vandalism in Western art – threw the score into the fire).

In these late works to my mind Sibelius moves away from portraying the bustle of human affairs to paint a portrait of organic life, or matter itself. This is especially so in Tapiola named after Tapio, the forest spirit of Finnish legend. Here I find Sibelius’s symphonic writing in polar opposite to Mahler’s whose symphonies seem to be operas for orchestra, their labyrinthine plots painting the comings and goings, agonies and triumphs of their human characters (with the central character often being Mahler himself, or so it seems). In Tapiola, all the human beings have exited stage left. Life itself – as expressed through the earth or indeed the cosmos from which we all arose – seems to be the very sinews of this music. It is something of a miracle.

The performances too are magisterial. I’ve heard quite a few versions of Tapiola and this is my favourite. One can see why Christopher Nupen, the UK film-maker who made a series of extraordinary films for television about classical music, chose Vladimir Ashkenazy to conduct the musical excerpts for his two inspiring films about Sibelius. Ashkenazy’s profound sensitivity and control of this magnificent orchestra can be heard in every richly-wrought bar. Of course Sydney’s audiences and orchestra have been fully in such an embrace for some years now.

If I may be permitted a personal anecdote, I have been immeasurably sustained by the generous interest Maestro Ashkenazy has recently shown in my compositions. To meet with him and play for him as I have done is a musician’s dream. A couple of weeks ago I was driving and listening to the very CD I have been writing about here, part of the immersion in preparation for writing my own first symphony to be premiered by the QSO next year. I have a hands-free system in my car for my phone, which automatically fades out the music I am listening to before putting an incoming call through to the speakers. My enjoyment of these Sibelius works had already been interrupted by two calls. When the music started to fade for the third time in my exasperation I said aloud “Can’t I please just listen to Ashkenazy in peace?” upon which I heard the warmly-delivered words “Hello, this is Ashkenazy”.

Does Perfect Pitch really exist?

Perfect pitch really does exist but it is ultimately a curiosity – and a great party trick. As far as musical development goes, excellent relative pitch (let’s say “perfect relative pitch”) offers all that perfect pitch does as a useful item in the toolbox of musicianship. I wouldn’t put any real store at all on whether a musician has perfect pitch or not.

Perfect pitch seems to be a gift. I have never met a musician who claims to have acquired it by stealth in its fullest form, though I know people who have learnt one or two notes by rote. I’m not sure if great relative pitch is also something that appears as a gift, but it can certainly be acquired, and really should be. Perhaps the best thing about the gift of perfect pitch is that it spares you having to acquire really good relative pitch. Like any gift, it’s just one of a possible package of inbuilt musical aptitudes. My daughter is gifted with a rock-steady rhythmic feel that manifested precociously early and without any effort on her part at all. Despite my pitch gift, I lacked that one being bestowed on me freely; I’ve had to work hard on my time and continue to do so.

Because it generally appears so early (as it did in my case) it would seem that one is born with it. However, until one learns the names of the notes there is no way of demonstrating the gift. After I’d had a few piano lessons at the age of five, one night my mother was singing me a lullaby as she regularly did. When she finished the song, I told her the names of the last few notes she had sung. My father checked at the piano on a whim, and was astonished that I was right. He spent the next hour testing me and found he couldn’t fool me.

As a party-trick I’ve had fun with the acute form in which I have it, which enables me to generally identify all the notes in the weirdest chord that someone can come up with on the piano. I like to play back the exact ring-tone from the stage when someone thoughtlessly leaves their mobile phone on at a gig. All this gives the kind of satisfaction gained by someone who does terrific card tricks, or tells jokes excellently. The small pleasures of life.

It’s occasionally been useful in practical ways too. I bought an electric shaver and immediately regretted I didn’t buy the next model up, which had a meter that told you how much charge was left. I realised this feature would have been useful when packing for a short tour, in order to decide whether I’d need to take the charger or not. But I soon learned I didn’t need the meter, as the motor hum dropped in pitch as the charge wore out so I just learned the pitches and could tell from those how much charge was left.

Apart from my own laziness at the prospect of having to practice two instruments, perfect pitch was the reason I gave up the clarinet after a short spell in my early teens. At the very first lesson, I was shown the fingering for C, blew it and immediately apologised for the B flat that came out. I could never reconcile playing music that was written on the page in a different key than it was sounding. I guess I could have learned the kind of inbuilt transposition that I later did as an orchestrator, where I’d hear the French Horn part at pitch and transpose it up a fifth on the fly as I wrote it down. I could accept that chore as a writer but not as a player! In choirs I was in trouble if the piece was transposed, as my sight singing involved seeing a note and singing it. Good sight-singers without perfect pitch, who simply sang the intervals, were not bothered by transposition of course. So it can certainly be a liability.

As a very young musician doing a variety of gigs, I once agreed to play standards at a private party. The owner had the piano tuned, but as is often the case with very old upright pianos, bringing it right up to pitch would be too much strain on the frame. So the piano was in tune within itself, but a semitone down. A “piano in B”, as it were! After a few minutes attempting to play I had to abandon the gig. Playing by ear, I’d respond to what I heard and end up in a sonic hall of mirrors. To put it in the simplest case scenario of dominant and tonic, say my fingers would go to G7. I’d hear F#7 so my fingers would then in response go to the resolution of B major. But that would sound as B flat major! So, intending play G7 to C I’d end up with F#7 to B flat. This was compounded with more complex harmonic relationships. I just could not play that piano in any remotely coherent way and was almost physically nauseous trying.

It should be added that perfect pitch is not really “perfect”. Most people I know who have it round things up or down subconsciously to the nearest semitone. So microtonal gradations may or may not be registered. With turntables that ran at erratic speeds, I found that if the pitch was dead centre between two semitones, I could round it either way, and pretty much at will so that for example I could hear a piece in E major and then suddenly hear it in F. It would be like those optical tricks where a drawing can be seen two different ways, and you can flip which one you see wilfully.

Now that I am nearly 50 I am finding that my “perfect” pitch is drifting. I can sometimes be a full semitone out with a pitch that is actually accurate. This is widely reported as a common experience for the perfect pitch brigade with advancing age, but it’s very unsettling. Never mind – I may have to relinquish the smart-ass party tricks, but my time feel is heaps better!