Monday, June 1, 2009

A drummer's confessions

One of my earliest musical memories: in high school in a small town in upstate New York, the local variety store had a small area up front reserved for records, where a tenth grader, already with a penchant for the unusual, finds a striking album cover, a red face with wide eyes and very white teeth, mouth wide open, looking behind in fear, much more effective on the large 12-inch LP cover than its reduction to CD. There began my long fascination with King Crimson. Five albums over the next five years with five different lineups, save for the guitarist Robert Fripp, brought them to a core group whose album Larks' Tongues in Aspic remains one of the rock pinnacles. The drummer on this celebrated album, Bill Bruford, entered my awareness for the first time (I was happily oblivious to his earlier group Yes). Bruford remained with the mighty Crim through the three albums from the mid-1970s, then three terrific albums in the early 1980s, and even into the groups first incarnation in the 1990s. In between Crimson resurrections, he had solo rock albums, then ventured into jazz with his group Earthworks, which itself made ten albums with various lineups over the better part of two decades. I counted on Bruford to make quality music, no matter the surroundings, and followed him to unknown albums whose only recommendation was his presence.

So it was with some sadness that I read of his retirement earlier this year. But after all, he will turn 60 in 2009, which is a fine retirement age, and I certainly know from experience that at a certain age the hands stop doing what the mind tells them to do. But Bruford, whose intelligence has manifested itself in interviews as well as his music, has published his autobiography, loosely in the form of a FAQ, as entertaining and frank a view of a professional popular musician as I've ever read. Bruford has had the good fortune to participate in full-time groups and one-off sessions in both rock and jazz, and his observations on the differences are astute, and not especially flattering to the rockers. But he also provides unusual illumination on the difficulties of maintaining a personal life (he remains married his adolescent sweetheart) and the trivial minutiae of maintaining a stable income as an independent creative performer.

Bruford is unafraid to examine his professional life in light of cultural studies scholars, from sociologists Simon Frith and Howard S. Becker to pop music theorist Richard Middleton. He even cites Chris Cutler, the drummer and theorist from Henry Cow who created a model of self-sustaining independent music with Recommended Records in the 1970s, and whose career makes an interesting parallel with Bruford's. Although he finally returned to an all-acoustic kit in the later Earthworks, in the 1980s King Crimson Bruford was virtually synonymous with Simmons electronic drums, and he considers his experience with them in light of Frith's work on storage and retrieval technologies. The inevitable mismatch between musician and audience appreciation of the musician's efforts becomes a validation of Becker's Outsider, participating in an insular community with loyalty only to other musicians (except when the band is falling apart).

Many of Bruford's admirers will doubtless come to this book seeking gossip on the powerhouse rock groups in which he served, Yes and King Crimson. While there's a bit of that, the autobiography isn't the National ProgRock Enquirer, and gossip mongers may be disappointed. (An excellent source for King Crimson history is Eric Tamm's monograph on Robert Fripp.) Much of the book is about the distinctly unglamorous work to maintain equilibrium for his chosen specialization, which is performing challenging, forward directed music in a group for a live audience. As such, his music is diametrically opposed to my own (solo, static, electroacoustic music created alone in my studio), but Bruford's insights about the frustrations and incentives to make music are an articulate comparison to Susan Tomes' book about performing classical chamber music.

1 comment:

icastico said...

Bruford's work, particularly with Crimson, has always been one of the biggest inspirations for me as a drummer. I'll have to try and track this book down.

I just found your blog. Looks like great stuff. You (and your readers) may enjoy some of the stuff I've got posted over at my place.