I have had an on-off relationship with time over the years. When I started playing drums the main role that was expected was to be able to ‘play time’.
That could mean play in time (metronomic) or accompany musicians with their interpretations of time. My first paid job was in a duo at a working men’s club, organ and drums accompanying three or four different acts on Saturday nights, Sunday lunchtimes and evening sessions. Ten to twelve musicians each weekend, each with different senses of time plus the organist as well. Sometimes they provided music but mostly I accompanied by jotting down cues and changes on a pad of paper in the ‘talk through’ and listening very carefully during the performance.
Many of these acts had a fluid interpretation of time as they were singing, and as accompanists we followed, apart from during the last set of each session which was for dancing and a more metronomic approach was required. Time was also full during these weekends with the paper round to fit in on Sunday morning that took far longer than the same round in the week because of the weight of carrying all the Sunday supplements. No chance of a Sunday dinner as that was time to be at the club but it was worth it for the experience of listening and learning how to sympathetically accompany, an essential skill in being a percussionist. The money was also very useful as I was saving up and buying instruments as quickly as I could. (It took me four years to buy the separate drums, cymbals and hardware that became my first set of drums, all different makes and finishes, chosen for their sound qualities.)
As recording technology has developed and for a time the ‘click track’ became the norm there was a period of learning how to work with the clicks and subsequently how to work with the click to give the music some life (or human feel) to it. This period was superseded by digital technology with the feeless ‘grid’ and ‘snap to’ functions, a period when the software offered so much but was not used to it’s full advantage due to a lack of time play by operators. The results were often overproduced, very accurately timed performances with a machinelike quality.
One of the most exciting things about music is the interpretation by performers and conductors and this flexibility of approach was subsumed by technology for a time although now it is starting to be more appreciated in all styles of music. The many Italian terms relating to tempos that I learnt during my early musical education were not defined in terms of beats per minute (BPM) but loosely as ‘slow’, ‘walking pace’, ‘fast’, ‘faster’… which can all be interpreted in a number of ways.
My first compositions were very influenced (sometimes constrained) by tempo and ‘groove’ as well as duration but now these elements are thought about but are not the dominant consideration during the creation of the music. During the period that drummer Dave Tyas and I promoted the band Legends I became interested in pushing the players to their limits and the tempo of the ‘four in a bar’ ‘walking bass’ of Takin’ Tubs became faster and faster at each performance. The first rehearsals were performed at 220 BPM and a few months later, on the gigs, we were performing the music at 300+ BPM and I never remember it falling apart during the evenings.
The final piece I am working on for my doctoral study has no set duration, the start and finish points can be chosen by the performers, audience or even left to chance. The way the composition is scored gives the opportunity for each performance to be unique or a one off, intrigued? I hope you will be and I hope I can manage my time to complete the music sometime soon even with all the demands on my time.
Time (of course) is continuing and will be revisited.