Saturday, January 5, 2013

White Man Group

"In order to break the rules, you have to know the rules" - Dr. Jonathan Wacker

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away Dr. Wacker was my percussion instructor and music theory professor. The year was 1993, the place was Armstrong State College (they've since gotten an upgrade to "Armstrong Atlantic State University").

The thing about being 17, straight out of high school and wanting to go to college for music, is that it's a frustrating experience. Especially in that era, because there wasn't an internet and Savannah, GA was a backwater. I knew there was exciting new music out there in the world, and I wanted to be in it. I wanted to be playing it, I wanted to be writing it, and I had literally no idea there were actual colleges for that stuff that I could get into. So I was at a glorified community college, stuck in the "music education" curriculum,  and being that I didn't want to be a vocalist (at that time) or an elementary school music teacher, it didn't take me long to wash out.

I was in it for the art, man ... and my 17 year old eyes just couldn't see it happening there.

Dr. Wacker was a quotable dude. I don't know if he originated that turn of phrase or not, but in my mind I'll always remember him dropping that one on me in freshman music theory. I was all like "where's the cool shit? ... and why do I have to learn about writing 4 note chorales?"

Well here I am like 20 years later, and the irony, she is thick. Read on, and you'll find out why.

So the track you are listening to, is built entirely around a thing I encountered by accident, called boomwhackers. These are typically used as instructional aids for ... you guessed it ... elementary music education. It was late Thursday night, The Thumbless Hitchhikers had just finished packing up after an epic jam session and the hang was in full effect.

Bryan (our drummer) leaves for a minute and comes back to the shed with an armload of these colored tubes and hands everyone two of them. What happened next was actually pretty damn magical: a spontaneous poly-rhythmic eruption of jam, the likes of which were stylistically from another planet compared to what we usually play. The Hitchhikers are a blues jam band for chrissakes, but here we are sounding for all the world, like a tiny Blue Man Group, and with zero practice!

It just happened out of nowhere, the funk descended upon the shed, and as quickly as it started ... it was all over maybe a half hour later, but I was stoked. I encountered something that set my mind on fire: native creativity

I haven't felt that in a very long time, and what I mean by that is that I didn't have to think about it at all. There were no wrong notes to play, and if you could feel the rhythm, you didn't have to think about that too hard either. It created a sort of direct, unfiltered connection to the soul.

I think Bryan could tell my gears were turning, because he insisted that I borrow his boomwhackers and take them back to my studio. "My kids never play with them anyhow", he said. So in the morning, on my last remaining day of vacation, I sent the kids off to school, got a cup of coffee and headed up to my attic studio. This track literally started with plugging in some microphones hitting record and just seeing what sort of sounds came out. There's not a single part on this that I played more than once (though as you can tell there are plenty of track overdubs).

It really all comes back to the elegant simplicity of the boomwhackers. There are only 6 of them (a pentatonic scale plus an octave), and they are as intuitive as a hammer: you hit them on something and they make a noise.

Put a different way: reducing your options clears the way to creativity

This is an oft-touted cliche in the world of music production, but until now I never really had the understanding. These days, those of us who are into this sort of thing like to sit down in front of our computers, fire up our DAW of choice and start fiddling.

If someone had released a "boomwhackers" software synth, I'd have downloaded it, and then spent the morning dorking around with the parameters ... choosing the material, the resonance dampening, the scale, the octave, the shape, etc. As it was, there were 6 choices, and therefore I had a 1 in 6 chance of every decision being a keeper. Which is why I finished this entire track before lunch yesterday.

Props to Dr. Wacker for planting the seed of this knowledge in my brain 20 years ago. Cool insight, dude.