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Drumming and Composition

As you may or may not know, I am in the middle of writing my next cd. This blog is really meant to give you an idea of what i think about the tasks involved in the process of writing and my own personal view on composition, from the standpoint of being a drummer.

Every so often my drumming takes a back seat to composition. Whether its writing for my own project or for other people’s. Composition is always a challenge for me because, to be honest I would rather be playing live. Playing live means you are with people…creating on the spot, interacting with other musicians on the instrument you love most, Drums. But writing requires a different headspace. One that you have to build chops for. Just as we did in drumming. Writing requires many hours of solitude and concentration. Like practicing drums, but different because practicing doesn’t necessarily involve creativity. And you are in front of a desk and computer or piece of paper. The last writing session for “Inner Clock 2” really was draining. It took almost 8 months to write all that material. I had nearly 50 tunes and had to narrow it down to 25 for the project. A common thing in such a huge production.
Of course, it’s almost a privilege to be able to sit and write for that long and I appreciate it. Still i find the process can be gut wrenching.

There are a few levels of composition I would like to touch on. —
First commercial music. Some guys can knock out commercial tunes in a few days. Thats not so much of a problem because there is a formula, cliches that work, structure set for certain media outlets and other factors that make things a bit easier.
Jingles is another thing where there is a format from which to base your work on. And this is helpful.
Soundtracks – sometimes this can be very experimental and creative. You can get away with a lot! In terms of artistic satisfaction. Watching footage of a film you are composing for can almost give you the music right in the palm of your hands! If you have lots of imagination and a keen eye for imagery. Great composition skills, creativity and imagination are a huge help in this case.

Writing from nothing—
But to write from nothing, starting from scratch in other words. And to serve a purpose in the writing, bring fresh ideas to the table, new structures, pushing your composition skills and most of all…Having a common theme in a long term project is really a tremendous discipline.

This brings me to the particulars of writing for other great musicians. Like the cats that will be on this new CD.
To function as a drummer requires many things. The awareness of structure, drumming has melody, a huge serving of tension and release, nuance and musicality. Stylistic knowledge, Not to mention all the technical details you need to be aware of to function on a high level. But to write for a great bass player for example, you kind of need to think like he might. To write for a great piano player, you need to be able to get into his mind and imagine what he might do with your tune. This is where your knowledge of how other instruments function comes in very handy. Of course there’s no escaping the fact, that no matter how much you can do this, you cannot find the same headspace as a monster bass player might have in every single aspect of his instrument. The same goes for a brilliant pianist or any other instrumentalist. This is challenging and truly a whole other muscle then what we as drummers might be used to. Imagine someone else trying to write for YOU…they would have to know everything YOU know! And what you might do with a composition. Can you imagine someone handing you a chart and saying “ok here is every single ghost note, tom and snare hit. bell hit, dynamic marking of the Bass drum, hi hat note embellishments and openings and i want you to play it exactly like this. It’s a 10 minute piece and please don’t make mistakes.” Haha- The conclusion I have reached in regards to this….after speaking with many great drummers across the world, is that you must delegate. When it comes to writing music that has the potential to be highly artistic and in need of the best players you can play with…Trust and hire the right guys for what you are writing. Just like any composer would hire the right drummer for a particular piece. In essence, think like a composer and producer. There is no way around this. Have an outline of what you want and then let the cats do what they want to on the piece.

Charts –
If I am on a gig or recording session, I always prefer to have a clear drum chart. On most of the recordings I have done in the past 3 years, it’s been…set up the drums, spend whatever time it takes to get a great sound (hours and hours in most cases) and then “Ok lets hear the tune. Learn it in 10 minutes and if possible get it on the first take” etc. – On top of that demand, the tunes have been pretty hard musically in general. I get called to do that and I can do it which is great but, would prefer a drum chart. Have you ever noticed almost no one has a proper drum chart for the drummer? It’s “read off the lead trumpet part” or Piano part. Why? I don’t think most guys who are composing can make good drum charts. We end up doing it ourselves for the most part. This is as much true in reverse as it is in this way. If I write a piano part for example…I really depend on a pianist to help me write it so he can get what he needs to be able to function on the tune. Thats the best thing to do IMHO. I wouldn’t demand that a pianist play every single note the way I am hearing it. Maybe thats just me but, I certainly trust a great piano player over my own ideas for piano any day of the week! Just like many of them have trusted me with the drum parts. I have been hired a few times to write drum books for shows and stage acts so that drummers who are subbing could come in and sight read. This type of thing I think…only a drummer can do. We understand what we need to see on the paper. It is very rare that I get handed a great drum chart and don’t have to go through the hassle of writing specific parts.
The whole point of this section on charts is that it will be very helpful if you have the ability to write charts. At least at a level where other musicians can function and have a basic idea of what you’re trying to get across.

Composition is a beautiful thing, and it’s awesome waking up in the morning (or afternoon) after a long writing session and hitting that playback button. Hearing your composition fresh with new ears. It almost feels like you had a baby and it’s sitting there in front of you. Something new in your life. A fantastic piece of music that you’ve written can make you feel euphoric. That’s the way I feel at least. The hard work and effort really seems worth it when a great piece of music is in front of you and you are its author.

But I must say at this point, there is nothing like the high of being a drummer. Playing with really great musicians and feeling the power and energy of music. Being in those moments behind your favorite instrument when magic happens. Having it happen in front of many people, or three people. The fact that it happened behind the kit makes it a magical experience. And something that haunts your dreams. That, you never forget for the rest of your life.

The new CD is coming soon. We start recording January 6. Wish me luck. I’m still writing as much as possible but the process is again a bit painstaking. I have tons of eight bar and 12 bar ideas, but end up throwing them away because I don’t like them. Once in a while something cool hits me. And that euphoric feeling comes over me again. “This is going to be cool” I think to myself…. But most of all I think, “this is going to be cool to play on drums!”

All the best
Phil Maturano

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