Bill Bruford The AutobiographyBill Bruford: An Autobiography

Prologue to the Second Edition

In which the prog-rock pioneer and fusion explorer contemplates the future of our art—and calls on us to determine it for ourselves.
In its short life, this book appears to have struck the proverbial chord. In its efforts to depict the lived experience of one drummer more accurately, it has come to be seen as advocating a greater realism about popular instrumentalists’ behaviors, motivations, and intentions in general. It’s been refreshing to step back out of the fray and attempt to understand the drumming life and explain it to others.
If I were asked if there was one theme running through this autobiography, it is perhaps that drumming and drummers are misunderstood and accordingly misrepresented. What do they really do? Pounding out rhythms on a drumset is for morons, isn’t it? Actually, it’s no more moronic than any other human activity; it may be rendered moronic by moronic drummers in the same way that politics may be rendered moronic by moronic politicians. At the other end of the spectrum, musical instrument practice has the ability to change lives, not least the life of the practitioner; I know, because it changed mine. In all my years I’ve failed to meet the stereotypical pig-eared, pea-brained, non-musical oaf beloved of the tabloid press, but I have met a number of highly intelligent, self-aware musicians who happen to have specialized on the drumset, and made drumming and popular music all the better for it. In any other walk of life their imaginative, collaborative, and creative skills, matched with the work ethic of an elephant, would guarantee these people a seat at the boardroom table.
Much has happened within the drumming community since the book’s first publication in 2009. It is daily harder to earn a living from the music business and daily harder to be creative within an encroaching homogenization of the rhythmic and metrical terrains that lie before the young Western kit drummer. A professional life such as I was privileged to enjoy—playing what I wanted where I wanted with whom I wanted and more or less when I wanted—is increasingly hard to construct. Young players must spend much time deploying formidable networking skills to ensure they can continue to be what they want to be and are good at being; namely, being a drummer. And automation marches on.
The intense but fruitful years I spent being “just a drummer,” playing some cool stuff and getting paid adequately, may be under threat unless he or she rapidly makes himself or herself indispensable. Plenty of music was made before the arrival of the Western kit drummer in the early twentieth century, and plenty more could be made without his or her services. Electronica and folksy singer-songwriters have no need for drummers at all. Several more genres deal largely with sample or computer-based rhythm—notably electronic dance music, hip-hop, and rap. I’d be sad to see them go, but unless drummers think fast, intelligently, and bravely, insisting on the hip and refusing to play the moronic, demonstrating their musical ideas are more innovative, functional, and useful than other people’s, then they may no longer be invited to the creative party. The post-digital, post-computer world they now inhabit may have already have made that impossible.

Bill Bruford The AutobiographyBruford released his autobiography in March 2009, two months after he retired from public performance. In 2011 the book was issued by Foruli in a handcrafted limited edition. The unique box set was designed by Andy Vella, creator of many of the Cure’s iconic album covers, and it features the seventeen-track 10″ vinyl double album From Conception to Birth.

At time of writing, I’m currently researching in the area of drummers’ behaviors, motivations, and intentions, in an effort, I suspect, to better understand my own behaviors, motivations, and intentions when I was on active duty. Broadly the thesis is that drumming, like the music that contains it, is becoming homogenized, like hotel rooms, small cars, and white wine. The majority of Western kit drummers increasingly tend to play the same thing at the same tempo, dynamic, and volume, and with the same timbral palette, and that’s the majority whom the public hears. Drummers appear to be sleepwalking to their own extinction, goes the thesis, unaware that their very existence as full-time instrumentalists may be under threat. We drummers have too often ceded creative control of the instrument to producers, but there remains that little creative moment in the studio or rehearsal room when the drummer’s opinion is sought, and he has the opportunity to make a material difference: to run the track again, to improve, to rethink, to go down the path less followed, to play something not just functional, but creative. Too frequently, under pressure to get the job done quickly and cheaply, that path has understandably been too little taken. We love rhythm, some say, but we use it (or allow it to be used) to deaden, not elevate. We sleep.
Paradoxically, two hunches for which I have no hard evidence seem to run counter to this analysis. First, I suspect that more drummers play more drums more often than ever before, even if the many electronic and “leisure” kits in use never leave home. Second, I suspect that more drummers play more brilliantly and with more imagination, fire, skill, and honesty than ever before, but it is only a tiny minority of the determined that will be heard. Questions have I plenty; answers have I none. How we got here and what to do about it is surely the subject of another book.
The wake-up call may be in creativity—the buzzword of the minute. Everyone wants it, but few seem able to agree on what it is, let alone where you find it, or how it is to be engendered or nurtured. In his inaugural speech, a recent director-general of the BBC urged his staffers to be “more creative.” In their restless hunt for creativity, business and commerce have discovered innovation, have decided they need it, and, peculiarly, have turned to the artistic community for guidance in the thorny thicket. [British education expert] Sir Ken Robinson feels we were all born creative but the education system disconnects us from it. Musicians may be less disconnected than some, but still, problems abound. Even within something called the “creative community” people seem unsure how to define it and how to get it. But a little more creative thinking may be needed among rhythmatists if human drumming is to survive in the mainstream of music making, and if we are going to have something to tell business and commerce.
I’d like to think those following me would be able to enjoy the enormously privileged life behind a drumkit that I’ve tried to describe between the covers of this book, but the post-digital, post-computer world we now inhabit may already have made that impossible. You and I might know how tricky it is to get by as a drummer, let alone with a family, but the great thing is that young people don’t know, and probably wouldn’t care if they did. Somewhere there is, right now, a fourteen-year-old with incomparable skill and enthusiasm reinventing the paradiddle in ways inconceivable to his crusty older and betters, because to borrow from Robert Fripp, he doesn’t know what he can’t do, and goes for it often, with gusto. The new edition of this book is dedicated to that fourteen-year-old.
—Bill Bruford, Surrey, U.K., December 2012