The story of 100 Disciplines - or, why would a drummer make something like this?
It started with an email to Adam Shore, the Red Bull Music Academy producer I knew from his time at Vice when he produced the Boredoms’77 Boadrum. I wanted to present a piece that was more ambitious than anything I had done before, but what I had in mind was quite simple. It was an idea; maybe one that wasn’t particularly interesting in retrospect, but it was there. I wanted to close-mic a lot of carefully tuned drums, send them through a PA and have about 20 people just play rolls. Maybe it would last between 90 minutes to 2 hours. It would be a durational piece without much conceptual rigor but something would happen aurally. I was certain it would be worth hearing.
Adam was intrigued by the idea. I sent him some demos of some stuff I had worked on with William Basinski, wrote up a few ideas and waited.
A few months later Adam called me and told me that Red Bull had signed off on the project and provided us with a budget to make it happen. I was terrified. Now I actually had to write a piece. I was faced with a full-on bout of impostor syndrome. Why did I say that I wanted to do this kind of thing? The original idea was so simple that I lost faith in it. I also felt like I had already explored rolls on tuned drums for a few years. It was time for something new.
I started writing the piece, imagining a kind of rapid-fire, highly orchestrated percussion piece that would have elements of that original drone, but would include technical passages that would require trained musicians. Of course, what did I know about this kind of thing? Turns out not much. I spent some time wrestling with Sibelius, a scoring application that included samples of most instruments in the orchestra but quickly gave up. I didn’t want to spend weeks learning a software that would strangle my creativity. Or at least that’s what I told myself.
As I started composing, Red Bull was trying to settle on a location for the performance. A number of spots were considered and dropped. The venue felt like a distraction to me and honestly, it was hard enough wrestling with the composition. I didn’t imagine that the venue would have any impact on what I was writing.
After a month or two I was told that one of the most viable locations for the performance was going to be the Beaux-Arts Court at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, an absolutely stunning space in the middle of the museum with an immense ceiling, boundless sky-lights and a deco floor. Adam suggested that I visit the space so I could sign off on it.
I’ve never really been someone obsessed with details. I would have put this piece on in a garage if need be, but I dutifully went along. I needed to get out of the house anyway, since the piece was starting to drive me crazy. I was feeling absolutely overwhelmed with the technical details of composition. If I couldn’t bring myself to use Sibelius, was I going to have to actually write out a score? I found myself sitting in front of blank staff paper for hours, with nothing usable emerging.
When I arrived at the museum and met the members of the Red Bull production team (actually a subcontracted production company called Trevanna), I was certain that my inexperience and half-baked sensibilities would be plain to them. I was met, however, with the frank professionalism of the Trevanna team. Sound designer Justin Hosek seemed completely at home, so I trusted his instincts, but there was a woman at the meeting, Cynthia Argo, who was in charge. It was clear that she had presided over hundreds of large productions like this and while she was very professional, she clearly did not suffer fools.
She asked, “Have you thought about what equipment you were going to use for this event? Where are you going to get it?”
I actually didn’t know. I wasn’t sure of the instrumentation yet. Should I reveal that?
“Well, I was thinking that the drummers would all bring their own gear.”
“No. We should rent all the instruments you need, ” she said.
I was so used to DIY-type events that this surprised me.
“Wow, OK - is there a budget?”
“Assume that you won’t exceed the rental budget.”
Holy shit. . .OK. This was going to be interesting (just for the record, we did end up exceeding the rental budget, but that’s another story).
One unanticipated factor about the space that might have had an impact on what I was writing? There was a natural 7.2 second reverb in the room. All my carefully crafted and detailed percussion parts would quickly turn into a sea of aural mush. I hated what I was writing anyway, so I just embraced the reverb. This piece was gonna involve large and slow gestures; something that I was more comfortable with anyway.
Back to the drawing board. I started working on the composition with my oldest friend, Brian Coughlin. The founder and leader of Fireworks Ensemble, he’s a sensible and clear-headed composer with different tastes from my own, but has a great ear for form and structure. I started meeting with him and talking over my ideas.
Very quickly he directed me to take Red Bull’s budget claims seriously. I’d never working with any percussion instruments outside of the drum set and a few auxiliary pieces. Brian reminded me that there’s a host of pitched percussion instruments (with clear note values). Why not toss them into the mix and actually do something you’ve never done?
I took his advice and, using a percussion reference book and Wikipedia, started a list of pitched percussion instruments. Assuming that nothing was off-limits, I included 5 different sized timpani, an assortment of Thai nipple gongs, amglocken, crotales, vibraphone, tubular bells, pitched pipes, temple bowls among drum sets, cymbals and electric instruments. I also was listening to a lot of John Tavener and Anonymous 4, so I added four singers to the ensemble.
I felt way out of my depth, and the closer the performance got the less I realized I knew. Red Bull was trying to reach me to find out details about the piece, what to expect and how to promote it and I was still trying to finish it. I recorded vocal lines and midi organ drones in Garage Band and tried to imagine what things might sound like all together. It was incredibly stressful, so thank god I hired Matt Evans to act as the music director for the piece, because otherwise nothing would have gotten done. All praise goes to Matt as he arranged for rehearsals and organized the countless details surrounding the event. He was also the first line of defense and he somehow protected me from all the difficulties that the production faced.
I remained holed up in my studio, slowly freaking out while worrying over details of my score.
It was an impossible situation, I felt like a fraud, but I also felt like the music could be something unique and special. The problem of course was that I hadn’t stocked the ensemble with enough recognizable names. I used mostly trained percussionists, because rockers would have had trouble with parts of the score and I just wanted people to do what I asked them to do, even if those requests were absurd.
Throughout it all, I realized that the performance was far from what I had originally imagined. It was not a monstrous, unceasing drone. It was something more nuanced. There were long sections of wordless vocalizing. It was meant to be emotional — one section was meant to address the feelings I had in the days after 9/11 when my subway car rolled underneath downtown Manhattan and I felt overcome with feelings of intense anguish and suffering. I was too ashamed to admit that I’d tried to capture these things with my music, so I didn’t mention it to anyone. The title 100 Disciplines refers to Sun Ra’s Disciplines; pieces that he wrote for the Arkestra members to run through in order to hone their true nature through their instruments. But I didn’t admit that publicly because I didn’t feel like it was appropriate for me to focus attention on that. I didn’t feel brave enough to say what I was really trying to do.
When we gathered at the SIR rehearsal studios in far West Midtown Manhattan, I felt truly terrified. I was in front of a room full of professionals who looked to me for direction. At that moment I decided to just push through my feelings of inadequacy and try to capture what was on the score. With Matt Evans’ strong direction, we worked on nuance, we drilled the singers and almost as soon as we began, we were out of time.
The performance would be the next day. We would play the piece twice, in a kind of installation in the middle of the Beaux-Arts Court.
If there were problems on the day of the show, I’ve blocked them out. It was very lightly attended. The 2nd performance was definitely the strongest and there were moments of sublimity in the hall for sure. At least I felt that way. We recorded everything to multitrack and I worried over the mix and the arrangement for about 8 months. It plagued me much like the Man Forever album on which I’m currently working.
What is this piece of music? I think it’s something unique and I’m happy it’s getting out there. I hope you’re able to block out some time put on some headphones and really sink into the experience. Can anyone do that anymore?
Welcome to 100 Disciplines! Now do it yourself.