Control, Chaos, Power, and Play: Interview with Dr Bill Bruford

Dr Bill Bruford

Drummer and author Dr Bill Bruford has had a distinguished career as a recording artist and performer spanning some 41 years. During that time, he witnessed a sea change in both recording-studio practice norms and the structure of the music industry: from the tape-edit tapestry of “Close To The Edge”(1972), to the advent of the Digital Audio Workstation (DAW), “project-studio,” and “artist-as-retailer” paradigm. Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2017 as a founder member of Yes, Bill has performed with many other progressive bands over the years including Genesis, Gong, and U.K., as well as, collaborating with Swiss keyboardist Patrick Moraz (Moraz Bruford) and with Ralph Towner-Eddie Gomez. He has also led his own outfits Bruford (featuring Alan Holdsworth), and the jazz ensemble Earthworks; but is arguably most famous for his creative contributions with the band King Crimson. In 2015, Bill was awarded his Ph.D. by the University of Surrey and has since published the book “Uncharted: Creativity and the Expert Drummer” (2018). In this interview, he has agreed to discuss the role of play within the arena of record production as viewed from the theoretical perspective of structural-phenomenology; sharing some of his very personal (and, as he emphasises, somewhat fluid) perceptions and memories regarding what it’s like to be a professional recording artist, performer, and musical collaborator.

Details of Bill Bruford’s latest book can be found here: Uncharted: Creativity and the Expert Drummer


Dr Bruford, thank you for agreeing to have an informal discussion today about your experiences in the world of popular-music record production, as seen through the lens of play studies. One of the aims of recording popular music over the years has been to capture “lightning in a bottle.” It’s a phrase that so eloquently illustrates the paradoxical nature of reconciling control and chaos in popular-music making. Ever since “Rock ‘n’ Roll” records first hit the airwaves in the mid 1950s there has been an ongoing power struggle between those that would have popular music more controlled and those that would have it more chaotic. In fact, it’s a balance that needs to be negotiated each and every time popular musicians and technicians attempt to work together (either explicitly or tacitly – and nowhere less than in the recording studio). These three concepts – control, chaos and power – are also core concerns of play studies. Today, I’m interested in looking at the role of play within the art of record production from a particular theoretical perspective; one that considers how individuals wilfully organise their thoughts and experiences from moment-to-moment and the roles that motivation and emotion play in that scheme. In other words, as seen from the perspective of “structural-phenomenology,” as defined by Michael J. Apter (1991). Play scholars such as Apter and Mihalyi Cszikszentmihalyi (1979) – who observe play from this phenomenological perspective and are primarily interested in the personal experience of playfulness – state that any particular activity can be framed by adults, at any given moment, as play or (conversely) as work. A key criterion being that in play the activity is felt to be free of implications, so that reality seems somehow suspended. The playful frame of mind can therefore be said to be present-moment orientated.  Let’s begin.

The traditional recording studio layout made a clear demarcation between the creative “lightning” within the studio space and the “bottle” of the control room. When you recorded at Peter Gabriel’s Real World studios in the mid-1990s that model gave way to a more unified open space arrangement. How did that layout influence your mood as a performer? Did it have any bearing upon the quality of the performances or recordings themselves?

The relative power and importance of the artist/performer/conductor on one side of the glass and scientist/producer on the other had, since the advent of recording, been reflected in the respective physical spaces allotted to both: initially, the more spacious, better-lit room for the former, the dingy cubby-hole/electronics workshop for the latter. By the 1990s the design of Real World fore grounded and enabled both the rise of the scientist/auteur in its grand “control” room (and note the language here) but also the notion of solo ‘overdubbed’ performances by at most one or two performers simultaneously. Such overdubs would likely be rendered in the spacious control room, overseen by the producer. Large-scale simultaneous collective performance of six or more was backgrounded and not anticipated. Being somewhat old-fashioned, however, King Crimson clung to the idea that something special happens when musicians play together, and sought to reshape the several small dingy performance spaces such that sight-lines might be reinstated and/or video screens installed – critical, certainly, for the two drummers to cue each other with body language. Furthermore, the monitoring system had also to be laboriously reconfigured so all participants could hear as much or as little of their colleagues as might be necessary for an organic performance. So all in all it was something of a technological nightmare getting the studio to do something it wasn’t really designed to do. We would have been better, probably, at Abbey Road.    

You once described the process of making a King Crimson record (in the 1980s) as “agonizing … quite slow… We have no method and we can never seem to find one … or perhaps we’re not looking for one” (Tamm, 1990, p. 115). In retrospect, would an autocratic record producer have been a beneficial addition here? Or was the band attempting to let something surprising emerge out of the chaos?

A producer would have produced something different, not necessarily better. An autocratic producer wouldn’t have got a record at all. We had, perhaps, a benevolent dictator, Captain Robert Fripp, who was not unreasonably frustrated on occasion by the more strong minded crew members’ apparent disinclination to provide what the captain required, even though what was required was nebulous, little spoken. I think the well-meaning crew generally wanted what the captain wanted – a smooth passage to some undefined artistic excellence – but collaborative creation is ever full of misunderstandings, communication breakdowns and methodological pitfalls. I’ve seldom worked with producers and when I did it wasn’t helpful.

The issue of power (and pecking orders) arguably influences a musician’s ability to negotiate creative constraints when collaborating. Can power sharing make for better musical outcomes or are imposed constraints (paradoxically) liberating?

I’m not sure this is an either/or issue. Yes, power sharing (although I’m not quite sure how you are envisioning that in the context of a music group) can make for better outcomes, and yes, I find constraints liberating, be they imposed by self or other. The two are not mutually exclusive. Crimson’s modus operandi for music creation was more flexible and looser than many imagine. Broadly, an idea would emerge from somewhere; a partial or fully completed composition, an instrumental timbre or combination of instrumental timbres, half of a song lyric, a mood abstracted from an improvisation (“Sheltering Sky,” 1981), a thematic umbrella (the Beat Poets) or industrial wastelands (tracks like “Industry,” 1984a; “No Warning,” 1984b). Individuals then devised or completed their own parts to further the idea with minimal instruction or input from others. Approval of one’s contribution was signalled by people remaining in the room to continue the process: disapproval by people fragmenting and wandering off, listless and bored. There was little overt discussion about a co-performer’s individual contribution. Benefit of the doubt was given. If the drummer had thought it was the right thing to play, then it probably was, until or unless it was superseded by further incoming information necessitating subtle adjustment or a wholesale rethink. This could be slow, laborious and hence expensive.

You’ve said that when you toured with Genesis in 1976 you’d previously been more accustomed to “making it up as you went along” whereas the band expected a more functional approach. Recordings of the gigs seem to indicate you found a workable balance between an acceptance of rote parts and unknown outcomes. Do you think you were able to push the boundaries somewhat because of your own fame/power or did a sense of camaraderie foster tolerance?

Although I didn’t know it at the time, the band (Genesis) broadly saw me as a “star” player on the back of Yes / KC success: they’d caught themselves a top fish. So, yes, I got away with murder and a fair bit of sloppiness (I wasn’t familiar with their songs when I started with them). They afforded me a degree of tolerance that I would not be afforded today were I playing with say, Steely Dan, or Journey, or similar. Precise reproduction of the record is absolutely required now that the ticket price might be north of 200 USD. Genesis, in my time, was interested only in outcomes of the known variety!

When you reformed King Crimson in early 1981 it seems that the consensual deliberation between yourself and Robert Fripp regarding how to approach your role as drummer – within a band that reframed the role of guitars in a radical new manner – was ongoing and very deliberate. Was this process stressful? Did the resulting negotiated constraints pay off creatively?

Yes, the role of the drummer seemed to be a key focus of Robert’s approach. The guitars were settled (no chords, just single-note heterophonic weavings) and Robert never seemed to say anything to Tony Levin, whose perfectly-measured contributions appeared to defy discussion. That left the drummer, who clearly needed baby-sitting. Indeed, change is not always easy, and change was fast. I had an unlikely combination of instruments to play in a hybrid electro-acoustic drum kit of my own design, and a short list of instructions as to what not to play and when not to play it. Broadly I could do anything I wanted so long as Robert had not heard it before. If I thought that a tall order, I also thought it entirely possible to fulfil. It seemed to me he had not heard much drumming. I do think the resultant “negotiated” restraints paid off creatively, and on reflection I’m pleased with my contribution to the 1980s band’s body of work.

In the studio, when the red light goes on any sound you produce is no longer transitory but documented to be reproduced at will, manipulated and stored for posterity. Do you find that your frame of mind suddenly changes depending on whether the record button is engaged (or not), or does the overall studio environment have greater influence over your mood?

My frame of mind was, or would have been, affected by so many variables of which the recording process – capturing the performance for posterity – would have been but one, and not necessarily the most important. Some react better than others when asked to produce a note-perfect performance right now, in the company or presence of others whose performance may be overdubbed later. Am I keeping others waiting? Have I read this right, considering I’m largely guessing what might be coming on top of my performance? Consider also the temporal aspect to this. Technology has changed radically over my time. At the beginning, the drummer’s performance was more or less fixed from the start, and became a playground upon which others might frolic. At the end, all aspects of a drummer’s performance were entirely manipulable in computer-based post-production. I suppose, broadly, I found recording more difficult than all other aspects of practice. But over-arching that, when I was young I found everything easy. Forty years later, it was all difficult. An illustration of the latter can be found in my book Bill Bruford: The Autobiography (2009, pp. 187-193).

 Is “frame of mind” something that you, or your collaborators, spent much time thinking or talking about?

No, but no time like the present to start thinking about it. We might take the phrase to mean ‘mood’ or temporary mental disposition. My mood is, for me, an emotional variable among many more influential environmental variables (room acoustics, physical and emotional health my co-performers, audience disposition, lighting, instrument quality, sound monitoring and so forth) that mediate not only the performance itself, but its effective communication. Everything changes how I play. These variables conjoin to make Monday’s performance different from Tuesday’s. I don’t feel particularly moody as an individual and don’t assign my frame of mind much importance, although I’ve worked with many who seem to be very changeable with their moods, allowing them greater play in the proceedings.

Do you think the project studio revolution has made it easier, or harder, for musicians to realise their potential of making great recordings (given there are now so many more roles to juggle individually)?

Probably harder. Doubtless the music inventor is now at liberty to produce any sonic confection that he or she wants, but if the confection is to be attributed greatness it implies that it must be heard and assessed by others. And getting your music to those pairs of receptive ears whose owners might confer greatness is now the last and hardest of the creativity roles.

Judging by looking at film footage of your performances over the years, you seem to relish playing live. It certainly looks like you’re having fun. Did you ever enjoy recording in the studio as much as playing live?

I’m not sure I was ever very good at “fun.” Most of the fun, for me, was in the looking back, in the remembering. There are recorded passages ranging from the very short in length (a phrase or measure here, an idea there) to the quite substantial (a sustained lunacy here, a great feel there) that I am really happy were captured. They seem evidence of a sort that it wasn’t all a waste of time; that there was, on occasion, solid invention. But mostly these passages twinkled out like little diamonds from a more prosaic moonscape of good ideas not very well executed. I thought the arrival of our American players Levin and Belew in 1980-ish raised the bar on execution. Of course, between “recording in the studio” and “playing live” lies the twilight world of live recording. As the decades rolled past, that process became increasingly painless and relatively inexpensive. It was quite hit or miss, and contrary to some assumptions Crimson had a culture of “don’t waste money fixing and re-mixing if it’s really a turkey, in which case why are we trying to breathe life into this turkey anyway?” Some of us had a harder time than others with the “warts and all” presentation of our work and saw a potential lowering of standards. It seemed on occasion that what would have in earlier times been left as rubbish on the studio floor was now cobbled together in something of a rush, time being money. There is no rubbish outtake any more, only archival documentation with pecuniary value.

Is it important to have fun when making music?

Certainly if one wishes to communicate something to an audience, an appearance of, at minimum, committed engagement will go a long way. Whether the performer is actually committed and engaged may be another matter. The appearance of having fun I found easy; the having fun I found harder. Sometimes I couldn’t tell the difference, even if I was thinking about it.

Paul McCartney once said that he doesn’t work for a living, he gets paid to play. Creativity scholar J Nina Lieberman (1977) calls artist the Practitioners of Playfulness. Is that a job description you can relate to?

Certainly, yes. One way of re-framing McCartney’s view is that the performance is free – it is everything else before and after it that you get paid for (travel, practice, rehearsal, composition etc.). Educationalists now suggest we teach playfulness and creativity out of our children at school. The creative engagement of children at play is something to behold, and the interesting (adult) artists manifest that in their work. Again, that’s what you’re paying us/them to do.

Is it important to have such people in society whose main function is to have fun and take creative risks?

Yes, certainly. Those people, Lieberman’s Practitioners of Playfulness, are perhaps more usually called artists. The work of a work of art is to communicate experience, as John Dewey has pointed out (1934).

When is adopting a playful frame of mind appropriate in creative practice? When is it not appropriate?

Interestingly, drummers perceive of themselves as having the most powerful instrument on stage with which to make the music “work,” or to fail to make it work. This, they attest, is their primary function. After that, they may see ways to be creative, but only once the music is “working” functionally, that is: “swingin’,” “groovin’,” “happenin’.” According to drummers, if these things are not happening, it would be inappropriate to get playful.

You make a distinction in your doctoral dissertation between two poles of a continuum of control in musical performance: the Functional/Compositional Continuum (FCC). As the name indicates, there’s the “functional” approach (playing as directed by others) at one end and the “compositional” (self-created parts) at the other, with most players operating somewhere in between most of the time (Bruford, 2015, p. 45). Is the playful frame of mind a luxury only a performer closer to the “compositional” end can afford to adopt?

The playful attitude is more likely to find fertile ground and induce playfulness in others in compositional performance rather than functional, because the former admits both greater interaction and greater intent to surprise. This in no way necessarily excludes playfulness from functional performance; it’s just harder to bring it about. In fact, I’m having trouble thinking of an example. But my research people found little “creative corners” in all genres and styles of music (Bruford, 2018, p. 65).

Is it important is it to share a similar sense of humour with your musical collaborators? Why?

It is important. It helps as both ice-breaker and social adhesive; it reinforces the ‘us-against-them’ culture that bonds a group of outsiders catapulted into (frequently) an alien culture. Performance seems only millimetres away from catastrophic absurdity, and colleagues unable to recognise that tend to be viewed with suspicion. How did Kraftwerk keep a straight face?! Along with many in the pre-rock first half of the 20th century, my father viewed performance as an over-paid form of showing off, and thus a sort of indictable crime.

How important is it to be curious as a creative practitioner?

Curiosity is surely an essential component of creativity; it sparks the sort of thinking and then action, which may result in creative outcomes. The curious person or organisation asks questions, and creativity may be involved in finding the answers. In King Crimson, one good question was “How can we go further?”

Do you derive joy from taking creative risks?

Undertaking creative risks is a core job-description for the instrumentalist who wants to push things forward.  In a band like King Crimson, pushing ideas about, and maybe in a forward direction, is meat and drink.

The King Crimson of 1981-1984 was originally proposed to you explicitly by Robert Fripp it proscriptive terms. It was to be a band that wouldn’t do this, wouldn’t do that and so on. You’ve said that this approach really excited you. Why?

Limitations and constraints are the bread and butter of the creative thinker or inventor. They force you to dig deeper in the hunt for solutions. “If I can’t play time on a ride cymbal, what can I play it on? Should I play it at all?”

Did this negative approach to collaboration always bring out the best in you or your band mates? Was there ever any resentment as a result of the approach?

Creative collaborations can require high levels of emotional fitness. Creative friction produces combustion whose unpredictability may leave participants feeling diminished or belittled even as the project seems to be yielding interesting results. But that’s the job. I developed a thick fire-proof hide.

How did it feel to consciously have to avoid former musical habits? Was it a fun challenge? Did it cause anxiety at times?

Being in a band like this could be both anxiety-making and fun, sometimes almost simultaneously. I’m perhaps more interested in Csikszentmihalyi’s idea of “flow” (1990). In positive psychology, flow or “being in the zone,” is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energised focus and full involvement in the process of the activity. The concept is widely referenced across a variety of fields including music, as I’m sure you know, and that was my idea of fun, I think, being “in the moment.” I like to be stretched, certainly, and can’t quite see how else I’m going to provide anything that interests me and/or possibly others until or unless I am stretched. I get queasy when I feel I know what’s going on. I bore easily.

You have mentioned in the past that King Crimson involved some “ground rules.” Does this relate to Fripp’s analogy of the band as a sports field where players have freedom within its limited boundaries?

Certainly, yes. Here is the perimeter of the ball park. We’re going to play with these balls: we want to avoid this, and we won’t be doing that. Now let’s play. Robert also was good at proposing a strategy with no accompanying demand that it be acted upon. He described it as throwing some balls in the air. If we, King Crimson, caught some of them and ran with them, great: if they dropped to the ground that was fine too. We ran with the idea of a double trio in the mid-1990s, but I thought that had less bang for the buck than one might have expected.

Play scholar Brian Sutton-Smith (1979) states that to “‘play with something’ means conceptually to frame it in another way” (p. 306), and he uses the term “playframing” to explain how in play participants negotiate (and continually renegotiate) binding rules of engagement that temporarily suspend the normal ways of framing classes-relations, and reverse “the usual contingencies of power” (p. 308).  It appears that the design of King Crimson (then known as Discipline) in early 1981 could be described as a band-as-playframe. How much input did other members of the band have with regard to this “negotiation” of terms (either explicitly or tacitly) in the early days? Was power shared equally?

I think Sutton Smith has it about right, based on your two sentences above. There are two questions here: one about negotiating terms and the other about sharing power. I think we negotiated terms in the same way as unsupervised children in a sandpit (negotiations can be successful and unsuccessful, of course). We threw some sand about and built castles. Occasionally sand went in someone’s face and there were tears, there was heated discussion as to who had the best castle, but there was no identifiable sandpit bully. It seemed that all members had equal input in the negotiations, but they exercised this at different times, in different ways and to different extents. With regard to power sharing, RF was beyond doubt the most powerful individual, in the sense in which he selected the musicians, arranged when, where and how the organisation might work (or play) together, and issued some restraints or rules. After that though, he was in the sandpit pretty much with everyone else. He vehemently denied he was any sort of bandleader, a function he was more likely to offload to “King Crimson” or the band ghost or the third in a perfect pair.

Was this combination of ground rules and creative restraints applied on a song-by-song basis, as an aid to arrangement or composition (i.e., songs as unique sets of rules and restrictions)?

On reflection, a tune that had its genesis in Robert’s head would be readily amenable to any of his strategies, rules, or restraints. One that emerged from Adrian’s guitar as “his” composition seemed to be less easy to “Crimsonify,” the process of stamping some sort of collective identity on it. Adrian’s songs were always highly personal, despite (or because of) the fact that he often had to write under a great degree of pressure. The instrumental components of the piece might not have settled till almost the end of the session, leaving Adrian to finish melody and lyrics at the eleventh hour.

Do you think the rules and restraints approach to collaborative music making necessarily requires great confidence and mastery of one’s instrument?

Yes, both would be helpful. An ability to play things a different way, to offer an alternative on the turn of a dime, while accommodating and balancing the demands of the other participants, demands a degree of confidence. One of the endearing faults of popular-music small groups is that all the musicians tend to play all the time, for understandable reasons. It’s hard to stand around under a blaze of super-trouper spotlights and do nothing, trust me. “Laying out” though, is a particularly effective music strategy with lots of consequences, generally welcomed by co-performers.

Do you think the rules and restraints approach could be used as a way of “lowering the bar” (i.e., matching skill level to challenge) so that novices can make music together effectively?

An excellent idea that I think that would be entirely fruitful. One might say that one current rule in rap or hip-hop might be to avoid (or at least background) music harmony. The removal of such a foundational and advanced component of traditional Western music making throws light on those remaining, in particular, rhythm and timbre.


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