Essay- Groovin’ But Not Moovin’: The Crux of Playing Groove in ‘Concert’ Music Settings (feat. the Thoughts of Simon Barker)

By April 2, 2017 No Comments

The past couple of weeks I’ve finally found the words to bring a thought that has unknowingly been niggling away in the deep, un-conveyable corners of my brain. It’s an idea that I believe has shaped and continues to shapes my taste in music immensely. Worded as a line of enquiry, it is:

What are we hoping to achieve when we ask drummers to play ‘groove’ in ‘concert’ music settings?

Allow me to qualify a couple of terms right off the bat. Firstly, by groove I mean an assortment of arranged sounds usually placed systematically on a pulsed-based grid, repeated in a cyclic fashion i.e Backbeat, swing, straight feel etc.

Also, by ‘concert music’ I refer to particular setting of musical engagement. This ‘concert’ setting is commonly characterised by audiences being seated and expected to adhere to the social constructs of such a setting including remaining silent, remaining seated, clapping at certain times, digesting the music in a certain way and drawing meaning from it in a certain way etc. This could be in a concert hall, jazz club or your lounge room (depending on your vibe, of course).

So where did this all come from? Well, this query is the culmination some extended moments of self-enquiry over the last 12 or so months. Let me explain how it came to be.

The genesis of this thought came while reflecting on my own compositions. In a perpetual state of consideration in how to be best convey my intent through my music writing- how to better refine my message- I shifted my line of enquiry to something that I had long taken for granted: groove. I love groove but why did I employ it in my writing when I did? A while back I had already made a sonic choice to employ groove more sparingly in my compositions. I had been thinking it would be nice to employ other textures such as silence, drum-less textures and non-groove pulse to mix things up and be able to say more through the medium of the drums. I just need to take that train of thought to the next step and consider why groove wasn’t fulfilling…

Can I just say, me and groove go way back. Yeah I love the wack shit but I grew up listening- in a haze of fan-boy snobbery might I add- to the indie/alternative bands of the day. A quick glance at my cd collection and I see some early Kings of Leon, early Tame Impala, Radiohead and Muse- as well as local legends The Beautiful Girls and The Cat Empire. Those are probably circa year 8 or 9 (before I started began a prolific streak of um, peer ‘sharing’) In fact, I actually had a heart-melting bit of nostalgia the other day hearing the 00’s french rockers Phoenix’s tune ‘1901’ over the loudspeakers at the climbing gym. I would listen to that song on repeat while on the bus to school, looking out the window in a self-reflexive gaze. I was surprised to realise I still remembered most of the words!

I don’t spin tunes of that nature much these days but my affinity for that music holds strong. I truly believe the music we listened to when we were young teenagers is the music that we connect with most strongly. It’s the music we first willingly listened to. For many, the first shades of our individuality. Nostalgia aside, I know music of that nature feels most homely to me. Those tunes will forever live in my mind and body. As will the words to Afroman’s ‘Cult 45’ unfortunately though…

Anyway, around that time I also had this epiphanic moment on a gig with Black Bird Hum. Playing on stage, we could see hundreds of bodies moving and swaying in a sort of human murmuration; all to the combination of the sounds we were producing on our instruments! All this kinetic energy being made thanks to the us- but actually all thanks to the groove. If we weren’t pumping out our notes on the grid and the drummer wasn’t playing repetitive cycle on the kit then I doubt people would be moving in a positive way. But all in all it was seeing with new eyes, and what a beautiful site to see!

On the way home from that gig I thought well maybe just maybe the induction of kinetic energy, be it dancing, nodding, swinging, swaying. bobbing etc. is groove’s most potent power. I know groove’s big daddy, pulse, has a huge basket of effects it immerses listeners in. Many that composers and performers have wilfully employed for centuries and beyond. Take Steve Reich’s phasing as an example. A mind-fuck inducing texture. Or the affect of stretching and contracting pulse, like in rubato, and the affect that achieves. Or in Vijay’s trio music where he shifts pulses and pulse relationships around and the jolting affect that has. In fact, last night I saw Canadian fiddle trio ‘The East Pointers’ who are good friends of some of the Hot Potato guys. Really great stuff. So uplifting and spirited. They did a couple of these sets of three or four short jigs, connecting each jig without missing a beat, regardless of changes in tempo or feel. To the uninitiated listener like me it sounded like a funky-ass jump cut into a new section. Only when they announced it over the mic did I understand they were in fact different tunes. Funnily enough, each time they would cut into a new jig, the crowd and I would give a little hoot and cheer. Now, I’m not sure if the rest of the crowd are well-versed in the fiddle scene and were cheering in thanks to the preceding song (they weren’t clapping?) but as a total fiddle-band gumbie my cheers and obnoxious yiewwww’s were fueled wholly by this real bodily reaction to the sudden groove changes. Whether knowingly or not, these guys were affecting me through the manipulation of groove and pulse. The examples of manipulating pulse to affect the body could be endless. Likewise, groove would have a similar list, but like I said above, it seems it’s most explicit and potent power is to make us move.

Now, full disclosure that is all merely a forgone hypothesis based on personal experiences. Classic internet hey. In saying that, there has been sound study done on the affect of groove on the body, much which supports my foregone hypothesis. I know Vijay Iyer’s doctoral thesis deals with ideas around that theoretical vicinity, especially in part V where he discusses ‘music cognition and embodiment’. It’s a dank read (I mean that in the best way) but well worth checking out (it’s available on his website for free, just click here). There have also been medical studies that try to quantify the relationship between groove and our mind and body as well as ethnomusicological discussions analysing it’s role and power in far-reaching cultures. I done a little bit of searching and reading but am certain I haven’t even skimmed the surface of it. Beware: this yet another fold of the internet with an uninformed opinion.

So from the above I reached the crux of the idea: Well, if groove’s most powerful affect is its ability to induce kinetic energy, why is it so often employed into compositions that are performed in ‘concert’ settings where we sit still? It seems on the surface that playing a more varied palette of rhythmic material on the drums would align with the general sensibilities of ‘concert’ music more; that is, a focus on inducing reactions from listeners beyond the kinetic, be it through groove but also textural or non-repetitive pulse based material.

So you want examples hey. Well…firstly I should say the amount of groove-based music that wilfully lives in the realm of ‘concert music’ is, in the scheme of all music, miniscule. Racking my brain, I can only think of a sub-set of a scene in the improvised music sphere that lives at such an intersection. And even still, they very well might be trying breach the ‘concert’ environment.  I recall NYC drummer Jamire Williams played with his outfit ERIMAJ (one of the best gigs I’ve ever seen fyi) at the Seymour Centre ‘Sound Lounge’, which for the unfamiliar is one of Sydney’s most distinguished improvised music venues; it’s stage reserved near exclusively for Sydney’s improvising elders and international heavyweights- although ironically, it’s also Sydney’s most sterile venue. I remember chatting with Jamire after that gig and while trying to hold back froth from the side of my mouth he remarked to Harry and I how he saw Glasper play Oxford Arts Factory the night before and hoped his band could play there next visit too. So hey, maybe ERIMAJ is an example, but it’s also one of my favourites bands EVA. Truth be told, I don’t believe it’s one scene or artist (yes, classic blogger exonerating himself of having to point a finger) I think it’s a mindset that some in the improvising community- and beyond- have been guilty of.

Armed with these half-baked thoughts and queries, I felt compelled to bounce them off someone; someone wise who could fill the gaps. So brought it to none other than the Master, Simon Barker (who Harry tells has a fan in none other Cold War Kids drummer, Joe!). If anyone could turn this half-baked spud into some crispy as, hot chips, it’d undoubtedly be him.

So what did he the master say? Once I qualified what I meant by groove (not just pulse, e.g. backbeat) He was quick to agree that many playing ‘groove’ in those settings are playing so ‘thoughtlessly’. Which unless I grossly misinterpreted him is him agreeing with me. Stoked. His two main points were that pulse and rhythm have a multitude of affects. He primary example was one I already mentioned above in Steve Reich’s phasing; the organisation of pulse to illicit a bodily reaction from the audience.

I asked him what he does when asked to play groove in such a setting. He replied by saying he complies, with the understanding he can superimpose his own shit on it. By shit I mean his own rhythmic affects/shit. One I remember him mentioning was using rhythm to momentarily induce the feel of ‘sea-sickness’. etc. Wowzah.

Then he dropped a real bomb: the deeper issue is that we are all feeling 1/8th notes differently. Well then…fuck. He said it was a thought that, much like mine was in its infancy, but already was something he felt very strongly about and knew would be dictating his practises and pedagogy in the coming future. He thinks we should be verbalising our interpretation of 1/8th notes as a way of both bettering our feel, as well as unifying it with other musicians. He called it ’embodied rhythm’. He reckons the strength of rhythm in certain musical cultures comes from their frequent musical verbalisations. One example would be the gospel scene in African American culture and the subsequently strong feel many from that culture can create.

He suggested finding the core 1/8th note feel in Bob Marley’s ‘Satisfy My Soul’ and  ‘Get Up, Stand Up’. He feels the rhythm section on those recordings had really unified their feel. He used the syllables ‘Jaa-Gi-Jaa-‘ as the ‘core’ 1/8th swung feel. He also sung variations off that. The feel is akin to imitating a shaker. It’s worth giving the track a listen and seeing if you can uncover the feel.

We ended up speaking for an hour about it. I know Simon wants only for these ideas to be disseminated far and wide in the hope of rectifying what he believes are systemic problems in the musicology community. Even still, I don’t feel right publishing his ideas in any more detail here. If his ideas resonate with you I would implore you to start a conversation with him. Hearing him talk about these ideas with such vivacity, I’m certain he would relish anyone showing an interest.

As well as asking Simon, I ran my thought past two great drummers and close friends, Harry and Holly. Both had insightful things to say that aided my enquiry and should be mentioned. Holly made an especially powerful point noting that playing a rock-orientated groove is it’s own art-form and mostly definitely a different beast to playing swing. Playing one doesn’t mean you are able to play the other. As a jazzers we understand the spiritual depth of the swing feel but it takes to widen our musical circle to realise there are people considering backbeat at the same depth. Each differ in feel, touch and equipment no less! So a jazzer playing a backbeat groove on their jazzy kit may be diminishing the affect of such a groove and in turn dis-servicing the music and in turn the audience such like a rocker trying to swing would be.

Harry, who is currently rock and rolling around the States with his breakout band The Middle Kids gave me his thoughts on the matter. Unsurprisingly, he agreed (there’s not much we don’t agree on). He admitted he’s experienced some ‘jarring’ moments listening to groove-based music in a concert settings, although he’s not sure why but was open to the idea of unreleased kinetic energy. He gave some strong examples of when a more varied drum palette is employed and the positive affect it can have on the music. He used his main man Sufjan Stevens as an example. Watching his band at the Opera House back in ’15 he noted how they employed groove sparingly- most frequently at the end of tracks to raise the energy. Harry very wisely said “The music has an austerity to it so…the grooves were contextualised by the base of the music and made sense.”

He also cited the ERIMAJ gig I mentioned above as a successful marriage of the two worlds. To keep it primary and I’ll copy and paste from his email. “His use of groove is very textural, he always colours his grooves with lots of different textures be they coming from different sounds on the cymbals or drums, ie. never really just playing a repeated cycle of the same texture (Jim black does the same when he grooves – I would have loved to have seen alas no axis live as I assume they’d be playing jazz/concert venues, so it would be interesting to see how that left one feeling, although the grooves come more from a rock tradition than an rnb/jazz tradition which would be a different energy and evoke different movement). Maybe the increased use of texture disguises the groove, makes it feel more melodic, because I was pretty happily seated at that ERIMAJ gig, groovy as it was. But he also uses groove sparingly – he plays pretty texturally and anti-groove a lot too

He made a number of other strong points (including a mention of the galaxtic aural experience that is Dawn of Midi) but signed off with this salient golden nugget: “I definitely think there’s a release when there’s been no pulse for a length of time (tension) and then the groove drops. Groove is so familiar to human beings now, space is foreign in someways.”

For me, that lil nug sweetly lays down the nature of of my initial enquiry. I do feel at a musical and compositional level groove is too often employed without proper consideration. Although, through writing this piece and my continued consideration of all of the above, examples and perspectives constantly reveal themselves that further highlight cracks in my initial query- which is fine. It’s nothing if not fallible. Really, only humble hope is for this thought piece to ignite other’s enquiry into groove- or deeper still, to consider why you preference the musical facets that you do. Why is your taste so? Why, Why, Why. Never stop asking why.

Groove on x

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