“Indian culture and music has shaped not just my sense of rhythm but my sense of time”

“Indian culture and music has shaped not just my sense of rhythm but my sense of time”

Los Angeles based drummer Greg Ellis is working
on a documentary film called the ‘The
Click’
looking at the effects of digital technology and mechanical time on
drumming, music and culture. Named after the term used for the digital
metronome, or ‘click track’, that virtually all recorded music is controlled
by, ‘The Click’ delves into relationship between the drum and the clock.  He will be coming to India as well to do more
interviews with musicians and scientists for the film. He says that Indian
culture and music has shaped not just his sense of rhythm but also his sense of
time. He wants to explore the more esoteric side of these two things so he says
he will be coming back soon!

Ellis
believes that all new recorded music sounds the same because of this
technological invention, and if not used judiciously, it is not long before
people will begin to see spontaneous, creative music as being ‘unnatural’.

Based on your film ‘The Click’,
could you tell us how technology is impacting spontaneity and creativity in
music?

I
do think creativity remains intact as long as there is still a human using the
technology. There is still a creative element in putting loops, programs and
samples together but I believe the modern music making process has all but
killed spontaneity. To me spontaneity is a property of organic interaction.
Technology allows one to be clever rather than spontaneous. How many times as
musicians have we hit a ‘wrong’ note or slipped from the rhythm only to turn it
into something we have never played before?! Spontaneity cannot be programmed.
It is one of the things I miss most in contemporary music.

Despite the ease of access
that technology creates as a mediator, does the real power of music lie in
listening to music live?

Definitely.
But it's not just listening to music live, it's also listening to live music.
We hear so much about fake news here in America. What about the fake music we
have been hearing for years? I feel the lack of resonant frequencies in digital
music diminishes the real power of music you're referring to. Everything
including the resonance of the tuned string or skin, the resonance of the
instrument itself, the resonance of the musician playing the instrument and the
resonance of the studio or auditorium. All these things occur before the sound
even reaches the listeners ear and I believe it's in these frequencies where
the feel and soul of music lives.

Without
live musicians playing live instruments, the music lacks what I call its
nourishment. It becomes like fast food. It no longer has that thing that feeds
a musician to want to play better every day or offer a listener a transcendent
experience. The feeling we get from feeling music played live is something that
has nourished our bodies and souls for millennia. That shared moment between
the audience and musician should be a sacred space that unfortunately has been
tampered with through modern music technology.

You have played with many
Indian drummers (table artistes). How do you think an ancient Indian drumming
system be impacted by technological intervention?

I've
had the honour of playing with some of the best. I worked with Zakir Hussain as
part of project with Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart. Bikram Ghosh has been a
colleague and dear friend of mine for two decades, since his first Rhythm Scape
album. I also became close with his father, Pandit Shankar Ghosh. We would
discuss this issue often. Pandit Ghosh felt this ‘technological intervention’
as you say, began with recording technology. He was there 60 years ago as the
first recordings of Indian music were being made commercially available. He
felt that once musicians began hearing recordings of themselves, it altered
their playing completely because the music was no longer an offering to the
moment.

I
wondered if it offered too much a reflection and was the onset of making it
more about the musician rather than the music. Fast forward 60 years and it
seems that's definitely the case. Now we have the ability to edit recorded
performances and auto-tune to absolute digital perfection. This is creating
generations of musicians who are missing the beauty of imperfection. I see
incredible technique in younger players but that connection to the essence of
the music seems lost due to all the digital distractions. Indian rhythm is a
language and like many other languages and dialects in India, it is in danger
of obsolescence due to modernization. It's one thing to know all the words
there are to know but then you're just a dictionary that doesn't express
anything. How you put those words together... that's the artistry.

Does using low-end
technological recording tools creative negative impressions on music listeners
where they learn to expect less from music?

It
does seem that listeners today in general seem oddly content with less fidelity
in their music. We've allowed mp3's, ear buds, phone and computer speakers as
acceptable deliverers of music. I also feel the low-end digital recording
platforms like garage band and others has allowed access to those who just want
to make music but don't want to become a musician. So if that is the level of
music that is being offered by the artist, it would make sense that the
listener wouldn't care as much about the fidelity of what they're hearing.
Again, it's similar to the fast food analogy in that it merely satisfies a
hunger without offering any real nutritional value. Without the ability to both
deliver and listen to music in its full dynamic range, listeners have had no
choice but to expect less and be surprisingly okay with that.

Is there a kind of music
that is of the best kind? Should there be a music that one must aspire to play
or listen to, not just in terms of content but also the quality of delivery?

It
really depends on the instrument. As a drummer I would say the four styles of
music that pretty much encompass the full rhythm spectrum would be American
Jazz, Indian Classical, African and Arabic. Just find the best of as many
genres and cultures as you can. The best musicians I've worked with have a deep
understanding of many kinds of music so I wouldn't want to generalize one kind
of music as the best kind in terms of genre or style.

All
I listened to through high school was Rock and Roll and taught myself drum kit
playing along to Led Zeppelin and Rush. I didn't really hear Indian music until
well into my 20s. When I did it blew my world apart. I had never experienced
that kind of journey musically. But there was so much I recognized in the
rhythms and it made perfect sense to me in a way I don't think it would have at
anytime before then. It set me on a path to find and listen to the best music
of every culture. I started collecting drums from all over the world and
developed a technique of hand drumming that has put me on stage with artists
from more than 30 countries. But my entry point was Rock and Roll which really
shouldn't have brought me to the music and instruments I now play. What's
important is to find the best artists in whatever style you're into. Masters
are recognizable in whatever form they take.

How can musicians play a
role in creating better quality recordings and listening experiences?

After
all the tech talk this one is very simple. Every time we are on our instrument,
our sole purpose should be to remind the listener or audience of why music
exists in the first place. Leave the rest up to the moment.

Could you share a few
thoughts on The Click, its production
and what the project means to you?

The
film looks at the effects of mechanical time and digital technology on our
music, our lives and our sense of time itself. As we go from the clock, to the
metronome, to automation, to the click track, to the drum machine and now AI
and robotics, we see a systematic conditioning to mechanical time in all
aspects of our lives. We now live our life to a click track. I'm still in
production and fund raising mode but I hope to finish it up this year. It's my
first film but it's the best way to tell this story and to reach people who
have no idea how much their music is processed and how mechanical time has
shaped our lives. I want to eventually show it as part of a live performance
featuring drummers from different cultures in performance and discussion after
the film. I'm also writing a companion book on these concepts as well.

(Ellis is a drummer and
multi-instrumentalist born and bred in the Bay Area.
He has
recorded and performed with some of the greatest musicians and drummers in the
world. As composer and session musician for film and television, his drum-set
and percussion beds can be heard in the major motion pictures The Matrix: Reloaded
and The
Matrix: Revolutions
, Fight Club, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Dawn Of The Dead, Dukes of Hazzard, The Devil’s Rejects,
Brave Story, 300, Watchmen, and Argo, among many
others.

He
has performed and recorded with artists from almost every continent, including
Zakir Hussain, Airto, KODO, Mickey Hart’s Planet Drum, Juno Reactor, Billy Idol, Sonu Nigam, Sussan Deyhim, Hamed Nikpay, Bickram Ghosh,
Chiwoniso Maraire, Sugizo and many more.)