“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.)

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