I bought this VCD back in (pre-law) college, for the princely sum of 300 rupees. I didn’t have a computer of my own back then, so I took it to a friend’s hostel room one night and watched it on his computer with a bunch of other friends. None of the friends were drummers, but we were youngly innocent and stuck in a girl-free environment whence the idea of watching a hairy drummer on a flickering desktop monitor in a darkened room seemed like a good way to spend a Wednesday night. As the hour dragged on and Portnoy descended into the mathematical intricacies of counting odd time signatures (“It’s all numbers,” he says more than once on the video: “It’s all arithmetic”), it began to seem less of a good idea to most of them, and I’m happy to admit that I too failed to see the point of a lot of what he was saying. It didn’t help that at the time I didn’t own a double bass pedal and had never played anything approaching progressive rock music– except in my little mental fantasies where the objects of my crushes gazed admiringly from the wings as I played topless on a large concert stage, biceps and shoulder muscles rippling in the breeze. Crash, boom, bang, indeed.
I hardly ever watched the VCD again after that initial viewing, and it has spent most of its life ensconced in my large green CD holder, jockeying for space with numerous movies, old Friends DVDs and other concert and instructional videos.
Following a recent improvement in my double bass playing (from a base of zero) with some practice on my electronic kit, I’d been meaning to give this and a couple of other videos I have (“Double Bass Drumming” by Joe Franco and “Back to Basics” by Dave Weckl) another viewing, to see if they could help overcome the mental wall I face every time I try to play along to a progressive metal song. Classic rock is ridiculously easy for a drummer to play, with its 4/4 time, predictable song structure, and well-defined parts for each limb to play: Right foot on bass pedal, left foot on hi-hat pedal, right hand on hi-hat or ride cymbal, and left hand on snare. Sit down to play along to a progressive piece, however, and I don’t even know where to begin. How does he make that sound? Is that the pedal bass he’s syncopating, or a floor tom? How the heck does his left hand move from that drum to the hi-hat and back again so fast, and without smashing into his right arm in the middle?? Perhaps Portnoy had some answers.
After I was done cringing at the mid-90s Portnoy’s long curls (on his head) and short curls (on his chest), I realized I had apparently internalized a lot of Portnoy’s gyaan on double bass technique from my earlier viewings of the video. My double bass practice routines are essentially everything Portnoy covers in the first half of his video. But the second half was very illuminating: this time around I finally understood what Portnoy was trying to get across with all his talk of numbers and arithmetic. Perhaps surprisingly for a drummer, I’ve always thought counting time in music is a lot harder than it seems. What does it really mean to say that a sequence of 8 counts is made up of 8 quarter-notes (and rests)?
In one excellent example, Portnoy brings the point home by explaining what’s going in two 8/8 bars of a Dream Theater song. He plays along with Dream Theater’s bassist John Myung and then-keyboardist Derek Sherinian. Two bars of 8/8 time contain a total of 16 ‘beats’, where the beat has the time value of an eighth-note. (Hence the denominator ‘8’ in the 8/8 time signature.) While Myung and Sherinian play the two bars of 8/8 time, Portnoy plays instead three bars of sequentially 7/8, 5/8, and 4/8 time. 8+8 is 16, and 7+5+4 is 16, so the total number of beats ‘played’ by each instrument remains 16. All three instruments begin and end the piece at the same time, having played the same number of beats (16). But two of the instruments play a sequence of 8 followed by another sequence of 8, while the drums play a sequence of 7, followed by a sequence of 5, followed by a sequence of 4.
If this seems like the numerical equivalent of semantics to you, that’s exactly what has always bothered me about counting time in music. What difference does it all make?
The difference, when you know what’s going on and count along accordingly, is staggering. Suddenly the drumming makes sense. Instead of being a seemingly random sequence with no apparent motivation for its complexity, the drum part is simply three smaller, carefully chosen drum parts fused into one. There’s no difference to the listener, but to the musician trying to reverse engineer the parts, it’s as revelatory as learning you’ve spent half an hour trying to start the wrong rented Kinetic in a parking lot in Goa. (True story there, btw– we had to call the guy who rented us the scooter for help. He landed up, looked at the bike we were trying to start, and said, “But that’s not my bike. My bike is that one over there. Whose bike is this you’re trying to start?”)
In case you’re wondering, it’s not normal for one instrument in a score to be playing to a different time signature than other instruments in the score. It probably requires great technical skill to play as well as great musical skill to compose. I’ve never played anything like it. I would never have thought of doing it. No wonder I couldn’t figure out how to play along! This is also a classic example of why the genre is called “progressive” music. It’s different, it’s complicated, and it’s brilliant.
Now it’s time to try and apply what I’ve learnt to my practice.
My short-term goal is to learn how to play the drum part of Dream Theater’s “Metropolis Part I” in one month. Luckily I have a great video to base myself on: the one below, which is one of the best covers I’ve ever seen and which really deserves a whole post in itself.
If I manage to learn the part well enough, I may post a video of me playing it here. Fingers, toes, and drumstix crossed, please.