Imagery and visualization have long been potent tools in the pursuit of music. What kind of impression would Debussy have left had he not summoned up pictures of fawns and the sea? During my years of drumming live and engineering in the studio, I've developed some images for performing and recording that I find rewarding. These aren't simply visual images, but physical ones, and they give me a basic orientation from which to approach my work.
With the performing image, you need to understand that I really love playing a well-crafted arrangement. Long, smooth-flowing turns of phrase connecting nicely developed sections. Dude, that's fun! But one miscount and you'll have The Great American Train Wreck on your hands.
The image that materialized while I was finding my way through many such arrangements with bands is that of a toboggan team. The music whips around tricky transitional corners, then flies into a long straightaway of thematic expansion, all of the team's members huddled together as they hurtle along at a fantastic speed. The audience stands above, watching the sleek toboggan streak by, thrilled at the end by its triumphant return to theme, seeming to come out of nowhere, yet now clearly a logical path.
Playing blues or reggae gives me a very different image. Both have a timeless quality-they're walking music with no beginning or end, just eternal moving along. When I play them, I'm hiking through the space-time continuum.
Working in the studio is, in most ways, the diametric opposite of performing live. Whereas live performance is in linear real time, the studio disassembles and reassembles time in countless ways. Whereas the stage is one side of an energy circuit completed by the audience, the studio involves a certain kind of focus best found by working in isolation.
Studio work, then, is more akin to sculpture. Certainly this is not a new image, but the rise of digital audio-and in particular, DAWs and their plug-ins-has raised the concept to a new level. The concern in this environment is not staying on the edge every second, but making sure each individual stroke contributes to the vision of the whole.
With every overdub laid on an album project, another tiny chip is chiseled away, bringing a bit more form to what often starts as bare bass and drum tracks. To make it all work, the new track must be considered not only in terms of how well it works with the existing tracks, but with the tracks you expect to lay in the future. An overdub may even move the work in a new direction. There is a process of cogitation and fine tuning that can happen only out of real time and, often, nonlinearly. It reaches full fruition when conducted within the image in the "mind's ear" of what the finished sound should be.
These images can translate more broadly and functionally than in the contexts I've named. For example, the ability to navigate through rough-and-tumble projects can develop from the immediacy and terror of live gigs. I find the toboggan image applies equally well in live performance whether I am playing or mixing the sound. The sculpting picture comes to mind when I am planning an involved project as well as when I am executing it.
For me, it is my "virtual" physical images, not literal visual pictures, that provide the most vivid experience. I've worked out intricate drum stickings by closing my eyes, thinking about the part, and "feeling" what it is like for my body to perform it. I've even done this sitting on a bus, looking at a part I could score but not yet play.
The final arbiter in all of our sound and music work is our ears, but mind and body harbor many more tools for getting where we want to be. Marshal all your senses and connect them, and you'll be amazed at how your inspiration flows. Got the picture?