John Wyre: Thoughts on Rhythm

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John Wyre

In 1997-98, I conducted a series of interviews with percussionists to discuss their thoughts on rhythm. The following is an excerpt from my interview with John Wyre (1941-2006) that took place on December 15, 1997 in Birmingham, England where Nexus was performing the Takemitsu percussion concerto with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.


RH      How did you develop an accurate sense of time?

JW       I have a feeling that I don’t know. It was a very natural thing; it was always there. I had an ability to dance with whatever I heard.  Whether it was music or natural sounds it was always something I enjoyed doing. I used to sing and whistle a lot going to school as a kid.

RH      When you first started playing an instrument, do you remember being taught how to play with a steady pulse or any instruction on keeping time?

JW       I don’t think so. I was taught a mathematical understanding of music, and this made sense to me very quickly. Maybe just growing up around music gave me a sense of time.

RH      What about when you first started taking drum lessons? Was Dan Hinger your first teacher?

JW       My first teacher was a violinist who came around to the schools in Philadelphia. He taught me to read rhythms and I found this very easy. When I decided music was something I wanted to pursue, my Dad connected me with Mr. Hinger.

RH      When you first started lessons with Mr. Hinger, did he deal with the issues of time and rhythm specifically?

JW       I don’t remember ever getting into rhythm in that sense with anybody.

RH      In your early lessons with Mr. Hinger, did he just assign a lesson and you came in the next week and played it?

JW       Pretty much, unless I hadn’t practiced. What I remember most about lessons with Mr. Hinger was his delight in something. I don’t have a memory of rhythm or time being a part of lessons, which just confirms to me that it was just there.

RH      Did you ever use a metronome?

JW       No. The only time I’ll use a metronome is when I have to learn a mallet part up to speed and I use it to push myself, otherwise I will play with too much rubato.

RH      Do you remember using some kind of bodily movement to keep time?

JW       Always. All my life I’ve played rhythms with my teeth, and I still do. In practicing snare drum, I used to click my tongue on all the rests. I don’t click anymore, but I still use my teeth. Occasionally in orchestras I’ve used a foot tapping thing or playing with one hand on my leg while I’m playing with the other hand. Clicking my teeth is so engrained that I always do it.

RH      If you had a beginning drum student, how would you introduce them to the concept of playing with accurate rhythms and good time?

JW       That might be one of the reasons I stopped teaching. I would probably hope the student would have a good innate sense of time or I wouldn’t encourage them to be a drummer.

RH      Do you think some people have a sense of inner pulse and others don’t have it?

JW       Yes.

RH      And if you don’t have it is it difficult to get it?

JW       I would say that about many aspects of music. Sense of pitch, an ability to sing or dance or tap along, or feel a solid affinity with what’s there. When I was in my mother’s womb, she listened to Salzedo recordings [harpist Carlos Salzedo] and attended Philadelphia Orchestra concerts. Maybe that’s why I am able to play orchestra music without thinking about it. People in Africa who hear rhythmic music all the time must absorb it, too.

RH      How would you define the word rhythm?

JW       Dance partner. That just came out spontaneously.

RH      What’s the difference between rhythm and time?

JW       Time is a measurement of momentum, of flow, and rhythm denotes a more imaginative dance with that measurement. I’m drawn to embracing the more mysterious side of life rather than the more exacting.

RH      What is the difference in the way you feel about music you have learned with notation and the music you learned in a more oral tradition?

JW       The music I have learned from notation has a much more intellectual basis; it’s more susceptible to aberrations and misconceptions compared with music I have learned by listening and feeling. To me, music learned aurally has a more direct route to knowing, remembering, and a simpler approach mentally. In my experience this is healthier than music I have thought about and analyzed. In learning visual notation, I have gotten hung up on things I shouldn’t have. For example, I had a whole lesson with Mr. Hinger on the rhythm: 1 & uh 2, [an eighth note followed by two sixteenths and then a quarter note]. It took me twenty years to get rid of that. I attached so much importance to it because it was such a strong lesson. In the process of the lesson, we discussed so many different perspectives on playing that rhythm that I could never play it freely.

RH      It’s a difficult rhythm to articulate on timpani.

JW       I know, but I think any rhythm is easy to play if it’s matter of fact. If you think about it too much you can get into trouble.

RH      With these two different kinds of music you have learned, with notation and without notation, do you feel any differently while playing them?

JW       Ultimately and with all things being equal, no. I think all music comes from the same source. Whether I’m reading, playing from memory, or playing something I learned by rote, I always have the desire to lose myself in the music. If I am successful at that then it’s all from the same source.

I’ve been reading a book about healing with sound and music by a Sufi master from Pakistan, a vina player. He talks about the various levels of a performer and how the depth of your source as a performer reaches the depth of the listener. If you play very casually from an intellectual level, you’ll reach the listener at that level. If you play from your heart and your emotions, you might play with more feeling and be categorized as a soulful musician. If you play from the very depths of your being, you might be described as a spiritual kind of player. We all have all those varieties within us as performers. But whatever the source is at the moment of our performance, that is the level we will reach the listener.

One of the things that fascinates me about Nexus is that we all have a variety of levels and they interact within the group in different ways. Since we have been playing together so long, it is interesting to see how we as individuals have changed over the years.

RH      Can you talk some more about how you feel when you play music?

JW       Lately, I have been aware of a flow of energy, or chi, that is centered and allows me more freedom than clicking my teeth when I play. When I was younger, my father, who was a tuba player, taught me how to breathe. In my mid 20’s, when I began practicing Zen meditation, I found there was a tremendous source of energy in breathing. If I focused on that energy source, I could get a lot more sound out of the drums. Now there is a connection between that energy, that flow, and my ongoing sense of time and rhythm. For me, the joy of music is in playing with someone else, playing with someone else and being a part of the process of making music together.

RH      Much of the Western music we play is constructed in eight-bar phrases. You have played a lot of African music in which the overall phrases are not necessarily based on eight. How does that feel to you?

JW       It doesn’t bother me at all. It doesn’t challenge my feeling about rhythm or music except that it frees me up a little bit. One of the big lessons for me – it blew my mind – was when Steve Gadd stood up in the middle of a rehearsal for the World Drums concerts at Expo 86 in Vancouver, and said, “Hey man, I’m used to playing things in eight-bar phrases.” I think what caused him to say that was when I started playing an African bell pattern with Abraham Adzenyah and cued him in after nine or ten bars. It freaked him out, because he was locked into a way of feeling phrases and I challenged that. That was a strong lesson for me. Playing African music has enabled me to lock into time feels in different ways. It has been a joy and liberation to have 12/8 explode into my consciousness.

RH      Can you remember any other incidents from that World Drum Festival in regard to rhythm that stand out in your mind?

JW       One of the lessons came down very simply; I realized I couldn’t do what I wanted to do. Everybody wanted to do their own thing and weren’t interested in the juxtapositions I thought might work. Just before the concert, I asked you to tap a steady pulse on the side of your drum at the opening of the concert and I asked everybody to follow you. It was beautiful the way it came down. There was no question. There was no challenge. It was not difficult. It was just a simple pulse, and everyone played with it. It didn’t need to be rehearsed, it just happened. And I knew it could happen, otherwise I wouldn’t have asked for it in that way. That was at the very core of the drum festival. I knew that drummers from all over the world could play together, that it wasn’t a problem. And that was the proof right there. It was so obvious and simple and beautiful. Now, looking back on it, that was one of the best parts for me. [Note: see World Drums Expo 86 on YouTube for a film by Rhombus Media of the Vancouver Expo 86 World Drums Festival.]

RH      Do you remember the ending pattern that we worked out?

JW       We used a cue that came from Doudou Rose [Senegalese master drummer]. It was a part of the shtick he had with his sons who formed his drum ensemble. It was an obvious cue, and he could play it louder than anybody. He played 1 & 2 & – – – – four times, then the ending pattern was 1 – – & – – 4 – 1.

Another thing that really enchanted me, something I was aware of before the festival but was highlighted there, is the combination of the slow Agbekor 12/8 [West African dance from the Ewe people] and the slow change that the Koreans were into. I loved the combination of that really laid-back rhythm.

RH      What do you think is the biggest problem for non-drummers, other instrumentalists or singers, in playing with good time and accurate rhythms?

JW       I think there is less experience with rhythm, or that they have paid less attention to rhythm. They also can be seduced by a musical line, a musical phrase, the sound of their voice or instrument. This is different from our approach to playing rhythms. Maybe the biggest difference is carelessness – not having an attentiveness to the rhythmic aspect of music. This causes them to develop a habit of not paying attention. If you are not attentive to something, you don’t retain it.

RH      Do you think rhythm has the ability to alter the senses?

JW       Absolutely. There is a direct connection between the pulse of your breathing and the level of stress you are experiencing. Rhythm can speed a person up; rhythm can slow a person down. There are times when you are in need of one direction or the other. Music may be one of the most healing and one of the most destructive experiences in our life. I feel there are a lot of destructive areas now because of the pervasive nature of it. There is just too much music and a lot of it is too loud and stressful.

RH      Do you think rhythm can provoke an altered state of consciousness?

JW       I know it can. Absolutely. I wouldn’t be a musician otherwise.

RH      Do you think there are universal rhythms that would affect people in different cultures the same way?

JW       I think that there is a universal flow of energy that one can become part of that will affect anyone that ever encounters it. I would put it beyond culture, beyond social influences. It’s just a life energy source that is there to draw on. Let me rephrase that: it’s not there to draw on, it’s just something we are a part of. And when we become aware of it, we become more at one with life. It’s one of those things that is almost impossible to describe. It’s like a tree’s invitation to be patient. Everything in creation has an energy, has a relationship with this universal source of energy, and when you run out of it, it’s all over. The energy, the vitality that music seems to access for me can be a great healing source. It can be source of power, but not in a self-centered way. It can give you the energy to do something that has to be done. It is like lifting a car when someone is pinned under it. You perceive a need, and boom, the energy is there.

RH      Do you think there are any secret rhythms that have special powers?

JW       I haven’t found any yet. The whole concept of secret rhythms comes from cultures that have attached a supreme importance to music in their spiritual traditions like the Sufi mystics – the Dervishes, in particular. Also, like the Santerians in Cuba and Voodoo in Haiti. Maybe even Anton Bruckner, I don’t know.

Any group of people who have had success in finding wholeness or a greater sense of solace or confirmation of their being through music might attach such importance to the rhythms that they use and that they would classify as being secret. Over centuries, great masters would pass on certain things to their initiates that were deserving in some way. But my feeling is that as the music of these traditions becomes more accessible, one can take any rhythm and simply become one with it, losing yourself in the process on a regular basis as an exercise. It is like a meditation that allows one to be transported in a way that is very cleansing for the mind and spirit. I think musicians do this intuitively whether they know it or not. They come from a concert experience renewed or rejuvenated. I would say that the more esoteric something is, the simpler it is. The more something works, the simpler it is. Just as following your breath is a relaxing technique.

RH      Do you think that if we were allowed to hear rhythms that are played in African societies, for example, that have rhythms that only certain people are allowed to hear and play, these rhythms would affect us in a way that no other rhythm has done before?

JW       If it is something we have never heard before, it would probably blow our minds in a way. It would obviously give us a new perspective, but whether or not it would lead to enlightenment I would tend to doubt. But I would certainly be enchanted by the experience.

RH      Do you think it might be an acculturated experience?

JW       I think so, like all religion.

RH      What do you think would be a good format for a book on rhythm for the general public?

JW       I think a presentation of rhythm that invites the uninitiated to perceive the tremendous variety of rhythms in life, not just in music, in a way that invites them to participate so that they see how healthy rhythm is in relation to making work almost effortless. The rhythm of a good walk. Exercise as dance rather than tedium or stressful challenge. Somehow to appreciate the simple insights through all of your experiences with the rhythm of other cultures leading to an understanding that this tune can be viewed in different ways. All these different ways allow your imagination the freedom to enjoy. Rhythm can be a fantastic tool to avoid boredom. I think there is a need to understand how healthy rhythm and dance are – how important the dance is that they do in their everyday life, whether they are going to do it for a long time or a short time. Whether it is positive or negative for their health.

RH      Are there any other questions you would like to find out about concerning rhythm?

JW       One of the things that comes to mind when I play my jembuka is: do we as individuals have a rhythm that is ours, that is unique to us as individual musicians? Right now, I’m speaking as a performer, but this could be extended to every person. We all have a tempo to our walk and to our breathing, and when you look at body language, when you can see somebody several blocks down the street, you know who it is because of body language. Body language is dance, essentially. I guess I’m not really asking the question anymore, I’m answering my own question – each of us does have an individual rhythm.

When you listen to the great drummers, they all have a feel that is theirs. Over time and experience they learn to communicate with people using this feel. It is reinforced by their confidence in it, not necessarily their understanding of it. Each feel is unique. I’m fascinated by this.

RH      It’s a feel rather than a particular rhythm.

JW       It’s a feel. Take somebody like Stevie [Gadd]. He lays something down and all you want to do is play with it or listen to it. Usually, I’m drawn to play with it; I want to take part in the dance. Anyone who has spent time playing with rhythm and developing their own relationship with it, building their self-confidence with it, learns to reach out and touch people with it. It’s our language that for me is enchanting.

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3 years ago

Now that I’m over 50 (just, mind you!) I can feel the depth of the profound blessing I was given to be able to study, and then work, with these gentlemen, both together and individually. Expo 86 was my initiation into a magical world, as a wide-eyed apprentice – allowed only to watch. Subsequently, following Nexus to Toronto, and then playing alongside them and other percussion giants in World Drums, was the greatest school one could ever dream of. Eternal gratitude. John’s spirit shines here. Terrific interview!

3 years ago

Great insights into John Wyre’s unique and amazing musicality – or his musical thought – or his philosophical thoughts about the rhythms of life. And so much more. Thanks for posting these interviews.
The book is really inspiring- page after page one finds food for thought.

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