Beyond the Comfort Zone with Jazz Drummer Simon Barker

Ahead of next week’s Making Space event, SEI speaks with Dr Simon Barker about improvisation, collaboration, and how running barefoot can solve the most unlikely problems.

Kevin Baquerizo, via Unsplash

Could you give us a brief overview of your background and some of your current projects?

For the the past thirty years I’ve been performing locally and internationally in both solo and collaborative contexts. Since the late 1990’s I’ve had a deep interest in rhythm and movement practices found throughout Asia and the Pacific, with a primary focus on rhythmic processes and conceptual frameworks found in Korea.

In 2012 I began barefoot running, and have funnelled this interest (obsession) in efficient movement and sustainable form into a kind of integrated practice that forms a cycle of information sharing/problem solving between barefoot running and drumming. This ongoing integrated practice/research has led to a range of new language forms and technical developments for drum set manifest in both solo and collaborative work.

Some current projects include a range of recent solo recordings and performances, as well as local and international collaborations with Scott Tinkler, Phil Slater, Carl Dewhurst, Chiri (Aus/Korea), Jen Shyu (USA), HONA (Korea). Examples of my recent recordings can be found here.

Live jazz music, to the audience at least, often seems so effortless and organic. I wonder if you could describe the process of improvisational performance from your perspective as an artist? How does the ensemble adapt and evolve around each other in real time, making space for individual expression whilst allowing the collective voice to emerge?

During solo drumming performances I like to improvise with rhythmic vocabulary that I’ve created through a range of developmental processes. When I was younger, the language and rhythmic forms were derived from drummers that I loved listening to. Later, I began to learn about process through studies, collaborations, and friendships in Korea, which gave me a large pool of conceptual and language tools to work with. Over the last few years I’ve really focused on creating personal malleable drum set language that has emerged through process and an ongoing dialogue with barefoot running. This has allowed me to work in a kind of closed loop of influence between drumming and running.

I’m very fortunate in that most of the collaborative music I make is with good friends. The music emerges through relationships and is bound with trust and acceptance of each individual’s unique musical vision and ongoing evolution as an artist. It’s very inspiring to witness the great shifts in musical/conceptual practice that emerge throughout a friend’s life, and I feel very lucky to be involved in ongoing collaborations with some of the worlds most extraordinary musicians. For this reason, collaboration is a form of musical conversation in an evolving landscape, and the joy, for me, is in the ongoing discovery of new ways of working together with constantly evolving musical and conceptual tools.

Over your career you have engaged in some amazing collaborations, on and off stage. I wonder whether, in your experience, these lessons in making space whilst performing can translate to other disciplines and sites of collaboration?

I’ve learnt so much about process, communication, patience, and learning to accept and embrace ways of working that may seem unusual at first. Most of the great lessons I’ve had as a drummer have been through learning or collaborating in musical contexts that are way out of my comfort or experience zone. Many times I’ve found these experiences, that at first felt new and unusual, turned out to be musical spaces that resonated deeply with me, and allowed for a clearer path of personal expression and instrumental development.

Also, I’ve developed, what feels to me, like a profound connection between barefoot running and drumming that allows for the two practices to be understood as basically the same thing. In this way, I can solve drumming questions by running up a long hill and thinking about/working on connections between pendulums, body motion, synchronised movement, efficiency, and long-term problem solving. Likewise, drumming can deeply inform the vast range of physical and mental questions that come up during a very long uphill run.

These types of questions associated with efficiency, sustainability and fundamental principles can inform any discipline, and I am very interested in cross-pollination of ideas between practices far removed from drumming.

Making Space II: Caught on the brim will be held on Wednesday April 3 from 6pm. This conversation brings together milliner Rosie Boylan and drummer Simon Barker with museum curator Jude Philp to discuss the art of translating knowledge and experiences into creative outlets and social enterprise.

Post conversation, there will be a bespoke experimental music performance, curated by E M U S (Exploratory Music Sydney) an organisation promoting improvised, exploratory, experimental music and sound art in Sydney and its surrounds.

Simon Barker is a lecturer in Jazz Studies at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. In addition to his numerous solo performances and recordings, Simon co-leads several internationally recognized collaborative ensembles including Trace Sphere, Chiri, Showa 44, and Band of Five Names. Simon also performs with many of Australia’s most established ensembles including the Matt McMahon trio, the Phil Slater Quartet, and several groups led by Scott Tinkler. Recent international collaborations include performances at KBS Art Hall, Seoul, (with Jo Jonghun and Lim Mijeong), Yeowoorak Festival, Korea, (with Kim Jeong Hee), Jazztopad, Poland (duet with Bae il Dong), peformances with Jen Shyu (USA). in 2015, Simon published “Korea and the Western Drumset” (Ashgate, London).