Name: Myele Manzanza
Occupation: Drummer, composer, improviser
Nationality: Congolese-New-Zealand
Current release: Myele Manzanza's Crisis & Opportunity Vol.2 – Peaks is scheduled for release on DeepMatter on November 19th 2021.

If these thoughts by Myele Manzanza piqued your interest, visit his informative personal homepage. He is also on Instagram, twitter, Facebook, and Soundcloud.

Tell me about your instrument and/or tools, please. How would you describe the relationship with it? What are its most important qualities and how do they influence the musical results and your own performance?  

Whilst I compose and produce music on various instruments and musical software tools, fundamentally I’m a drummer first and foremost, and when it comes to the improvisation process I’m far more fluid behind a drum set than anything else.

I’ve played drums of varying quality over the years (most of the time you just have to work with whatever the venue provides rather than getting supplied with your exact specifications) and inevitably you learn to adapt to the nuances and circumstances of each instrument. But generally speaking, depending on the musical circumstance I like my drums to have a certain balance of ‘tone’. ie something approaching a musical note on the toms and ‘thud’, ie a punchy mid-to-low end presence with a bit of reduction of the higher overtones of the drum using dampening / muffling where required. I also aim to have my drums tuned to be relatively harmonious between each other (personally I find intervals of major 3rds, perfect 4ths and/or perfect 5ths between the floor tom, rack tom snare tend to be easier to assimilate into a cohesive sound on the kit as a whole, than the rather tight semi-tones or tone intervals and the rather large 6ths & 7ths, but there’s no set rule really).

I find the amounts of tone & resonance from the instrument often impacts the musical choices I make - ie you can allow for a little more space between each note if there’s some resonance in the drums and have a little less tendency to ‘overplay’, but if they’re too ringy then it can lose some of the presence and impact of the statements you want to make so you end up playing differently to compensate.

What do improvisation and composition mean to you and what, to you, are their respective merits?

Personally I see them as having a bit of a yin-yang relationship. All compositions start with some degree of improvisation to generate the seed idea, which is then refined into its finished shape, and all improvisations inherently have some degree of composition - even if it’s raw free jazz there will be some kinds of themes that emerge, even if they’re rarely repeated in the conventional ways that we associate with formal ‘composition’.

As a practitioner of both forms of music making I find that the main difference is in the timescales that you’re working with. ie a live improvisation is 1 minute of music created in 1 minute of time, with the ‘creative’ process and the ‘presentation’ process being a unified musical action in the moment in real time. Whereas a composition could be 2 seconds of music created, perfected and refined in 2 weeks or even 2 years of time, and more often than not the creative process of composition is totally separate from the presentation of the work, and are largely completely separate disciplines.

This is particularly pronounced in the classical music world, where musicians may spend their entire lives dedicated to becoming virtuosos on their instruments and perfecting the navigation and interpretation of Bach, Beethoven, Chopin etc and spend next to no time or effort trying to compose and perform their own works. That’s not to say there’s no creativity there. A wide variety of nuance and emotion can be derived by different musicians / conductors / orchestras interpreting the same passages of the great composers in different ways, and there’s always something new to be found in them. But generally speaking, whilst there are plenty of exceptions to the rule, most of the time the creativity of composition and the craftsmanship of interpretation & performance stay separate in the conventions of the classical genre.

In terms of what composition and improvisation mean to me, I’d say that in my artistic practice one side informs the other. In particular, my early-to-mid 20s were filled with the existential dread trying to answer the question “what is my sound as an artist / drummer / musician?”. I was practicing a lot and had listened to a wide range of music, but I was still figuring out my voice. It got so bad and I’d accumulated so much mental baggage around the question that I’d even get bouts of depression when sitting behind drums trying to practice. So I put the sticks down and spent time tinkering on piano or music software like Logic trying to make beats etc. where I could be a beginner again and not have the self inflicted pressure of trying to be the great original drummer-artist. Having to live up to the legacy of all the other great drummers so-to-speak. Eventually I’d land on ideas that I liked and recorded them or wrote them down, and eventually there was enough material for me to think I could maybe turn these into an album and eventually play them live.

From there, as a drummer performing my own works and leading other musicians through them, I soon discovered that there was room for my drummer personality and ideas to emerge naturally. I was largely just letting the compositions and the flow of the music inform my drumming decisions, rather than trying to force ideas or come with preconceived notions of what the drums were supposed to do. And because I believed in the bigger picture of the music as a whole it simplified a lot of the baggage that I was bringing to my musicianship as a whole.

Purportedly, John Stevens of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble had two basic rules to playing in his ensemble: (1) If you can't hear another musician, you're playing too loud, and (2) if the music you're producing doesn't regularly relate to what you're hearing others create, why be in the group. What's your perspective on this statement and how, more generally, does playing in a group compare to a solo situation?

I’d largely agree with these rules and they feel like good overall principles to work with.

In terms of how I approach the improvisational process within a group I tend to view it in the same way I would approach a conversation with other people. Primarily, that it should be a conversation first & foremost, rather than a lecture with one person doing all the talking. Whilst you might have a general framework or topic of what you’re going to discuss, you don’t want to come with an overly pre-conceived agenda to what you’re going to bring to the table in that moment, as you may get in the way of the conversation being able to reach new territory and be flexible and adaptable enough to go with it.

It’s often more important to listen and give your attention to the other person, both with what they’re saying, the tone of how they’re saying it, and the overall body language that they may be using to convey their message, in order to be as mindful and present as possible in your responses to the conversation and allow for it to organically reach new & interesting terrain, rather than being overly domineering in the conversation, or use unnecessarily flashy words might show the other person how smart you are but that don’t have a whole lot of meaning or appropriate context behind them.

With improvising in a solo context it is definitely a different thing as you aren’t specifically bouncing ideas and reacting to other musicians in real time, and perhaps here it does lend itself to being more analogous to a lecture or speech rather than a conversation. But beyond the raw musical content of what you are playing it is important to be mindful of how you’re ‘speaking’, how your audience is reacting (even if they’re sitting still and listening they still have an impact and you can still be informed by them) and that your statements are meaningful rather than being flashy for the sake of it.

There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind for your improvisations and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?

I’ve found that generally speaking the clearer my mind is, the better the music is that comes from it, whether in an ‘improvisation’ or ‘composition’ setting.

To counteract a common misconception here, it’s very unlikely that when a listener feels a sense of melancholy or joy or whatever emotional state from a piece of music, that the composer or performer was explicitly feeling that same mood in the act of composing or performing the music that the listener was hearing and was deliberately trying to convey that in their work. More often than not it’s a projection from the listener and the composer/performer likely wasn’t feeling anything at all beyond an inquiring sense of ‘where does this music want to go?’

That’s not to say that the range of human emotion and experience doesn’t inform an artist and their expression, as we can’t as humans be much more than the range of our experiences and influences and there’s plenty of aspects of musicianship that are better learned by living life than by practicing your instrument as it were. But from personal experience, any attempt I make to write ‘melancholic’ music from a place of melancholy, or ‘angry’ music from a place of anger end up feeling pretty disingenuous. And what I feel to be my best works or best performances come from a headspace that’s clear of emotion or preconceptions.

In terms of strategies to get into a clearer headspace, I’ve found meditation and mindfulness practices to be incredibly useful here. If for nothing else then for developing a better relationship with my mind, being able to notice the mind when I’m distracted and getting overly caught up in thoughts, and being a little better at drawing my attention and focus into the present moment. It is definitely a better place to be for your creativity than being overly bound up in thoughts and emotions, and it can be incredibly useful for making clearer & more beneficial decisions and responses to the world around you whether musical or otherwise, rather than getting caught in unconscious reactions.

It’s not to say I’m any zen master or anything but it is definitely a benefit to my creative life.

Can you talk about how your decision process works in a live setting?

To be honest, not really. At least nothing much beyond trying my best to listen to the music being made in the moment, being open to letting the music dictate what musical choices need to be made from moment to moment whilst considering the broader picture of the music, the fellow musicians and the audience, and then doing my best to make those musical decisions as honestly as possible.

How is playing live in front of an audience and in the studio connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally?

In a similar sense to what I talked about in the dichotomy of ‘composition’ vs ‘improvisation’, making music in a recorded setting, and performing that music live in front of an audience are two sides of the same coin. The studio situation being more akin to ‘composition’ where you can go back and edit & refine your ideas into it’s finished product in a potentially infinite time-scale, and the live-situation where you’re playing 1 minute’s music in 1 minute of time, and any ‘mistakes’ that happen can’t be redone.

Whilst I enjoy both, I’m definitely in my happy place in front of an audience. I enjoy walking the tightrope and the higher potential for excellence that can be generated with the pressure of a live audience setting, and I gather a greater amount of joy in sharing the music with humans in a room together. In saying that, the process of working to refine a piece of music to be the best it can be with the tools of the studio and the option to re-record mistakes etc is fun too, and there is a satisfaction in being able to look back at the work you’ve done and see/hear it distilled in a recording. Which doesn’t happen in a live setting as (unless it’s recorded) it inevitably vanishes into the ether and only lives on in memory.

In a way, improvisations remind us of the transitory nature of life. What, do you feel, can music express about life and death which words alone may not?

A great question. The first thing that comes to mind that separates music from words alone in the kinetic nature of it. To hear frequencies assembled in different orders that create harmonies and melody that generate some sense of emotion is quite a powerful thing. To hear rhythms that move crowds to jump and dance together in unison or as individuals, and be physically caught up in that process whether as a dancer or a musician is a pretty special and ancient relationship that I believe is part of what makes us human. In many ways it has parallels with nature and I find in many ways can be a more direct way of expressing myself & my humanity in a way that I’m not necessarily so great at with words alone.

I also find, as I alluded to earlier, that my musicianship is informed by my life experiences in ways both subtle and profound. To know love & hearbreak, joy and pain, how to speak as well as how to listen, to be in relationship with myself as well as my fellow human beings, things like that are often reflected in my musicianship and the better I get at those life skills the better my music becomes, and vice versa. Also, having made several recordings over the years they become to an extent markers of my growth as a person as well as an artist and on a personal level can be quite a nice measure of my life to date.

In terms of what music can express about death, that one’s a little harder for me to find a good answer for. I’m quite lucky to have not yet experienced a lot of death of people close to me, and I haven’t had any real near-death experiences, so perhaps later down the line I’ll have a better handle on an answer here. But I have had people reach out to me saying that my music has helped them through the grieving process of losing a loved one, and no doubt music has been a healing force when dealing with difficult times in my life as well.

Not that I’m looking forward to it, but death is an inevitable part of life so I’m sure I’ll have some better answers from lived experience eventually.