Adam Rudolph: Languages of Rhythm
Making sense of the world we live in seems to be one of the focal points of Adam Rudolph’s life. The way he has chosen to do so is through making music, most of it collaboratively. He could just as well have become a philosopher—he even looks and sounds like one when he speaks—but that would not be hands-on enough for his worldview.
It’s very difficult to categorize Adam Rudolph and that’s perfectly fine with him.
“I prefer not to adhere to the idea of a genre or category,” he advised when we visited him at his home in Maplewood, New Jersey, over the summer. “I think those things exist for the convenience of buying and selling.”
But verbal communication—by its very nature—often involves categorization. It’s how we explain things to each other and try to make sense of the world we live in. And making sense of the world we live in seems to be one of the focal points of Adam Rudolph’s life, even though the way he has chosen to do so is through making music, most of it collaboratively. He could just as well have become a philosopher—he even looks and sounds like one when he speaks—but that would not be hands-on enough for his worldview. As he explained:
[E]verything is vibrating in the universe. So, we’re sitting on this planet. We’re sitting on these chairs. We’re bodies, but when you move into the finer elements of vibration, we can talk about it as thought, or even feeling or spirit. By spirit, I’m not talking about religion. I’m talking about mystery. Music is all about communication in this finer element of vibration. But it’s not just words. When you really think about it as a manifestion of what we do, vibration manifests as a duality. That’s what you were referencing. The duality being motion and color, we could say. What motion is, of course, is that we perceive reality temporally, so that has to do with musical terms, what we call rhythm, and how rhythm comes into being. And then the other side is color, which has to do with the overtone series and of course harmony and melody. But the thing is they’re both manifestations of the same thing.
Although Rudolph tries to eschew compartmentalizing music into different genres, he does acknowledge that music has emerged for three distinct purposes among most of the world’s peoples: an “art” or “classical” music which has “a pedagogy associated with it and a certain kind of codification of elements and a class thing about who consumes it”; a “folk” music that comes straight from the people, usually poorer people; and finally, devotional music. But he’s quick to point out that most of his musical heroes—such as John Coltrane, Yusef Lateef, and Don Cherry—played all three. All of the musical activities that Rudolph himself engages in blur and merge these demarcation points as well. He has played hand drums and a variety of other percussion instruments both alone and in improvisatory collaboration with others (such as in his duos with Lateef, fellow multi-instrumentalist Ralph Jones, Moroccan Gnawa master Hassan Hakmoun, and Cuban pianist Omar Sosa, as well as in the seminal Mandingo Griot Society he co-founded with Gambian griot Foday Musa Suso in the late 1970s). In the 1980s and ’90s, he composed for and fronted the quartet Eternal Wind, which incorporated instruments from Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and the Americas; since then he has led an equally eclectic octet called Moving Pictures. He has also composed fully notated chamber works for a variety of ensembles, including the Oberlin Percussion Group and the Momenta String Quartet. Perhaps most importantly, he has established a new kind of orchestra which seamlessly weaves composition and improvisation and has involved musicians from across generations and the world’s musical traditions.
“I was interested in trying to solve the challenge of how you can have as much freedom in this spontaneous compositional setting as possible with a large orchestral ensemble,” said Rudolph. “The Organic Orchestra came about because these musicians were from different backgrounds: people who were trained in so-called classical music; people who were in world music, especially percussion—Indian, African, Indonesian, Middle Eastern musicians; and then people who wanted to expand their conception of so-called jazz, or we’ll call it spontaneous composition American music.”
While Rudolph’s multifarious musical activities seem almost by design to exist beyond labels, in his conception they all relate to one another and speak a common language—call it a language of rhythm or an acknowledgement, through music, of the vibrational forces that are always at play in the universe as he has explained, all of which ultimately derive—at least for him—in the physical gesture of playing hand drums.
[T]here’s no doubt that when the hand strikes the drum it’s a kind of sacred act, because it’s a motion. … If you took that sound and slowed the other waveforms way down that would even be a symphony. That’s what’s being informed through me physically interacting with the wood from the tree and the skin of the animal—the vegetable world and the animal world, all of those things are in the act of playing the hand drums. … It absolutely has informed who I am as an artist and as a person. So it manifests when I write a through-composed string quartet, that activity, the physicality of it. I think about my music as a kind of yoga. … [T]ension and release, moving through different colors, all of these different processes inform one another.
Frank J. Oteri: World music is a label that gets attached to you for a variety of reasons, so I was wondering how you feel about that term.
Adam Rudolph: I prefer not to adhere to the idea of a genre or category. I think those things exist for the convenience of buying and selling. You can go to the fresh vegetable section of the grocery store or the dairy section. It’s like that. When I started being interested in doing research and performing in an arena that is now referred to as world music, there was no term like that. But I like even less the word jazz, which has also been attached to my music. So I don’t know. We all live in the world.
FJO: You grew up in Chicago. What was the first music you were exposed to there and how did you get connected to it to the point of wanting to make music yourself? What initially sparked your passion?
AR: My father was a music lover in the best sense of the word. All his life, he went to at least four or five concerts a week. Always. He had an LP collection and it was enormous. He had all kinds of music up until probably 1955 when I was born, when I think maybe he had to start buying diapers instead of LPs. He also took me to hear Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Stan Getz, Mongo Santamaria, and Max Roach and quite often to the Chicago Symphony just at the tail end of when Fritz Reiner was conducting.
I did some classical piano as a child with a teacher who was uninspiring for me. But I came to have a passion for music and a real relationship to it myself. It was something I wanted to do. When I was 14, I lived in a neighborhood on the South Side called Hyde Park. Steve McCall lived a couple of doors down from me. Henry Threadgill lived on 56th Street. Most of the AACM members were my neighbors. Leroy Jenkins was good friends with my high school music teacher, so a lot of those musicians played at our high school at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. And they also played around the neighborhood. Also great artists like Howlin’ Wolf, Otis Spann, and Muddy Waters lived nearby. On Sunday afternoons, you could go to the Checkerboard Lounge and just listen if you were under age. So I used to go to the Checkerboard and I took some real life-long lessons from experiencing that music.
Being around the AACM musicians really showed me a lot about the idea that whatever you can imagine your music to be, if you have the facility, you can do it. And not only the facility, but the courage to really pursue whatever it is your vision is. On 55th Street, there were a lot of drummers playing hand drums. It wasn’t Caribbean drumming. I would call it African American Folkloric Indigenous drumming. I just really enjoyed it and when I sat down, these drummers were really generous with me. After hanging out all day, they’d let you play. And it was something that called to me, and came to me. So that’s how I got involved in playing hand drums.
Later on I did a lot of study and travel, but right from the get go, I was interested in developing my own language and way of approaching hand drums to play the music that I was interested in because I was also listening to the Art Ensemble and to John Coltrane, and then Bitches Brew came out. So it was a completely intuitive idea. There wasn’t really a precedent of somebody I could look to who could play that way, so it’s always been for me a process of being self-taught and self-directed in terms of what I’ve developed on my hand drums. And that expanded into my compositional approach. Hyde Park, the South Side of Chicago, in the late-‘60s, early-‘70s was an incredibly fertile place. These hand drummers I was playing with, many of them were part of a group called The Pharaohs, which had come out of Phil Cohran, who had come out of Sun Ra. Then a lot of drummers with The Pharaohs actually later became members of Earth, Wind & Fire. So there’s all this incredible history and cultural vibrancy that was going on at that time.
FJO: One of the musicians you mentioned being taken to hear live by your father was Max Roach. He seems like someone who could have been an important role model for you. The reason I wanted to ask you what first sparked your passion for music was to get a sense of what aspect spoke to you first. Many people say that before they started making their own music, there were certain melodies they heard—either live or on recordings—that they latched on to. Others have spoken specifically about certain sonorities, instruments, or the sheer power of the sound. And then there are folks who were captivated by rhythms, harmonies, even bass lines. But the way many people are taught about music initially is that there’s a melody and then everything underneath it. But music is much more than that. It’s all of these components. On your website you include an autobiographic essay in which you mention vibrations being the prime thing that brought you to music. But I think, and maybe you’ll debate with me on this, that vibrations are perhaps an ur-concept that then trickles down first to rhythm, and then to everything else. Putting rhythm first is about looking at music in terms of how it happens in time and in pulsation. In Western classical music, the role of percussionists has mostly been marginalized. The role of even the most prominent orchestral percussion instrument, timpani, is mostly just as an embellishment in the repertoire. In jazz, the drummer has historically been a core member of a combo or a big band, but was usually still a side man. Then Max Roach came along and was the leader of his own groups. He really foregrounded the element of percussion to the point where when you listen to a Max Roach solo, he’s playing melodies on his drum set. Art Blakey, too, and as the leader of the Jazz Messengers, he nurtured generations of musicians. You described the epiphany you had with the hand drummers, so clearly you were responding to the physicality of percussion and rhythm.
AR: You’ve said a lot of really interesting things. There’s a great quote of Max Roach that I can paraphrase that resonates with me today: “I’d rather be a musician than a drummer, and I’d rather be an artist than a musician.” That’s always been very inspirational to me and it’s what I strive to do. There are a lot of great musicians, but not everybody has a vision about what they want to do. He did, clearly.
But the other way to respond to what you’re talking about is that our culture in some ways is sort of this upside down world. When I lived in Ghana in 1977, I experienced what people call a “master drummer.” It meant that you had a significant understanding of a lot more than just playing music. Often times the people actually looked to the drummers as sort of a moral compass and people who approach things with a certain kind of ethic. They understood about the virtuosity of what they did in resonance with the functionality of what you were trying to do. Like if you’re trying to call down spirits, or help somebody pass beyond life into what comes next, or come from what came before into life. All of these kinds of things. You have to have a really deep understanding of that. It’s very inspirational to think about that idea.
Whereas here there’s a sort of denial of the idea of rhythm. I think it’s related to the history of slavery and racism. But even beyond that, I think it goes to the roots of European so-called classical music. It has to do with the denial of the idea of the play of Shiva and Shakti—the male and female energies—which has to do with sex, the fundamental thing from which everything happens and is created and born. I think that denial or repression of rhythm in European classical or upper class music was also transferred over here. In this so-called jazz world, there’s this upside down idea that Elvin Jones was accompanying John Coltrane, or Tony Williams was accompanying Miles Davis. That’s not how it worked, and that’s not even how they themselves thought about it. Coltrane could never have done what he did without being in dialogue with Elvin Jones. And vice versa. One time I was at Ornette Coleman’s house, and we were listening to a duet record that Yusef Lateef and I had done, because he loved Yusef and his playing, and he said, “It sounds like Yusef is accompanying you.” And I knew exactly what he meant. It wasn’t that I was out front or anything like that, but we were in a real dialogue. And actually I think during that period of the ‘40s and ‘50s, especially after Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, there was a certain kind of codification of instrumentation and functionality of what the instruments did. Yet even when you go back before Louis Armstrong or Jelly Roll Morton, there’s much more of this sense of dialogue going on. But let’s be clear: the drums were banned here. And there’s still a stigma about it. I mean, every pianist can be a band leader and go out and front. But for a drummer, it’s difficult. Beyond that, for a hand drummer, it’s even something else again.
People have fixed ideas about what they know—about genres, what’s expected of you, and who’s allowed to do what or what should be doing what, or whatever. To me, the creative impulse goes back to when I was 14 and this intuitive idea of developing my own language on hand drums to play the music that really fascinated me and that I started to imagine. I didn’t really know what that was going to be, but it’s amazing because now, going on 40-plus years later, it still is serving me, and I’m still pursuing that. The idea of the cultivation of intuition is very important because there is this interplay, of course, between the intellect and intuition. But, a lot of times, the cultivation of the intuition itself is fascinating.
To address something else you said—because you actually said a lot—when I was talking about vibration, what I mean is that everything is vibrating in the universe. So, we’re sitting on this planet. We’re sitting on these chairs. We’re bodies, but when you move into the finer elements of vibration, we can talk about it as thought, or even feeling or spirit. By spirit, I’m not talking about religion. I’m talking about mystery. Music is all about communication in this finer element of vibration. But it’s not just words. When you really think about it as a manifestion of what we do, vibration manifests as a duality. That’s what you were referencing. The duality being motion and color, we could say. What motion is, of course, is that we perceive reality temporally, so that has to do with musical terms, what we call rhythm, and how rhythm comes into being. And then the other side is color, which has to do with the overtone series and of course harmony and melody. But the thing is they’re both manifestations of the same thing. And they relate to each other in a very specific way because when you move into dimensionality, the overtone of the [perfect] fifth is the overtone that gives you the dimensionality of all the pitches possible. In rhythm, it’s the three and the two element which gives you all the potentiality of rhythms, both horizontally and vertically. So it’s very interesting because three and two is the sonic relationship of the fifth [3:2], so that’s the same thing.
In 1977, I went up to the Dogon. I stayed in a village called Sanga, which was not so easy to get to then, and I started to learn about the Dogon philosophy. The female energy they call tolo and the male energy they call nya. They have a proverb that roughly translates, “Everything is a marriage and an interplay between male and female energy.” So Tolo/Nya, Shiva/Shakti, Ying/Yang, this kind of thing. Again, we’re into this idea of this energy that becomes creative. As I said before about the harmonic series, you have a linearity of the octave, but as soon as you have the fifth, the next overtone, that opens it up to the fifth of the fifth of the fifth, the circle of fifths, and the pentatonic scale. Everything becomes possible, so that three and two, that male-female energy, is very interesting. Those manifestations of vibration are really significant. Now why is that important? It’s important to me because as a composer, as a spontaneous composer and a writing composer, I’m interested in elements. These are the most pure elements. I read a book by Michio Kaku called Hyperspace, and in it, he’s talking about theoretical physics where there are 11 dimensions. What’s interesting is as you move into the higher dimensions, the laws of physics become simpler and simpler. And I think this is true in music, too, as we move from style into elements. And it’s liberating to me. It’s a full circle back to Max Roach and this idea of being an artist and what is your vision of what that could be. How that manifests in this culture, in this time and place, is a challenge for many of us in a lot of different kinds of ways.
FJO: I’ve never heard such a succinct correlation between the rise of Western classical music and the suppression of sexuality. I’m curious about how these relationships play out in other cultural paradigms. I’m thinking about the North Indian and South Indian classical music traditions where there’s either a vocalist or a melodic instrument in a musical dialogue with a percussionist. They are equal partners to some extent, but there’s still an idea that the musician playing the melodies of the raga is somehow the lead soloist and that the tabla or mridangam player is the accompanist. So even though they feed off of each other, there is a perceived hierarchy. But then when you get to Africa and all the various musical cultures there, whether it’s the Manding culture that spans from Senegal and Gambia through Mali or the traditional culture of the Shona in Zimbabwe, that hierarchy is largely eroded. In other places, such as Ghana where you spoke of master drummers, the hierarchy is completely flipped. The principal drummer is the central figure.
AR: I personally don’t believe in class systems, in music anyway—you know, hierarchies. What I think you’re talking about is actually true in Africa. And the diaspora—we grew up in it, all of us, whether we’re aware of it or not. If you’re fans of James Brown or ZZ Top, you’re basically listening to music that traces its origins back to the Aka and the Babenzelli and the Mbuti, which is where I personally feel is the root of all of that kind of conception—a rhythmic conception that deals with what I call ostinatos of circularity. And that provides a kind of lift.
Actually when you look at it, you could say there’s three kinds of music—classical music, folk music, and devotional music. John Coltrane played all three. Yusef Lateef played all three. Don Cherry played all three. But these are not distinct; there are all these overlaps. So even in India, for example, this hierarchy of the melodic soloist over the drums does not exist in the folk music. In a lot of the devotional music, too, drums are very, very important—the whole thing about circularity and lifting of the moment. I studied tabla for over 20 years, and I used to be able to play a one-hour solo in matta tal, an 18-beat cycle. My teacher, Pandit Taranath Rao, shared that with me. There is an elevation of that drumming there also.
But these classical music traditions, so called, where there’s a pedagogy associated with it and a certain kind of codification of elements and a class thing about who consumes it, a lot of times rhythm can be sort of shunted aside. I don’t know so much about the history of it, but to me, it kind of has to do with the church origins of European music—Gregorian chant—and of course that exquisite beauty, but also the elimination of this idea of what we call the groove. But that groove can lead you into the cosmos, too, to transcendence, if we know anything about George Clinton or Bata drumming. Right?
FJO: I don’t know when you started writing music, but I find it interesting that you didn’t go on to study composition or pursue a performance degree. Instead you got a degree in ethnomusicology. I’m curious about what led to that and how the orientation of that academic discipline helped to shape your musical thinking.
AR: Well, let me go back. I was on my way out the front door—I finished high school young. I was 16—metaphorically with my drums on my back—congas—on my way to New York, and my parents were like, “Hold it. Get a degree.” So I went to Oberlin. At that time, ethnomusicology was not considered an undergraduate study. But you could design your own major, so I designed my major and I called it ethnomusicology. It was a way for me to study everything that was interesting to me as a young artist that I could. So I read books and things, but it was more of an informal discovery. I don’t consider myself a formal ethnomusicologist.
Going back to the question about when I started writing music. When I was taking classical piano lessons and playing my Czerny and Mozart, I was already making up my own pieces. Finally one day, I got my courage together to show my piano teacher. God bless her, poor lady, she didn’t know any better. I played them for her and her response was, “Okay, now let’s look at your E-flat major scale.” Nothing else. That was the beginning of my being out the door. I said, “I don’t want to do this.” But when I really came to starting my own compositional ideas was when I lived with in Don Cherry’s house in Sweden in 1978 and he started showing me a lot of Ornette’s pieces by rote on the piano. It was an inspirational environment where I just started creating pieces. I was also motivated to start composing because there wasn’t really any music that existed that was the vehicle for what I was doing on the hand drums. Ever since then, there has been this kind of interplay between how and what I play and how I write.
Of course, I’m now writing string quartets and percussion pieces that are completely through-composed and that’s a fascinating process, too. Process is what’s crucial for all of us. If you can generate your own creative process, then your music is bound to be prototypical. So I’m interested in exploring different kinds of processes. When we say composing or improvising, both of which are ambiguous terms, especially improvising, it really just has to do with different ways of approaching the creative process itself. Anyway, I started putting music together in 1978.
FJO: Was this after you first met and started working with Foday Musa Suso?
AR: Well, okay, a little bit of linearity to answer your question. You were talking about hearing a transformative concert. The Art Ensemble of Chicago did a concert at Ida Noyes Hall, not long after they came back from Europe. It was the first time I heard them, and it was a magical experience. Then, of course, I heard many concerts. There were a lot of great series. I remember hearing Marion Brown and Steve McCall playing a duet. And the first concerts of Air. Of course, all the concerts my father took me to were great, but experiencing music on my own as a young adult or teenager was really transformative. And also Sun Ra and the Herbie Hancock Sextet—the Mwandishi group. I saw them many times. To me, still to this day, they were really playing some kind of future music—Miles’s group at that time with Mtume, the early Weather Report, and what Alice Coltrane was doing, too. There was so much to listen to and I was hearing it all, along with the blues musicians. So I was inspired. McCoy Tyner would pull out a koto. All of a sudden they’ve expanded the orchestration, and they’re bringing in these colors, and also these approaches to things. So, my thought was that I should go deeper into these ideas. Also, I should mention Don Cherry’s Relativity Suite. It’s a very important early record for everybody in “world music.” Don, along with Yusef, was a pioneer in collaborating with musicians from so many cultures. He had musicians from different cultures and concepts from different places going on—Mali, India, China—but somehow in this very integrated, beautiful way. Hearing that record and records like [Miles Davis’s] On the Corner, my thought was, “Let’s study these and then go as deep as possible.” That was the beginning of following my intuition into studying Afro-Cuban drumming, Afro-Haitian drumming, tabla, Indonesian—wherever it led me.
I drove a cab when I finished Oberlin and I started playing in Detroit a lot, which is where I got introduced to Schillinger and a lot of rhythmic ideas, working with the Contemporary Jazz Quintet. By this time, I’d been playing with Fred Anderson and Maulawi Nururdin, who were really important mentors. The courage that they demonstrated opened this up for me. So I spent a year in West Africa, kind of on my own; I was 21 by then, living there and experiencing the living philosophy of it there. And I traveled around. When I came back, Foday Musa Suso and I started the Mandingo Griot Society in ’78. Then we invited my good friend Hamid Drake—whom I met in a drum store when we were 14—to be part of the Mandingo Griot Society. He’d been playing with Fred Anderson, and we had listened to Don Cherry together. So we contacted Don, and he came and played on the record. He’d liked what Hamid and I were doing, so he invited us to come and stay in Sweden in this farmhouse that he and [his wife] Moki had in the countryside. We spent the summer there. Then we went on tour in the fall. That’s how Don became a very important mentor for me, as he was for many people, I think.
FJO: There were so many different musical elements that came together in the Mandingo Griot Society. There’s obviously the Manding tradition of griots singing epic tales and accompanying themselves on the kora; Foday Musa Soso grew up in a family of griots in the Gambia and is one of the world’s greatest masters of that instrument. But there were also all these other elements that the group incorporated. Earlier on you talked about there being three different kinds of music—the so-called classical music of the nobility, the folk music of the people, and sacred music. One could argue that popular music is a kind of folk music, but as it evolved it really morphed into something else—certainly by the time you were growing up. In the late 1960s and ‘70s, people like Miles and Weather Report were doing stuff in the jazz scene that incorporating elements of rock and R & B. At some point some musicians even started incorporated disco elements, like Herbie Hancock doing stuff with a vocoder on the album Feets Don’t Fail Me Now. I can also hear those elements on Mandingo Griot Society records. “Woman Dance with Me” is almost like a disco tune. It’s certainly very directly referencing the popular music of that time. So I’m curious about how far the group was interested in going in that direction. I think it was a very pioneering group in terms of that.
AR: Well, thank you. I think it was, too. There had of course been others. We talked about Max Roach. He helped present [the Ghanaian musician] Guy Warren to the world—and Ahmed Abdul-Malik and Randy Weston and Dizzy Gillespie and, of course, Yusef Lateef. So there was this interest. But the Mandingo Griot Society was unique and ahead of its time in that it was a griot musician bringing his repertoire and tradition, but in terms of the conception of it, it was really a collaboration in the sense that Hamid and Joe Thomas and I brought our sensibility of growing up with what we call rhythm and blues and what we call jazz and blues, in particular, to the table. The connection is very organic in that way. So we were one of the first groups many people heard doing something like that, for sure. People had never seen a kora. Now there’s a gazillion of these kinds of collaborations, but we were amongst the first and we toured all the time. We were on the road from ‘79 to like the mid-‘80s, pretty constantly—trains in Europe, driving a station wagon around in the U.S., playing everywhere all the time. And people would come and they would dance to the music. So it was exciting. We didn’t have any sense of what it meant in any continuum; it was just what we were interested in. The tradition is to sound like yourself. So even though the framework was Mandingo music, and also Wolof and Fulani music, the resonance of it was contemporary. It was our experience of who we were in our time and place. That’s been a key part of a lot of the collaborations that became very important for me, like working with Hassan Hakmoun and L. Shankar.
FJO: Now, in terms of how the Mandingo Griot Society developed, it gradually got more electronic. I’m thinking of Watto Sitta. It definitely seems to be tapping the same well of what groups like Talking Heads had been doing—somehow reconciling traditional African music, contemporary pop music, and a wide array of electronic elements. It all came together in a way that I think must have overlapped audiences in the same way that had happened in the late 1960s when there seemed to be a great deal of common musical ground between what composers were doing in various electronic music studios, what psychedelic rock musicians were doing in recording studios, what so-called free jazz musicians were doing, etc. They were tapping into a very similar energy and I think a similar phenomenon happened in the early 1980s.
AR: That’s interesting. I never thought about it that way. I felt like what we were doing was an extension of my fascination with or appreciation of groups like the Art Ensemble of Chicago—but also reflecting on [Herbie Hancock’s] Head Hunters and whatever else was going on. A lot of us had come up playing rhythm and blues. For me the really interesting period was the ’70s. There was a real breadth of ways of approaching things—what Tony Williams was doing, and people like Marion Brown and Terry Riley. It was just an amazing period. But by the ‘80s, the Mandingo Griot Society just traveled and traveled and followed that thread through.
FJO: What strikes me as so interesting is that you had started another project concurrently that continued on—Eternal Wind. Once again, there were tons of different influences from cultures from all over the world. But I think it was an extremely different sound world. Eternal Wind and the Mandingo Griot Society are almost a yin/yang. The Mandingo Griot Society was very rhythmic whereas Eternal Wind was much more expansive. So I’m wondering how that came about and how the collaboration with the other musicians in Eternal Wind worked.
AR: You’re right. They’re very different. The framework for the Mandingo Griot Society was the music on the kora and the dusungoni. There’s something special everybody gets to bring to the equation. One of the things I learned from Don Cherry was how to be able to play with a musician from any culture, to have enough respect and understanding of what they do, but still maintain your own voice and identity and apply your own musicianship to the overall lifting of the musical moment. So we were doing that in the framework of what that music could do. But we couldn’t really go outside of that. So even while the Mandingo Griot Society was going on, I was starting to write my own music and so I wanted a format for that.
I actually moved out to California from Chicago after living in Sweden, and I reconnected with somebody. I have to backtrack. While I was at Oberlin, Charles Moore and Herb Boyd were driving down from Detroit every week and teaching African-American music, or so-called jazz. When I met Charles, I’d already been playing with Fred Anderson and Maulawi Nururdin. He started inviting me to go up to Detroit and play with the Contemporary Jazz Quintet, which at that time had expanded into a larger group. This is the group with Kenny Cox and the Contemporary Jazz Quintet. They did some incredible records for Blue Note, but now they were also opening up. So I’m this kid. I mean these are very, very advanced musicians, and I’m like 17, just kind of hanging on. Charles was the one who really introduced me to Schillinger’s concept. It was the beginning of my real connection with the Detroit scene which, later on of course, working with Yusef, was my second home and my second school, like Chicago was. Kenny Cox and Charles Moore were very important mentors. By the time I came back from Sweden, I was playing with a lot of Latin bands and Haitian bands and things around Chicago, but I was ready to move on and decided to go to California because there was more going on there in African music and Indian music and it was something different. It just felt like I wanted to go somewhere else. So I reconnected with Charles Moore and Ralph Jones from Detroit, and we started the Eternal Wind group, which became the first real vehicle for my compositional ideas.
And it was collaborative. Charles and I were the primary composers, but not exclusively. It became the outlet for our vision of music. We were doing what’s now called world music where the orchestration is really huge. There were instruments from different parts of the world, percussion especially. Conceptually we were thinking about a lot of different things also, but the root we go back to is the so-called jazz world. We’re coming from that as this tradition of creating environments in compositional functionalities that have spontaneous composition involved in them and were looking for new ways of structuring that and of opening up the instrumentation. Why do I have to have bass, drums, piano, and horns? Why do we have to have this kind of formalistic idea of playing a tune and then there are solos? What other things could we do? Again, this is also what was beginning to be opened up in the early ‘70s. We talked about ethnomusicology. My interest in music from other places was not just about studying tablas and different kinds of African drumming and Indonesian music. I also became interested in the construct of the music, which was a deeper element for me—ways that you can organize. For example, how gamelan music is organized with these layers of colotomic structures. It’s very interesting as a formula, or as a way, or process.
Even beyond that, and what interests me more and more as time goes on, has to do with relationships—what the relationship of musician to music is. (By the way, it’s not always even called music and musician in every culture.) What is the relationship between the person and the instrument? What is the relationship of the human being to the context in which they create music? That’s hugely varied, so that can open you up to different kinds of ideas, too.
FJO: Another term that is largely misunderstood and which once meant something very different is the moniker New Age, which now has a somewhat pejorative connotation. Groups like Oregon, which was doing a lot of exploration of various world music traditions, got folded into the original definition of New Age. Now we think of Windham Hill and George Winston, even though he has a very broad range of things that he does. People associate a certain sound with what New Age is. But not originally. So I’m curious if you would have considered what you were doing in Eternal Wind to be New Age.
AR: Again, I don’t feel like and have never felt like being part of any of those things. I can’t comment on the people you’re talking about who are New Age. I feel more and more like part of the lineage that came from the African-American tradition of so-called jazz, which also is an ambiguous term that I don’t subscribe to. In terms of how we approached what we did—in other words, creative attitude and the way of thinking about things—we were definitely and I am still now, really dealing in an extension and an evolution from that tradition, I think. But the tradition is, as I said, to sound like yourself. To reflect the sense of who you are in where we are now is our task. Every generation has the challenge to manifest those things for themselves.
FJO: Toward the end of Eternal Wind’s existence, the group played with a full orchestra in what was in essence a concerto grosso that was composed by Yusef Lateef. I’m curious about how that connection to Yusef came about, especially since it determined a lot of the subsequent course in your musical life.
AR: Absolutely. In 1988, I was invited to actually complete my dual masters at Cal Arts. They gave me a scholarship because they wanted me to teach. I was also collaborating with Peter Otto. We were doing some work with a lecturer who was working with Morton Subotnick doing electro-acoustic research. When I finished I then lived in Don Cherry’s loft in Long Island City, downstairs from, I think, one of the people in Talking Heads by the way. At that time, through Eternal Wind—because of the Detroit connection with Charles Moore and then Kenny Cox—we were put in touch with Yusef Lateef. He had recently returned from four years of living in Nigeria.
By the way, you mentioned New Age music. He won the first New Age Grammy for his Little Symphony, the first record he did when he came back. I remember him calling me and saying, “What is New Age music?” Anyway, when Yusef came back I think it was another period for him; he was really looking for another kind of orchestration. He heard Eternal Wind and invited us to do this concert with him in the summer of 1988 at Symphony Space, along with Cecil McBee. And by us, I mean the Eternal Wind—Charles Moore, Ralph Jones, Federico Ramos, and myself. And Yusef, in the way that was so beautiful and generous of him, actually invited us all to bring our own compositions. We played, I think, three or four of my pieces along with Yusef’s compositions.
So the way the Cologne Radio project came about was I was on tour with Don Cherry, Hassan Hakmoun, and Abdul Jalil Codsi and we played at the Moers Festival. I ran into Uli [Ulrich] Kurth [from the radio station WDR in Cologne]. I said that I was working with Yusef now, and he said that Yusef is such an innovator in so many ways. One of them is that he was one of the first musicians coming from an improvisational, African-American music background to really be writing very extensive pieces. Yusef had already written some pieces for orchestra, and so they commissioned him to write the African American Epic Suite, with the Eternal Wind plus himself as soloist, and the Cologne Radio Orchestra. And that’s how we did that.
FJO: It’s an extraordinary piece. Thankfully it’s documented on a recording, but it could and should have an ongoing life in live performance, I think. I imagine all the orchestra parts are fully notated.
AR: They are.
FJO: But how much of what Eternal Wind was playing was created in the moment? Could it work with another group?
AR: I think absolutely it could work. It’s a shame that it hasn’t been performed more. We performed it with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and also the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. And I think that’s been it. Charles Moore passed away and Yusef has passed away, but there’s absolutely no reason why it couldn’t be performed. Yusef invited each of us to bring to the table that which we do best. So, the orchestra players are reading, but my parts were somewhat episodic. They were very descriptive in some ways about what to be thinking about. There are parts where there’s harmonic motion outlined for Federico Ramos or whatever guitar player would be there. So yeah, it would be different, but the same—which is of course referencing the tradition of so-called jazz, but also referencing the real essential tradition of European classical music, too, where pieces were not rendered in this very codified kind of way. It would be incredible to perform this piece again. The piece is very playable and straight ahead for a quality orchestra and for any improvisers who have some kind of imagination. But it’s a challenge.
FJO: So it makes sense that the next step in your own musical evolution after Eternal Wind and then working intensely with Yusef, including being a part of a large-scale orchestral piece of his, would be to form your own unique kind of orchestra in which the strands of what is composed and what is improvised are impossible to differentiate. That in essence seems to me to be what the Go: Organic Orchestra is about.
AR: Well, coming from Eternal Wind, I started this project called Moving Pictures, which was sort of my compositional vehicle for a mid-sized ensemble. And it’s still going on. I’m mixing a new record now of the Moving Pictures.
Go: Organic Orchestra had its beginning in 2000 when I was living in California. There were a couple motivations for it. This music is an oral tradition. It’s really about mentors. For myself, it’s going back to starting with Fred Anderson and Maulawi Nururdin in Chicago, and then Charles Moore and Kenny Cox in Detroit, and then Don Cherry and Yusef Lateef. We stand on their shoulders. It’s not about the information they shared with us, but it’s about creative attitude and the way of thinking about things—creative process, an attitude of courageousness, cultivating your imagination, cultivating intuition, and about, as I said, your relationship with your art. Those were very important things that those mentors shared with me. So in 2000, when I living on the west side of Los Angeles, there were a lot of musicians who were interested in what I was doing. So I thought it was maybe time for me to create a format for me to share a lot of what I had been so fortunate to glean from these great artists. The Organic Orchestra came about because these musicians were from different backgrounds: people who were trained in so-called classical music; people who were in world music, especially percussion—Indian, African, Indonesian, Middle Eastern musicians; and then people who wanted to expand their conception of so-called jazz, or we’ll call it spontaneous composition American music.
When you listen to those Eternal Wind records, they’re very orchestral. We did a lot of overdubbing. One of the fun things was creating these amazing palettes of sound. I was interested in trying to solve the challenge of how you can have as much freedom in this spontaneous compositional setting as possible with a large orchestral ensemble. That’s how I began to experiment with this idea of the Go: Organic Orchestra. Those were the two impulses for me. And it was just a fascinating thing right from the get go, the idea of it not only cutting across musicians from different backgrounds, but the idea of having the instrumentation be wide open. Also having it be cross generational. Great artists like Bennie Maupin have been in the ensemble. And he might be sitting next to a 14-year-old flute player. It’s about trying to create an environment of sharing and community that I grew up around.
I still go every year to Los Angeles and I maintain a Los Angeles orchestra. I go every year to Austin, Texas; I have a regular orchestra there, too. I also have one in Naples, Italy. And in Istanbul. And of course in New York, now, is the core orchestra I work with the most. We started that in 2005. Most of those musicians are still performing today with the Go: Organic Orchestra, so there’s something really of value. But I travel all over the world and teach and do residencies because, through the process of how Go: Organic Orchestra works, there is an introduction to elements. I’m sharing elements and trying to allow people to have an opportunity to express themselves. It’s a 21st-century vision of what an orchestra is. The dynamic of the community of it is setup with a different kind of hierarchy. It’s not like this hierarchy of composer and conductor and then musicians rendering their vision. Of course, it’s my vision in the sense of how the process works and what the elements are, but every Go: Organic Orchestra concert and ensemble sounds different than the others.
FJO: I witnessed the performance you did a couple of years ago at the Shape Shifter Lab, and it was mind-blowing. It made me want to learn more about how spontaneous, improvisatory conducting works. How much of the material that the musicians perform is written out? How much is improvised? I couldn’t tell.
AR: That’s so interesting. Sometimes you listen to music and you call tell if they’re reading or improvising; it’s very clear. I’ve always been interested in setting up parameters, through composition, that become the arena in which we discuss things aesthetically and functionally. With the Organic Orchestra, a lot of things are going on there. But in the most basic sense, there’s a score of three pages. Page one and two are made up of what I call matrices and cosmograms. They’re basically interval systems. It’s not written in the Western notation. Some of them are related to classic retrogrades and inversions. One of the great things we can do in music syntax is read it forward, backwards, upside down, up. So they’re based on interval systems. And then there are these cosmograms that are also based upon thoughts about ways of thinking about intervals—things like triple diminished patterns, symmetric hexatonic scales, plus tonal patterns: pentatonic and some of them are based on actual ragas and makams. All of these are different and there are ten of them. I have ten fingers, so I can cue people to improvise inside of those.
Or I can orchestrate with various conducting signals also. This can happen when I have somebody improvising. I can create the orchestration around them based upon listening to what they’re doing in the moment, or we can create dialogues that way. The reason these matrixes and cosmograms have become so successful is—I won’t say the opposite, but—they’re very different than a lot of times when you see graphic notation. I’m not directing what kind of shape or phraseology or breathology people bring to it, but we are deciding that this is a topic of conversation. Like a raga. Every raga is not like every other raga. Right? So it’s more than a scale; it has to do with this combination of intervals and the sound and the rasa. In Indian music, rasa is what informs the raga. Rasa is the emotional coloration.
So each one of these matrices and cosmograms have to have their own kind of emotional coloration or topic that we want to talk about. But the reason it’s beautiful for me is that somebody who comes from a background of, say, rock guitar or somebody who comes from a background of playing European classical music on bassoon or a saxophone player—everybody’s going to bring their own breathology and phrasing, and hopefully project their feelings through this matrix, which is the topic. They can communicate with each other because we’re talking about a certain kind of sound arena. Beyond that you can combine these arenas against each other, and then you get into this beautiful, fantastic realm of painting coloration and motion.
Now the third page is what I call ostinatos of circularity. These are interval patterns that are based upon the same kind of materials you find in the matrixes and in the cosmograms, but they’re patterning like what you find in Aka or Mbuti or Babenzele music—not that sound but that concept. That is the link to the other part of the Organic Orchestra concept, which has to do with the rhythm concept. Going all the way back to when you talked about Max Roach, Max Roach also famously said something to the effect of that there was another evolution of this music when Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and Monk started using extensions of chords and higher partials—the rhythm concept really changed. This rhythmic evolution of the music is not talked about as much, relating to what we were speaking about before. So my thought has always been how we move the music forward into the next idea of what we can do rhythmically, how we can create new languages and new concepts of rhythm. Because rhythm ultimately leads to form. And form next, along with process, are the most significant things that I’m interested in.
FJO: That 2015 Cuneiform CD of the Go: Organic Guitar Orchestra sounds completely different from any other thing of yours that I’ve ever heard. You’re conducting it improvisationally, but you’re actually not playing on it at all. I was reminded of this a few months ago when I went to hear your string quartets at Roulette and you actually couldn’t be there because you had gotten really sick. So you weren’t there. But you were there because your music was there. That’s the weird magical thing about this rarified tradition of notated Western classical music. You can be responsible for music that you actually did not perform, whether by conducting what other musicians play or writing the notes that the musicians read and perform from. You didn’t make a sound on the Go: Organic Guitar Orchestra recording and, in the performance of the string quartets, you weren’t even in the room. At yet you were. For you, as someone who initially became involved with making music as a physical process—playing hand drums—to venture into this other non-physical way of making music is actually pretty fascinating to me.
AR: It is fascinating. What a great thing to be an artist and to be fascinated by and be in involved in a lot of different things. It’s what I’m saying: creative process itself is so significant. The process of writing a through-composed piece for the Momenta String Quartet and a series of pieces for the Oberlin Percussion Group, where I don’t have to be there, is fascinating to me. As is the process of conducting the Go: Organic Guitar Orchestra—which by the way, is the same as how I conduct all the Go: Organic Orchestras. I think there are 12 recordings out now of the different Go: Organic Orchestras, and I don’t play on any of those recordings.
That process of conducting that music spontaneously and the interaction between the score materials that I’ve generated in advance—I actually call it decomposing. Or finding those elements that have the most flexibility and then playing in my Moving Pictures Group, where I’m playing drums. Or when I would play a duet with Yusef Lateef. We would generate forms and we would also play inside of compositional forms. We got to the point where we didn’t need to speak about what we were doing at all anymore; we would just go out and begin our conversation. Why not be interested in all of those things?
The last recording that came out at the same time as the Go: Organic Guitar record is this Hu Vibrational recording, which is the percussionists from the Go: Organic Orchestra. Since I lived in Africa, I’ve been fascinated with the idea of composing rhythms; this is a great time-honored tradition that people don’t really talk about much. Look at someone like Doudou N’Diaye Rose [from Senegal] or Jnan Prakash Ghosh in India, or my tabla teacher in fact, or the Diga Rhythm Band with Zakir Hussain, or James Brown for that matter. This idea of organizing thinking about that, that’s something that’s a big part of what I do with Go: Organic Orchestra, composing these group rhythms.
I felt like this was a new arena that we could be moving into, bringing that idea to this tradition of music that I’m trying to extend or make my small contribution to. So with the Hu Vibrational record, I actually took those to James Dellatacoma whom I worked with at Bill Laswell’s studio. We did very extreme, very in-depth, electronic processing of those sounds, which harken back to my work on a Buchla at Oberlin in 1973. That also referenced my interest in the idea of African handmade musical instruments, which are often designed to complexify the overtone sounds, like on a kalimba or on a djembe or a dusungoni. I wanted to look for ways of complexifying these overtones and creating these sort of secondary voices moving like ancestral voices with these electronics. So that record was not a document of what we played. We played, but then I used the recording, mixing, editing, and incorporating electronics as part of the process. So I’m interested in all of these things.
But there’s no doubt that when the hand strikes the drum it’s a kind of sacred act, because it’s a motion. It’s moving from what in India they call nadabrahma. In the Kongo they call it sese, the unstruck sound, the audible realm of om. If you took that sound and slowed the other waveforms way down that would even be a symphony. That’s what’s being informed through me physically interacting with the wood from the tree and the skin of the animal—the vegetable world and the animal world, all of those things are in the act of playing the hand drums. It’s a really unique instrument that way. It absolutely has informed who I am as an artist and as a person. So it manifests when I write a through-composed string quartet, that activity, the physicality of it. I think about my music as a kind of yoga. I’ve been practicing hatha yoga since 1975. And yoga means limbs—the relationship between body, mind, and spirit. All of those things are always moving, circling around to one another. Those things inform all of these different processes that are interesting to me as an artist. It’s great to have a lot of different interests, right? It’s inspiring. And they all inform each other. I mean, writing a string quartet changed my whole way of thinking when I went back to playing, because now I’ve really had this time to sit back and look at life. And wow, how does this form? How do you lay this out? And you know, tension and release, moving through different colors, all of these different processes inform one another.
Right now I’m in the midst of mixing this new Moving Pictures recording. I don’t even know how I’m going to deal with that yet, and it’s very exciting. I’ve done a few dozen records now of my compositions, and I try with every recording to do something that I haven’t done before. And that’s what makes it fascinating and inspiring and interesting.