Author: Aakash Mittal

Tyshawn Sorey: Music and Mindfulness

A BIPOC man posing in front of a rehearsal hall door

Tyshawn Sorey’s music emerges from a vast array of experiences, communities, storytelling, and a deep engagement in mentor-mentee relationships. When I listen to his recent works Pillars I, II, III, and Everything Changes, Nothing Changes, I hear imagined worlds and sonic environments that are anchored in numerous histories and traditions. The detailed timbral designs within his compositions amplify a spiritual and creative focus in the music, asking the listener to employ mindfulness, to breathe, and to engage with spontaneity.

Sorey’s creative practice is multifaceted. His musical journey began as a trombone player in New Jersey where he listened to everything from be-bop to hip-hop and country music. He is in regular demand as a new music composer, writing for ensembles such as the International Contemporary Ensemble and the JACK Quartet. As a drummer, Sorey is a fixture on the jazz scene and can be heard performing with artists such as Vijay Iyer, Kris Davis, Marilyn Crispell, and Jason Moran, in addition to leading his own ensembles. Sorey has also developed a unique voice as a pianist and has played piano with artists such as composer/trumpet player Wadada Leo Smith and mrudangam artist Rajna Swaminathan.

Throughout his rigorous career as a composer and performer, Sorey regularly teaches and mentors other artists to support the creation of their own work. This practice has led him to become an assistant professor of music and African American studies at Wesleyan University. It is here, in his new creative home on the Wesleyan campus, that Tyshawn Sorey and I sat down to discuss his history as an educator, his latest works, and his thoughts about the word “improvisation.”

  • You can make so much out of whatever little information that you have on a given page.

    Tyshawn Sorey
  • I’m not going to say, “This is how you should play this note over this chord” or “This is how you should play the saxophone.”

    Tyshawn Sorey
  • Whenever I talk about my own music, I don’t refer to things as improvising versus composing.

    Tyshawn Sorey
  • I want to already be there before I get there.

    Tyshawn Sorey
  • Besides the physical notation, the sheet of paper or whatever, there’s also the psychological notation.

    Tyshawn Sorey

Tyshawn Sorey outside

Milford Graves: Sounding the Universe

It is difficult to place Milford Graves into a category. He is lauded as a master drummer of the 1960s avant-garde jazz scene, credited with inventing the martial arts form yara, and is established as both an herbalist and acupuncturist in New York City. Additionally, Graves is a passionate researcher of human biology and brings that knowledge to all of his work.

Milford Graves’s music career began with improvisation. As a young kid, he taught himself to play by experimenting with the sounds he could make on a drum set in the foyer of his home in Jamaica, Queens. His professional career began around 1961 with the McKinley-Graves Band, a funky Latin jazz ensemble he co-led in the neighborhood.  The following year, he led the Milford Graves Latino Quintet with pianist Chick Corea, bassist Lyle Atkinson, conga artist Bill Fitch, and saxophonist Pete Yellen. His career accelerated to place him in the New York Art Quartet, which led him to create two independently released records with pianist Don Pullen. By his mid-twenties, Graves was recognized by artists such as Philly Jo Jones, Elvin Jones, and Max Roach as a drummer with an innovative approach to the instrument, as well as a unique voice in the music scene. His residency at Slugs in 1967 with Albert Ayler is still discussed among musicians today, as is his performance with Ayler at John Coltrane’s funeral.  Graves went on to teach at Bennington College for 39 years and is recognized as professor emeritus by the institution.

Yet, to understand his music one must also inquire into the full scope of his creative pursuits.  Within athletic communities he is known for bringing his ambidextrous drumming into the martial arts through the creation of yara, an improvised martial art that focuses on flexibility and dexterity.  Graves taught yara at his studio in Queens from 1971 to 2000. Similarly, numerous people have visited Graves over the years for his acupuncture practice and to study herbalism. During my first lesson with Graves, he used software that he engineered to record my heartbeat and play back a melody that was derived from my EKG.

When I was first introduced to Milford Graves’s work, I defaulted to the mode of thinking I was accustomed to—that of genre. Even as I was searching for a concept of universal music, I couldn’t help but perceive Graves’s polymathic interests within the stilted categories of martial arts, herbalism, and avant-garde jazz. As I spent more and more time with the artist, I became increasingly unsatisfied with my understanding of his work. Graves employs the scientific method and a vast understanding of biology within his music. He draws connections between analog and digital motions—continuous motions vs. striking different points—in both the martial arts and drumming. He publishes essays, creates works of sculpture, and has recently played drums in a live experiment for non-embryonic stem cells. Yet, this is merely a list of actions taken, and I have long felt that each one is an expression of something much more profound. As I prepared for my recent conversation with Graves, I identified three fundamentals that permeate his work: energy, freedom, and healing.

Miford Graves and Aakash Mittal

Miford Graves and Aakash Mittal


At its core, Milford Graves’s work sculpts energy. This became evident to me during a previous visit to his house when he was doing some healing work on one of his martial arts students. Graves had recorded the electrical signal from an injured muscle and was feeding the signal back to the damaged tissue with the aid of an acupuncture needle and some wire. The goal was to aid the healing process by using electrical stimulation and specific harmonic frequencies to regenerate the damaged tissue. While this was taking place, we were simultaneously listening to a sonificiation of the damaged tissue’s signal using software Graves had coded. He explained to me that the sound of the speaker, the image of the waveform, and the electricity in the needle were all different expressions of the same signal. This was a revelatory moment for me with regard to understanding Graves’s work. Each of the disciplines he utilizes functions as an expression of energy. That energy can manifest kinetically through the martial arts or sonically on the drum set. The kinetic motion of yara can be applied with sticks in hand to a cymbal, creating a sonification of the martial arts form itself. Similarly the vibration of the drums can be translated into soundless motion. Graves utilizes this approach among his various interests. In his essay “Music Extensions of Infinite Dimensions,” which was published in John Zorn’s anthology Arcana V, Graves concludes with a statement about the importance of consuming watercress and parsley in order to “transmit high quality solar energy into the biological system.” In his work, Graves applies the relationship of eating food to creating electricity within the body, a process that also pumps the heart and sounds the drum. Whether he is tending his garden, practicing acupuncture, or playing improvised music, Milford Graves approaches each activity as a harmonic of the same fundamental.


Milford Graves’s drumming is often associated with the “free-jazz” movement of the 1960s. On the surface, this is often described as a freedom from the previous era’s harmonic structure and traditional forms. When I further explored that musical community, it became evident that the word freedom was used in a much larger context. Among the freedoms that emerge are freedom of thought, freedom of the spirit, and freedom of sound. Albums such as John Coltrane’s Intersteller Space and Albert Ayler’s Spiritual Unity traversed the boundaries of music and entered the realm of trance experience and conceptual journey. Within this context, Milford Graves offered a unique perspective on freedom. Through his understanding of the fundamentals of energy, Graves’s music incorporates a freedom of motion that stretches beyond traditional audience/performer dynamics. In the New York jazz scene today, a story circulates about the time Milford Graves picked up John Zorn mid-solo and carried him around the stage while Zorn continued improvising. Through the improvised use of his voice and storytelling, Graves’s performances come across as a joyous ritual that loosens up the listener and offers the first step down the path of freedom. The experience of Graves’s multidisciplinary work suggests a freedom from the limiting nature of our mind, which is compelled to categorize and shape the world around us. As Graves re-harmonizes those shapes and brings us back to the fundamental, I believe we are given a glimpse of what true freedom means.


Artists frequently talk about the healing power of music, but it rarely goes beyond simple conversation. Milford Graves has taken it upon himself to do the research behind it. As I learn more about Graves’s work, I find that his use of energy and freedom is often purposed for healing. His understanding of a listener’s automatic sub-vocalization and the effect the vibrating tympanic membrane (part of the ear drum) can have on other organs informs his improvisations. This results in musical performances that could be perceived as a sonic massage as well as a concert. In this way, Graves is successfully bridging scientific, artistic, and spiritual methodologies in order to free people from societal constraints and remind them of the energy that already exists within. This leads us to what I find to be one of the most challenging aspects of understanding his work. Rather than contributing a body of compositions to an archive or entertaining audiences with his virtuosity, Graves is primarily interested in collaborating with biology itself. This results in a music that mutates, adapts, and transforms in the same manner that our heartbeat fluctuates in reaction to our bloodstream or our various organs create a polyrhythm of life processes.  Janina Wellmann writes in her book The Form of Becoming that “[t]he tension of organic life finds temporary resolutions in rhythm, but always, in its onward aspiration, points forward into the future.” Graves’s work draws from the rhythms of movement, energy, and sound to support transformation and propel the journey forward.

The pathway outside Milford Graves's home.

Creative Spaces

I walk up toward Milford Graves’s house on a chilly and grey day in January. Among a row of ordinary houses and barren twisted trees sits a single house decorated with a mosaic of colored stones and glass that ascends the walls and accentuates the windows. In a recent public interview with Graves, the writer John Corbett referred to this house as a secular “temple.” The house is a work of art in and of itself. From a distance the designs appear to be geometric, but on a closer inspection each mosaic is filled with frenetic momentum and the unique shape of each piece hints of arrhythmia. The golden ratio—expressed as a nautilus shell—is painted next to the front door. It is a meeting place for creative people from various disciplines and walks of life brought together by Milford Graves. I know from my previous visits that I need to approach our conversation as an improviser rather than as an interviewer. Before entering the house, I meditate on the one question I want to approach within our talk: how does Milford Graves utilize music, the martial arts, and biology to sculpt energy, gain freedom, and create healing in the world? Then I open the door and walk inside.

January 11, 2018 at 10:00 a.m.
Milford Graves in conversation with Aakash Mittal
Video and photography by Molly Sheridan
With performance footage courtesy Jake Meginsky and Neil Young
Transcription by Julia Lu

Aakash Mittal:  I was watching a trailer for the new documentary about your work, I believe it’s called Milford Graves Full Mantis, and there are some clips in there of you doing yara. I think one might even have been in the yard over here.

Milford Graves:  Yeah, one was in the yard, and the other one was in the back before it was changed.

AM:  You had this motion going on.  I can’t even describe it.  It was fluid, but in your control.

MG:  Oh, no.  That was in Japan when some Japanese musicians were doing a form of martial arts they call shintaido.  They wanted to see what yara was, so we went out in this little area there. I said, “This would be a great area, with the bamboo background.” And I did my motion, because it was on a little slope there. That’s when I went down and disappeared.  The ground wasn’t even, so your balance had to be right because it was uneven.

AM:  That’s really cool.  What it reminded me of was the last time we talked, you were talking about the yawning reflex and the relaxed state, and creating from a place you call the parasympathetic nervous system—how you have to have that relaxed yawn feeling and the sound that comes with it, and you’re thinking about that in your sound. When I saw that video clip, it felt like you were moving in that same way.

MG:  Well, it had something to do with the physiological process. However, that was 1977 and I was just happy to be in Japan and to be around the element I was around—and the people. It was such a great feeling when people from the Far East would come and then martial artists—Chinese, Japanese, and Korean martial artists. Here I am in the Far East putting on a little demonstration.  I have to be very relaxed. People had a much more linear and stiff style of motion.  Shintaido was much more relaxed, but people were doing aikido, so I said, “You gotta be relaxed.”  I just didn’t have the stress factor.  I felt like being in New York.  You look at other martial artists watching you, and you see their facial expressions: “What is that stuff? That’s not tradition.”  I looked out there, and I saw some serious-looking people watching me and some smiles, and that was it.  That was my physiological system: just to relax.

AM:  So were they into it?  What was their reaction?  You said that they were smiling?  Did you get any feedback?

MG:  Well, I was invited as a special guest for them, to demonstrate improvisation and to play with Japanese musicians.  So students were watching the kind of movement I was doing because of the rhythm.  They had to connect that with the music, because of the way I would play. So I think their interest was: “If he’s not playing his drums, what kind of motion will he be doing in martial arts?”  And they were able to ride with it.  They took the ride with me.  And I think that’s why they were smiling.  It was like, this is how you do it—not so much martial arts but ARTS.  There was an art to it.  You take the military aspect out, the fighting aspect out, and just see an artist doing it without trying to be correct from an intellectual or science perspective.

AM:  You’re able to distill out just the creative art form: the movement.

MG:  Right.  The fundamental.  If you want to deal with the harmonics on the fundamental, then you can take that and become a ballroom dancer, a concert stage dancer, or you can become someone who wants to deal with the fighting aspect of it.  But that’s just the harmonics.  I was dealing with the fundamental.  Now how do you want to shape the fundamental or the harmonics you were dealing with from the fundamental?  The fundamental is to get your body just to relax so you can focus.  Then I said okay, I can take from this fundamental, I can use it in really different ways.

AM:  So the harmonics are the form that the fundamental shapes itself into.

MG:  Right.

AM:  That seems like another connection between the way you’re thinking about martial arts in a universal manner, as well as music and all the other activities that you’re a part of.

MG:  Yes.

AM:  You’re not even thinking about them idiomatically.  You’re dealing with it in terms of what is the fundamental, what are the harmonic shapes, whatever the practice is.

MG:  Right.  That’s it.  You have a harmonic, but you may not be able to do all the other shapes, because you don’t understand the fundamental.

AM:  Sorry, that’s just mind blowing already.  How do you understand what the fundamental is of what you were doing physically there?  Maybe it’s not even about the physical; maybe it’s about something else.

“Resistance is the thing that makes you feel like you’re struggling to do what you do.”

MG:  First of all, you’re not feeling any resistance.  Resistance is the thing that makes you feel like you’re struggling to do what you do.  That’s the most basic thing.  It’s like at the point when you’re tired.  You’re just real tired, and you’re in a standing position. We’ve all experienced this.  You may sit down in a chair and say, “Ahh.”  But then you move—“ahh, eeh, ahh”—and say, “You know what, I have to get into bed.”  And when you get into that bed, “AAH.”  This is it.  Just before the point where you’re asleep, if something falls off the table, or somebody knocks on your door hard, or you hear somebody screaming outside, you can jump up real fast and be alert.  But if you were sound asleep, someone would say to you, “Didn’t you hear that person outside? They were in danger.  They were screaming.”  You don’t want to get to that point in your relaxation.  So when I’ve got that feeling I’m in my bed but I can still respond, that’s when I know it’s happening.  I get to that point where I’m standing up like that, I’m in a vertical position, and I want to get to almost horizontal. I almost get there, but I’m just dangling.  I feel so good.  But raargh!—[I can] just shoot on out, right from there.

AM:  And do you get into that same relaxed state when you’re playing drums?

MG:  Yes.  That’s when you can achieve the full energy that I deal with.

AM:  You were saying that when you were in Japan doing that particular demonstration, they were wanting to see how an artist would translate it. They knew you as a musician, and they wanted to see how it translated into what you did physically in martial arts.

MG:  Yeah, because they knew I did that.

AM:  So how has the martial arts practice influenced your drum playing?

MG:  A few years ago I had a very abstract answer.  I said, “Well just do it, and you will find out.”  It was very abstract.  You know, that’s the way you clean up when you can’t really precisely say.  Well, the kind of martial arts that I wanted to develop was based on my experience as a teenager and in my early stages of growing up in the area here, South Jamaica, and then moving into the housing projects when I was eight or nine-years old.  Before I did that, we had little kid wrestling, because I grew up around a family that was called a very tough family—large people, close to 20 people in the family.  And they had a military life. At least one was a sergeant in the Army, so he came home and the house was like a military barracks, so it was rough and tough.  Then when I got to the housing project, we had these body punching arts. We played basketball, but then when the basketball game was over, everybody said, “Sham battle!”  Everybody started getting up there punching each other in the arms and chest. The face was off limits, but when somebody was getting frustrated because they couldn’t punch you in the chest, they would sneak and punch you right in the jaw and almost a real fight would take place.  But you participated in these things because if you didn’t, you should have stayed off the playground. Maybe four guys would grab you and stretch you out and punch you all in the arms and muscles and stuff like that.  So basketball was tough and rough.  It wasn’t like the rules you played by when you played in high school or college ball when you’ve got a referee.  You know, you got hacked.  If you drove through, if you did a drive to the basket, all this fancy stuff, all these turns and angle movements they’d be doing, it was rough to do that because they’d knock you down and really try to hurt you.  And they’d say, “Don’t come here driving like that again. We’re not going to let you look good.”

I remember a whole lot of experiences.  One of the things that I got out of that was I’m not afraid to get up there and sham battle.  There were guys around us who physically were intimidating.  They had the muscles and always kept certain kinds of facial expressions.  And they had that kind of voice, like the bully guys.  When you’re sitting in the basketball court at the housing project, you may have 15 or 20 guys out there.  And they would come over and say, “Come on, let’s sham box.”  And you were hesitant, but then you say to yourself, “Well, it’s not a real fight.  So this guy’s not going to hurt me.”  And I found that some guys that I thought were real tough guys, they weren’t tough guys.  They just psychologically gave you that impression. So it gave me confidence.  When you don’t participate and you just look at images, it could be intimidating.  You have to participate in the event to see what it’s about.

So when I did the martial arts, I said, “This is going to be just beyond a fighting situation.  I’m going to set this up. I want to set up a system where people truly become their so-called warrior within.”  You get to the point where you really intimidate people. I used to get people to come in and some of my students said they trusted me.  They said, “I don’t think you would hurt me.”  And even with that said, I would scare people.  I would take them down. I’d do a takedown, a wrestling technique: I’d get on top of them and put my chest across their face.  They said, “Professor, I can’t breathe; you’re smothering me.” But they were more intimidated by the fact of the potential than that they thought they wouldn’t be able to breathe.

I watched the mixed martial arts UFC.  I just like to see how people react to any kind of danger.  And you see these tough guys come up, and they get in bad positions sometimes.  They get in these chokehold positions, and somebody said, “Wow, they tapped out real fast because they potentially panicked.”

This is beyond fighting, in a sense. How do you react when that crisis comes?  How do you react when pain comes to your body from an illness?  Do you run out to the doctor right away?  Or do you go internally and try to control that pain?  I see people go out to meditate. They think if you do these chants, you can meditate the pain away.  Yeah, that’s easily said, but put a person in a pain position, and then tell them to try to chant and meditate, and see if it works.  So, it’s non-functional.  I try to make it more functional.  Put a person in that position, and I can tell by the pressure, they can breathe.  But they’re seeing potentially, “Wow, I may not be able to breathe.”  Then I’ll let them relax a little and then I’ll let them come back.  The second time they’re not so quick to say that; they try to see how to get out of this.

So I’ve used that as a situation, for you to be attacked by a foreign agent in a sense.  And a foreign agent could be from pathology.  It could be bacteria.  It could be a virus.  So when you get this thing, you don’t panic.  You say, “Okay, well, I think I can handle this.  I can deal with this.”  Then you can release what you have inside.

But to do these different kind of so-called art forms, to be able to increase your thought process or neuroplasticity, you have to put yourself in the position whereas you’re not intellectualizing on it.  So that’s what I did with the arts—martial arts.  It wasn’t just to go out there to say, “Well, I can fight.  I can hurt somebody.  I can protect myself.”  It was beyond that.  I wanted you to have a confrontation with something that was real.  Instead of you being a one-cell organism or a piece of DNA—we’re talking bacteria, funguses, viruses—think of yourself as a multi-cellular piece of bacteria or virus. When you see that person in front of you, or that competition you’re going to have in a sparring session, you have to look at each other.  If you touch the body, it’s like therapeutic massage or active massage.  So when you get on the floor, you don’t say, “Oh, that’s my enemy.”

“I wanted you to have a confrontation with something that was real.”

When you see somebody, sometimes it’s somebody you may know, sometimes, somebody you may not know.  A lot of times you say, “Are you feeling okay?”  And the person says, “Well, I’m not feeling too good today.”  I say, “Yes, I noticed that.  You just don’t look like you.  Is there something bothering you?  Are you sick?  Are you going through any emotional stress?”  What do you do when somebody’s like that?  You give them some advice.  Maybe you need a great medicinal soup.  Take some herbs, you know. Or you need some rest. Or if they’re stressed out from some kind of other factors, [you tell them] don’t let that bug you.  That happened to me before.  This is how I mostly calm myself down.  So the martial arts come, and we’re supposed to look at each other and we’re supposed to say, “You know what, I think you need a massage treatment.”  When we test the body, or we grab the body, and hit certain points and grab certain points, you’re not doing a destructive touch.  I’m trying to massage them back in again. And when it’s over, both people will look at each other and say, “Thank God. I feel great. I feel good.”

If you’re out there in the street, you don’t have to destroy anybody.  You’re a healing martial artist, a constructive martial artist, not a destructive martial artist.  The softer forms like tai chi, some people don’t think it’s a fighting form. By the way, you just don’t do tai chi.  You may put some aikido in there.  You have to mix it, the different martial arts styles. You can’t get just locked into one style, because all of them have some value.  If in a confrontation, if somebody is in the street and grabs you, the philosophy I have is that I may stop that person, grab him up, touch certain points and then melt him right down, sedate him.  If you use acupuncture when you’re doing acupuncture massage for a tonification or sedation, you’ve got to know when to tonify somebody, you’ve got to know when to sedate somebody.  In this case, it’s not so much tonifying somebody, because if somebody’s aggressive, they don’t need to be tonified.  They need to be sedated.  So there are ways just to sedate, but if you don’t understand the healing aspect or the constructive aspect, then you’re not going to know how to sedate somebody in a real confrontation.  You just don’t want to be somebody who learns a martial art to go out and be a bully and hurt somebody.  I think that’s wrong.

Various bottles herbs in tinctures that Milford Graves keeps in his home.

AM:  You’ve talked about before how with music, it’s just changing the pressure in the air, and that affects the tympanic membrane.  I’m curious if the way you’re thinking about massaging physically also happens sonically, or if you’re thinking about that at all in terms of the way the sound might massage either the mind or, through the energy, maybe even the body.

GM:  Okay, we need to backtrack to answer that question with the martial arts and the playing. Two things were said to me by the Japanese.  One was a photographer.  He was a great photographer, I thought; everybody thought he was great.  He used to follow me around Japan.  This was about 1981, but he [first] saw me four years earlier in ’77.  I came back to do this solo and he came over to me and said, “Wow. Before you were very good, but now, you’re much better.”  I said, “I would hope so.  I hope I’m developing after four years.”  And then he made this statement, “You’re so fluid—relaxed and so fluid.”

The second guy who said it to me was one of the [most] respected Japanese internal martial artists who was an official representative for internal martial arts, Chinese martial arts.  He came to the performance, that same one in 1981.  He came back stage, and he said, “You do every punch there is to do in Chinese martial arts.”  He looked at my flow and he thought it was from martial arts.  And I said, “Okay, so what I used to do was instead of doing—again—a nonfunctional tai chi, just getting up in the air and doing certain kinds of movements, I would get down to my drum set and I’d go—ting-raww—frapt!—I would keep that whole flow and go around.  If I was doing a sword technique, I would practice my sword stuff and with the strokes like—thwap!—like this here.  There I would exchange a stick, so if I’m hitting down here—pop!—and hitting the cymbal—shhhap!—the strokes like this here.  I was directing the energy in a very precise, meaningful way, so they helped each other out.  I would hit the sound and just get it, make it go like—rat-a-tat-a-rot-a-toko!

So that’s how I was interchanging them.  I was using the form, because with both things, I’m using body motion.  The photographer enjoyed me from imagining just the flow, and said, “Oh wow, the way he’s flowing.”  [The other guy] saw that and he thought of martial arts.  One of the guys I met from the aikido family over there wanted me to play talking drum and do some drumming stuff for his aikido class.  They wanted to be able to do the movements of the drummers.  They realized it was a rhythm thing that was missing, you know.  I was doing it in a very empty way; that was just timing.  It was putting me on a timer, so that’s how I locked all that in.

One of Milford Graves's drums on a shelf in a bookcase underneath two rows of books which is next to a Japanese scroll.

AM:  Ah, so he saw the martial arts in your drumming. When you’re playing drums, do you think of it as the word I learned when I was doing karate—the kata, which is like the pre-composed form that you have to work through? You’re improvising, so maybe you don’t think about it that way.

GM:  Well, you don’t fight with kata, you don’t use a kata.  That’s not a fighting form.  As an artist, a performing artist, a stage artist, some people think the performance starts when you come out on stage.  So if you’re a dancer, it’s the first steps you do.  If you’re an instrumentalist, it’s the first sound that comes out of your instrument.  But the performance starts, it could be a day before, two days before, three days before.  When you come on that stage, it starts before you even make one motion.  When you’re coming out there, you have to be generating as soon as you walk out on that stage.  The worst thing I see is people come out and start distributing their music charts to people on stage.  The audience is watching that!  Even if you fix your horn, if you’re touching your horn, you have to do it in a way that has theater and drama to it.

The way I interpret kata is I would go from a so-called hard style to a soft style.  I would come and I would do hard karate.  I’d come out—Eeuuooahh!—to show I had that look.  And I see people like, “Whoah!”  They flinch out, because it looks like I’m going to rip you out; I’m going to go through you.  I say [sings phrase].  Bah.  And so kata is like an eagle posture.  A kata is to get your attention.  It’s not fighting or a block.  You’re only doing that to set somebody up.  They see that door or they see this fist; that’s what kata is.  Look at me! It’s almost like hypnotizing them.  And you do just the opposite.  It’s not hard or hard, it’s hard-soft, soft-hard.  You may look just like you’re very soft then—bam!—you come out like this here.  You see?  So tai chi you may be like this here, but inside you’re ready to explode.  If you see a nuclear bomb or you stand next to a nuclear bomb, it looks like it can’t do anything.  But if you set the trigger mechanism off, my gracious, look at the damage.  I say, do you know internally what’s in that nuclear bomb and the damage you can do?  That’s tai chi.  The real internal arts.  You’re ready to explode.  And sometimes you look like you’re going to explode. That’s the whole process that goes on inside.  Everything is moving very quick.

AM:  So the performance begins with the energy inside of you.

GM:  Right.

AM:  Days before the performance.

GM:  Right.  Right.  Get ready.

Various computer monitors in Milford Graves's studio.

AM:  How do you cultivate that energy?  I know that’s something you think about, because you’ve written about it in an essay in terms of food. What you’re consuming matters. You’re also talking about a lot of heavier stuff there, in terms of energy and relationships.

GM: I find myself talking to more people about this now.  I tell people, “Why are you doing what you do?” when people come and they want to do this.  They want to elevate to this level, that level, and then all they have to do is say one thing to me, “I’ve got to see how I can make some money off of this.”  Then I say, “You’re not going to do it then. You don’t really have a divine, deep commitment.”

“People are trusting musicians to do the same thing the cook’s doing.”

Some things you do may not make a lot of money because you’ve got to be dedicated towards doing it.  You’ve got to know why you’re doing it.  You’ve got to know the importance of what you’re doing.  As far as music and being a musician, I tell people, “Why do you play music?  What’s your purpose?  If you’re going to play music and just use it as a mechanism to be able to pay your rent and all of that, I have no problem with that.  Only time I have a problem is when you tell me you want to reach this so-called cosmic or celestial higher level.  You know what I mean?  You want to get people to be able to visualize and transform in this kind of state and that kind of state?”  I say, “You’re not going to do it like that, because you’re going to fail to realize your importance.”

You go to a restaurant. I don’t think people realize when they walk through that door in a restaurant: you’re not cooking your own food.  Someone else is cooking that food. You’re trusting that person in that kitchen to be correct. You don’t know exactly what they’re doing.  If you’re a chef, cook, whatever, you’ve got to say, “Wait a minute, these people are coming here and I’m making food for them to be able to put inside of their bodies to allow them to maintain their life processes that require certain nutrients.  I’ve got to be responsible here.  These people are trusting me.”

As a musician, what do you think you’re doing? Are you trying to win a critics’ poll or get a Grammy? I think people are trusting us, trusting the musicians to do the same thing the cook’s doing.  They want their vibratory system to be fed.  They’re coming in there, you know what I mean?  You got your food, that’s why you see the combinations of restaurants having a band in there sometimes.  And it’s got to be a band that doesn’t cause you to regurgitate your food, or get a spasm in your esophagus because it’s too crazy.  So they want more soft, cooled-out music.  They have nice relaxing music with people eating.  That combination’s always been there—that mouth and that ear have always worked as a combinational thing there.  So you’ve got to get that ear vibrating. We’re vibrators.  You know?  You’re not a saxophone player; you’re not a drummer.  We are there to make that ear drum vibrate, to convert [the sound] into electrical energy.  The brain gets it. Ah, okay, now we’re cool.  We can do our job, man.  And we can energize the whole body.

Once you realize that, then you’re going to say, “I have an obligation.  I have a responsibility.  People are trusting me.”  You do a concert, you see people coming into the hall sitting around, they’re coming in to say, “Turn me on.  Feed me.  I’m here.”  If you come over there to trip on yourself, you’re this person without knowing that you have a responsibility to keep the folks vibrating.  If they vibrate, then maybe the whole planet will all vibrate.  Any culture that wipes out the arts is in trouble, and I think we’re seeing that right here with young kids in school and how they’re taking the arts out.  We’re wiping the whole vibratory system out.

In one area in Graves's studio there is a diagram of hands, a photo of fingers, and an anatomical model of a human body.

AM:  I appreciate how you talk about arts education in medical terms, how it is essential. One of the problems in our culture is we are taught to view the arts as a form of entertainment. Some people are taught to appreciate it on a deeper level, but you’re talking about it not just as spiritual, but as a physical and medical need.

MG:  Well, what we were talking about is the entertainment part.  We’re working on the superficial part of the body.  We’re basically working on a lot of the motor system.  So we get all the motor and muscles and everything moving, but we forget about the cellular level.  The cellular level also has to be fed, but then you’re taking away from the entertainment aspect.  We just do one side; we don’t do the full situation.  If you’re talking about so-called creative arts, abstract arts, you’re not talking on a cellular level.  You know, it’s not going to be as defined; whereas, you see, in the entertainment perspective, if you try to take the art and put it on graphs, and try to put mathematics to it, you’re not going to get the true benefit. I’ve been dealing with people, how do you put numbers to it?

“We are there to make that ear drum vibrate.”

You’ve got to the get to the point where you trust each other.  As a musician, you’ve got to trust each other to get on the stage and get this tremendous feeling happening.  When it’s over, someone will say, “Well, what note did you play?”  I don’t know what note I played.  I just play and don’t worry about it.

Some people just don’t trust that they can do it.  It’s extremely difficult to improvise, to be spontaneous and improvise, make changes in a very small amount of time and space and then come back and make another change in a small space of time and don’t repeat what you do.  After 15 or 20 minutes, you have made it through all of these different changes and so on, but what’s amazing is how when you walk out your door in the morning, you may spend an hour or two traveling.  Think about this.  You’re going to make all kinds of adjustments.  You’re capable of doing it.  But you’re told you can’t do it.  It’s like a little child. The parent takes care of the child.  You don’t know how to cross the street yet.  Then after a certain time, you’re supposed to mature in a way that you’re able to see if you’re walking 20 blocks, that you’re ready to make any changes that can take place.  But when it comes to certain things, like something specific in music, you’re taught that you have study this and you have to study that; you can’t do this.

I remember up in Bennington, when I talked to some of the classical musicians who were teachers there, they would say, “I wish I could improvise.”  And I’m saying, “Wow, they can’t improvise?”  I’m trying to figure this out.  It really hit me.  It made me realize: they’ve been taught piano lessons or violin lessons since they were like three, four, five-years old and they were always taught that you have to follow these kind of rules.  You have to do it this way and that way.  That’s horrible.

AM:  To back up a little bit, it sounds like one of the things you said earlier—that part of your music is about resonating on the cellular level. It sounds like your entire vision and goal of what you’re creating artistically through music and through martial arts isn’t even necessarily in the same category or place as goals that musicians typically have.  Maybe I’m wrong about that, but I was just curious about what you’re saying in terms of your goal of vibrating people on the cellular level, or on a level even more microscopic.

MG:  Well, I’ll tell you what.  When I was coming down the stairs, I was thinking about the two of you down here, and I said, “Something’s happening right now.”  People have been contacting me now, and all of a sudden, it’s like an onslaught.  One promoter told me I’m going to do this festival. We got into a conversation and I said, “It was nice of you to think about me. People had almost erased me out of history. They’re making these historical statements and I’m not even mentioned.” So the person said, “Well, people are ready for you now.”

I was told back in the last century, in the late ‘60s, that my concept of music was in the next century.  And of course, I didn’t want to hear that.  And then 2000 came, and I was trying to find that person to say I think you were right!  Things are starting to develop.  Sometimes it’s not for you to say what you want to do or who you are.  Maybe we all have instructions.  Some higher power that we may not realize. I just feel like I’m carrying out orders from another kind of power. No one ever told me to do this or do that.  It just felt that what I’m doing now is developing it to another level, and the reason I’m developing it to another level is because of people.  I’m not sitting outside wanting to be an oddball.  People talk to me about coming in. They say I want to study with you because of this or because of that.  I’m just naturally doing this.  I want to work on it now because I know I can do that.  People think you’re doing something great, but the feedback is not great.  I was looking at it passing the wrong way.  I can’t fault the people.  I guess they’re just not ready for it yet.  That’s what people were telling me.  They’re not ready.  So I said, “Have some patience.” All you have to do is talk to people my age that I grew up with and they’ll always say, “Milford was always eccentric. This guy was always unorthodox.”  I never thought about it.  I guess I was.  I would always challenge the situation.  If something came up, I said, “Let’s think of another way to do this here.”  So I think I found my mission.  What some people have told me, either directly or indirectly, is they may not understand what I’m doing, but they say, “I respect you because you didn’t deviate.  You’re still doing what you do.  Other people just went for the money.”

“I’m not sitting outside wanting to be an oddball. People talk to me about coming in.”

A long time ago I used to listen to some of the older musicians saying, “Wow, I wish I would have not been playing commercial.  I wish I would have done this, and I wish would have done that.”  In the late ‘60s, Papa Jo Jones told me something, and it really hit me hard. First of all, we were at this political meeting and I didn’t expect to see Papa Jo Jones there.  Then he started talking to me. He said, “We want to do some of that avant-garde playing, too.”  Gee whiz, Papa Jo Jones knows me!  I didn’t think Papa Jo knew me. Then he started talking about Count Basie and all of these things and he said, “They want to make money.”  Then I said, “Okay, Papa, I’ve got to leave.” And Papa just said, “Where are you going?”  I said, “I’m going over here to Seventh Avenue.  I got to get the train to Brooklyn.”  And he said, “I’m going that way, young man.”

And I went that way. He wouldn’t even allow me to buy a token.  He bought a token. I’m impressed with this.  He’s Papa Jo the legend and he’s treating me like royalty.  When those old bebop guys were talking about the so-called free jazz players, they didn’t really dislike us.  They were just saying, “Wow, that’s what we wanted to do. But these young guys coming up now can do it and get away with it.  We couldn’t back in the ‘40s.”  I always wonder what these guys would sound like if they would have kept developing their skill level.  You never know what that person could have been.

So I said to myself, “I’m going to keep developing myself because I want to see what I would develop into.”  Right now there are certain things I can do on the instrument that I couldn’t do then.  I used to think about it.  “Wow, that’d be great if you could play with this hand doing this and this doing that and all this here stuff.”  Now it’s coming so easy, because I stayed with it.  My conviction was: what would the arts be like if artists were allowed to develop ourselves? What would the planet be like now?  How would the people be vibrating?  The educational system in this country is the worst.   We don’t have the innovation.  Creativity’s needed again.  We’ve got to rise to another occasion.  When you wipe out the arts, which is stimulating the vibratory system, it’s going to cause a real slowdown.  That’s what I see now, the feedback I’m getting, like when people come over to me and say certain things when I do performances.  I stayed in there to try to see them the way a human would vibrate inside.  It’s not just Milford Graves—that brings in the ego thing.  Other people say, “Well, that’s his thing.  That’s not my thing.”  I always say, “This is our thing!”  I’m trying to bypass it and I’m trying to follow certain rules, and that’s when the physiological process comes in.  There’s a publication now, I won’t knock the publication, but it’s The Jazz of Physics.  For me, it should be jazz, but if you want to use any kind of science name, it should be physiology not the jazz of physics—that’s a machine, that’s outside of the body.  You know what I mean?  You don’t reduce the human body to a mechanical device.

AM:  At the last interview we did, we talked somewhat more idiomatically about all the different things that you are interested in and how they connect.  And I’ve been thinking about it ever since then.  What struck me was that the one thread through all of your interests is energy—and not just managing energy, but sculpting energy or creating with energy.  I was wondering if you’d speak about that a little bit because it seems like when you’re dealing with acupuncture, you talk about energy.  When you’re dealing with martial arts, you talk about kinetic energy.  When you’re talking about music, you’re talking about sonic, vibratory energy.  Maybe these are also, like you called it, harmonics of another fundamental that’s even lower than all of those disciplines.

MG:  Well, if you’re just going to translate energy to “the ability to do work,” that’s one thing. Like on a construction site, you have workers there and you’re telling the workers, “Come on, you’ve got to get this pipe lined up.”  “But I feel out of it.  I just don’t have energy. I cannot pick up this other section of this pipe to connect it.”  I always say that whenever you see humans doing something on the outside, it’s probably just a reflection of what’s going on inside.  So how do you connect these different pathways in the body with a certain kind of energy?  Now certain pathways call for a major work ethic.  It has to be a work ethic. To be able to create that ability to deal with energy, there’s got to be a whole lot of different mechanisms involved in there.  So you’ve got to have a lot of vibratory things going on.  Vibratory motion.  You’ve got to activate the inactive areas, different parts of the body.

“You don’t even know what light is, if you can’t see.”

I just had a conversation about body healing and morphologic fields.  It may be impossible to deal with the so-called morphologic fields, in a sense that you can create a new liver or can create a new heart.  Some people say, “That’s impossible.”  I don’t think it’s impossible. Instead you should just say, “Well, I don’t know how to do it,” because you don’t know how to do it.  Why would you say it’s impossible to do if you can create this energy? I mean, they demonstrated it in the physical world. Einstein had something going on!  But you have to interpret. The energy is one thing, but how are you going to interpret the mass?  How you are going to interpret what light is?  You don’t even know what light is, if you can’t see.  So it’s a visionary thing.  Right?  As soon as you turn off these lights, it’s dark.  You may know from being in that environment where everything is.  You can walk around and grab a seat here, but if that’s your first time, when those lights go out, you don’t know where the heck anything is.  So light really is about your ability to visualize.  So you have to turn the whole mechanism that’s dealing with light; you have to look inside.

The whole morphological aspect of what’s going on is so you get a way of seeing nature’s design, the patterns that nature has.  What you’ve got to say is there’s a possibility that we can connect this with this and connect that with that.  This is something I’ve been talking about for the longest time.  It’s very interesting that a person can have a certain kind of mythology. A female is capable of nurturing a baby, once that sperm and that egg come together; it’s amazing.  People just take stuff for granted.  That little small ovum can mix with a waggling little tadpole-looking type of thing and make a human being.  Unbelievable.  But it’s coming from inside of us.  Everybody thinks it’s the reproductive organs, but there are other factors in the brain that are controlling that.  You’ve got the pituitary gland and all these other organisms that are connected.  They still don’t know a lot about the brain, the whole circuitry.  On a global perspective, if you can stop killing each other, fighting each other and can come together and work together as human folks and work on the planet, then the planet will help out the whole solar system, help out all other galaxies, all the universes. Once you all know how to do that, the ruler will give you the key to how to deal with morphogenic fields and how to reproduce another kidney.  You don’t need a kidney transplant or a liver transplant.  We will be able to reproduce another one, but it takes a tremendous amount of work to energize that person. It’s almost like a person that’s just worn out and has nothing they can lift.  All of a sudden—Boom!—they’ve become really alert again.  There are many ways to do it, when you’re going to stimulate.  You can use acupuncture. You can use plant foods. You can use visual things.  But the key is you get the body active and moving.  It has to be a holistic, total involvement of the body.  You’re not going to have one little thing working and not the other thing working; it’s a collaborative aspect that has to take place in the body.  Everybody has got to be working towards this.  What I mean by energy is to get all of these different areas of the body activated.  And then once the complementary thing’s going on, that’s the only way a morphogenic field can happen. Your heart, when it acts from a pumping perspective, to pump blood out, is sending nutrients throughout the whole body.  So everything’s got to be coordinated for your body to work as a whole.  One little organ can be disrupted, and then you have a problem.

A globe of the earth as well as globes of other planets and satellites in our solar system sits in front of a shelf filled with cassettes of Milford Graves's performances.

AM:  Another thing I wanted to ask you about is that I’ve never heard you identify as a composer specifically. But from my perspective, I feel you could be equally thought of as a composer, but you’re using biological processes as your form.  And not even as a form where you take the superficial sound and notate it, but you’re actually trying to compose biologically. You’re composing with energy. You’ve created so much that involves improvisation, structure, form, and things that evolve along continuums. To my mind you combine the martial arts, acupuncture, herbology, and sound into—I don’t know what you would call it—a composition of the universe itself.

MG:  Well, if we’re talking about the paper composer, I think that’s a class structure.  Sometimes you do things and then people can be enlightened about what you’re doing, or it can hurt. Sometimes you’ve got to say, “What is it really about that I’m doing?”

I remember an experience I had with Jimmy Giuffre around 1965.  There was a book out called Where’s the Time? by a journalist, Martin Williams; he may be still around. He wrote this book about the different rehearsal bands that Jimmy Giuffre put together.  Joe Chambers was doing some of the rehearsals, and I did about three rehearsals with him. I wanted to take the challenge, because Jimmy Giuffre had this reputation.  So I went up to his house, and he had these charts. I knew he was doing some Ornette Coleman stuff, but when I looked at the chart, I said, “Jimmy, this is a little different.”  He was trying to write the melody down for the drums.  This was not a standard way you would notate for the drummer—try and hit the side of the shell, the edge of the rim.  He was trying to get all these different pitches out.  And just for the basic melody of the head, we followed the instructions.  But I told Jimmy, “Look, I will play the rhythm.  I’ll do my best with the sounds.”  I should have been able to read that the way I wanted to, because I’m the new kid on the block and I’m going to be controversial.  After that, he’d probably go around and say Milford Graves doesn’t know how to read music and want to fire me. That wouldn’t have bothered me.  But then I thought I did bad.  So I took the chart home. I told my wife, “I’m going to my room and look at this guy’s music.”  I spent less than a half an hour [there].   I remember leaving the room.  My wife says, “You’re finished?”  “I’m finished.  I see where he’s coming from now.”  I sketched out what he wanted, so when I came back the next day I played it. Don Friedman was on piano and Barre Phillips was on bass. It was a quartet.  After it was over, Don Friedman said, “Wow, how’d you get that so fast?”  I thought I was doing bad.  He said it took us a little while to get all this stuff together.  And I felt real good after that. It wasn’t so bad after all.  But then what happened was, they had an improvisational section. Jimmy Giuffre walked in. I wanted to go up there and see the challenge, man.  When he came to improvising those sections, I improvised off of the head.  So Jimmy said, “Wow.”  He listened to the recording we did there and he said, “Could you rewrite the head for me, rewrite the drum parts?  Because the way you improvise, that’s how I want the drums to be played.” So he didn’t want to write it like that, but he didn’t want no regular dang-dang-ga-dang.  So when I was playing, I heard something and I said, “This is what I would be hearing.”  But then after that there, I saw him at a concert and he said, “So when are you coming back?”  I said, “You know, I don’t know.”  He said, “Well, I want to see if you can read my charts now.  I got some other stuff.”  It was like a competitive thing.  So I just said that’s it.  No more gigs.  I don’t need to go there no more.  But I was listening to what he wanted to hear from the drum perspective.  All the tonal changes, I can do that with all that stuff.  You don’t have to be hitting it all over.  You can stay on the membrane and play the melody out like I do now.  You can play that stuff right from there.

So that was just one experience I had. I had a few more of the same. “Wow, that’s a composer? So what are these guys about?”  It’s almost like an ego trip.  I know some composer may say, “What is this Graves talking about? This guy don’t know what the heck he’s talking about.  Who does he think he is?” I would say just think about what you’re doing.  You sit down, you may spend days or months, and you are telling your story, and then you finish your story, in a musical way, and then you want to give me a piece of your music that’s talking about what you feel, what you want to express, and you’re saying, play me.  I’m bothered with that, like what [someone else] feels doesn’t [matter]. Or when somebody gives you a composition, you add something in. I had that experience, too.  They say, “Well, that’s not written.  That shouldn’t be in there.” What do you mean?  Your music caused me to feel that, and I thought it was cool to put that in.  So if we’re driving in an automobile, and we have to get some place in an emergency—let’s suppose we’re transporting somebody to the hospital or something—and you make a left turn.  I say, “No, to get to the hospital, you have to make a right turn.”  “Well no, that’s the way we do it.  It’s a left turn.  You’re not listening to me.”  That’s the same thing as music composition. You may do something and I don’t think that’s the way.  You’re not even screwing up, man.  If you do it this way, that adds onto it.

“A composer to me—that’s a responsible situation.  A composer to me is just like a teacher.”

I’ve [also] had that experience with a conductor.  They said that I made the track on this particular recording.  They said the way you was playing, that made the thing.  If I would have done it the other way, it was too dry.  But that person wanted to act like they have control.  They wrote all the music and they conducted. So I said, “You’re not giving me respect.”  When I hire a band, I respect you.  A composer to me—that’s a responsible situation.  A composer to me is just like a teacher.  If you’re in a classroom with students, they’re expecting you to teach them.  And if you’re teaching a subject, and they can’t understand that subject, you don’t go and say, “Oh, you’re stupid.  I’m going to fail you.”  You’re supposed to talk to that person and say, “What kind of difficulties are you having?”  And if they say, “I don’t like history.” Well, say, “Let’s talk about history.  Could you tell me something that happened five years ago?  Is there anything you remember five years ago that you don’t like?”  “Oh, I remember something five years ago. I will never forget that.”  “But that’s history.  It’s important that you don’t forget that.  So you don’t repeat that mistake you made.”

Books, tools, and musical diagrams share space in Milford Graves's studio

Or if it’s a math problem—I’m going to tell you something real fast. In the 1970s, I went up to IS 201.  A friend of mine was an assistant principal at that time.  He wanted me to do three workshops in the summer for these kids up in Harlem.  So I went up, and I had a pocket full of change.  I took the hand drums, congas, and all of that.  I’m going to teach these kids these rhythms, but I don’t know if these kids know about eighth notes, quarter notes, and all that technical talk.  So I said, “We’re going to play a rhythm, but we’re going to pulse beats first.  I’m going to hit the drum four times.  One-two-three-four.  Every time you hit the drum, think of a quarter, a quarter, a quarter, and a quarter.”  I had four quarters out.  Then I said, “How many quarters make a dollar?”  They knew that.  They may be failing in school, but they know how to count that money.  “Oh, that’s one dollar.”  So I had a one dollar bill.  I said, “So that’s a one dollar bill. What’s a one dollar bill, compared to counting four twenty-five cent coins?”  I just boom and don’t hit the drum no more times.  But I quietly say, “Count four.  ONE-two-three-four.  That’s a dollar.  So how do you write a dollar?”  They write what they call a whole note in music.  “That’s all, you got a dollar.  You got a little circle like this here.”

Then I took the quarters and said, “Now, we’re going to play each pulse beat twice as fast.  We’re going to count eight.  We got that whole dollar, now we’ve got to make sure that we’re going to divide this one dollar bill eight times.” I had some dimes and some pennies.  So I took out the dimes and said, “How many dimes and pennies makes twenty-five cents?”  Take out a dime.  Take out the five pennies.  “Alright?”  Anyway, I lined them all up and I took two of the students and said, “Look, we’re going to share this twenty-five cents.  You get a dime and you get a dime, but how are we going to share these five pennies between the two of you?  If I give you two pennies, I give you three pennies.  You may get upset, because he got one more penny than you.”  And they’re looking and I said, “I tell you what, anybody got any scissors here?  Let’s cut this other penny in half.”  And they laughed because they know no scissors can cut that penny.  But if I do that, you’re going to get half of a penny.  So you’ve got a dime, then another penny is eleven, another’s twelve; you got twelve and a half.  And we added all that up and in an hour’s time, guess what, I had those kids doing fractions.  It blew them away.  It blew the parents away. I said. “Yeah, you all can do fractions, but you can’t do non-functional fractions.  Don’t mean nothing if you just write numbers!”

That’s a teacher.  That’s a conductor.  If you come to me as a musician, then I may say, “Here, you play.”  You’ve got more? I say, “I think we’ve got something.”  Then I’ll get down and participate with you.  Then I’ll say, “We’re going to try this; we’re going to try that.”  I’ll lay out something to see how you’re going to respond to it.  You didn’t respond.  I left something open for you.  There was no conversation taking place.  It could be for many reasons.  But I’m going to try to get inside you and inspire you to want to play and make stuff come out of you that you really didn’t have.  That’s the conductor, or composer. And if you don’t need help, I don’t have to tell you what to do.  But if you need some help, maybe I’ll give you some suggestions.  But to out and out come out and not think about what someone can do because you wrote all this music? Then you hear this person in another kind of setting and say, “Wow. I didn’t know you could play like that.”  Yeah, you didn’t allow me to play like that, because you already dictated what you wanted.

That’s why I’m devoted to improvisational, spontaneous music.  And I think that’s what we need on the planet right now.  I think people have to get deeper inside themselves. We all have the potential to be smart and intelligent, and we’ve got to bring it out of people. To resolve some of these major problems we have on the planet, we have to have more people working.

“When it really comes time for a major crisis, everybody has to participate.”

I was just telling somebody yesterday that when there’s peace, then they tell people,  “Oh, we don’t need you.  We have all these regulations; we don’t need your help.”  But when 9/11 came, and what did they do?  They asked for the public’s help because the military, the police, and everybody realized that they couldn’t watch everything.  If anything looks suspicious, just call this number and let us know.  So you’re really saying that when it really comes time for a major crisis, everybody has to participate.  If you want to find out the cures for cancer and all this stuff here, you have to start from an early stage in elementary school exposing these kids to oncology, neurology, all these things, in the classroom.  Make little toys, little games, so everybody can participate. You talk about trial and error. Somebody out of that is going to come up, it could be a five-year old kid, and say, “Well, what if you did this and did that?”  Somebody will say, “Wow, we never thought of that.”  That’s why I’m saying: we have to bring out the innovative and creative potential of what we as humans have, and you’re not going to do it by constantly putting a harness on somebody and saying you’re not allowed to express yourself or do what you do.

The elaborately ornamented exterior of Milford Graves's home.

Questions of Identity

The day I first listened to Rudresh Mahanthappa’s album Black Water will always remain fixed in my mind. It was my junior year of college and I was majoring in saxophone performance at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Rudresh’s music was recommended to me by one of my first mentors—NYC saxophonist Dave Pietro. After an impassioned tirade during which I cornered Dave and relayed my artistic goals, he responded, “You should check out Rudresh Mahanthappa. He’s already doing something like that.”[1] I ordered the album that day. When Black Water finally arrived in the mail, I tore off the plastic wrap and put the disc in my boom box. Rudresh’s sound exploded from the speakers. It was raw and buzzy. I could hear the energy and power of the air pressure he was using within his tone. The phrases floated in time, almost hinting of the alaap[2] while simultaneously referencing the unapologetic vocal quality of an early blues singer. After a handful of such phrases framed by silence, Mahanthappa’s last melody was in time. The sounds of Vijay Iyer, Francois Moutin, and Elliot Humberto Kavee erupted into layers of pulse that pushed and pulled each other in various directions. The tension was visceral. Life was just as exciting, challenging, joyful, and painful as this sound. Excitement welled up inside of me. In those first thirty seconds I discovered the artistic direction that I would pursue for the next eight years.

When I first discovered their music in 2005, Rudresh and Vijay became my first “brown heroes.” Experiencing their work and personalities informed my identity during some of my formative years. Here were two artists whose names shared the same phonetics as my own, whose South Asian heritage hinted at shared experiences, and—most importantly—whose creative approach to sound and design fueled my imagination. Their musical statements offered something real about the Indian-American experience while remaining devoid of kitschy stereotypes or forced Indian classical vocabulary. Yet, there was another element to their sound that I wasn’t able to articulate at the time. What made Black Water so compelling for me was the intersection of identity with the universal elements of creativity.

Some of the largest hurdles I have faced since saxophonist/composer Hafez Modirzadeh challenged me to explore fundamental aspects of music at the Banff workshop in 2013[3] were the questions of identity that emerged throughout the process. Universality appears to be in conflict with a number of artistic values such as plurality, cultural expression, and political statement.[4] Following the release of the first essay in this series, I received comments from readers denouncing the inevitable homogenization of culture as a result of such thinking. When universality was first presented to me in 2013, I wouldn’t have fully disagreed with them. The concept is exciting as well as a bit unnerving. Exploring Hafez and Vijay’s ideas seemed to require an element of creative destruction. I had to be willing to loosen the grip on my previous belief systems in order to investigate the ubiquitous components of sound making. I have to admit that it was (and continues to be) challenging. I had spent the greater part of my twenties with an artistic mission of expressing my Indian-American hybridity.[5] Creating non-idiomatic art seemed to throw all of that into question. What is my music about when it isn’t about mutating Indian concepts? Who am I when I delve into the fundamentals of creativity? How do I describe my work to a listener without my standard narrative?

The artistic journey harbors the potential to sacrifice the ego and reach toward broader concepts of sound and creativity.

During this “existential crisis,” I happened to be reading Winter Music by composer John Luther Adams. I stumbled across a phrase that caught my attention. Adams wrote, “I hope to move beyond self-expression and the limits of my own imagination to a deeper awareness of the sound itself. I’m most deeply moved when the music has little or nothing to do with self-expression.”[6] Adams’s words helped clarify my struggle. Striving to create art from a universal mindset is akin to creating music that transcends individualism. Rather than telling stories about personal experiences, we can contribute to an idea elevated beyond the self. This is not to say that Adams’s music is devoid of expression or narrative. On the contrary, his work is deeply rooted in sonifying the natural world and it tells a story of spellbinding environments and forces. Adams has succeeded in creating music about ideas that elevate beyond his own life. This is not an abandonment of personal experience. Personal experience is a gateway into the universal. The artistic journey harbors the potential to sacrifice the ego and reach toward broader concepts of sound and creativity.


This inquiry into the universal inspired me to examine my interest in Hindustani raga music through a different lens. Rather than delve into the idiomatic language of raga phrases, guitarist/composer Julius Schwing and I created an improvisation form that utilized a slow additive melodic process similar to the one I had learned from Prattyush Banerjee in Kolkata.[7] Shapes enlists composed melodies (mostly a series of intervals without a specific rhythm) and a corresponding set of pitches (any octave is acceptable) to structure melodic improvisation. The piece is comprised of five such sections and, when played linearly, each section adds a new pitch/interval to the previous cell. In performance, an ensemble member can play the melody of a section and thereby cue the rest of the ensemble to improvise within the confines of that section’s set of notes. As the music unfolds, each new pitch reframes the sonic relationships of the whole. Julius and I wanted to create something that would slowly and almost imperceptibly change color over a period of time while leaving the ensemble free to make rhythm and timbre choices within the melodic structure.


This work is an attempt to create from a place between the universal and cultural. The structure of the additive process and the long extemporization within a strict set of pitches is partially inspired by our experiences with raga music. Yet nothing about this piece sounds particularly “Indian.” Our intent is an experience of sound divorced from metaphor and self-expression that is also open to interpretation and arrangement. Julius and I continue to compose with this form and have adopted the Greek term Chrôma (defined as “saturation of a color”) to describe the series of pieces.


Between 2013 and 2014 I lived in Kolkata, India, with the assistance of a performing arts fellowship from the American Institute of Indian Studies. My project was to compose a series of nocturnes drawing from the Hindustani concept of evening and night ragas. One of the pieces that emerged from this project utilized the tonal element of Indian percussion alongside Western instrumentation. The improvisation form was a musical game that generated accelerating and decelerating densities. The piece that surfaced was named Gestures by guitarist Nishad Pandey, who performed in the work’s premiere at the Delhi Habitat Centre.

When writing Gestures, I wanted to illuminate the sound of Indian percussion rather than the idiomatic language of South Asian music. The composition highlights the tonal pitches of the mridangam or tabla by beginning and ending symmetrically with a long tone in unison with the percussionist’s tonic note. As each new section is introduced, tone clusters framed by silence morph into overlapping sustain and eventually imply a sense of pulse. In sections five and six, the ensemble enters a pulsivity[8] game. The musicians are directed to simultaneously pulse on a single note without playing at the same tempo. The music develops as the performers improvise changes in pitch and pulse while simultaneously avoiding unison tempos, creating a mutating polyrhythmic soundscape. The texture builds in momentum until it erupts in a cacophonous energetic “free for all” in section eight.


Gestures is an exploration of the fundamental ideas I was thinking about at the time. I wanted to structure an improvisation that would prioritize sound over idiom, create the experience of shifting densities without implying a metaphor, and give agency to the performer. In many ways the piece is simply a form of evolving tempos and a series of events that the ensemble navigates symmetrically. The universal component is the positioning of musical fundamentals such as pulse and density. Yet this, too, was inspired by my experiences with Indian communities. I first heard un-metered pulse within improvisation during the jor and jhala sections of a sitar recital.

It would be wrong to call Shapes and Gestures “universal” any more than my previous works were specifically “ethnic.” These compositions simply occupy a segment in my ongoing continuum. They are as much a product of my interactions within communities and my experiences of environments as they are of my imagination. Hafez’s challenge to explore the universal, Vijay’s denouncement of genre, Kolkata’s ambient noise, Milford’s study of the heartbeat, and Rudresh’s raw, visceral sound have also had a significant impact on my work. Not only have they invited me to re-examine who I am and how I create music, they have challenged me to inquire into the nature of what music is and “what it can be.”[9]

How do we straddle the line between individuality and the cosmos without becoming homogenized masses or superficial categories?

After composing these musical works I still had to confront my questions of identity. How do I reconcile my experience of culture, personal narrative, and ethnicity with the fundamental elements of biology, environment, and sound? How do we straddle the line between individuality and the cosmos without becoming homogenized masses or superficial categories? Through the process of writing these essays I realized that universalism and cultural distinctiveness are bound together.[10] Our identities generate a continuum that mutates and changes within the boundaries of our lives. Throughout the unquantifiable spectrum of our experiences are pillars of the universal: our communities, our bodies, the places we inhabit, and the noises we make along the way. Perhaps our creative potential is best met when we explore the tension between these paradigms and discover what emerges from the depths of our imagination. The fundamental mainstays of creativity can bolster every cultural statement just as the distinctiveness of our individuality and communities can impact creativity itself. Our identities and the sounds we make offer us a path through the unknown. All we need is the courage to follow.


1. This is how I remember my conversation with Dave Pietro.

2. Alaap translates to English as “introduction.” In raga music it is often an improvisation without a sense of pulse.

3. In response to my first essay, Hafez reminded me that he likely talked about a “universal tonic.” Hafez avoids the specific phrase “universal music” because of its association with the popular phrase “music is a universal language.” The two ideas are distinct.

4. This was made clear to me an email response to my first essay in this series by author Matt Moore.

5. My interest was not Indian-jazz fusion. At the time, I used the evolution and adoption of    vocabulary within language as a metaphor to express my vision. In the same way that cultures are not static but are continuously interacting and influencing each other, I wanted to create music that utilized vocabulary from all of my interests in the hopes that music with its own identity would emerge.

6. Kyle Gann quotes Adams in the forward. Adams, John Luther. Winter Music: Composing the North. Wesleyan University Press, 2004. pp. xvii

7. I am referring to studying the alaap portion of a raga performance with Prattyush Banerjee. In Hindustani music the alaap often involves a process of incrementally introducing each note and phrase of the raga.

8. Hafez Modirzadeh relates pulsivity to periodicity as complementary forces. He defines periodicity as fixed rhythmic cycles whereas pulsivity is fluid rhythmic cycles.

9. This is a reference to something Vijay Iyer said while I was at the Banff Workshop. “It’s not just about what music is but what it can be.”

10. I relate this cosmically to the way zero and infinity not only exist simultaneously but are necessary to predict how the universe functions. On the surface they appear to be polar opposites but actually work in tandem just like universal and cultural creativity.


Teresa Louis, Matt Moore, Jayanthi Bunyan, and Meera Dugal for reading and reviewing these essays. Molly Sheridan, Frank Oteri, and NewMusicBox for giving me this opportunity and your ongoing support of the new music community. Rudresh Mahanthappa and Dave Pietro for the encouragement, support, and amazing hangs over the years. Brooklyn Public Libraries for providing a quiet and air conditioned space in which I could work.

New York City Heartbeats

Shortly after moving to New York City, I went to the Village Vanguard to hear Milford Graves, Wadada Leo Smith, John Zorn, and Bill Laswell play a set of improvised music. The stories I had heard about the electricity of Graves’s drumming, and my own experience hearing Smith’s hauntingly beautiful sound at the Banff workshop, fueled my anticipation. This was going to be the first time Milford Graves and Wadada Leo Smith would perform together, and I didn’t know what to expect. John Zorn and Bill Laswell were artists that I had only listened to on recordings during my previous life in Colorado. They were abstract names and sounds that I was finally going to encounter in flesh and blood. It was one of those “this is why I moved to New York” evenings.

Milford Graves’s drum set playing captured my imagination that night. Every limb seemed to be operating within its own pulse. He was singularly maintaining frequency layers between low toms, bass drum, and cymbals while sustaining momentum and interactive ideas across simultaneously varied tempos. The result was an ambient density, a current of sound that his fellow band members could wade, traverse, and ride. I connected this experience with my limited knowledge that Graves’s work draws from natural science as a source of musical inspiration. It struck me that I was listening to a highly intentional and designed improvisation that was related to the polyrhythmic operations of our own biology. In the same manner that cycles of heartbeats interact with the cadence of our breath and the pointillism of our eyelids, Milford’s sound was functioning as a single body comprised of independent motions.

Shortly after that performance I got a call from saxophonist/composer Peyton Pleninger. “Milford Graves is having a meeting at his house and he said I could bring you,” said Peyton. I was elated and curious. What would a conversation with an artist of Milford’s stature entail? After three subway transfers and a bus ride, I arrived at Graves’s street. My excitement began to mount. Milford Graves’s house is the home of a creator. His creative mind finds expression in everything he encounters, including his living space. After passing the front gate I was greeted by a lush vegetable garden and tall bamboo trees. Consistent with his drum set playing, the design appeared intentional yet improvised: a living sculpture of green leaves, thorny flowers, and stone walkways. Mrs. Graves, whose warm smile welcomed me and assured me that I, too, belonged here, greeted me at the door and pointed me downstairs. Down in the basement I found myself in a creative laboratory. Maps of human energy systems were hanging next to jars of preserved sheep’s brain. There were books ranging from African philosophy to electrocardiogram analysis and pathways of cords running from a twin computer station to technology that I had never seen before. Staggered throughout the room were hand drums of every shape and variety.

I introduced myself to the other people sitting in the basement. I quickly discovered that this was not just a meeting of musicians but of a wide swath of creative people. There were martial artists, a biologist, an author, and an array of instrumentalists. As Mr. Graves descended the staircase, he was greeted by the gathering with, “How are you, professor?” Graves once taught at Bennington College and, among us, he retained his title. I was glad for a way to address him that acknowledged the well of experience that he might share with us. “I am interested in bringing people together from various backgrounds so that we can learn about how our ideas connect,” he said after taking a seat.[1] Then he ignited a discussion on West African dance and its relationship to cardio processes. This was as much a musical hangout as it was an exploration of the fundamentals of creativity. As I attended more meetings, Professor Graves and the other attendees showed me how to mine seemingly incongruent disciplines for universal properties. Even now, the time I spend with Graves continues to unfold numerous realizations about creativity and life. Among them is the role of biology within universal music.

respiratory sinus arrhythmia

An ECG showing respiratory sinus arrhythmia. Photo by James Heilman

The Original Source

At the core of Graves’s work is the heartbeat: the heartbeat as a source of life, a source of creative activity, and a source of music. On the surface, the heart’s cyclic thumping provides a model for ostinato and groove. Yet if we dig deeper, we discover a world comprised of tremendous variability, arrhythmia, and adaptation. Malcolm Thaler describes the natural irregularity in heartbeat pulse that occurs while breathing when he writes:

Often, the EKG will reveal a rhythm that appears in all respects to be normal sinus rhythm except that it is slightly irregular. This is called sinus arrhythmia. This is a normal phenomenon, reflecting the variation in heart rate that accompanies inspiration and expiration. The effect may be so small as to be virtually undetectable or (rarely) large enough to mimic more serious causes of an irregular heartbeat. Inspiration accelerates the heart rate, and expiration slows it down.[2]

The study of arrhythmia can inform the way we think about musical time. Biology does not function precisely, instead operating as a series of “calls and responses” between interrelated systems. Within our bodies what matters is the relationship between actions rather than their mechanical precision. The heart creates sonic events within a threshold of time that is informed by the cadence of our breath and the tempo of our blood. If we adopt this concept in music, it allows us to explore a dimension of temporal “ebb and flow,” as well as prioritize “the sounds of the moment” over abstract rules. The shape of the rhythm[3] becomes more important than the numbers surrounding it. A musician’s sound in relation to the ensemble’s sound becomes more important than where the notes land on a metronome. I believe this allowance of natural arrhythmia in our performance practice is a step towards creating music that resonates with the unconscious polyrhythms of the listener’s body.

Milford Graves highlights the distinct nature of each cardio pulse through his sonifications. A few weeks after recording the sound of my heartbeat, Graves generated a video of my heart’s electrical information, called the EKG. It was a continuum of peaks and valleys that reminded me of seismographs recording earthquake movement. Then he hit play. The graph started moving and along with it was an angular melody: pitches were sounding in tandem with the progression of the graph. They were not tuned to any formal system, instead sounding anywhere within human aural range. As my heart’s electricity spiked, frequencies sounded higher and, as they retreated, the notes descended. The pitches cascaded, increasing and decreasing in density yet never settling into a specific pulse. With each heartbeat the electricity built up and fired. The recoil was another cardio pulse. I had never experienced the relationship between electricity and sound in such detail. It was as if, in every moment, there is lighting and thunder inside of us.

Milford Graves details the heartbeat as one source among a panoply of biological sources for musical inspiration. In his essay “Music Extensions of Infinite Dimensions,” he compares the twisting motion of the heart to the earth’s Chandler Wobble, describes the atomic process of the human ear, and outlines the importance of breath in energizing creative thought. Among these ideas Graves places heartbeat studies among four “correlative ways and methods for composing and performing biological music”:

  1. Music composition based on the stages of human embryo development
  2. Rhythmolgy based on Heart Rate Variability (HRV)
  3. Space-time parameters based on human Circulation Time (CT): CT is the time for the blood to pass through a given circuit of the vascular system, e.g., the pulmonary, cerebral, or system circulation, from one arm to another, from arm to tongue, or from arm to lung.
  4. Cardiogenetics relative to harmonic-melodic dissonance and clusterization.[4]

The human body offers a reservoir of largely unexplored creative material. Music that imitates, sonifies, and draws inspiration from such a fundamental aspect of life has the potential to be both visceral and imaginative. Yet Graves’s explorations delve deeper still. His interest seems to lie more in the spiritual, mystical, and healing properties of biological vibration itself rather than compositions that use the repetitive “thump-thump” of a beating heart. Graves outlines this idea in his “Statement of Clarification” when he writes:

The primary purpose of this essay is to focus on an integrative process of how to interweave the hidden wisdom of imaginative thinking (mysticism, magic, alchemy, and the spiritual of music) with scientific methodology. This revelationary endeavor requires a certain degree of Polymathic qualities to properly understand how seemingly disparate ways of thinking are all integral members of the grand unified energy concept of cosmogenic transmutations.[5]

In the footnotes Graves defines revelationary as “a person who adopts change in his thinking and actions as a result of something unknown being revealed” and polymathic as “someone who is very knowledgeable. A secondary meaning of polymath is Renaissance Man.” Graves’s coupling of the spiritual and scientific worlds opens the floodgates of meta-creativity. The idea of unique disciplines and their identities are washed away. What is left in the wake are the pillars and foundations of biology, vibration, and creative process—building blocks that can be used to reshape thought, art, and endeavor towards a limitless horizon. Graves’s emphasis on biology is derived in part from the understanding that bodies are a fundamental aspect of every creative endeavor. From this standpoint, anyone participating in or organizing a project is making biological choices with regards to the work.

The members of a performance ensemble are the biological component of a piece of music.

The members of a performance ensemble are the biological component of a piece of music. Changing members of a band or orchestra while maintaining the same repertoire can have a dramatic effect on a composition’s sound. There is nothing new about this idea. A staple of music education is studying interpretations of the same piece by a variety of artists. An almost universal practice is composing music for specific people and creating ensembles of specific people. These decisions are so integral to music making that we take it for granted that we are essentially composing the biology that will integrate with a work.

When we design music with an understanding of biology, we further remove ourselves from static practices and embrace another fundamental aspect of creativity. In addition to precision and consistency we must also recognize the importance of adaptation, arrhythmia, and temporal thresholds within art. The critical nature of biology in music reveals another possibility: music making itself may function as an unconscious form of biological sonification. When we create layers of rhythm and pitch within a composition, are we unintentionally imitating the frequencies and relationships within our bodies? Is our perception of rhythm simply an extension of human bodies acting in tandem?[6] In many ways, the relationship between music and biology is an argument against French philosopher René Descartes’s separation of mind and body. Descartes famously argued that thinking alone is enough to prove existence.[7] This devaluation of the body is so embedded in the consciousness of Western culture that we regularly prioritize the cerebral qualities of the composer over the physical actions of the musician. Descartes’s abstraction bolsters the idea that music can exist objectively outside of biology and sound. In reality, our bodies participate in every step of music making—including the creative process itself.

Milford Graves playing Tabla with Shahzad Ismaily

Milford Graves playing Tabla with Shahzad Ismaily at Graves’s 75th birthday celebration

Connecting Every Dot

During my first year of living in New York City, I had the privilege of spending more time with Milford Graves. In addition to his Sunday gatherings and my heartbeat recording, I was fortunate enough to take a lesson from him and attend his 75th birthday celebration. His unbridled curiosity and diverse interests, combined with hard work and exploration, make him an example of meta-creativity. Professor Graves finds connections between seemingly divergent activities. In the basement of his house, he once demonstrated the digital and analog forms of sound within martial arts movements, explained the importance of cooking and flavor within storytelling, and related the opening and closing of the heart to the arm motions within a West African dance. I began to realize that the lines between creativity and learning are blurred and may be non-existent. The shared method of experimentation, feedback, and adaptation seemed to unite the two processes. Danah Zohar describes this liberated exploration as a quantum operation in her essay “Creativity and the Quantum Self.”

I believe that in the testing nature of our imaginations we are behaving exactly like quantum systems throwing out their feelers toward the future. Our capacity for creativity, I think, is linked to similar processes in the brain, and to their quantum underpinnings. The fact that we can form new concepts, new ideas, new artistic creations, new linguistic structures is all I believe founded on the essential creativity of quantum systems. It is founded on their ability to “image” different futures and on their ability to form new emergent wholes as a result of their explorations.[8]

The quantum system is a method of experiential learning. “Throwing out feelers toward the future” engages the process of experimentation, exploration, failure, and adaptation that fuels the imagination. Creativity seems to erupt from the mind’s ability to connect these inputs, establishing new mental indexes. The practice of connecting ideas becomes a learning process and an experience in and of itself, further eroding any divide between education and creativity. Albert Rothenberg, clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, describes a similar process of connecting imagined ideas, shapes, and experiences as homospatial thinking when he writes:

The homospatial process responsible for many types of creative results involves mental representations that defy or go beyond actual physical space. This process consists of actively conceiving two or more discrete entities occupying the same space or spatial location, a conception leading to the articulation of new integrations.  In conscious mental space, creators may superimpose or interpose shapes, patterns, written words, dimensions, distances, and other concrete entities.[9]

Milford Graves’s work advances both quantum and homospatial processes through his ability to pinpoint and connect the fundamental aspects of distinct activities. Graves outlines the confluence between creative thinking, imagination, biology, and temporal events in his essay “Music Extensions of Infinite Dimensions.”

All biological receptors must be fully open to receive, transport, and transmute cosmic vital energies to everything that is required to initiate the imaginary process for greater creative development. Equipolarization between creative imagination and conventional thought is the transmorphic matrix for solving problematic negative energies.[10]

In the footnotes Graves defines the transmorphic matrix as an “exchanging of scalar, real and complex events.” In this statement, biology acts as an energy conduit for creative thinking that includes both homospatial and quantum methods. This “imaginary process” forms an equal relationship to “conventional thought” through complex action in the real world. Graves’s connections between energy, creative thought, and action create a feedback loop that affects the person and larger cosmos. Yet at the core of this odyssey is human biology’s ability to “transmute cosmic vital energies,” bringing into question whether art is actually a biological transfer rather than a physical creation.

Art is not the sound of an instrument, paint on canvas, or movement on stage. Rather, art is the way our perception of an experience contributes to our learning process.

The creative process of “connecting every dot” allows for a definition of art that reaches beyond physical materials and vibrating air molecules. By this definition, art is not the sound of an instrument, paint on canvas, or movement on stage. Rather, art is the way our perception of an experience contributes to our learning process. In his book A Million Years of Music, Gary Tomlinson defines culture as “activities [and] behaviors learned in a lifetime and passed on to the next generation.”[11] Tomlinson’s definition employs audiences and artists as learners and teachers within the creative process. Culture emerges when biological forces interact and contribute to each other, allowing the artistic experience to become a medium for transformation. The physical creation that is taking place is not the sound or sculpture but the change in biology that occurs when our brain maps the sound into pitch or the light into shape.[12] Art is an input that contributes to our life’s feedback loop through its effect on our neurons and our relationship with the natural polyrhythms of our bodies.

cultural experience

This touches upon a larger point about creativity. If learning is the art experience, then the divide between education and performance that is prevalent in American society evaporates. When these hierarchies are gone, we realize that any input has the potential to be art though its effect on, and relationship to, our biology. The classroom transforms into a performance venue and the stage becomes a lecture hall. The experience of enjoyment, mental expansion, and flow state that we often associate with art may simply be indicators that we are engaged with a positive method of learning. Every learning experience harbors the potential to be an artistic one if we are willing to listen.

From the sympathetic vibrations of neurons to the bodies that inhabit an ensemble, biology is at the core of creative work. Our bodies seem to absorb experiences, react to the input, and sonify organic shapes through music. This art making becomes a platform for the transmission of ideas and behaviors from which culture blossoms. If our bodies play a role in every sound we make, how could the study of biology inform future creations? How do these ideas connect to our list of universals that encompass environment, noise, choice, communities, and genre elimination? During one of Milford Graves’s collective sessions, I briefly explained my inquiry into universal music and asked how it related to the gathering’s discussion of biology as a fundamental aspect of creativity. Instrumentalist and biochemist Shahzad Ismaily gave me a profoundly simple response: “Fundamentals are the universal. They are the same.”


1. This is how I remember Graves’s starting the discussion on that day.

2. Thaler, Malcom S. The Only EKG Book You’ll Ever Need. 8th edition. Wolters Kluwer, 2015. pp. 110

3. The idea of thinking of rhythms as shapes was introduced to me by guitarist/composer Miles Okazaki.

4. Graves, Milford. “Music Extensions of Infinite Dimensions.” Arcana V: music, magic and mysticism. Edited by John Zorn. Hips Road, 2010. pp.184-185

5. Graves, Milford. “Music Extensions of Infinite Dimensions.” pp. 174

6. Tomlinson, Gary. A Million Years of Music. Zone Books, 2015. pp. 289-290

7. Descartes, René. Discourse on Method and Related Writings. Translated by Desmond M. Clarke. Penguin Books, 2003. Pp 69-71

8. Zohar, Danah. “Creativity and the Quantum Self” Creativity, edited by John Brockman. Simon & Schuster 1993. pp. 210

9. Rothenburg, Albert. “The Homospatial Process in Creativity. posted July, 2nd 2015. Paragraph 3. Date accessed: September, 23 2016.

10. Graves, Milford. “Music Extensions of Infinite Dimensions.” pp. 177

11. Tomlinson, Gary. A Million Years of Music. pp. 46

12. Levitin, Daniel J. This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession. Plume, 2007. pp. 87-93


Teresa Louis, Matt Moore, Jayanthi Bunyan, and Meera Dugal for reading and reviewing these essays. Molly Sheridan, Frank Oteri, and NewMusicBox for giving me this opportunity and your ongoing support of the new music community. Milford Graves for supporting my creative development with his ideas, sound, and time. Brooklyn Public Libraries for providing a quiet and air conditioned space in which I could work.

Street Music, Noise, and the City of Joy

The first sounds I hear in Kolkata are the car horns. Composed of dissonant intervals, they rip the air apart with pointalistic short-long abrasions. The car horns are incessant and fascinating. The local driving style involves closing the side mirrors and using the horn to communicate your position to other vehicles. In Kolkata, drivers don’t look for each other so much as they listen for each other.

On a humid day in August 2013, I was standing on one of Kolkata’s many flat rooftops listening to the traffic below. Looking out across the city, my rooftop seemed like a single concrete island among thousands of concrete islands stretching to the horizon. Swirling around me was an ocean of sound. The braying vehicles wove through a landscape of activity as thousands of people navigated the city’s concrete passageways. This human friction produced a sonic canvas of indistinguishable voices occasionally punctuated by the call of a daab-wallah[1] or the clang of ritual metal[2]. Obscured within the marketplace babble, almost spectrally, were the upper partial cries, chirps, and songs of various crows, finches, and mynas as they competed for scraps of food and the best perch. This mid-range chatter was bolstered by the deep lumbering growl of construction machinery and generators whose abyssal drone could be felt as much as heard. As I stood amidst the sound of a thousand worlds colliding, the evening call to prayer emerged out of the soundscape. The call’s percussive language and oscillating pitches soloistically framed the other sounds below. I realized that I was no longer listening to a cacophonous urban din but an aleatoric composition. Every sonic layer was fulfilled. Rhythmic densities ebbed and flowed over drones and textures of sound. Unexpected events gave the piece form, and gluing it all together was a luminous melody. This was the symphonic noise of Kolkata, City of Joy.

I will never forget that day. I came to India on a fellowship from the American Institute of Indian Studies with the purpose of studying Hindustani evening and night ragas. After ten months, I left Kolkata with an expanded view of the relationship between noise, music, and environment. This paradigm shift challenged previous notions I held about identifying sound and clarified the role of the listener within sonic experiences.

Kolkata Rooftops

Kolkata Rooftops. Photo by Jayanthi Bunyan

In the Ear of the Listener

The soundscape I experienced while standing on the rooftop in Kolkata taught me that music is a choice the listener makes and that the difference between music and noise is a matter of perspective. Bart Kosko highlights this subjectivity when he writes, “Noise is a signal that we don’t like.”[3] In this statement, Kosko places music and noise at the mercy of personal taste rather than impartial observation. This has profound implications for what music is, how it is forged, and who gets to represent it. When the difference between music and noise is a matter of perception, the listener becomes more responsible than the sound generator for music creation. This focus on the listener is partially enabled by music’s existence as a purely cognitive experience and our ability to mentally organize sound into systems like tonality.

The listener’s role in music creation is elevated because the act of music making is taking place in the brain rather than objectively in the air. Daniel Levitin outlines this concept in his book This is Your Brain on Music when discussing the human conception of pitch. He writes:

The word pitch refers to the mental representation an organism has of the fundamental frequency of sound. That is, pitch is a purely psychological phenomenon related to the frequency of vibrating air molecules. By “psychological,” I mean that it is entirely in our heads, not in the world-out-there; it is the end product of a chain of mental events that gives rise to an entirely subjective, internal mental representation or quality. Sound waves—molecules of air vibrating at various frequencies—do not themselves have pitch. Their motion and oscillation can be measured, but it takes a human (or animal) brain to map them to that internal quality we call pitch.[4]

Music is a choice the listener makes and the difference between music and noise is a matter of perspective.

Levitin’s account of pitch cognition can be broadened to explain the threshold between music and noise. The nature of music existing purely as a mental process allows adaptation, behavior, and choice to play a role in how we perceive sound. This was exemplified when the premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring was reviewed as “close to noise” by some members of the press, while for others “Stravinsky was hailed as a genius.”[5] This mental flexibility allows us to reframe sonic information through active choices and indexical experiences. Limited only by the confines of the mind, our musical acuity can be sharpened to include the full range of sounds we are capable of hearing, including noise.

In order to turn noise into music, our mind has to organize sonic information. If we continue down the track of pitch cognition outlined by Daniel Levitin, we will eventually encounter the systemization of pitch into tonality. This ability to index sound, and its relationship to symbolism, offers a possible model for how we may alter noise perception. Musicologist and evolutionary biologist Gary Tomlinson discusses the emergence of tonality in his book A Million Years of Music.

[T]onality, a pervasive tendency if not universal feature of pitch organization in musicking, shows systematicity and combinatorial hierarchy, both characteristic of the symbol; but tonality shows neither categorical distinction nor a rule-governance tantamount to a grammar, and it symbolizes nothing.[6]

The absence of “categorical distinction,” “rule-governance,” and symbolism within tonality enables a plurality of methods for defining and organizing sound. If the fundamental qualities of tonality include system creation, as well as hierarchies of thought and behavior, can the concept of tonality be expanded to include sounds other than pitch? Can we engineer tonalities out of any sound we experience? Perhaps what I experienced in Kolkata was a psychological adjustment. I went from hearing a cacophonous city ruckus to perceiving a hierarchy of sounds while mentally forming a system of frequency layers and rhythmic textures. If music only exists in our mind’s ability to organize sound, then the only boundary is the listener’s imagination. Perhaps that is the difference between music and noise.

Street music

Street music. Photo by Aakash Mittal

Street Music

Later that year, following one of my lessons with Prattyush Banerjee, I was traveling by bus through the Kolkata noise-scape. It was a weeknight like any other. The air’s pale humidity weighed on my skin, and I could smell the fragrance of burning trash, petrol, and incense unique to Indian cities. The bus came to my stop at the Gariahat crossing, one of Kolkata’s largest outdoor marketplaces.

As I hopped off the bus, I was met with extraordinary sights and sounds. The metal gate that had always enclosed a Kali shrine was thrown open. A display of colored fruit covered the normally empty wooden platform. While chanting cadential phrases, a priest sat among the offerings and occasionally drowned out his own voice by ringing a small bell. The sound that permeated the air was hammered metal and the repetitive thumping of sticks on a large vertical drum. My mind was fixated on categorizing sound. Was this ritual? The context was a Kali shrine. Was this performance? There was an audience of passersby. Was it a jam session? There appeared to be an element of casual improvisation.

What I failed to articulate at the time was that the power of collective sound making could encompass and advance beyond all of my labels. Kolkata was flush with these sonic events, and I encountered them almost daily. The orchestral noise of the city was constantly augmented with the sounds of polyrhythmic hammering, invented instruments, and exalted cries. There was no monetary exchange that occurs in busking, and there appeared to be no agenda beyond resonating the air in celebration. People came together to make music without the same goals or identity restrictions I was accustomed to in the United States. In Kolkata, you did not need to be a “musician” to play music. It affirmed a belief I have long held as an educator: that music making is not the providence of musicians but belongs to everyone. Collective sound making is fundamental to our nature.

Without words to describe these events, and lacking a suitable understanding of what I was experiencing, I affectionately referred to the sounds as “street music.” In the context of a city lush with artistic scenes, street music seemed to embody Tomlinson’s organizing principals of “systematicity” and “combinatorial hierarchy” while being simultaneously devoid of “category,” “grammar,” and “symbolism.” Street music was sound making for the air itself, just as city noise was a symphony of human activity. Both were sounds framed by location and context. This realization uncovered an important aspect of universal music: The environment.

Critical Feedback

Our surroundings physically shape the vibrations we create and amplify our noises with their sympathetic resonances.

Environment frames our improvised existence through the structure of physical boundaries, the supply of material affordances, and the pressures of nature. Just by existing in time and space, our actions and thoughts are continuously relating to and reflecting off of the world around us. Our surroundings physically shape the vibrations we create and amplify our noises with their sympathetic resonances. Environments are so integral to culture that referring to location when talking about music is difficult to avoid. We habitually refer to East Coast and West Coast jazz, North and South Indian music, French and German schools of clarinet playing. When we try to separate music from location, we often suffer the same consequences as creating genre. Music becomes detached from the people who create it. Our habitats act as a powerful symbol for communities and the music they create. Locations contextualize our noises, fuel our identities, and shape our experiences through the shared navigation of affordances and pressures. The environment is a form that our creative existence traverses.

In many ways the range of cultures that emerge from unique environments is the best argument against universalism. How can universal music exist when each setting affects the sounds we create? Isn’t the array of diverse terrain from which cultures and music arise enough to signify distinct categories? I don’t believe Hafez Modirzadeh was advocating a rejection of cultural diversity when he encouraged me to explore the idea of universal music. Rather, he was challenging me to penetrate a world of endless multiplicity in order to discover the fundamental properties that tie all of these sound-locations together. In his essay “On the Convergence Liberation of Makam X,” Hafez Modirzadeh writes:

[W]hen two or more idioms’ acoustical and rhythmic sensibilities are practiced together without compromising the integrity of each, distinctions are enhanced at a focal point rather than blurred, creating another context that sustains rather than dissolves traditional elements, ultimately allowing for all to flourish both within and beyond the boundaries of culture.[7]

Idiomatic music can act as a gateway towards the universal through its relationship to environment. In the same way that time and space are inseparable, communities and the music they make are united through the shared action of creating sound in relation to space. Simply put, culture emerges from this interaction of biology (people) with environment. At the beginning of A Million Years of Music, Gary Tomlinson describes this interaction as a continuous feedback loop. The loop begins when environments influence organisms through selective pressures such as “affordances” and “constraints.” Following that “[o]rganismal impact in reshaping selective terrain includes activities, behaviors learned in a lifetime and passed on to later generations, i.e. culture.”[8] Later, Tomlinson includes a model of the organism and environment feedback loop with a cultural feedback loop inside. As organisms develop they generate a “formalized cultural system that stands outside of co-evolutionary feedback.”[9] This secondary feedback loop is called the cultural epicycle.

feedback loop 1

Using Tomlinson’s model as inspiration we can draw our own picture of a sound-environment feedback loop with one addition: within the cultural epicycle I have added a musical epicycle.

feedback loop 2

The musical epicycle is a result of “thinking at a distance.” As Tomlinson writes, “[Thinking at a distance] developed alongside a ‘release from proximity” whereby humans gradually gained the capacity to imagine things not present to the senses[[10]].” Tomlinson’s “release from proximity” is what allows us to create sonic environments within cultural epicycles. Musicking feeds back between individual listening, decision-making, and sound generation on one side, and the “at a distance” sonic architecture that exists within ensembles, compositions, and noise environments on the other side. During my time in Kolkata, the ambient city noises and street music contributed to my personal feedback loops, just as my perceptions, behavior, and choices impacted the city.

Noise can become music, the streets can be our concert halls, and every listener can be an artist.

A number of artistic questions surface when we examine the role of environment in music making. While creating we can ask ourselves: What do we want to contribute to physical, social, and musical environments? If we are simply resonating the world around us, how does that affect artistic choices? Knowing that music exists purely in the mind of the listener equalizes the playing field for all participants. Art becomes a choice made by the experiencer, liberating us from previous constraints and opening up a world of environmental sounds to explore. We are no longer limited to performer-audience models, allowing us to expand our sonic palette through inclusive social-artistic dynamics. Noise can become music, the streets can be our concert halls, and every listener can be an artist.

These ideas surfaced throughout Kolkata’s Durga Pooja festival as I stumbled upon unidentifiable soundscapes of street music and city noise. Thousands of art installations dotted West Bengal, establishing a framework and form to the event. I was submerged in an ocean of sound and activity. The experience simultaneously encompassed what we would call performance art, music festival, art installation, and a myriad of other terms. These labels are not important. What I realize now is that I was experiencing an environment of explosive creativity, and it was quite possibly the most universal composition I have ever heard.

Durga Pooja

A Durga Pooja installation. Photo by Aakash Mittal


1. A Bengali word for someone who sells coconuts.

2. In the rituals I encountered, the sound of metal was often involved. Usually in the form of bells, as well as a gong or piece of metal struck with a wooden dowel or hammer.

3. Kosko, Bart. Noise. New York, NY. Viking Penguin, 2006. pp. 3

4. Levitin, Daniel J. This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession. New York, NY. Plume. 2007. pp. 22

5. Cross, Jonathan. Igor Stravinsky. London, UK. Reaktion Books, 2015. pp. 51

6. Tomlinson, Gary. A Million Years of Music: The emergence of human modernity. Brooklyn, NY. Zone Books, 2015. pp. 193

7. Modirzadeh, Hafez. “On the Convergence Liberation of Makam X.”
Critical Studies in Improvisation, Vol. 7, No. 2. 2011,

8. Tomlinson, Gary. A Million Years of Music. pp. 46

9. Tomlinson, Gary. A Million Years of Music. pp. 47

10. Tomlinson, Gary. A Million Years of Music. pp. 50


Teresa Louis, Matt Moore, Jayanthi Bunyan, and Meera Dugal for reading and reviewing these essays. Molly Sheridan, Frank Oteri, and New Music USA for giving me this opportunity and your ongoing support of the new music community. American Institute of Indian Studies for artistic support through the performing arts fellowship. Brooklyn Public Libraries for providing a quiet and air conditioned space in which I could work.

A Universal Music

“I hear what you are going for,” Hafez said to me. “You have clearly worked on this music and developed these Indian ornamentations within your improvisation.” It was my first week at the Banff International Workshop for Jazz and Creative Music in 2013, and I was fortunate enough to get a lesson from saxophonist, composer, and conceptualist Hafez Modirzadeh. I had just played a solo saxophone piece that I had developed over the previous couple of years and my adrenaline was pumping a little more than usual. Hafez’s recordings were frequently on my playlist, and I was excited by this opportunity to study with him. After a slight pause to think about my solo, he suggested, “But you know the goal is to move beyond ethnic stylizations towards a concept of universal music.”[1] Universal music? No ethnic stylizations? That blew my mind. “That’s not even my idea,” Hafez continued. “John Coltrane said that.”[2]

I felt the thrill of the unknown. Prior to this lesson, I was fervently driven by a personal mission to express the hybridity of my biology and experience as a half-Indian/half-Euro-American person within my music. The search for stylistic confluence manifested itself in numerous trips to study in India and four recordings of original music that explored Indian concepts, environments, and sounds within my jazz quartet. Despite my commitment to an ethnic-identity-driven music, Hafez’s words resonated deeply within me. On an intuitive level, I knew that this was the next step in my journey. I had a deluge of questions. How is universal music possible? Is not music, like language, born of culture and environment? Is not each musical style a unique expression of place and experience? For years, ethnic stylization had been one of my favorite aspects of music. I treasured the diversity of forms music seemed to take across cultures. Could I really abandon an idea so integral to my identity? In a sense, Hafez’s challenge threw into question everything I believed in artistically. The nature of music itself—what it is, why we make it, and its function in our lives—may not be what I was conditioned to think it is. It was a life-changing moment that sent me down a path of inquiry, exploration, and creative destruction that I am still traversing to this day.

Hafez’s call to action was only the first of many revelatory experiences during that opening week in Banff, Canada. Composer/pianist Vijay Iyer gave me the first building block I would use to develop my ideas surrounding universal music. In a room full of workshop participants, he said something akin to, “Genres don’t exist. They were invented by record companies to sell albums. Genres are an attempt to categorize a community of people who come together and create something.”[3] Once again, I was confronted with a paradigm shift. My musical training, rhetoric, and artistic upbringing had been a world of categories, styles, and genres hinged together. I thought of the countless hours spent trying to play a style correctly and how often I seemed to fail in that goal. At that time, I was already bothered by the mentality that our musical ancestors had somehow received the divine right to invent and that all the rest of us could hope for was to imitate. Yet I was encumbered with the popular notion that I needed to “learn the rules” before I could “break them.” At what point were the rules learned and the breaking could begin? The goal of stylistic execution was perpetually in conflict with my interest as I attempted to occupy both worlds. I embraced Vijay’s comment. He was giving me the words I needed to articulate what I believed and felt all along.

I also tried to untangle myself from some of the ideas about art that hold us back from reaching our imaginative and creative potential.

Over the past three years I have thought long and hard about Hafez and Vijay’s words. It is a topic that I am always eager to discuss with the artistic communities I encounter in my work. Through this series of essays, I am excited to share the recent odyssey that changed the way I conceptualize and create music. Though the story begins in Banff, Canada, it crosses the globe to Kolkata, India, and lands in New York City. Inside these environments, I played music with numerous people and gathered experiences that would contribute towards a concept of universal music. I also tried to untangle myself from some of the ideas about art that hold us back from reaching our imaginative and creative potential. However, before I could start building a model of universal music, I had to remove a large obstacle that was in my way: the genre.

Genres Don’t Exist

As I ruminated on my Banff experience, I began to understand that the idea of musical genre is an illusion that ignores the plurality of ideas, experiences, and sounds that exist within a community. When a sonic experience is reduced to a category, we establish boundaries that inhibit creativity with notions of stylistic correctness. This approach creates myriad problems that throw into question the objectivity that is inherently placed on genre. Among these problems are two issues that I feel are of particular importance.

The concept of genre divorces music from the people who create it.

First, the concept of genre divorces music from the people who create it. In order to define a style, we homogenize seemingly congruent elements across people and time to assemble a grocery list of digestible characteristics. Jazz is reduced to a collection of ride cymbal patterns, walking bass lines, seventh chord voicings, and improvised chromaticism. Hindustani music becomes a modal jam within odd time signatures peppered with exotic ornamentations. Music that was once riding the crest of mutative feedback loops becomes frozen in time. What is left is a shell of compiled theories, historical patterns, and reductive features often devoid of the processes and unquantifiable elements of creativity. The genre now exists abstractly. It looms over us large and menacing as we struggle to determine if this composition is ambient or minimalist and if that improviser is playing hard-bop or post-bop. In our desire to identify the sound, we lose the nuance of each performance that made the music so powerful in the first place.

In his paper “On the Convergence Liberation of Maqam X,” Hafez Modirzadeh addresses the problem of defining and abstracting music:

Essentially, musical systems are neither bound to nor described completely by fixed, geometric abstractions (including scales or tunings), for they are developed qualitatively, through a personal relating to acoustical properties and organizing principles of sound not fully understood through a quantifiable lens.[4]

In this statement, Hafez touches on several critical points. To truly understand the art experience, we need to embrace the unknown. Much in the same way the ancient Greeks resisted the mathematical concept of zero in order to protect their certainty in a static universe, we depend on genre to bolster fixed artistic beliefs.[5] Modirzadeh acknowledges the existence of musical systems while simultaneously liberating them from the world of “fixed, geometric abstractions.” This embrace of the infinite offers an alternative viewpoint to the one fixed by idiom. The unknown allows us to focus on the infinite processes of creativity.

When examining art through the lens of style, we are immediately bombarded by another problem: what person or which group of people has the privilege of defining a genre and its characteristics? In the history of music, the role of the definer becomes a political conflict. Within North Indian communities, the term classical was often attached to raga music as a way to equalize their own complex and highly structured sounds in the context of colonial rule.[6] Definitions of jazz often illuminate racial polarity and social movements in the United States, while European classical forms often frame class and patronage systems. Who has the power to define music? The critic? The academic? The audience? The artist? In the book Forces in Motion, Graham Lock shares Anthony Braxton’s view on definitions of jazz:

The problem with jazz, and this is a point I’d like to stress, is that they’re defining the music in such a way that you cannot do your best. So there’s something inherently wrong with how jazz has been defined. They have it defined now where, if you think of writing a piece for 500 saxophones, you’re looked at as having nothing to do with jazz. Or if you practice your instruments to where you really gain the kind of facility you need, and create the kind of language that expresses that, they say it’s not jazz. Take rhythm. How many articles have I read about the fact that my music doesn’t “swing”? Yet all of the masters have developed their own relationship to forming, to rhythmic contours, etc. The situation now is designed so that jazz is framed in a little box and if you don’t follow in someone else’s footsteps, someone who is so-called jazz, then you’re automatically excommunicated. But all the masters followed their own steps, so it’s a contradiction in terms.[7]

Anthony Braxton immediately challenges the act of defining jazz and the limits these definitions put on creative work. As soon as a category gains specific criteria, such as the common phrase “jazz must swing,” the problem of definitions continues. What is “swing” and who gets to define it? Braxton aligns himself with the masters who “followed their own steps” as a reference to his creative process. This emphasis of process over product further contests the role of the definer as one that is actually removed from the history of the music, rather than upholding it. Ultimately, the act of establishing a genre risks becoming the act of one group of people defining the identities of another group of people.

Our society loves the illusion of a lone genius. When we dig a little further, we uncover the reality that creative work is born of collaboration and community.

Once genre was out of the way, it became easier for me to understand that music is about communities of people. People making sound, people listening to sound, people moving to sound, people navigating sound, and even people trying to ignore sound. In place of static and definitive categories what we have are people. And people are messy. People have fluid identities, can be unpredictable, and are trying to navigate an existence they do not fully understand.

When I started looking at music through the lens of human interaction, what emerged was a world of collaborations. I realized that my favorite works of art were born of very specific relationships that existed within a flowing spectrum of social dynamics. One of my favorite polymaths is J.R.R. Tolkien, whose friendship with C.S. Lewis was pivotal in his work. Tolkien once said of Lewis, “The unpayable debt that I owe to [Lewis] was not ‘influence,’ as it is ordinarily understood, but sheer encouragement. He was for long my only audience. Only from him did I ever get the idea that my ‘stuff’ could be more than a private hobby.”[8] Similarly, Vincent Van Gogh’s brother Theo acted as patron and critic to the artist in addition to his familial role.[9] We could list creative dyads for the rest of this essay: Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway, Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Alla Rakha. Individually these people are certainly hard workers and creative thinkers, but what struck me was the realization that their work was always collaborative. Our society loves the illusion of a lone genius re-inventing genres within a vacuum. When we dig a little further, we uncover the reality that creative work is born of collaboration and community.

A community of people

Hafez Modirzadeh student ensemble at Banff International workshop, August 2013.

This emphasis on human relationships brings into question the idea of artistic tradition. Tradition implies groups of people sharing behaviors over a course of history, so wouldn’t it be simple enough to replace the word “genre” with the word “tradition”? Yet this also falls into the same trap of categorization. While traditions encompass human activities, it is still too easy to define them as collections of static practices and performances devoid of the immeasurable nuance of artistic process. Traditions fall prey to the same questions that confront styles. They often take on a life of their own and are subject to the politics of definition. Every tradition was at one time a new idea, previously untried and wholly experimental. The process of someone teaching another person how to create a sound will always mutate the practice and performance of that sound.

What is left now that we have crossed out the words genre and tradition? Rather than upholding a tradition, I argue that we are really contributing to a continuum.[10] The continuum implies a process that includes the past, present, and an undetermined future. Instead of working towards a fixed arrival, it allows us to be the next segment of an indefinable shape. The continuum acknowledges that we wouldn’t be in our present state without what has come before, establishes the importance of the present moment as the only one that exists, and allows for a future of unlimited possibility.[11]

Continuum Model

In this argument against genre, I am not suggesting that we eliminate the words bebop, minimalism, or dhrupad from our vocabulary; rather, I am advocating that we change the way we think about and use these words. These words represent people who lived in a very real place and time. They navigated the struggles of life while creating, discussing, disagreeing, and influencing each other. Yes, past communities of people shared musical vocabulary, but each person’s use of that vocabulary was ultimately unique. This recognition that traditions and genres are simply people engaging in the exact same creative processes we have today is liberating. We are no longer obliged to contain our creativity within someone else’s box, and we can take the “greats” off of their pedestals and bring them back down to earth.

Aakash and Julius at Banff Recording Studio

Aakash Mittal and Julius Schwing in the Banff Center recording studio. August 2013.

What Music Can Be

What is left when we have eliminated the terms, groupings, and rules of style? Sound.

This break from categorization and genre towards communities and relationships reveals a universal thread that ties musical continuums together. What is left when we have eliminated the terms, groupings, and rules of style? Sound. It is so simple and yet is so profound. Hafez and Vijay were not trying to tell me to abandon all concepts of ethnic identity. They were encouraging me to see past the illusion of static categorization towards the reality of our nature, which is that we are making sound as part of a spectrum of human relationships.

This emphasis on sound was further clarified for me in a letter the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Luther Adams wrote in response to the chairman of a graduate composition program. “My traditional background is sound—an intense love for sound and very little else. The power of sound will always be more important to me than any techniques, conventions or traditions.”[12] Adams’s prioritization of sound over genre allowed him to create imaginative works such as songbirdsongs and Strange and Sacred Noise that blur the lines between the categories that societies use to define art. His music often explores the liminality between sound and noise. Within his music, I hear rigorously composed designs that could be improvised or aleatoric. The process that Adams uses to reach the sound is secondary to the sound itself.

I was similarly struck when the mythologist Joseph Campbell said that “sound is the transcendent unknown”[13] during his interview for The Power of Myth. In simple terms, Campbell is addressing the importance and weight of the sonic experience without reference to genre, style, or even music. The word transcendent implies a journey “beyond ordinary limits,”[14] which can also be viewed as a “bottom-up” approach, whereas genre purports to fill the void with definitive answers where they don’t exist, which could be conversely thought of as a “top-down” approach.

Top down and Bottom Up Model

The bottom-up model is a continuum that starts with fundamental elements and experiences that build in complexity and direction over time while moving infinitely towards the unknown. The top-down model starts with a definition or arrival point and works backwards establishing a concrete path towards the destination. The top-down model is useful for many things in life, but all it takes is one hiccup along the way to remember you are actually traversing a continuum.

Without the boundaries of style, we are only limited by our imagination, patience, and stamina.

It is easy to confuse this denunciation of category with the abandonment of rigorous study and hard work. Where would we be without the hours spent practicing etudes, transcriptions, and paltas (north Indian scale patterns) that are so often tied to the concept of genre and tradition within music study? I am not encouraging a rejection of the theory and systematic practice that frequently accompanies the study of a genre. These elements are very important to numerous people’s creative process. Theories often provide tools, logic, and systems for creation. Rather, I am advocating that we prioritize human connections and sound when embarking on a creative endeavor. We can keep theories theoretical and open them up to examination and reinvention. This will allow us to explore the process from which systems emerged and use that process to create our own methods. Let us remember that at the core of our musical traditions are sound and people.

This viewpoint gives us an opportunity to enter a new dimension of creative potential. Without the boundaries of style, we are only limited by our imagination, patience, and stamina. Other people become fellow creators and sound makers rather than members of musical castes. These relationships create landscapes of human activity that generate dynamic and meaningful work. When this work is divorced from top-down constraints, it has the potential to resonate within our primordial being as well as design futures previously unimagined. When we let go of the need for genre and embrace the plurality of sound experiences and human relationships, we become open to “not just what music is but what it can be.”[15] We also take a step toward creating a universal music.


1. This is how I remember my conversation with Hafez Modirzadeh.

2. Specifically Coltrane said, “If you want to look beyond the differences in style, you will confirm that there is a common base . . . take away their purely ethnic characteristics—that is, their folkloric aspect—and you’ll discover the presence of the same pentatonic sonority, of comparable modal structures. It’s this universal aspect of music that interests me and attracts me; that’s what I’m aiming for.” Quoted in: Porter, Lewis. John Coltrane: His Life and Music. Porter, Lewis. John Coltrane: His Life and Music. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998. pp. 211

3. This is how I remember Vijay’s talk at the Banff workshop.

4. Modirzadeh, Hafez. “On the Convergence Liberation of Makam X.” Critical Studies in Improvisation, Vol. 7, No. 2. 2011, pp. 1

5. Seife, Charles. Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea.. Penguin Putnam Inc. 2000. pp. 46

6. Banerjee, Prattyush. “North Indian Classical Music: Traditional Knowledge and Modern Interpretations.” Lecture presentation at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, India. March 20-22 2014. In south Asian languages it is called Hindustani raga music.

7. Lock, Graham. Forces in Motion: The music and thoughts of Anthony Braxton. Da Capo Press, 1988. pp. 91

8. Carpenter, Humphrey, Tolkein: The Authorized Biography. Ballantine Books, 1978. pp 165

9. Suh, Anna H. Van Gogh’s Letters. Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, 2006. pp. 9

10. The idea of thinking in terms of continuums was introduced to me by reading Anthony Braxton’s interviews and writings.

11. I chose to represent continuums linearly for the sake of this essay. In reality, I believe they are even more webbed, curved, and more complicated than my simple drawing.

12. Adams, John L. Winter Music: Composing the North. Middletown, CT. Wesleyan University Press. 2004. pp. 31

13. Campbell, Joseph. The Power of Myth, with Bill Moyers. Anchor Books. 1991. pp. 121

14. “transcendent”. Unabridged. Random House, Inc. 21 Sep. 2016.

15. This is another Vijay Iyer quote that I remember from Banff.

Aakash Mittal

Aakash Mittal

Hailed as “A fiery alto saxophonist and prolific composer” by the Star Tribune (Minneapolis), Aakash Mittal is emerging as an expressive artistic voice. His self-released album, Videsh, has been regarded as, “point[ing] toward new possibilities in improvised music.” (The Denver Post) As a composer and improviser, Mittal employs colorful dissonances, meditative silences, and angular rhythms to express environments and spaces ranging from the American west to the dense streets of Kolkata.


Teresa Louis, Matt Moore, Jayanthi Bunyan, and Meera Dugal for reading and reviewing these essays. Molly Sheridan, Frank Oteri, and NewMusicBox for giving me this opportunity and your ongoing support of the new music community. Hafez Modirzadeh and Vijay Iyer for their ongoing support of my artistic growth. New York City Public Libraries for providing a quiet and air conditioned space in which I could work.