Tag: cross-cultural music

The Importance of Exchange

As China enters a new era of modernization and globalization, musical exchange becomes an increasingly pressing matter. While a news outlet may express certain views or statistics on trade, there is very little effort made to bridge the gap in cultural understanding. This is where the intersection of Chinese traditional music and new music has the potential to play an important role.

Composers’ Approaches to Musical Exchange

After a dinner at Gao Weijie’s house in September 2017 with Gao Weijie, Gao Ping (photographer), Dutch ethnomusicologist Frank Kouwenhoven, and lawyer Wang Teng.

After a dinner at Gao Weijie’s house in September 2017 with Gao Weijie, Gao Ping (photographer), Dutch ethnomusicologist Frank Kouwenhoven, and lawyer Wang Teng.

One Chinese composer who has centered his life around the concept of exchange is my mentor, Gao Weijie 高为杰. Having turned eighty this year, Gao Weijie is of a slightly older generation than many of the composers who had the chance to go abroad to study following the Cultural Revolution. Yet, he emerged from this period with a mission to learn as much about the music of the world as possible.

While a news outlet may express certain views or statistics on trade, there is very little effort made to bridge the gap in cultural understanding.

A principle vehicle for this was a composer collective he founded in Chengdu called 作曲家创作探索会 Zuoqujia chuangzuo tansuo hui (Composers’ Association for the Exploration of Compositional Creations), whose earliest activities date from 1983.

In the words of Gao Weijie:

The group had two main objectives:

1. To study and write about music from outside of China, of which we knew next to nothing. As this was the period in which China was just opening up, it was necessary to learn as much as possible and to commit ourselves to the study of technique.

Our resources were in newly-arrived analysis texts—from Allen Forte, Schenker, and others—as well as what we could obtain from the large publishing houses. Composers who traveled abroad would bring home scores from overseas. Additionally, Western composers began to come to China around this time. The first of these was the English composer Alexander Goehr, who in 1982 came to Beijing, bringing with him many scores from Schoenberg and thereafter.

2. The second motivation of the Zuoqujia chuangzuo tansuo hui was composer exchange. The concerts were few and far in between—often, we did not have the money—but through sharing scores and discussing the pieces, we learnt from one another. When someone’s piece was performed and there was a recording, we would all listen. These activities and research took place not as students, but in our free time as amateurs driven by passion.

Gao Weijie’s knowledge of both Chinese and Western traditional and contemporary music is parallel to few. He has spent his life writing both music and theoretical articles while teaching composition in order to share what he has amassed. His apartment is full of scores, recordings, and posters from concerts past; in fact, he has had to compile a handwritten library catalogue just to keep track of everything.

Gao Weijie’s library catalogue. Photo by the author.

Gao Weijie’s library catalogue. Photo by the author.

Gao Weijie’s drive to learn has not slowed with time. His most recent work, Flying Apsara 飞天 (2018), is scored for Chinese folk orchestra and takes its inspiration from the Qiuci (Kizil Cave) Frescoes in China’s Xinjiang Province. It will be premiered this coming October in a tour across China.

A representative example of Gao Laoshi’s work can be heard in his Origin of Dream I for dizi and Western flute:

Many exciting composers and performers across the world are engaged in related intercultural spheres.

Gao Weijie’s son, composer and pianist Gao Ping 高平 is one of the most important Chinese composers of the younger generation and likewise been active in creating musical exchange. Having previously lived in the United States and New Zealand, where he taught at the University of Canterbury, he is now the Chair of the Music Department at Capital Normal University in Beijing. Gao Ping’s wife Wang Wei splits her time between Beijing and Chengdu and runs an organization which arranges concerts and art exhibitions across the country. Through their joint efforts, they have built a musical bridge between performers in New Zealand, China, and the U.S. In October of this year, they brought over the New Zealand String Quartet for several concerts; the program included Gao Ping’s work Bright Light and Cloud Shadows 天光云影 (2007) alongside pieces by other Chinese and New Zealand composers.

Another interpretation of exchange can be found in the purely compositional construction of a piece. Composer Wenhui Xie’s 谢文辉 work as slow as… 时间片 (2014) for guzheng, piano, and dizi/xun uses elements of improvisation and indeterminacy to build performer-composer dialogue. This conversational approach is strengthened through Wenhui’s inclusion of herself as a pianist. This piece of Wenhui’s was one of the earliest compositions I heard for Chinese instruments and the one that made the greatest impression upon me at the time.

In addition to the aforementioned Chinese composers based in Mainland China, I have had the chance to interact with many exciting composers and performers across the world who are engaged in related intercultural spheres. Australian composers Corrina Bonshek and Bruce Crossman both take inspiration from Asian musical traditions and work with traditional Chinese instruments; American composers Joel Hoffman and Rob McClure have worked in China and engaged with Chinese music; Chinese and Taiwanese composers now living in the United States, including Huijuan Ling and Chen-hui Jen, are creating exchange through their varied artistic practices.

Logistical Challenges and Potential

Simple matters such as differences in internet usage and promotion render it difficult to know what is happening in the U.S. or in China.

While the compositional activity in China today is vital, there are several challenges facing the exchange of contemporary music. Simple matters such as differences in internet usage and promotion—Youku versus YouTube, Douyin versus Instagram, WeChat versus Facebook—render it difficult to know what is happening in the U.S. or in China if one is not already aware of it. Language presents a related barrier, as there is insufficient translation of the texts and articles on contemporary music which are published in China. Once one speaks Chinese and lives in that world, it is accessible, but that requires a not-insignificant time investment. There are further differences in the logic behind presenting organizations and musical taste at large. Chinese audiences are, in my experience, quite conservative. After the premiere of my orchestral work Haumea with the Tianjin Symphony Orchestra in 2015, a woman approached me and reprimanded me for using such “extreme and unbearable” harmony—in what was, in my opinion, a moderately tame piece compared to much modern music.

This conservatism perhaps stems from differing prioritization in educational models. While Gao Weijie acknowledges the merits of focusing so much on traditional musical elements, he also admits that many students have insufficient exposure to contemporary works. (I remember my shock at the beginning upon discovering that most of my adoptive sisters and classmates at China Conservatory had not heard of even the most famous living composers.)

This year’s joint presentation of the Beijing Modern Music Festival and ISCM perhaps opened a new chapter for dialogue with China. While the understanding of Chinese music and exchange is still relatively small, there is steady progress being made.

Gao Weijie’s thoughts on this matter are as follows:

Today, the outside understanding of China still has many limitations. At the same time, more and more Chinese are interested in the outside world and living abroad.

Ultimately, culture across the world requires more exchange. Chinese contemporary music must continue to innovate and develop, connecting back to Chinese tradition while still being in touch with the rest of humanity. I hope that more and more Western composers can engage in exchange: research, performance, and composition. It is in this way that we can come to integrate ourselves with the world.

For Summer Rain

In March 2015, I arrived in Beijing for what started as a six-month stint and then sprawled into a year. I had come to study with Chinese composer Gao Weijie 高为杰 at the China Conservatory of Music 中国音乐学院, an institution whose primary focus is the study, protection, and promotion of Chinese folk music and traditional Chinese instruments. It was an immersive experience, and one which changed my life.

I have been living on and off in China since this time, while continuing to focus much of my compositional work around Chinese instruments. This series shares four different interpretations of and perspectives on exchange through my experiences and observations as a composer.


My interest in Chinese music developed after experiencing a concert of new works for traditional Chinese instruments while studying in Cincinnati in late 2013. I was taken aback not so much by the pieces on that particular program, but by the possibilities the instruments presented — a thought which was coupled with the sudden realization that my exposure to music up until that point had been limited to the canons of jazz, classical, and contemporary music.

I went on to spend several weeks in the summer of 2014 in Taiwan to study Chinese music on a research grant from the University of Cincinnati. In observing rehearsals, conversing with instrumentalists, and attending concerts (including a festival for Nanguan, also called Nanyin 南音), it became clear that this work would require sincere investment over a longer timespan if it were to result in musical understanding.

That I am still here is a testament to the supportive relationships that have formed along the way, as much as it is due to the magic of Chinese music.

My teacher at the time, Joel Hoffman, encouraged me greatly as I considered the possibility for further study in China. My initial goals were to research and write for Chinese instruments, to experience the Chinese approach to teaching composition, and to learn from a country which remains too-frequently misunderstood by the rest of the world. That I am still here is a testament to the supportive relationships with performers, friends, and mentors that have formed along the way, as much as it is due to the magic of Chinese music and a lingering feeling that I am only at the start.

New Music for Pipa

Xia Yuyan 夏雨言 is a virtuoso performer of pipa 琵琶, a Chinese plucked string instrument. She was born in 1991 in Jiang Yin City, Jiangsu province and came to Beijing alone at age eleven to pursue advanced study with a major teacher. Our professors introduced us shortly after my arrival in Beijing, and we began what has become an ongoing three-year project of composing, performing, and recording new works for pipa.

What Yuyan found elegant, I found cliché; what I found elegant, she found incomprehensible.

The collaborative process for my first piece proved to be quite difficult from the onset. What Yuyan found elegant, I found cliché; what I found elegant, she found incomprehensible. While performers I had worked with previously were largely deferential to my ideas, Yuyan took no hesitation in telling me what to trash and that I simply had to do better. We met week after week one-on-one, and I became a bit of a pipa roadie, attending every rehearsal and concert she gave within a six-month span. Frustration eventually gave way to friendship, with us learning when to stand up for ourselves and when to trust one another. The answers lay somewhere in the space in between — not in an “East-West” fusion sense, but in the symbiotic give and take between our aesthetic ideals and the resulting sounds.

This first piece was For Summer Rain; the title is a translation of part of her name rather than being obliquely programmatic. (There is always the question of audience with new music, but for this work, my first audience was Yuyan). It was premiered in October 2015 in Beijing.

A trio for Malaysian yangqin performer Jia Wei Ng, American saxophonist Jason Pockrus, and Yuyan followed. I touched the ground while floating away was premiered the following spring in Beijing.

Our most recent collaboration — a work for solo pipa with voice (琵琶弹唱) named 空 (kōng), or Void — was finished this past March, and then presented in two lecture recitals at Tsinghua (清华大学) and Shandong Universities (山东大学哲学系) before Yuyan’s premiere of the work at the 21st CHIME (Chinese Music in Europe) Conference in Lisbon this past May.

The chance to present lecture recitals together was a welcome opportunity to share our musical exchange on a broader scale with audiences who had little exposure to Chinese instruments. Articulating in our respective second languages what our collaborations have entailed was a daunting experience for each of us. But in Yuyan’s view, the best way to embrace both life and working together is shunqi ziran 顺其自然: to go with the flow.

With an instrument of such rich capabilities, perhaps the only limitations are the ones the composer self-imposes.

While matters of technical understanding towards an instrument become easier with time, there is still much to learn about pipa as well as from one another. With an instrument of such rich capabilities, perhaps the only limitations are the ones the composer self-imposes.

Interdisciplinary Collaborations

My work with Yuyan represents but a sliver of her interests and activities as an artist. Plenty of performers are technically proficient, but her individualistic spirit and expressive range are a rare combination. These traits have led Yuyan to branch out far past what might be considered “traditional pipa performance”.

While we were rehearsing For Summer Rain, Yuyan introduced me to Jiang Shaofeng 姜少峰 (b. 1987), a Chinese dancer who has fallen in love with American tap dance. For the past several years, they have been creating works blending pipa, dance, and percussion. One example of this collaboration can be heard in a composition of Yuyan’s called Encounter:

Their duo of pipa and tap dance morphed into a multi-media performance group called No.Future between 2016 and 2017. Comprised of pipa (Xia Yuyan 夏雨言), dance (Jiang Shaofeng 姜少峰), beatbox (Gu Hong Long 贾宏龙), and voice/keyboard (Pei Ying Yan 裴颖妍), the ensemble performed in various venues around Beijing. Yet, as Yuyan pointed out, it can be difficult for independent artists in China to stay together in groups long term without sponsorship or the support of agents.

Photo of No.Future in performance, provided by Xia Yuyan.

Photo of No.Future in performance, provided by Xia Yuyan 夏雨言.

Other projects Yuyan has been involved with include improvisational workshops with modern dancers in Sichuan Province in August 2017 and a series of collaborative performances with Shaofeng and artist Luan Jiaqi 栾佳齐. Through amplifying Yuyan’s instrument and the board upon which Shaofeng dances while simultaneously placing an amplifier beneath a canvas, Luan creates artistic conditions in which paint can catch the paths of the vibrations they produce.

Xia Yuyan talking with Luan Jiaqi in front of a circular table.

Photo of Xia Yuyan 夏雨言 with artist Luan Jiaqi 栾佳齐, provided by Xia Yuyan 夏雨言.

As Yuyan stated, “My current belief since leaving conservatory is that life is not only about music. Moreover, it is not merely a matter of practicing one’s instrument. The most important thing is how one thinks, how one feels — towards life, or towards one’s inner states. And then you must decide the artistic way in which you want to express yourself. So this is why I am so interested in photography or painting: I feel that all artistic media contain their own music.”

“All artistic media contain their own music.”

On Exchange

“Without exchange there is no understanding” (没有交流,没有理解) — Gao Weijie 高为杰

I am not interested in pursuing a direct transfer or imitation of media from Chinese to Western music or vice versa. Rather, what the process of writing for Chinese instrumentalists— and particularly for Yuyan — has done is to expand my conception of sound and timbre, leading me to write music that looks carefully at the nature and acoustics of any given instrument in order to build a delicate palette exploring texture, color, and forms of release. In moving back and forth between projects for Chinese and Western instruments, it is the dialogue, the push and pull, the constant shifting of the ground beneath one’s feet that challenges and excites me as a composer.

I am not interested in pursuing a direct transfer or imitation of media from Chinese to Western music or vice versa.

Yuyan too has been impacted. As she put it, “Our collaboration has opened me up to a new form of musical expression. Working with Rachel has allowed me to grasp that silence is also a type of musical language.”

Xia Yuyan holding a pipa in March 2018. Photo by Rachel C. Walker.

Yuyan after a rehearsal of 空 kong in March 2018. Photo by the author.

When Yuyan and I began our collaboration in March 2015, she joked — and in hindsight, it seems she was serious— that once I discovered pipa, I would not be able to turn my back upon it. We were not friends immediately, and I am not sure that either of us imagined that we would still be working together now, but some of the most beautiful moments of my life have been spent in her apartment, listening to the sway of the Chinese lute.

Some Practicalities of East-West Musical Collaborations

So you want to write music for the koto, the shakuhachi, or the shamisen? Well, you’re in luck. Up until fairly recently, you would have been hard-pressed to find a traditional musician who would be willing to oblige. Beginning in the late 19th century, with its influx of Western culture and the ensuing dominance of Western music, traditional Japanese music was taught within families that jealously guarded their performance practices and repertoire. As a result, a kind of tribalism developed, split along family lines known as Ryūha (schools). Students in one line were unable to venture past the walls of their ryūha. In the last 20 to 30 years, this extreme isolation has begun to fade. Traditional instruments are now being taught in universities in Japan (and in the U.S.A.) where these strictures do not apply. Consequently, a younger generation of traditional players has emerged, and they are very open to a broader musical education. Many seem to be on a mission to share their instruments with a wider world, seeking newly developing and yet-to-be developed musical forms. It is not uncommon to hear jazz being played on the koto or shakuhachi. Some shamisen players have even taken to playing rock ‘n’ roll (and it’s a magnificent fit). In addition, with global culture inspiring an increasing number of non-Japanese masters of traditional instruments, there is a growing pool of performers available. This is particularly true of the shakuhachi, which has truly become a global instrument.

Notation: Most Japanese instruments have an extensive solo repertoire, possibly a reflection of the inward-looking nature of Buddhism. Until the 19th century, instruments were taught and learned orally, so when notation systems were created, each instrument developed its own notation. Of course, they are mutually unintelligible to one another. As a result, in chamber music there are no scores that combine all of the parts, as is the case with Western music. When the instruments first came together to play in ensemble, they simply joined by playing the same melody—hence the heterophonic texture in Japanese chamber music. For all Japanese instrumentalists, their specific notation systems are their primary notations. The good news is that increasing numbers of professional players are now fluent in reading Western music and at last have a common language for printed music; particularly the university-educated generations. Composers can write for Japanese instruments using Western notation and need not learn koto, shakuhachi, or shamisen notation. Frustratingly, many of the subtleties of playing techniques cannot be represented as precisely in this notation, but it nonetheless serves the very important function of providing common ground for music making.

When I commission a piece, composers are generally writing for Japanese instruments for the first time.

Compositional approaches: When I commission a piece, composers are generally writing for Japanese instruments for the first time. But I want them to write music that is in their voice, not to bend their ideas to find an Eastern sonority that somehow suits their style. That green light to go Western can make for some daunting performance and technical challenges, but that is the time-honored role of the beleaguered performer.

Performers of traditional Japanese instruments have spent years mastering their technique based on the melodic patterns found in the Japanese pentatonic scales. Western classical musicians have mastered major, minor, whole tone, etc. scales for their practice. As such, each group will be more comfortable playing what they have for years drilled into their fingers and ears. But this doesn’t mean composers should write pentatonic music for Japanese and diatonic for Western. Composers should write what they write. Performers will either make it work or politely suggest a change.

Audiences: Kyo-Shin-An Arts is in its ninth season of presenting chamber music concerts that mix and match Japanese instruments and Western ensembles via commissions, new music, and standard repertoire from two traditions. Every concert introduces new audience members to one or more Japanese instruments. Some of the audience is extremely loyal and has been returning for years because each concert has a distinct flavor. The differences lie in the unique styles of the composers and the partnering Western ensembles. Over the years, KSA concerts have presented the Arianna, Cassatt, Ciompi, Colorado, Lark, and Voxare string quartets, Ensemble Epomeo, Sybarite5, and many individual virtuosos gamely tackling commissions and favoring the audience with fantastic renditions of Debussy or Beethoven or Shostakovich. I have never heard a single attendee find this to be strange or daunting.

Nonetheless, it is still a common industry paradigm to automatically equate music that uses Japanese instruments (or any non-Western instruments for that matter) with something extra-musical such as cherry blossom season, moon-viewing, or samurai lore. Once, in proposing some of KSA’s commissioned works to a major orchestral institution, the somewhat unenlightened response was typical: “Well, it might work if we were to have some special Asian festival.”  For high-profile institutions, programming new music of any kind has always been a challenge. It can be wielded as a marketing hook or slipped in under the radar of a standard blockbuster. Living composers fight the good fight, and tastes evolve. But from my vantage point, the idea of classical music that incorporates Japanese instruments still sparks the notion of exoticism and “otherness.” I want to change this norm. Imagine a musical landscape where non-Western instruments are heard alongside Western instruments without notice. I am striving to achieve this through Kyo-Shin-An Arts with concerts on our series at home at the Tenri Cultural Institute in NYC, as well as in concert venues around the country and abroad. It is my hope that one day the sounds of these instruments will be welcomed simply as yet another color in the orchestra, as the clarinet or the celeste once were.

Ensemble partners: Performing partners with whom we have worked with over the years have enthusiastically embraced our commissions. This includes several orchestras in addition to the numerous string quartets, instrumentalists, and singers who have performed with KSA in NYC and on tour. All of the musicians have welcomed Japanese instrumentalists with interest and respect, not merely curiosity and tolerance. Clearly it is the musicians themselves who may be the strongest driving force for the creation and presentation of this new music.

Western classical musicians need to be sensitive—and unbiased—when they encounter Japanese instruments.

Is it difficult to work with Japanese instrument performers? Yes and no. Language can be a challenge, so working with Japanese musicians who speak English or having a member of the Western ensemble who speaks Japanese can be quite helpful. And as I mentioned earlier, Japanese instruments have remained pretty much the same for the past several centuries and did not advance technically as they did in the West. Compare the modern silver flute with the blockflöte of Bach’s day and then the five-holed bamboo shakuhachi across the same time period. Western classical musicians need to be sensitive—and unbiased—when they encounter the limitations of the Japanese instruments. But in general, it is not difficult, and ultimately a joy.

In a time when cultural sensitivity and discourse seem to be receding, understanding through the language of music remains one of the strongest expressions of our humanity. Integrating world cultures through music transcends divisions of nationality, ethnicity, and religion. Creating and presenting new music for Japanese and Western instruments is my pursuit, and over the last several years I have been gratified to discover that more and more composers, performers, and ensembles are exploring this work as well. Audiences and musicians alike are intrigued with the idea and the results. It is a global movement, and I am proud to say that I have been a positive influence for some of it. I look forward to continuing my work and celebrating Kyo-Shin-An Arts’ upcoming 10th anniversary in 2019.

Paul Moravec’s Shakuhachi Concerto, a Kyo-Shin-An Arts and Meet the Composer commission, performed by James Nyoraku Schlefer and the Orchestra of the Swan, David Curtis Music Director.

Elements of Japanese Music

I have been writing about myself, my work, a little history of Japanese music, and the intersections or disconnects between Western and Japanese music. Now I would like to discuss musical elements that are distinctly Japanese.

MU / MA / : Perhaps the most ubiquitous and well-known concept in Japanese aesthetics is that known as Ma. Translated as nothingness or emptiness, Ma emphasizes the space, in time or dimension, which is prevalent in all Japanese art forms including theater, architecture, gardening, and—of course—music. It is the space between objects, the silence between sounds, and the stillness between movements. Much more than the absence of something, it is a palpable entity. In music, Ma typically manifests as the silence we “hear” between phrases. It is that nothingness that separates sound and removes it from a position of prominence. After the first phrase of a shakuhachi solo is played and the player takes a breath, that silence, or Ma, can create a tension that brings a small relief when the next phrase eventually begins. Or if that silence separates the sounds completely, and allows each phrase to be independent, then the silence becomes its own world upon which to meditate.

Timbre as a compositional element: The musical traditions of the globe have each charted their own paths, and Europe was no exception. Western classical music evolved as an ensemble art, and beginning in the 17th century, tempered scales became the standard for composition. The evolving manufacture of musical instruments developed to suit this pitch-oriented musical language. Eventually, keyboard instruments could play all the chromatic tones and do so with a consistent timbre. Woodwind instruments transformed from tubes with holes to ever more complex machinery, the goal being consistent timbre between the ranges and tighter control of pitch. Thus, the trajectory of Western instruments has long held the goal of equalizing the sound quality across the full range of the instrument.

Japanese instruments embrace the difference of timbres between pitches, and the music developed to accommodate that.

Japanese instruments, on the other hand, embraced the difference of timbres between pitches, and the musical language developed to accommodate those differences. Frequently the same pitch is heard with different fingerings, resulting in a vastly different dynamic level and tone color. Take for example the sawari sound of the shamisen. The lowest string is purposely positioned off the nut at the top of the fingerboard to create a distinctive buzzing effect similar to the jawari sound of the sitar. To the Western ear this buzzing may come across as unfocused or unclean, but this is in fact an indispensable sound of the instrument. Likewise, pushing the string on the koto to raise the pitch, rather than plucking a neighboring string with the same pitch, results in an almost imperceptible but distinct sound. And the robust pitch of an open hole on the shakuhachi contrasts with meri, the same pitch achieved with a partially covered hole and the lowering of the player’s head. As a result, Japanese music evolved to accommodate the dissimilarities inherent in the physical makeup of the musical instruments.

Wabi-Sabi: Wabi-sabi is an idea—an essential concept in Japanese aesthetics constituting a view centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. It is not an official element of Japanese music, but as a composer and performer, I do feel that it is important for Western listeners to appreciate the concept. As an example, the pottery items used in the most refined and exacting Japanese tea ceremonies are often rustic and simple looking, with shapes that are not symmetrical and colors or textures that appear to be coarse. The tea bowls may be deliberately chipped or nicked at the bottom. It is up to the observational ability of the participant to notice and discern the hidden signs of a truly excellent design or glaze. So too, in Japanese music, must the listener be able to discern the subtle differences in sound quality and execution, putting aside preconceived musical experiences to appreciate the artistry.

The urgency to “fix” the sounds of musical instruments never entered the minds of Japanese musicians.

The urgency to “fix” the natural sounds of musical instruments never entered the minds of Japanese musicians as it did in the West, and the beauty of these subtle nuances of timbre became the standard. This is a fundamental difference in musical philosophy that presents one of the greatest challenges in merging the sounds of East and West. Nonetheless there have been many composers in the last few decades, both Western and Japanese, who have forged ahead to create some magnificent and ground-breaking new music; some are facing the challenge by essentially ignoring the disconnect, some by probing into the subtle complexities.

A performance of the composition Miyako no Haru (都の春) by Yamase Shoin I (1845-1908) on May 21, 2017 featuring Yoko Reikano Kimura, koto and voice, Sumie Kaneko, shamisen and voice, and James Nyoraku Schlefer, shakuhachi. Yamase was engaged as the first professor of koto music, at the Tokyo Academy of Music, and composed this work for the inauguration ceremony concert of the Institute in 1890.

The Intersection of Genres

Kyo-Shin-An Arts was conceived in the collision of my musical worlds. I had become professionally proficient in two very different, highly structured classical traditions. I was acutely aware of their musical parallels and seemingly irreconcilable differences, and as a teacher, performer, and erstwhile musicologist, pretty well steeped in their history. This meant that I knew why the work I wanted to do ought to succeed, but that I needed to help lead the way for others. So, embracing a history of differences between Japanese and Western classical music, I set out in pursuit of a tangible way in which to reconcile them.

Japan’s classical music traditions flourished in virtual isolation.

Japan’s musical history in brief: Japan was a closed country for nearly three centuries before it allowed itself to succumb to outside influences. During that time, its classical music traditions flourished in virtual isolation. Many instruments maintained and expanded solo musical traditions, reflecting the Buddhist and Confucian ideals of inwardness and moral rectitude. The principal Japanese instruments in these traditions were the shakuhachi (bamboo flute), koto (harp/zither), and shamisen (three-string lute). Collectively the instruments and the music are known as hogaku. The solo traditions have their own names as well; for the shakuhachi it is honkyoku.

The chamber music tradition known as sankyoku evolved as performers of koto, shamisen, and shakuhachi began to copy one another’s melodies and played them together in a heterophonic manner, displaying idiomatic instrumental characteristics without building an individual voice. These musical traditions came to a crashing halt in the late 19th century when Japan officially opened to the West and the Meiji government banned the playing and teaching of Japanese instruments in favor of European instruments. Nonetheless, despite being marginalized by the new government, the practitioners persevered. The music continued to be passed along by aural tradition and was preserved with the help of relatively new notation systems—one system for each instrument. To this day, traditional sankyoku is played with three different notation systems; one each for koto, shamisen, and shakuhachi.

Enter the West. Suffice it to say that, beginning in the late 19th century, the Japanese embraced Western classical music with enthusiasm. At the same time, their own music tradition was becoming a socially marginalized art, and Western classical was rapidly becoming the focus for music education.  Despite the efforts of a few great 20th-century composers such as Michiyo Miyagi and later Minoru Miki, who were writing new music for traditional Japanese ensembles, East and West were separate and it was assumed they would remain that way.

Despite the efforts of a few great composers, East and West were separate.

In the West, however, composers enjoyed tinkering with Eastern sound worlds. Of course, the incorporation of exotic influences began earlier—we have Rimsky-Korsakov and Debussy et al. In 20th-century American music, the pioneers of classical/world music crossover included Henry Cowell and Lou Harrison. And yet, the most seminal influence is often debatably attributed to Toru Takemitsu.

Fifty years ago, Toru Takemitsu was probably the only Japanese composer of Western classical music to have crossed over into the world of high-profile name recognition. However, when prodded by Leonard Bernstein to write an orchestral piece including traditional Japanese instruments, he balked. Largely self-taught in the classical music tradition, and especially fond of the music of Debussy and Messiaen, Takemitsu couldn’t see how the two classical music traditions of Japan and Europe could effectively be brought together. But, reluctantly, he agreed to try.

The more I looked at the two worlds of sound the greater the differences loomed, and I nearly decided the project was impossible. I thought of giving up… but completed a work in order to show as great a difference between the two traditions as possible without blending them.

—Toru Takemitsu: Confronting Silence – Selected Writings (Berkeley CA: Fallen Leaf Press, 1995), p. 62.

Indeed, so challenging did he find this task that when he finally composed November Steps, long considered the seminal work for traditional Japanese instruments and orchestra, the two sound worlds literally never interact. That was 1967.

So what are these differences that Takemitsu found so difficult to overcome? Music is after all music, a collection of sounds in some manner of organization. But music is also a reflection of culture, of language, and of purpose. And perhaps of philosophy as well. Can a difference in approach to life, its meaning, purpose, and legacy, be reflected in musical language? Two thoughts come to mind. Buddhism points to the impermanence of life—don’t become attached to things or desire them, as they will go away. Confucianism honors fealty and social harmony over individuality. Both of these abstractions differ from Western thought and tradition and work their way into musical expression.

There are also significant structural differences between the classical music of Japan and the classical music of the West. One big difference is that Western music uses harmony and traditional Japanese music doesn’t. Structurally, Western music also incorporates the concepts of repetition, contrast, and variation to define the common forms of sonata-allegro, rondo, etc. Japanese music uses a form known as “jo ha kyu.” A quiet beginning (jo) proceeds to a complex middle section (ha) and then to a fast conclusion (kyu) followed by a final brief stasis. Scale patterns are also different (pentatonic and diatonic) as are tone color, dynamics, and pitch range. That said, the sonorities and technical abilities of Japanese and Western instruments are highly compatible. Which brings me rapidly back to the 21st century and its uniquely global aesthetic.

Today, performers of Japanese instruments and composers of classical music are forging new ground.

Re-enter Kyo-Shin-An Arts. For the last decade, I have had the good fortune to be the artistic director of a music organization designed to represent my personal vision of bringing Japanese musical instruments into the fold of Western classical music. KSA exists to commission great composers and produce or facilitate performances that combine these two classical traditions. The grass roots conditions were ripe when KSA was founded, and I believe its high-quality work has helped to mainstream a new reality. Today, performers of Japanese instruments and composers of classical music are forging new ground and building relationships that are stripped of the old stereotypes of conventional constraints. They are creating a new, cross-cultural voice in music. In Japan, the old standard-bearers of musical tradition, who have proprietorially guarded their musical lineages through the Meiji Era and well into the 20th century, are facing their decline in an increasingly global musical world, enabling a new generation of unfettered musical exploration.

My composition Dream Corner is the result of my longtime desire to write a work that would unite my two favorite chamber music ensembles: the European String Quartet and the Japanese Sankyoku (the traditional trio of shakuhachi, koto, and shamisen).

How I Got Here (Making New Music with Japanese Instruments)

The first time I tried playing a shakuhachi, it was an epic fail. It was the spring of 1979. I had just attended my first performance of traditional Japanese chamber music. I was quite taken with the incredible virtuosity and commanding technique of all the players but paid particular attention to the shakuhachi, the instrument that was closest to my own. There was an incredible richness to the sound of the bamboo and an unexpectedly wide range of color and dynamics, which I found captivating.

“As a classically trained flutist, surely it should not be so difficult to make a sound on an open tube of bamboo,” hrrumphed the arrogant 22-year-old that I was. I tried again, and again, repeatedly, until much to the delight of the three Japanese members of the ensemble, I handed the instrument back to its owner—frustrated but with quiet respect.

Record stores occasionally had a small section labeled “International.”

At the time, to me, the nascent term “world music” meant Ravi Shankar and Babatunde Olatunji. And record stores occasionally had a small section labeled “International.” It was only years later that I realized how incredibly rare it was to encounter a concert of Japanese instruments, and to attend a performance like the one I had just heard in of all places, an apartment in New York’s famed Dakota building. I related this story to the contemporary flutist Harvey Sollberger, with whom I was taking some lessons at the time, and he replied that he actually had a shakuhachi but had given up on it because he couldn’t make a sound. (I began to see a pattern.) Would I like to borrow it? Well, of course I would, and over several days, with concerted effort, I began to make a sound.

A local cliché is that you can find anything in New York. Well, true to form, I found a shakuhachi teacher in short order and began what was to become a lifetime obsession with learning, teaching, performing, and composing music for the Japanese bamboo flute. The late Ronnie Nyogetsu Seldin was my first teacher. My initial approach to practicing was casual, to put it kindly, but over time (decade number one) I began to get better. And as I learned more and more about Japanese traditional music and musical culture, and made multiple trips to study in Japan, I became more and more fascinated. I observed that the rigor of the training, the complexity of the music, and variety of musical genres required a deep understanding of a highly sophisticated and complex tradition and that each had a parallel with that of classical music training for Western instruments. After years of study it became clear to me that while Japanese classical music bears no relationship whatsoever to European music, the rigor of technical mastery and knowledge of performance practices are remarkably on par.

Fast forwarding through the 39 years following my first, singular experience with the recalcitrant bamboo—countless lessons, performances, teaching, and three degrees of certification later—I have at last developed a decent technical ability on the instrument. I humbly lay claim to a fairly comprehensive understanding of both the traditional solo and chamber music repertoires, and I have moved beyond the traditional into the world of contemporary and new music for Japanese instruments.

As my composer courage grew, I thought, “Why not bring my professional training in Japanese and Western music together in my work?”

My latent composer genes began to surface in 1997. I began by writing original music for shakuhachi, and then ensembles of Japanese instruments with koto and shamisen. My personal influences of rock, the blues, and Western classical music seeped in and colored my explorations. As my composer courage grew, I thought, “Why not bring my professional training in Japanese and Western music together in my work?” I took the plunge in 2006 and wrote Quintet No. 1 for shakuhachi and string quartet. Three years later, my pursuit of this idea led me to brazenly complete and perform my first concerto and to found Kyo-Shin-An Arts, a contemporary music organization that commissions and presents new music combining Japanese and Western classical instruments. I wanted to play Western-style music again—this time on the shakuhachi—and the repertoire needed to be helped along. Through KSA, the last decade has brought the great joy of bringing some remarkable composers to the Japanese well, convincing them to attempt a work outside of all previous experience, and shepherding the premieres of quite the trove of fantastic music.

In homage to a daring and intrepid bunch of wonderful composers who have joined me in my journey this past decade, my gratitude goes out to Victoria Bond, Chad Cannon, Ciara Cornelius, Douglas Cuomo, Carlos Sanchez-Gutierrez, Daron Hagen, Matthew Harris, William Healy, Takuma Itoh, Kento Iwasaki, Mari Kimura, Angel Lam, Daniel Levitan, Gilda Lyons, James Matheson, Paul Moravec, Mark Nowakowski, Thomas Osborne, Charles Porter, Yoko Sato, Somei Satoh, Benjamin Verdery, Aleksandra Vrebalov, Donald Womack, and Randall Woolf.

Spell No. 8 composed by Aleksandra Vrebalov, a Kyo-Shin-An Arts commission, performed by Jennifer Aylmer (soprano), Jennifer Choi (violin), Wendy Law (cello), Kathleen Supové (piano), and James Nyoraku Schlefer (shakuhachi) on November 19, 2017, as part of the concert “Exploding Chrysanthemums” at the Tenri Cultural Institute in NYC.

Rudresh Mahanthappa: Getting To Know Who I Am

Rudresh Mahanthappa

A conversation at his home in Montclair, New Jersey
January 21, 2016—2:30 p.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

It has become common practice to describe jazz as “America’s classical music,” but in some ways doing so misrepresents jazz’s role in this country’s culture and also creates a false hierarchy between this extraordinary American-born music and many other valuable musical idioms to which Americans have made invaluable contributions, including so-called “classical” music. Perhaps even worse it circumscribes jazz as a musical practice, limiting what it can be as well as the aspirations of people who create music that has been defined by that word. Last year, Boydell Press published a book with the provocative title The Other Classical Musics edited by Michael Church. The book looks at a total of 15 different musical traditions from around the world and, in the process, redefines the words “other” and “classical”; one of the 15 traditions featured is Western classical music since this music is in fact an “other” to people who grew up thinking of, say, Carnatic ragas as the building blocks of classical music. Another one of the traditions featured in the book is American jazz.

The Italian-born, Boulder, Colorado-raised composer/saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa creates music that is deeply informed by at least four of the traditions featured in Church’s book—the Carnatic music of his ancestors, the Hindustani music that most folks in America assume is the sum total of India’s contribution to classical music, Western classical music which got instilled in him while studying the Baroque recorder in elementary school, and jazz—his pedigree in which is backed up with two academic degrees. But the music he first fell in love with was Grover Washington’s and, he acknowledged when we visited him in his home in Montclair, New Jersey, his earliest attempts at original material were inspired by Kenny G.

That’s what we knew, so I guess it was—well, I’ll never say it was okay, but it was good for where we were.

Rudresh ultimately wanted to be somewhere else. And the ticket to that somewhere else was, first, the Berklee College of Music and then DePaul University, where he finally came to terms with his identity as an American of South Asian origins who wanted to blaze a trail in jazz.

I come from a very academic family and my dad wasn’t going to let me move to New York with a rucksack on a stick and make my way. He’s one of the leading theoretical physicists in the world and he has all sorts of advanced degrees and awards, so the idea of not going to college, not going that route, was just unheard of. … When I first went to college, there was a huge black population and a huge white population, so I was very much confronted with this identity crisis of not knowing who I am. … In a lot of ways, a lot of my music is a by-product of me getting to know who I am. It’s defining what being Indian-American is for myself, and being confused and embracing that confusion and kind of coming out the other end with a real community of people that have been down the same paths as me who are pretty much of the same age and the same generation.

For the last 20 years, Rudresh has explored his composite cultural identity through an extremely wide range of fascinating musical activities. Some of these projects have been direct attempts to synthesize contemporary jazz and much older Indian traditions, such as the duo Raw Materials in which he collaborates with like-minded pianist Vijay Iyer, and a trio called the Indo-Pak Coalition in which he performs alongside Pakistani-American Rez Abbazi on electric guitar and Jewish-American Dan Weiss on the Indian tabla. Perhaps even more intriguing, however, have been projects in which jazz and Carnatic elements co-exist alongside many other components such as Gamak, which incorporates the microtonal guitar experiments of David Fiuczynski, and Samdhi, on which Rudresh also performs on a laptop. In the last couple of years, Rudresh has composed a quintet for saxophones which he performs along with leading contemporary classical saxophone quartet PRISM, and Song of the Jasmine, a score he performs with an ensemble to accompany the Ragamala Dance Company. And his most recent album is an homage to Charlie Parker. In all of these projects, he has come even closer to finding his own voice by deeply probing some of the world’s greatest musical traditions.


Frank J. Oteri: This morning I started reading a really interesting book called The Other Classical Musics, which was published last year. There are two very loaded words in that title: “other” and “classical.” But the book is an attempt to turn both of these words on their heads. There are a total of 15 kinds of music featured in the book, and one of them is Western classical music, since for some people it is an “other” classical music. Anyway, among the different musics discussed in the book, you’ve dipped into at least four: jazz, Carnatic music, Hindustani music, and Western classical music in terms of working with an ensemble like PRISM.

Rudresh Mahanthappa: Right.

FJO: In the book’s introduction, there’s a reference to a comment by the musicologist Harold Powers, who has claimed that the difference between a classical music and a folk music is that you can be from anywhere and still be able to learn a classical music with application and talent, whereas you have to be born into a folk music.

RM: You have to have lived it for real. Wow, that’s really interesting. I have this conversation a lot with people about jazz. Jazz has this international scope; everyone’s playing jazz and everyone’s making their own jazz, but there’s always this kind of lurking intimidation among people from these countries outside of America feeling—depending on the population—that they don’t have access to black culture or black American culture. So there’s a bit of a sinking feeling that their jazz is not authentic. And yeah, that’s an interesting issue for me and an interesting thing raised to me by others because, you know, I’m not black, I’m not white, and I’m not Latin. I came to this music through jazz-rock fusion or instrumental soul R&B—people like Grover Washington, David Sanborn, the Brecker Brothers, and the Yellowjackets—because that was music that also sounded like the music that was being played on Top 40 radio. I was born in 1971. I’m really a child of the ‘80s in many ways, so that music all made sense. It wasn’t like I was listening to Charlie Parker when I was ten years old. It wasn’t until I got older that I was finding a place where I felt like I was safe playing jazz. There were plenty of times where I felt like I didn’t belong because of ethnicity, the color of my skin.

The industry had no place for me, either; they didn’t know what to do with an Indian-American jazz musician. They knew what to do with a black jazz musician or a white jazz musician, and Latin jazz is a huge genre unto itself as well. So there was a lot of stereotyping that would take place. I remember talking to an entertainment lawyer who was trying to help me get a record deal when I was 24 or something like that. And she said, “We definitely need to have Ravi Shankar as a guest on the first album.” I was like, “Really? We do?” Here I am with a band that’s piano, bass, drums, and alto saxophone, and we’re playing very traditional jazz forms—blues, rhythm changes, nothing very wild by any means. A common reaction from an audience member would be, “wow, this is great music” not “you should have a tabla player in your band,” which doesn’t even make sense musically. I’m South Indian, you know; tabla’s a North Indian instrument. So do I have to have that conversation, too, about the prevalence of North India as opposed to South India in the United States?

But that’s really interesting because I think at its roots, jazz is often talked about as being American classical music—and in some regards it is. But at the same time, its folk origins are really undeniable. I’d be interested to read that book, because you could argue jazz’s roots having such a strong folk tradition that maybe it isn’t accessible. But I would like to think it’s accessible because I am one of the biggest anomalies in my musical genre that I know of, with a handful of others.

But, you know, those issues of authenticity and validity are the things you confront regardless of what you do in the art world. To find places that are encouraging and nurturing is sometimes more than half the battle in making your way through and making a career out of this. The example I always bring up is everyone feels like they can own jazz across the world. But if they were going to study Indian music, they would all go to India to study it. So why is it that more people don’t come to New York City to study jazz, or New Orleans? But I would say New York City is more the capital of jazz, and there are a lot of people that are making jazz in the world that have never been to New York City. I always tell them that they have to go to the place where Charlie Parker and Miles Davis and innumerable others really made a mark on this music. This is like going to Madras to study Carnatic music. You have to do it. You don’t have to live here, but you got to do it a little bit.

FJO: It’s interesting where you took that comment; you talked more about jazz than you did about Carnatic music except for your assertion about the certainty of going to Madras to study Carnatic music versus people’s lack of certainty vis-à-vis needing to go to New York City to fully understand jazz. Theoretically you can learn jazz from anywhere in the world, but there is this cultural root to it. Then again, there’s a cultural root to any music including Western classical music.

RM: Sure.

FJO: In a way, it’s sort of presumptuous for someone to assume that you’d be fluent in South Indian music just because your parents came from there. You grew up in Colorado and you were actually born in Italy, so technically you should be singing bel canto opera!

RM: We weren’t there long enough, but yeah. This is a really interesting issue. Everybody should try to go visit the roots of wherever what they do comes from. Opera singers spend time in Italy, most of the great ones do. Everyone has to visit the mother tongue of whatever it is they do, the cultural homeland. It might not necessarily make you better at what you do, but it’ll give a perspective to what you do that I think is very important, and also place what you do in the larger scope of what it means to be producing something on this planet—music as a community event.

FJO: So Boulder, Colorado, in the 1980s is your personal cultural homeland—listening to Grover Washington, the Brecker Brothers. How did you get interested in making music yourself?

RM: My older brother played clarinet and he used to practice before school, if you can imagine. It was so early. It was still dark outside in the winter. I was often eating breakfast. It was getting close to the time where I could be part of the music program in elementary school. I think you could start in fourth grade or the summer before fourth grade. Everyone played recorder in elementary music school class. Everyone played “Hot Cross Buns.” But I actually came home and told my mom I loved it and I wanted private lessons. So actually I had two years of Baroque recorder in second and third grade, which was great. I already knew how to read music and the fingerings are practically the same [as the saxophone’s fingerings]. So it was a smoother transition than having played nothing before. But I remember this very distinct conversation one morning where my brother said, “You should play an instrument that allows you to be in the jazz band, because those guys are having a lot more fun than I am.” He also said that they take solos where they get to make them up. He was talking about improvisation, but that was totally intriguing. And the other thing he said was that often times the baritone sax, especially if you’re a kid and not tall enough, will rest on the floor and it will shake the whole room. My mom had all these kitschy knick-knacks from all over the world, and the idea of those shaking off the shelves—I mean, that was it for me. I was really hoping to destroy my mom’s stuff by playing the baritone sax. But I never got to play that.

I’m still very much in touch with the father of my elementary school best friend. My friend actually passed away, but I’m still close with his dad. He was really psyched that I was playing saxophone. He actually was an amateur musician, and he gave me that first Grover Washington record when I was in fourth grade. It’s that famous one with “Just the Two of Us.” Then shortly after that, Grover was on tour and my dad took me to the concert at Red Rocks. We got there early and got third-rows seats. We couldn’t hear for three days, but it was really, really awesome. Everybody was up dancing in the aisles, and it was like going to church or something. It was really amazing. So those were a lot of the inspirations. I heard Charlie Parker by the time I was in seventh grade. I was in it by then. From ninth grade on, I’ve always had a band of some sort and was trying to write stupid songs, butchering Charlie Parker’s music, and eventually butchering Coltrane’s music. I was always into leading a band and just trying to get out there and play.

Some people might know that Boulder, Colorado, has this pedestrian mall that’s very famous for its street entertainers—jugglers, magicians, savants, whatever, and musicians, of course. I think my dad was joking when he said, “Why don’t you go out there and try to make some money?” I was in sixth or seventh grade, but I went out there. I was just playing T.V. show themes and songs like “Mandy.” My brother had this [book of] pop classics for the clarinet, and I just played them on the saxophone. But I met so many other musicians playing out there that were much older than me. Eventually I heard a Dixieland band playing in a restaurant across the way. I went in there and I had my horn in the case. For some reason, the leader of the band saw me and saw the case and he came over to me with a list of tunes and said, “Do you know any of these?” I said, “I think I know ‘Sweet Georgia Brown.’” So he said, “Come up and play.” They played every Friday afternoon, and I played with those guys for like five years. So the first tunes I learned were all these Dixieland tunes—which most people would be shocked to know actually—like “Up a Lazy River,” “Avalon,” and “Undecided.” I know those tunes better than I know what are considered the classic jazz standards. Then I met other older, amateur musicians who would get little gigs at coffee houses, so I was kind of out there playing already when I was 15.

FJO: Now when did you go from playing standards to wanting to create your own material?

RM: I was writing tunes in junior high and high school. I had a little funk-fusion band. We would write some tunes together. The keyboard player was really good. We would try to write tunes that probably sounded more like Kenny G. tunes to some degree. That’s what we knew, so I guess it was—well, I’ll never say it was okay, but it was good for where we were.

I tried to keep writing through college. I had a kind of hiccup in college because the school I started at was a bit oppressive in its way of teaching jazz, so I was a little bit lost there for a couple of years. But then I ended up transferring to Berklee College of Music and had a much more creative experience. That’s when I really started writing a lot and getting a better grasp on what I wanted to do.

FJO: So what would be an example of an oppressive way of teaching jazz?

RM: I think it was very patternistic. It wasn’t about learning from records. It was what we call learning licks, piecing together vocabulary but more from books, so I felt like the aural tradition of jazz was missing. It was all very academic. It was also very big band oriented, which I wasn’t so much interested in. I was really into small groups and improvising, and I felt like all of that was an afterthought. There was also an almost classist sort of feeling within the student body. You know, “I play in the top ensemble and I’m a first class citizen.” It went all the way down to the zero class citizens, which was the world I was in. But I was already thinking about different approaches to creating vocabulary, both as an improviser and a composer back then. In between the first and second year, I went back home to Colorado. I went back to my original teacher, but he said, “You don’t want to study with me, you want to study with this guy.” His name was Chuck Schneider. They weren’t saxophone lessons; they were theory lessons, but they were always very far-reaching. Like, we’d talk about some sort of intervallic concept, let’s say, and he would say, “You see it in Coltrane, but you also see it in Bartók, and in Schoenberg here.” It wasn’t just about jazz; it was about a whole sphere of music. That’s the summer I became a total theory head—Persichetti, Schoenberg, whatever. I went to the library and checked out as many books as possible. The following year we were using Allen Forte and different methods for analysis in the classical theory program, and the first thing that struck me is why can’t we reverse engineer this method of analysis to actually create fresh vocabulary to improvise with and to write with? So I was thinking about serialism and I was thinking about pitch sets. I was thinking about playing 12-bar blues also, but I was thinking about all these things in the same space.

Then also as a listener, I had the same teacher from fourth grade until I left for college—Mark Harris. I was his first student. He was a sophomore in college when we started. And he had just a very open-minded approach to music in general. First of all, every time I saw him play was different. He might be with something that was considered more avant-garde, like two horns and a drummer screaming. Then I’d see him with an Afropop band. Then I’d see him with a prog rock band. He was in a band called Thinking Plague that was actually signed to Cuneiform way back when. Then I’d see him with a big band. So I had this sense that music was large. It wasn’t just about playing jazz, or certainly just playing saxophone. He also came to my house for lessons. Remember those days when people came to your house to teach you? He would always bring three records with him and there’d always be an incredible variety. There might be Stravinsky, Sidney Bechet, and Yes. Then the next week it would be something else. So I was listening in this way that really had no boundaries with genre. It was about music being played well and played with integrity. I was listening to Ornette and Grover Washington at the same time. I just thought they were two great saxophonists. I didn’t really think that one was out and one was in. When I went to college, people were talking about hard bop and all these little subdivisions. I was like, “What are you talking about? This is all just great music.” Those perspectives were instilled in me at a very young age. I didn’t know it at the time, but I look back on it and say holy moly!

FJO: Have you kept up with Mark Harris?

RM: Oh yeah. He stood up at my wedding. He’s one of my best friends.

FJO: You had this really important mentor, but you also had official academic training. As a jazz player, you’re a product of the whole jazz education thing. You actually have a graduate degree in jazz composition.

RM: I do. Well, there are several reasons for that. I didn’t know of another way to gain access to the music in Boulder, Colorado. You have to understand, at the time I graduated from high school in ’88, there were really only ten schools in the country that had a jazz studies program. They were all very competitive, and they all meant moving thousands of miles away. It’s very different now because your local college has a jazz studies program. Everybody has a jazz studies program now. Anyway, at that time there was still a level of commitment that meant displacing yourself at the age of 17. I knew that moving to New York was not an option. I come from a very academic family and my dad wasn’t going to let me move to New York with a rucksack on a stick and make my way. He’s one of the leading theoretical physicists in the world and he has all sorts of advanced degrees and awards, so the idea of not going to college, not going that route, was just unheard of. My mom was the more artsy one. While I was listening to this music, she would say, “oh, I really like that” or “oh, I hated that,” or “what you played sounded great” or “that was awful, what you were doing.” She actually had feedback. With my dad, it was really like, “Well, I don’t know if it was good or bad. I don’t know enough about it.” So that’s to say that I think my dad is really pleased with degrees and awards. And that’s great. I like calling home and saying, “Hey, I just got this.” And you know, my parents are ecstatic, but I can tell that my dad loves it more.

But I didn’t actually know there was another route without going to college. For someone finishing high school in the ‘80s, that’s what you do. It wasn’t until I met people like Steve Coleman, who just moved here and practically lived on the streets. He’s made some of the most important music in the last 20 years. Now I know that’s a possibility. Getting a master’s degree wasn’t really my plan, but there’s this preordained path now—it’s actually quite dumb—that you finish your bachelor’s and you move to New York. That’s what you’re supposed to do as a jazz musician, whether or not you’re prepared to. You either move to New York or you go to school in New York to get your master’s, or something like that. More and more at this point there’s so many great non-New York communities that are producing great music. You don’t need to do that anymore, so I guess that’s all to say that we were all finishing up at Berklee, and everybody was moving to New York. I’d only been here once, for a long weekend, and it was like a 72-hour panic attack. I didn’t want to have anything do with this city. So I was pretty confused. And a friend of mine was like, “Why don’t you come to Chicago? It’s a very healthy scene, you’d probably play a lot and work a lot and get a lot of experience, and by the way, there’s a school here and you could probably do your master’s here.” I was like, “Oh, that’s an interesting idea.” Then I had mentioned this in passing to a teacher at Berklee who said that school’s called DePaul University and it’s a great school. He said, “You know, the best man in my wedding runs a jazz program there. Let me make a call for you.”

So it just kind of barreled forward and it was great. The school was great. And Chicago was great, and it was a great stepping stone to New York because I got a lot of experience and exposure, but more experience than I would have if I had come to New York. I’d probably be temping. I’d probably be an expert in Photoshop now if I had moved to New York. I really got to play in Chicago. I had a steady Monday night gig. I was writing music. A little local label put out my first album. And I learned stuff. I learned how to get a gig. I learned how to get a radio station to play your music. I learned a lot of business stuff. And then every band that was coming through from New York, I went to meet them and would take them out for South Indian food or cook for them.

So, when I moved to New York, I knew all these people. “You’re the guy who took us out for idlis and dosas.” “Yeah, that was me. Here’s my CD.” I was always thinking about the music and the business together because I saw, in some sort of maybe subconscious way, that the industry was—well, I didn’t predict MP3s and the internet and piracy, but I knew that stuff was going to get harder and harder. It was very clear to me. The schools are turning out so many proficient musicians. There’s a lot more to wade through to make sure you are heard, especially if you have a real personal voice.

FJO: During the years you were at DePaul you also played as a sideman in a big band led by Clark Terry.

RM: Well, that wasn’t really true. The university band had hired Clark Terry to be a guest with the group. So I wasn’t really doing that. That was the other thing. I saw very quickly that I was not going to be called as a sideman very often. I always modeled myself after Michael Brecker in the sense that Michael Brecker could do anything he wanted to do. He was amazing. But whenever you saw him as a sideman in anything, or playing a solo in a pop track, it wasn’t because they needed a saxophonist—it was because they wanted his sound. So even back then, I thought of it all as a high road. I was like I don’t want someone to call me just because they need an alto player. I want them to call because they want me specifically. And that meant being just a leader for a very long time. I had those revelations pretty early.

A common summer job for a jazz musician is to go out on a cruise ship and play in one of these mickey bands. So that was my first professional gig when I was still at Berklee. I was 20. It was like, “This is great. I’m going to spend the summer in the Caribbean. I’m going to save a lot of money. I’m going to practice. I’m going to do all this stuff.” And I was horrified. I was horrified by the music, by the other musicians, by the amount of substance abuse. There were a lot of people like me. “I’m just going to be on here for the summer.” And they’d been on there for ten years, you know. There was one guy who—I don’t know if he forgot—almost every day would tell me about how he was going to get off the ship and go study with Joe Lovano at William Paterson. And I was like, “Do you know you told me this yesterday?” I actually jumped off after six weeks. I was very depressed, but I came out of that summer realizing that I was a really good teacher and that I could sustain myself doing that. And also making a real vow to myself that I wasn’t going to put myself in a situation where the saxophone was in my mouth and I didn’t enjoy what I was doing. So I set up a different career path for myself. When I moved to Chicago, everyone was playing weddings and private parties on Saturday nights, putting on their unwashed tuxedo and playing out in the suburbs. In four years in Chicago, I think I did 15 of those gigs. And it was always like a ticking clock when I got on the gig. As soon as there’s a saxophone solo, I know that at the end of that solo I will not get called by this band leader again, because I’m gonna play nutso; I’m just going to do what I want. So it actually became this joke to me. I’m going to get hired and fired by another band in one night. Not that I was trying to be a jerk, but I would look at these people next to me and say, “Is this what you thought you’d be doing when you went to music school when you were 18?”

FJO: So when did you feel you became you, as opposed to just an interchangeable saxophone player, in terms of what you were playing?

RM: Already in college at Berklee I felt tinges of that. I was not only checking out a lot of modern voices in jazz, I also just felt like it was really important to—not just vocabulary and composition—have a sense of what I wanted to sound like. I really listened to a lot of tenor players instead of alto players. After Charlie Parker, it wasn’t really Cannonball and Sonny Stitt. It was really Coltrane and people that came after him, so my sonic picture was very different. And I was listening to all this double reed music from India, like Bismillah Khan on shehnai and players on the South Indian nagasvaram—really reedy. I really liked that. I was kind of trying to put those two together. I had different ways of thinking about embouchure and just the way you position your body when you’re playing the instrument. They weren’t necessarily new, but I just didn’t hear those conversations happening a lot around me.

FJO: So you were already starting to get immersed in Indian music.

RM: A little bit, you know. Indian music was always tough for me because when I was younger, say like in high school when I was playing with all these musicians, there was this assumption that I was an expert on Indian music just because of my name and the color of my skin. So I always felt like I had to know a lot about it, even though I knew nothing about it. My parents weren’t actively listening to it, speaking of that folk/classical thing. They were mainly listening to bhajans, which is temple music. I always describe the difference between bhajans and Indian classical music as the difference between church hymns and Debussy. Indian classical music has the same tools, but it’s much more complex and orchestrated.

Anyway, these certain sounds were in my head from a young age, but I certainly couldn’t pick apart a Ravi Shankar track or a Subramaniam track or anything like that. And I had this thing hanging over my head that Indian music is not a safe space. In Boulder, it was easy to just kind of consider myself white, because that’s what it was primarily. Then when I first went to college, there was a huge black population and a huge white population, so I was very much confronted with this identity crisis of not knowing who I am and also just the newness of an Indian-American identity in this country. The idea of being children of immigrants wasn’t something that was at the forefront. Now we’re everywhere: we’re in Hollywood; we’re on T.V.; we’re writing books; we’re making music. But back then, in the late ‘80s and even going into the ‘90s, there weren’t any role models. So it was all quite scary.

In a lot of ways, a lot of my music is a by-product of me getting to know who I am. It’s defining what being Indian-American is for myself, and being confused and embracing that confusion and kind of coming out the other end with a real community of people that have been down the same paths as me who are pretty much of the same age and the same generation. In ’93, I had already finished at Berklee and was living in Chicago, but Berklee sent a student band to India comprised of the few students from India who were attending Berklee and then a few other musicians like myself and the great bass player Matt Garrison. We did this tour, and we managed to hear some really great music. Outside of Bangalore, which is where my parents are from, there’s this tradition of the all-night concert—a concert that starts at sunset and goes to sunrise. And we went to one of these and I didn’t know that at the time it was really some of the great names in both North and South Indian music; it was just an amazing night. I went to the record store the next day and just bought as many CDs and cassettes as I could handle of the artists I’d heard and then I asked the store owner to recommend a bunch of stuff, too. So I went back to Chicago with all this music in hand and a lot of that very first album that came out in ‘95, all those compositions, is very loosely inspired by that trip to India.

That trip was eye-opening in lots of ways because it wasn’t just about the music. It was my first time going as an adult. It was the first time going without my parents. And it was the first time going to play music. I hadn’t been there in ten10 years, so my relatives were all going to ask why I didn’t speak their language. I was prepared for lots and lots of anxiety, which resulted in some really, really cool music. Then shortly after that, Vijay Iyer and I met, and then we finally had a partner in crime to kind of learn from each other. And we learned a lot of stuff together. You know, we listened to a lot of albums together and picked them apart, and we had very different perspectives on what we wanted to do musically, but enough common goals and agendas that it was amazing. We’ve been playing together for 20 years now.

FJO: When does Rez Abbasi come into the picture?

RM: I actually played a session with him at someone’s house right when I moved to New York in ‘97, my third week in town. But Rez was not so engaged in his ancestry. I think what turned it around for him is he ended up dating Kiran Ahluwalia who’s this great ghazal singer. He started playing with her, too. He started playing with her first, I think. He had lots of agendas at once, I’m sure, but I think that’s when he really started thinking a lot about Indian music. I heard him and Dan Weiss at the same time. And I couldn’t believe—here was this Jewish kid from Jersey who was playing tabla better than anybody. So we had this trio called the Indo-Pak Coalition. I had started a band like that in Chicago with the same name, but it felt very inauthentic. It took a long time for me to feel comfortable working with Indian concepts or instrumentalists, or Indian musicians, because I felt like I wanted to be in a place where the dialogue was meaningful and that it was a real synthesis of ideas and with the right people who wanted to blur the lines. There are so many East-West sorts of projects where it’s two people playing in a room together and not only are they not pushing each other, they’re really just showing up and doing what they do. That’s what the f-word is for me—fusion. You know, it’s really like, ugh, when people say my music is fusion! Please don’t use that word because that connotes all those projects from the ‘60s and ‘70s that were really about exoticism and smoking weed and listening to Indian music. The way Indian music got presented in America initially was a little bit sad. I always say that Ravi Shankar playing at Woodstock was the best and worst thing that ever happened to Indian music.

FJO: At the onset you were saying this lawyer thought that Ravi Shankar should be on your first album, even though you’re South Indian. Immediately I was thinking about how Indian music influenced Western music—jazz, rock, and classical music. Most of that influence was coming from North Indian music, which has a very steady drone and develops very gradually. To me, Carnatic music is much more frenetic and raw; it’s more like early bebop.

RM: Absolutely. The rhythmic engagement is on such a high level. It’s funny because when I talk about blurring those lines, I hear Jack DeJohnette or Max Roach and the greatest mridangam players on the same rhythmic playing field. It’s couched differently culturally, of course, but those things are rather seamless to me; it all kind of makes sense in my head. Plus I’m Indian and I’m American every second of every day, so the music has to reflect that and has to be respectful of that.

FJO: Well, in terms of identities, when the Indo-Pak Coalition really gelled and came together it was Rez, Dan Weiss, and you. You mentioned the Jewish guy from Jersey playing the tabla, which is the Indian instrument, and the two guys from South Asia are playing Western instruments. But that’s a ridiculous way to think about it ultimately since you’re all Americans.

RM: Right. Yeah, totally.

FJO: What instrument belongs to who, a saxophone, a guitar, or tabla? The saxophone was invented in Europe. The electric guitar is an American creation, but it’s a hybrid. American culture is a hybrid culture no matter what we do.

RM: Absolutely. I think so much of this country is based on hybridity and all sorts of cross-pollination. It really is a laboratory for anything to happen—maybe more so than other places in the world.

FJO: So in terms of that f-word, fusion: one thing that immediately does come to mind as a precedent for the Indo-Pak Coalition, although he’s British, is what John McLaughlin did in Shakti, his collaboration with L. Shankar, which at times really did work.

RM: Oh, it’s blazing. I love that music. But I would never call that music jazz. That’s McLaughlin playing Carnatic music. I know they had a jazz presence, because it was McLaughlin, and whenever they regroup, they play all the big jazz festivals. And it’s awesome. There are some Shakti videos that I’ve watched thousands of times, and they’re killing. But I’m thinking more things like the first coining of Indo-jazz fusion, Joe Harriott. There was a time when everyone wanted to reference that album. It actually took me a long time to listen to it. I really don’t like that album. I admire the endeavor and the effort, but the musical results are nothing that I relate to really. But maybe that’s my problem. I’m thinking more about that than Shakti. The reality is McLaughlin’s investment in Indian music is tremendous, both musically and spiritually. He really feels it. He knows that stuff better than some Carnatic musicians. And he deserves all the credit and the kudos, for sure. But yeah, people always want to think of what I do as an extension of that, whereas I want think of what I do as an extension of Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker and John Coltrane.

FJO: When you were mentioning the names of people who influenced your approach to playing the saxophone, I thought you’d also mention Gato Barbieri, who had such a raw sound.

RM: Oh yeah. Definitely.

FJO: But in terms of thinking of what you do as an extension of Ellington, Parker, and Coltrane, I think Coltrane was the only one who really became immersed in Indian music and was trying to find a way to internalizing it and make it completely his own. Where I hear that even more in your work is in what you’ve been doing on albums like Gamak and Samdhi, which derive not only from jazz and Carnatic musical traditions but from lots of other stuff as well. On Gamak, you worked with David Fiuczynski, who plays wacky microtonal guitar, and on Samdhi you’re messing around with a laptop. It’s a lot more than just a fusion. Oops, there’s the f-word. Anyway, it’s something that’s way beyond just two things; I think what it really is, if you need to put a label on it, is 21st-century American music.

RM: Well, the interesting thing with Samdhi and that project with laptop was that it was actually the result of my Guggenheim project, which was all based on spending two to three months in India and informally studying with a bunch of people. The intention was always to take all these ideas, concepts, and ancient techniques and graft them onto the jazz/rock fusion band that I always wanted to have, with screaming electric guitar, electric bass, and distorted saxophone. All those tunes are very much based on South Indian rhythmic cycles and ragas. It’s really funny that that was the mouthpiece I wanted for all this information.

Then with Gamak we moved into lots of different territory. We worked with some modes that are used in Javanese gamelan music. There’s also some stuff that sounds almost like country music. Gamak or gamaka refers to melodic ornamentation in Indian music. That’s the name for it. But I wanted to think about how ornamentation occurs across the world, because that’s such a humanizing factor in the transmission of song, whether it’s R&B or country music, or some East Asian genre. How that yodel you hear in country music occurs in early American music and occurs in Africa, but variations of that occur in Japanese music. So are these the primal and visceral elements of what making music means? That’s what I was trying to address with that album, but also in a very playful way.

Then I turned around and kind of deconstructed Charlie Parker on the next album [Bird Calls]. But at the same time, the first track on that is very much based on a South Indian tala. Now it’s more in my DNA. I have to say when I look back on those first things with Indo-Pak Coalition or Kinsman, a collaboration with the Carnatic saxophonist Kadri Gopalnath, even though it’s only seven or eight years old, is that I was trying to prove something. I don’t know if it comes across in the music, but when I go to those head spaces, I’m like, “Yeah, I felt like you have to play like this, because you’re trying to prove that you can do all these things.” And now I’m like, you know what, they’re so embedded. They’re just coming out now. And I can relax with it. It’s always going to be me.

FJO: But in terms of trying to prove something, you really made a statement by calling an album Samdhi.

RM: Yeah, the new universe. I was thinking more like the way that the Hindu calendar has this very finite place; they know when the universe is going to end. Then there’s this space while the new universe is being created. At the time I was feeling like there were new things opening up for me musically—not necessarily that other things were closing, but I felt like I was finding a new voice. So it’s more metaphorically speaking of that space between the destruction of one thing and the creation of another, and what happens during those magical times. It’s like twilight, really—all the weird things that can happen in twilight.

FJO: But I hear Bird Calls as coming from a completely different place than either Gamak or Samdhi. Not in terms of how it sounds, but in terms of how it exists in relation to tradition. I would place it more alongside projects like I Will Not Apologize For My Tone Tonight, your collaboration with the PRISM Quartet, or Song of the Jasmine, the music you created and performed with Ragamala Dance. Working with those dancers resulted in what is probably the most traditional Indian-sounding music you’ve ever done. And working with PRISM, which is a genre-bending ensemble but one that is firmly rooted in the Western classical saxophone quartet tradition, is probably the most traditionally Western classical thing you’ve done. Similarly, Bird Calls, which is a direct homage to Charlie Parker, the most iconic saxophone soloist, is in some ways your most traditional straight-ahead sounding jazz album. You’re still creating things that are clearly in your own voice but you seem to be more directly in specific dialogue with these very different traditions.

RM: Well, it’s interesting that you say that because I was writing all that music at the same time, so I always feel like there are elements of all in each. One of the things I learned writing and playing for the dance company was that there had to be this certain melodic clarity. We get rather intellectual with what we do. How much can I throw in there? How complex can I be? I think it’s a game; at least it’s a game I play with myself sometimes. You know, what’s another layer I can add to this to make it even more convoluted? I quickly saw that that wasn’t going to work with the dancers.

Clarity doesn’t necessarily mean simplicity, but I think there’s a place where melody sings in a way that can reach a lot of people. And that’s what the dancers needed regardless of what’s going on rhythmically. So I felt like that music that I wrote for them had that, and that mindset trickled into the Bird thing and also trickled into the PRISM thing as well. I feel like I’m a different person after that year of working on these three things at once. My approach to writing music, and even how I listen to music, has changed a little bit. Doing something interdisciplinary puts you in a bit of a more selfless space because what they’re doing is equally valid and important and virtuosic. So it’s really not about me. It’s about us making this thing that seems seamless and that is seamless. In the end after all that touring, I always describe that project as ten musicians. It just happened to be that five of them were dancers.

FJO: Now in terms of the PRISM project, this was a collaboration with these four great saxophone players. They’ve done a lot of music where people write them a piece and they play the piece. And then there are pieces where people write them a piece and play the piece with them, which is what you did. But it’s a completely fixed piece, right?

RM: For the most part. There is a section where they improvise, but there are rules. There are rules to how they improvise and certain key points and stuff. So it’s not like they just go for it for a while and then I raise my hand; it’s much more structured than that. It’s based on some pitch sets. It’s very much composed, and it’s very finite. It’s always kind of the same length and the same message comes across. Well, PRISM is interesting. I’ve always liked what they do; they’ve always been very forward-looking in what they’re looking to perform. I actually met Taimur Sullivan back in ’94 at the North American Saxophone Alliance Conference. It’s also known as NASA, if anyone cares. He was a finalist in the classical competition and I was a finalist in the jazz competition. I had this very intriguing conversation with him because I had never met a classical saxophonist who was so aware of jazz and who was just so into modern music. He wasn’t into just playing the Creston Sonata and the stalwarts of the classical saxophone canon; he was doing stuff with tape loops and he was looking to do all this crazy stuff. I was like, “Who are you?” This was before he was part of PRISM, but we kept in touch over the years. Then we had had conversations like, “Hey, it would be great if you could write something for us, blah-blah-blah.” Some of these conversations go back and forth for years and then it finally happens. So that was something I was really looking forward to. And they really wanted me to write something where I was going to actively play with them. I approach that in different ways. But you know, I definitely wanted to be in there, and then the great thing about that part where they improvise is I’m actually holding it down; I’m playing a bass line for them. It’s like, you guys go; it’s not about me soloing. I don’t always want to be the one playing the melody by any means. It’s again, music as a community event.

FJO: So did doing a project like that whet your appetite for potentially doing a piece where you’re writing music that other folks play, that you’re not part of?

RM: You know, I would love to do that. I try to put it out there that I’m interested in doing that. I’ve had a few conversations with Imani Winds. Toyin Spellman, the oboe player, is someone again whom I’ve known for many, many years. It’s a question of logistics and getting calendars to align. But I would love to write something for them. I would love to write for string quartet. I did an interview this morning where someone was asking me if I’d ever thought about writing for orchestra. I would love to do all of those things. And I’m just as happy to write and not play, for sure. You know, that would be really, really fun.

FJO: You just came back from Panama and Chile.

RM: Yeah. That was with Bird Calls. Mainly the bulk of what I’ve been doing is with Bird Calls, the Charlie Parker project. That’s touring pretty much through the rest of the year. Indo-Pak Coalition’s going to make another album, but with a lot of electronics. I’m actually working on a couple of new pieces that will debut at the Walker Arts Center in February.

I also have this idea for a project with a comedian. There’s always been this relationship with comedians and jazz that hasn’t been engaged so much recently. Comedians used to open for jazz musicians. I mean, at the Village Vanguard. That was a thing! Artistically speaking, there’s something very interesting about the commonalities and timing and pace, and the ratio of composed to improvised material, and how different comedians approach that. It’s really like being a jazz musician to me. So I’d just like to see where that goes. I have to think about that a lot more. There’s this great artist I met named Eric Dyer. Do you know what a zoetrope is? It’s kind of like the earliest form of—it’s not even film. You look through this thing with slits in it that spins, and the result would be like someone riding a bicycle. It’s essentially the first form of movie. So this guy Eric Dyer has done this amazing work with a kind of modern take on the zoetrope. They look just bizarre, and then when they start spinning, it’s like a whole civilization moving around. But when it’s static, it doesn’t look like anything. He’s also done it with umbrellas. So it’s like a pretty umbrella, but when you spin the umbrella, it’s an animation. It’s really, really brilliant. We’ve been talking about ways in which he could make something that he can actually manipulate in real time. It’s not just a piece of art that spins. So I’d like to do something with him and a comedian. That’s really on my mind. So those are the two things that I’m thinking about for this year. And then who knows from there.



The Banjo Faces Its Shadow


Image cc by Nic McPhee via Flickr

Is there an instrument that comes with more cultural baggage than the banjo? For many, it evokes a stereotyped image of the rural white Southerner, as in the scary hillbillies of Deliverance and many a comedy sketch. In the 19th century, by contrast, the banjo served as a caricature of enslaved Africans, gaining wide popularity through blackface minstrel shows. The instrument’s deeper story moves around and between the stereotypes. This is a timbre that cuts to some of the deepest seams of America’s past. To a number of contemporary banjo players and composers, the well of history and associations surrounding the banjo becomes a musical parameter to be bent, subverted, or used to evoke a particular landscape or time.

The Birth of the Banjo

The banjo has its roots in West African instruments such as the ngoni, and possibly some Near Eastern stringed instruments which also feature a stretched membrane over a gourd resonator. African slaves on plantations in southern Maryland were documented playing gourd banjos as far back as the 17th century. Later on, white musicians learned the banjo from freed blacks and slaves and incorporated it into minstrel shows in the 19th century, resulting in the first uniquely American popular music.
The popularity of the minstrel show, coinciding with the start of the Industrial Revolution, led to the mass production of banjos using wooden hoops and metal brackets—materials more easily sourced than the traditional gourds. Minstrel Joel Walker Sweeney, the first white person known to play a banjo on stage, has been credited with adding a fifth string to the instrument. While many believe that Sweeney introduced the characteristic drone string, tuned above the other strings with its tuning peg jutting up from the neck, historical evidence appears to contradict this claim. Sweeney’s more likely contribution is the addition of a lower string, as well as the shift from gourds to drum-like resonating chambers. Beginning in 1848, 5-string banjos made by William Boucher in Baltimore were sold through mail order catalogs. Other companies soon followed, as the banjo was “refined” through ornate decorations and promoted as a parlor instrument for the upper class (accompanied by a de-Africanized repertoire and technique, referred to as “classical” style). Eventually these instruments made their way into the mountains and were quickly embraced by the predominantly English, Scottish, and Irish settlers.

Minstrel songs, incorporating rhythms and melodic tropes from transplanted African music, took their place alongside the old English fiddle tunes, old ballads, and new ballads composed by Appalachian settlers to express the social and economic realities of their environment. This hybrid music came to be known as old-time. More directly transmitted influences from African-American music, particularly spirituals and the blues, continued to enter this repertoire into the 20th century.

The Folk Revival
The popularity of old-time music in its native environment had faded somewhat by the 1940s due to a population shift to factory jobs in cities, along with the widespread distribution of commercial music by radio. Yet even while old-time music was becoming an endangered tradition in its birthplace, it began to be rediscovered by folklorists outside of Appalachia. These scholars, including the Seeger family (composers Charles and Ruth Crawford Seeger, their son Mike Seeger and his half-brother Pete Seeger) along with John and Alan Lomax, sought out and recorded folk musicians, learning and transcribing their songs.

Seeing the Appalachian ballad tradition as expressing the voices of the downtrodden, Alan Lomax and Pete Seeger adopted this music as a rallying cry for social justice. Lomax organized concerts that brought together many of the folk musicians that he discovered through his travels while field recording, and sang the old ballads himself in union halls as well as ethnomusicological conferences. New songs in the older styles were written by Seeger, Woody Guthrie and others, and thus old-time music began to reach a wider audience. Pete Seeger’s banjo became a symbol of the 1950s and ’60s folk music revival, a new political awakening of the union movement, the civil rights struggle, and later of protest against the war in Vietnam.

A Path Through the Bluegrass

In the midst of this folk revival centered in New York City, an independent revival of the banjo occurred around Nashville, Tennessee. In the 1920s and ’30s, the Grand Old Opry established itself as a weekly live stage and radio show devoted to country music, an urban transplant of old-time traditions to serve the many people who had moved to Nashville from the hills. The radio broadcasts also reached those still living in the country, and served to inspire many younger people to play this music. In the mid-1940s, the musical acts featured on this show began to increase the tempo of old songs to match the energy of the urban environment, most notably mandolinist and singer Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys. In 1948 a young banjo player named Earl Scruggs stepped into Monroe’s band and proceeded to redefine everyone’s conception of what the banjo could do. Scruggs developed a three-finger technique of picking, which allowed for a more agile rhythm in the execution of melody than the older downstroke style known as clawhammer. The instrument grew in prominence on the stage from anachronistic musical prop to a lead voice in the new style that emerged as bluegrass. In the early 1960s, the Scruggs technique of bluegrass playing reached a national audience through his recording of the theme for the TV show Beverly Hillbillies.

The fast, energetic finger picking established by Scruggs has become the banjo’s dominant sound image for most people. Depending on the geography and cultural environment in which this sound is received, the bluegrass banjo is often associated with a particular vision of America—either associated positively with the rural landscape, pride, and connection to cultural roots, or negatively to social conservatism or ethnic exclusivity. It is a strong sonic flavor, whichever mix of associations it has for the listener.

Bluegrass technique, defined by crisp rolls (arpeggiation and melodic embellishment across multiple strings) using metal finger picks, became the foundation for many innovative banjo players. In the 1970s, Tony Trischka developed the “melodic style” of bluegrass banjo playing. This style shifts focus away from arpeggiation to full attention on the lead melody, with chromatic embellishments. As a teacher, Trischka has been widely influential, releasing many instruction books and videos, as well as having some prominent players study under him.

One of Trischka’s students was a young Béla Fleck. Toward the end of the ’70s, Fleck adapted the bluegrass technique to harmonic and contrapuntal models from jazz and classical music, leading to a style that has become known as progressive bluegrass or new grass. Fleck is highly regarded as a master of banjo technique on the level of a classical musician, which he has applied to transcriptions of Bach partitas as well as his own compositions, exhibiting a wide stylistic palette. His collaborative exploration of the African origins of the banjo, traveling to West Africa to perform and record with master musicians there, may be experienced in the 2008 documentary Throw Down Your Heart.

Clawhammer Griots
Connections to the musical traditions of Africa may be traced more easily from the pre-bluegrass clawhammer style, which is the dominant tradition of old-time banjo playing. Maintaining a strong rhythmic groove through downstrokes with the back of a fingernail, interspersed with syncopated drone notes on the shorter fifth string (released by the thumb in between downstrokes), creates a strong rhythmic foundation for dance tunes traditionally played by the fiddle. Similar playing techniques with plucked string instruments may be found among griots of the Wasulu people. This connection may be plausibly traced through the little known history of black string bands in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Few if any recordings exist, but we have photographs, letters, and sheet music collections from black banjo players and fiddlers. One example is the Snowden Family Band of Knox County, Ohio—the group that may have taught the song “Dixie” to their white neighbor Dan Emmett, a minstrel singer. The meaning of the song’s lyrics change dramatically when viewed through the lens of this possible history, connected to Ellen Snowden’s childhood experience as a slave in Nanjemoy, Maryland. At a young age she was transplanted with one of the slave master’s relatives to Ohio, while her father remained behind. The black string band legacy has been reclaimed in the past decade through events such as the Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, North Carolina. This conference gave rise to the most famous group of black musicians playing old-time music, the Carolina Chocolate Drops.

Modern Perspectives on Old-Time Music

After the initial folk revival of the 1950s and ’60s, old-time banjo went underground. Mike Seeger played an important role in maintaining the fire by finding and promoting master musicians from the hills, revitalizing forgotten performance traditions such as gourd banjo and minstrel banjo through his own recordings, and passing on the craft to younger musicians. The record label Folkways, founded by Moses Asch in the late 1940s and acquired by the Smithsonian Institution in 1987, has released many recordings of outstanding artists in this musical lineage who had been discovered and recorded by the folklorists. Meanwhile, the mantle of old-time music has been taken on by a small but strong community that resembles in many ways the dedication and DIY ethos of the new music community.

As a composer and a self-taught banjo player, I have been drawn to the old-time music tradition for a number of reasons. I appreciate the wide expressive palette and range of tempo between dance tunes and murder ballads. I enjoy the ways that a tune can take on a very different sound and feel in the hands of different players, and appreciate that the tradition encourages this kind of personalization. I am also attracted to the variety of tunings used in old-time banjo playing beyond the standard G tuning (gDGBD, the small letter indicating the higher pitched fifth string) that bluegrass players tend to stick to.

Particular songs have given rise to tunings named after them, such as “Cumberland Gap” (gEADE), “Willie Moore” (gDGAD), and “Last Chance” (fDFCD). My own playing and composing for banjo has gravitated toward the relatively more common “Sawmill” or “Mountain Minor” tuning (gDGCD) and the “Double C” tuning (gCGCD, often transposed up a whole step to “Double D” for playing along with a fiddle tune). These tunings in old-time banjo serve to reinforce open-string drones and maximize the sympathetic vibrations within the instrument. Sometimes these drones result in interesting dissonances that are exploited for expressive effect and do not conform to traditional tonal harmony. I enjoy lowering the fifth string to an F# to produce a tritone relationship with the fourth string (bass), following the practice of the old master Dock Boggs. Old-time banjo players sometimes refer to these different tunings as “atmospheres.”


On a more fundamental level, I am drawn to the banjo as a means of grounding creative experimentation within a deep history that is relevant to connections that I am trying to make in my music. The legacy of slavery in the United States is one which is pushed fairly far back in our collective consciousness. The trauma of that institution still reverberates today in our economic structure, systems of social control, and self-segregation within our population. The banjo came into its own as an American instrument in the midst of that experience of slavery. It was brought into the white mainstream consciousness through the blackface minstrel show, a format which also continues to reverberate in mainstream American entertainment. In the process of this African instrument being adopted by popular society in America, it also took on the musical heritage of the English, Scottish, and Irish immigrants. It was embraced as an instrument of the Everyman, especially in the hollers and mining towns of Appalachia, where the banjo became a main outlet for expressing life’s troubles as well as a way of laying them aside through homespun entertainment. For the banjo to carry so many stories within it, charged with painful legacies and conflicting identities, makes it a potentially powerful medium for new music that creatively bends the associations with it.

This understanding of the banjo as an encapsulation of social history is one that makes sense to me when I think about my neighborhood of Hampden, Baltimore. The great bluegrass/country singer Hazel Dickens lived on one of these streets when she first moved to Baltimore from West Virginia, in search of factory work in the 1950s. While living here she met Mike Seeger at a rowhouse basement jam session, and was encouraged to become a songwriter. She remained in Baltimore and Washington DC for most of her life, and yet her songs express a constant sense of longing for the landscape of her childhood home. This tension of country identity and the urban environment is still palpable in the neighborhood today. When I play banjo out on my front stoop I often imagine Hazel’s experience, almost as an immigrant from another country, trying to navigate a new social structure in the crowded city. Hampden was built around textile mills that hired exclusively white workers from the Appalachian/Piedmont region during the 19th century. For many years this community has attempted to maintain an insular sense of itself, built upon its cultural background, as distinct from the city of Baltimore, which annexed it in the late 19th century. After the mills and then the factories pulled out, Hampden went into decline for a few decades. Some of the social tension that followed was translated into racism and suspicion of outsiders. Ku Klux Klan representation in community parades is noted as late as the 1970s. Today, underneath the economic regeneration of the neighborhood’s main street thanks to gourmet restaurants and boutique shopping, there remains a sense of racial tension in relation to the rest of the (predominantly black) city. One of my goals while living here is to start a pirate radio station and live show that will bring together old-time music and hip hop, among other hybridized folk music that mixes identities. It is my hope that through this medium I can make music that dissolves prejudice.

Hill Hop Fusion

The fusion of old-time music with hip hop is a concept that I first encountered through a radio program from the Appalshop organization in Whitesburg, Kentucky, called “From the Holler to the Hood.” This program arose from a perceived need to reach out to the population housed in the numerous prisons that have sprung up in the wake of the declining coal economy in Eastern Kentucky. The prisoners are predominantly African Americans transferred from outside of the region. Appalshop began programming a show called “Calls from Home” during which family members could call in and dedicate songs to loved ones in prison. As the requested songs were mostly hip hop, programmers at Appalshop became interested in the idea of setting up collaborations between hip hop artists and traditional Appalachian musicians. In 2003, a friend of mine from Kentucky played me a tape of one of these collaborations, between old-time musician Dirk Powell and hip hop producer Danjamouf. Since then, the hip hop subgenre known as “hill hop” has been carried forward by the group Gangstagrass, among a few others.


Sometimes the use of the banjo is as simple as the desire to evoke a landscape. Since the 1990s the banjo has made occasional appearances in indie rock as a signifier of a different age, or to cast a rustic or countrified hue over a song. “Chocolate Jesus” (1999) by Tom Waits is a prime example, where the banjo is incorporated as an element of a sound that Waits described as “sur-rural.” Other examples may be found in the work of The Magnetic Fields, Feist, and The Books. In these instances, the raw sound of the banjo stands as an alternative to the technology and pacing of the modern urban environment and to invoke a common folk language.

Cultural Migration

Because of the banjo’s sonic links to ancient instruments from Africa and even further East, the banjo can take on the role of a shape-shifter in its cultural associations. Multi-instrumentalist Jody Stecher brought the banjo into the field of “world music” in 1982 with his album Rasa, which features Indian sitarist Krishna Bhatt, along with vocals by Stecher’s wife Kate Brislin. Through this album, Stecher, Brislin and Bhatt reveal a natural affinity between old-time/early country tunes and the melodic ornamentation of Indian classical music. Béla Fleck made his own contribution to cross-cultural banjo fusion with his 1996 album Tabula Rasa, a collaboration with Chinese erhu player Jie-Bing Chen and Indian mohan veena player Vishwa Mohan Bhatt. On this album, musical sources from each of the cultures have a turn at center stage while the other instruments provide tightly composed reinforcement and counterpoint. Through the tight interaction of these three players, we can hear a hybrid of complimentary sounds, transcending the specific associations of any culture individually. The erhu, as a bowed string instrument, may remind us of the fiddle that is so often paired with banjo in traditional Appalachian music. The mohan veena is a stand-in for the guitar, another frequent banjo partner. Fleck’s banjo playing defines a well-balanced meeting point and assimilation of different influences.

Played with a bow, the nasal tone and sympathetic vibrations can sound a bit like a sarangi from India or the Iranian rabab. Played with a pick to produce single-string rhythms and tremolos, it can sound like a Berber gimbri. In Morocco, the banjo has effortlessly found its place in the traditional music of that country. A fine example of this cross-cultural assimilation of the banjo may be heard in the music of the Moroccan group Imanaren, with banjoist Hassan Wargui. In the context of Imanaren’s music, the banjo doesn’t appear to reference its American legacy at all. Instead it seems to be a native timbre to their Berber melodies.

Banjo Experimentalists

In experimental and modern classical music, the banjo’s historical weight is treated with a variety of approaches. Eugene Chadbourne has used the banjo in a way that naturally and seamlessly spans country music, punk rock, and free jazz, with a somewhat antagonistic stance toward the white rural culture commonly associated with the instrument. Equally at home within the structure of blues-based chord changes and uptempo drum beats as within irregular rhythms and spasmodic gestures, Chadbourne’s performances convey an intentionally skewed but well-defined aesthetic that he has pieced together for himself. On another side of the spectrum, the music of Paul Elwood moves between old-time/bluegrass sources and modernistic chamber ensemble sonorities. These two worlds are not always reconciled with each other, occasionally treated as juxtaposed blocks of music (original passages vs. quotation/arrangement), and sometimes heard as superimposed, warring influences over the direction of a long-form composition. When the banjo moves beyond familiar bluegrass riffs and explores a greater sense of rhythmic space and pitch direction, Elwood’s music reaches some passages of incredible transcendence. As a listener, I feel that I have been on a journey of clashing cultures and eventually discover a unified sonic field that moves beyond the past.
On occasion the banjo seems to be treated as a stand-in for a mandolin, which has a longer history in the context of classical concert music. In this approach, the instrument is treated purely as an interesting timbre without any overt inference of folk music or traditional playing techniques. George Crumb’s 1969 song cycle, Night of the Four Moons, is one example of this ahistorical use of the banjo. In this work, it is one distinctive tone color among many in a mixed ensemble, supporting poetic images from the selected texts by Federico García Lorca. Through this set of four songs, the banjo explores a variety of textural relationships with the alto voice, alto flute, electric cello, and percussion. Avoiding the rhythmic propulsion of traditional banjo playing, Crumb creates a new identity for the instrument through isolated gestures, and textures based on call-and-response between the banjo and the other instruments in the ensemble. At times the banjo is made to sound vaguely Eastern, though a particular set of intervals used as a mode. Elsewhere, it fulfills an accompaniment role that suggests an older idiom of Western classical music, but nothing tied to the history of the banjo itself.

The kinship with sonorities from the Middle East and beyond may be easily recognized in the playing of Paul Metzger. This Minnesota-based artist focuses on improvisation and composition with a self-modified banjo which has been expanded to include 23 strings. His playing techniques span classical guitar finger style to orchestral bowed textures, touching on many different sound worlds. Within a single piece there seem to be hints of a number of different cultural heritages, woven together to produce a unified landscape. To hear the full range of Metzger’s banjo palette, take a listen to his 2013 album Tombeaux on the label Nero’s Neptune.

Another improviser, Woody Sullender is a multi-media artist, electronic composer, and banjo player based in Brooklyn, New York. While his most recent work at the time of writing focuses more on installations and electronics, he is one of the most adept improvisers in the somewhat specialized field of experimental banjo. His approach is particularly aware of the instrument’s past associations and seeks to both evoke and counter them. Mountain music is suggested in some of the hammer-ons and other musical gestures, which gravitate to open fifths and minor modes. Yet rhythmically and dynamically, listeners are being guided in another direction. His album with harmonica player Seamus Carter, When We Get to Meeting, is available as a free download.
Baltimore-based musician Nathan Bell states that he uses the banjo “as a shapeshifting tool,” describing a fluidity between stylistic associations along with a range of timbres that he draws from the instrument. Bell shifts easily between different styles of playing: old-time clawhammer technique, finger picks, and bowed banjo all occupy a place in his personal soundscape. Auxiliary percussion, such as antique cymbals suspended from the neck of his banjo, are also frequent companions to the sounds drawn from his main instrument. His 2011 album COLORS is an excellent example of Bell’s use of the banjo as a vehicle for defining a landscape that draws on memory and nostalgia connected with the instrument, while coloring our experience of it with effects processing, noise elements, and slowly moving background voices. Bell’s recorded projects may be heard and purchased from his Bandcamp page.

Renegade banjoist Brandon Seabrook of Brooklyn, New York, also comes to the instrument from a guitar background. He claims not to listen to other banjo players and explains his choice of instrument as a way to bring another level of challenge and difficulty into his music, due to the banjo’s shorter sustain time relative to guitar tones. Above all, his playing is defined by dissonance, intensity, and speed. Repetitive chromatic patterns cut quickly to measured tremolos and dynamic builds, always maintaining a sense of urgency. Seabrook brings an aggressive, punk-meets-free-jazz type of energy to his playing, like a prolongation of the most intense passages in Eugene Chadbourne’s music, sounding nothing like the bluegrass type of banjo virtuosity.
In the realm of notated music, Washington DC-based banjoist and composer Mark Sylvester is deeply committed to promoting the banjo in the concert hall. Sylvester comes to the banjo from a classical guitar background, and while he teaches and is proficient in bluegrass and clawhammer styles of banjo, his own compositions place the instrument squarely in a classical chamber music context. Sylvester’s Trio #1 and Trio #2 occasionally employ finger picking patterns familiar to bluegrass audiences, such as ostinati featuring hammer-ons and pull-offs, but largely gravitate toward a style of writing that could easily be conceived for guitar. Progressions of chromatic harmony predominate over more familiar banjo harmonies derived from the open strings.

Continuing the development of notated compositions for banjo as chamber music, a new album by the Boulder, CO-based Jake Schepps Quintet, Entwined, features long-form classical compositions for the traditional bluegrass string band instrumentation of banjo, mandolin, violin, guitar, and double-bass. The featured composers—Marc Mellits, Matt McBane, Mark Flinner (the group’s mandolinist), and Gyan Riley—explore tight ostinato grooves, expansive melodies, and extended techniques, applied within a comfortable blend of styles. Multi-movement works such as Marc Mellits’s Flatiron provide room to range from ballad-like sections featuring a nostalgic harmonic vocabulary to more contemporary-sounding minimalist syncopated rhythmic layers. While enriching the soil of bluegrass/classical fusion, first tilled by Béla Fleck as well as Marc O’Connor and Edgar Meyer, the Jake Schepps Quintet articulates a wider sound palette without anything sounding self-conscious in its merging of musical cultures. The sound of these instruments together is already well-defined in most listeners’ ears, so that modern classical approaches to form can take advantage of expectations of particular roles within the ensemble while exposing alternate timbres from the instruments. This instrumentation may yet become as enduring for composers as the classical string quartet.
The banjo is suggestive of many different things to different people. It clear that it has had a lasting power beyond just one cultural place and time, and that musicians continue to develop new ways of conceiving its sound. Whether it is overtly addressed or not, classically trained composers creating new music with the banjo enter into dialogue with a folk tradition, a history, and a set of expectations on the part of the listener. To use the instrument in a vastly different way from these expectations is a potential tool for shaking up old ideas about its stylistic limitations or caricatured image. To embrace certain musical aspects of the folk lineage and place them in new contexts may be seen as part of a general shift away from an exclusive view of the classical tradition as purveyor of innovation. Today musical experimentation, complexity, and the development of a personal style can be founded on many sounds that are not connected to the concert hall tradition. While the adoption of instruments from other cultural contexts into classical music has been occurring for centuries, this has only recently taken on some characteristics of a two-way communication between musical cultures. Experimental hybrids are continually being created by musicians coming from folk, rock, hip hop, and many other backgrounds. Composers and new music performers are collaborating with musicians from these other backgrounds, often participating in non-classical performance traditions, and collectively shaping new ways of listening to and participating in the music. Examples may be heard in collaborations between Brian Harnetty and Bonnie “Prince” Billy (Silent City, 2009), or Nico Muhly and Sam Amidon (The Only Tune, 2008).

Where classical instruments and musical structures have been founded on an aristocratic legacy, supported by royal courts or the church, the banjo’s historical evolution has grown out of struggle and conflicting cultures. It can be painful to look back on the history of slavery or the ongoing situations of injustice faced by the people of Appalachia. The banjo may be a reminder of these things, and personal reactions to such a reminder may also bring up prejudices towards one group of people or another. Yet the hybrid cultural heritage of the banjo, kept alive by traditional players and continually reinterpreted by musicians from many different backgrounds, may be uniquely equipped to break through the divisions that separate people. It is an instrument that was originally embedded in the lives of enslaved Africans as well as the rural white settlers later on, and it has assimilated musical elements from both cultures. The tangled thread of minstrelsy that endures in popular media to this day is one that needs to be examined and understood in all of its complexity. Artists and musicians should attempt to examine that shadow and address it in a conscious way in contemporary art. The banjo stands squarely at the intersection of Anglo and African cultures at a formative period in American history, spanning different conceptions of heritage. Perhaps it can also be a tool to help to unravel the pain or prejudice and uplift us to better way of coexisting and collaborating in this world.

Hindustani Music: Cultural Collisions (and Washing Machines)

sequence of old Coinslot washing machines

Photo by Brad Perkins (via Flickr

My apartment in India had three balconies, one for each bedroom in the house. The back balcony, which could only be entered through a single door from its accompanying bedroom, housed the washing machine we all used. When I washed my clothes, I would quickly shuffle through my roommate’s bedroom out to the balcony, mindful not to linger, and I would return when I was absolutely sure the cycle was over so as not to continually disturb her. One day, many months later, my roommate offhandedly asked me, “Don’t you love that little song the washing machine plays when it’s done?” I had no idea what she was talking about—I had never been there to hear it. So the next time the washing machine stopped, we listened.

To my great astonishment, the song was “Die Forelle.” On our balcony, in South Delhi, there was a single machine that both played the music of Franz Schubert and had a special setting for washing saris. I was completely flabbergasted. How did this Indian appliance company decide to use an iconic German art song to signal the end of a spin cycle on its washing machines?

Incidents like this fascinate me endlessly. These unlikely collisions between the two musical cultures I inhabit bring up so many questions for me about musical perception: What do people from one musical culture hear in the music of another culture? What makes a particular piece of music resonate with someone who is not familiar with its tradition or context? What features of the music are most prominent to someone from another musical culture, and how different are those from the features that are prominent to someone within the musical culture? More broadly, how much of our aesthetic association with specific music comes from repetition and reinforcement within our musical culture, and how much is simply hard-wired into us as humans? While I certainly don’t have answers to these questions, I am deeply curious about them.

There have definitely been multiple attempts, both in Hindustani and Western musical culture, to match musical gestures with codified aesthetic profiles. The Doctrine of Affections (Affektenlehre), an early baroque theory most clearly described by musicologist Johann Mattheson (1681-1764), uses ancient rhetorical gestures as a basis for portraying specific emotions and moods in Baroque music. Wagner’s leitmotifs also often aim to codify and shape the sonic experience by creating a specific association with an extra-musical element, whether a character or a more abstract mood, a technique that has since been appropriated in Western film music. In Hindustani music, the theory of rasa, which originates from ancient Indian dramatic practices, outlines nine emotional states which serve as the basis for Indian musical aesthetics. Additionally, the time theory of raag dictates a specific time of day each raag can suitably be performed, determined by the accidentals (in Western terms) of the notes it contains. However, none of these theories can fully circumscribe aesthetic practice in the music, nor are they appropriated ubiquitously, even during a specific time period or location; their scope is limited. To this day, neither Hindustani nor Western art music has a comprehensive aesthetic doctrine that underpins its music entirely.

Even if there are no explicit aesthetic rules that dictate exact musical choices in either culture, it is undeniable that each music still has distinctive ways of painting a particular aesthetic picture which is instantly recognizable to people within that cultural context. While it is fascinating to examine what those methods are within each musical culture, it has been even more fascinating, for me, to compare aesthetic depictions inter-culturally. There are certainly techniques that have similar aesthetic effects across cultures. (I know exactly what you’re wondering, so I will say that, to the best of my knowledge, raags with a lowered 3rd are generally considered more melancholy than raags with a natural 3rd [2].) And there are certainly subjects that are portrayed similarly in both cultures. But even more telling are the points where the aesthetic portrayals of a subject are vastly divergent.
One of the most striking examples of aesthetic divergence I’ve found is in the portrayal of the season of spring. For most Western musicians, the very mention of the word might call up Vivaldi’s “Spring” from The Four Seasons, or Beethoven’s Spring Sonata—the ambient sounds of chirping birds and babbling brooks, portrayed onomatopoeically through music, have a long and established association with the season. (Even Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, which has a very different aesthetic profile, could be considered to be more about the Rite than about the Spring.)

In Hindustani music, the hearkening of spring is portrayed by Raag Basant. The word basant (buh-SUNTH) literally means “spring” in Hindi, and it is one of the main raags that represents the season. Take a listen to how Basant sounds:

Below is the aroha/avaroha (ascent and descent) of the raag [1]. It ascends rapidly, beginning on a #4, and proceeding to a b6 and a high b2 before sinking into the tonic note. The descent is much windier than that ascent, and only after reaching the lower tonic does it reach back up to the natural 4th for a fleeting moment before returning to the #4, which precipitates the final descent.
Music notation for Raag Basant
The first time I heard the raag, I was completely confused by its aesthetic. It didn’t align with any part of my conception of the typical Western portrayal of spring. I just couldn’t connect the two perceptions of the same phenomenon in my mind. While the Western perception of spring is light and airy, the Hindustani perception felt dark and sinewy. If the Western spring was painted in pastels, the Hindustani spring was painted in cool, bold colors. Are these aesthetic profiles addressing two different views on the same season, or is the perception and, consequently, the musical representation of the same natural phenomenon just completely different in each culture? While years of pondering this question have certainly led me to formulate my own theories, I still have more questions than I have answers.

Like most people who speak multiple languages, I often find that the way I most want to express a thought uses words that are in a different language than the one I’m currently speaking. I feel this musically, too. This is why I love moments of cultural collision, like the incident with the washing machine. One little sliver of a different culture can be embedded seamlessly in the fabric of another. But that little sliver can also be a window, slightly ajar, begging to be opened. How I wish the Indian women washing saris on their balconies knew that they were listening to the digitized version of a beautiful Schubert art song. I wish people who sing the Bollywood song “Itna na Mujhse Tu Pyaar Badha” knew the tune at its inception, as the melody to Mozart’s 40th Symphony. (See below, and lest you think it’s just a melodic coincidence, listen until 0:49—besides the final augmented 6th, it’s all there!)

In my own music, I aim to leave the windows cracked open in the other direction by embedding little snippets I love from the raags of Hindustani music, particular phrases that I find strikingly beautiful and unique. While those phrases certainly can’t capture the entire breadth and depth of the culture, I hope that they will give Western audiences a little taste of the musical culture and will leave them wanting to explore it further.

Exploring these different methods of aesthetic expression across cultures can only increase our expressive palette as musicians. It can offer us opportunities to engage with another culture through its unique musical depictions, and it can also allow us to explore a wider range of methods of aesthetic expression, to increase our repertoire of ways of knowing [3].


1. This is as close to an ascending and descending scale as a raag gets.
2. There are, however, raags that have both lowered and raised 3rds, which I think brings about a whole other aesthetic in Hindustani music. I would be curious to see how these raags are felt in an exclusively Western context.
3. This last phrase, “repertoire of ways of knowing” is not my own. It was coined by Dr. Peter Rojcewicz, who specializes in holistic education and was a humanities professor at Juilliard when I studied there in the early 2000s.

From Darmstadt to the Shopping Mall

The public’s behavior is either friendly or indifferent, unless they are intimidated because their spiritual leaders are protesting. As a whole they are always rather inclined to enjoy something they have devoted time and money to. They come less to judge than to enjoy.”
—Arnold Schönberg, “My Public” (Der Querschnitt 10, vol. 4, April 1930)
“Fuck knows what for… but you shouldn’t be doing music for fun … When something happens and before it can be mimicked and you haven’t got a word for it, that’s the ultimate success.”
—Bill Drummond at the Arnold Schönberg Center, Vienna, Austria, November 11, 2013

I’m finally back at my desk in New York City after orbiting the entire planet. Thanks to flying east for the entire journey, I crossed the International Date Line only once and therefore gained a day, although I actually spent nearly 42 hours in flight. However, that’s quite an improvement over making such a journey in 80 or 81 days. Yet even with all the technological advances that make it possible to travel in such a manner relatively painlessly (so far the jetlag has not completely kicked in), it’s still something of a marvel. While I’ve been all over the world, this is something I had never done before and I remain utterly awed by it since it really provides a perspective on the size of the planet we live on and the significant distances that separate us from one another.

Those significant distances go a long way toward explaining why people in different parts of the world continue to perceive things in different ways, despite all the possibilities for shared experiences via the internet and, for better or worse, the ubiquitous global chains. E.g. no matter where on the planet I was these past two and half weeks, golden arches were always in my periphery. But it is difficult to claim that anything besides those chains is “universal.” In fact, the adjective “universal” is perhaps the most hubris laden epithet in common parlance. How can people who have never traveled beyond our own planet make claims for anything outside our own world?

JUbiquitous Golden Arches

A shared experience for millions of people daily in Vienna and Hong Kong? Well, not exactly.

And yet such a claim of “universality” has been made for various European cultural traditions, such as classical music and the continuance of its legacy through so-called contemporary or new music. Undeniably, throughout the 20th century and now into the 21st, important contributions to this particular mode of music creation, performance, and presentation have been made by composers and interpreters from nations all over the globe. Curiously, however, this type of music making doesn’t happen with the same intensity everywhere. There have been few additions to the canon of “classical” music from Africa, or most of southern Asia and Oceania. And yet, despite the efforts of extremists in various parts of the world, some form of music is created, performed, and listened to in every nation on the planet; music is one of the few pan-terrestrial human activities.


A sculpture of a giant ear outside the studios for Austrian radio station ORF in Vienna, where a 2013 ISCM concert was held, is an immediate indication that there’s interesting stuff to listen to inside there.

The International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM), which has convened an annual contemporary music festival since 1923 (alternately called “World Music Days” and “World New Music Days” by its members—more on that later), has had sections based in countries on all six human-habited continents but the aforementioned geographic lacunae are mostly absent. South Africa has been the only African nation that has regularly participated in ISCM. And, as a further reminder of how much still needs to be done to insure greater global inclusivity, outgoing ISCM President John Davis (who hails from Australia) reminded the delegates attending the final 2013 General Assembly (on November 14 in Vienna) that the ISCM’s 2010 convening in Sydney remains the only time that the festival took place in the Southern Hemisphere. The first official ISCM gathering to take place outside of Europe was in Haifa, Israel in 1954 and the next did not occur until the organization’s one and only official convening in the United States in 1976—only one of three ever to occur in the Americas. (The others took place in both Toronto and Montreal in 1984 and in Mexico City in 1993. According to ISCM’s records, there were also “unofficial” assemblies were held in 1940 and 1941 in New York and San Francisco respectively, before the war caused the society to be on hiatus until 1946.) But over the last quarter century there has been a concerted effort to involve more of the world. ISCM has held five World (New) Music Days festivals in East Asia: in Seoul, South Korea (1997); in Yokohama, Japan (2001); and three in Hong Kong (in 1988, 2002, and 2007). The final of these (2007) also included events in Macau.


If the hair doesn’t bring in new audiences, nothing will!

Of course, the only way to make the ISCM an organization that is more representative of the new music that is being made all over the planet is to have a broader definition of what constitutes “new music” and, more specifically, a definition that is considerably less Eurocentric. This will be a challenge for many of the delegates who seem to still cling to a Darmstadtian new music aesthetic, which was an aesthetic that informed a great deal of the music I heard during the ISCM concerts I attended two weeks ago in Bratislava, Slovakia and Vienna, Austria. (The 2013 festival was actually spread across three cities, but I was unable to get to the first of the three host cities—Košice, Slovakia. However, I was happy to see that some of the Košice programs featured some clearly un-Darmstadtian fare. The composers whose works were performed there included Christian Wolff, Alvin Curran, Frederic Rzewski, Per Bloland, Louis Andriessen, British conceptual minimalist Christopher Fox, Lithuanian microtonalist Egidija Medekšaitė, and Slovakia’s own Vladimír Godár, whose music has been recorded by ECM.) Unfortunately I was only able to attend a total of eight of the ISCM concerts that occured in Bratislava and Vienna, a mere smattering compared to what I was able to experience when I attended the ISCM WNMD in Zagreb, since this time around the festival was concurrent with the 2013 conference of the International Association of Music Information Centres (IAMIC). Though both events were happening in the same cities, activities were all too infrequently synchronized.

William Rowe

William Rowe

What proved to be the most varied was a concert of works for unaccompanied chamber chorus performed by Poland’s Camerata Silesia Katowice conducted by Anna Szostak at the Mittlerer Saal in Vienna’s Urania Observatory on November 13. Among the concert’s highlights were a somewhat surreal composition by Indiana University undergraduate William Rowe (who created his own text for the piece as well) and an extremely unusual piece incorporating non-linguistic syllables as well as some extended vocal techniques called The History of Songs and Words by Japanese composer Yasunoshin Morita, which fetched him the 2013 ISCM Young Composer Award. It was also a joy to hear the premiere of the work that was commissioned from last year’s Young Composer Award winner, Paestum by Eric Nathan, an extremely well-paced and finely orchestrated composition for large ensemble which was enthusiastically delivered by the Melos Ethos Ensemble in the Small Hall of the Slovak Philharmonic in Bratislava on November 8 just a few hours after I arrived there. (I had an opportunity to record a conversation with Eric the next day in between various conference sessions which will appear on this site at a later date.)

Eric Nathan (center) with some American fans following the performance of his ISCM commission

Eric Nathan (center) with some American fans following the performance of his ISCM commission: Barbara Jazwinski, FJO (left), Stephen Lias and Ed Harsh (right).

Kyle Gann

The world would be a far more interesting place if this man was in charge of programming the music piped into shopping malls.

A few of the aforementioned Darmstadtian partisans definitely got their feathers ruffled by Kyle Gann, who was invited to give a talk about the state of new music in the United States during a series of Symposia sponsored by the ISCM open to the general public which were held at the Vienna Conservatory on November 13. After speaking eloquently and passionately about the current compositional landscape, which he attributed to a “decentered pedagogic tradition” and a “marginalization of composers” that has greatly increased over the last quarter century, Gann offered three examples of recent American music—works by Corey Dargel, William Brittelle, and Judd Greenstein. While I wish his range of examples would have been more stylistically, geographically, and socially diverse (all three are Brooklyn-based white men in their 30s), I laud his provocative attempt to subvert the aesthetics of the new music cognoscenti who decried all of what he sampled as indistinguishable from pop music and music that was reminiscent of what is played in shopping malls! (For more details, read Gann’s own account of what transpired.) From my vantage point the music that best meets the criterion for being new is music that challenges our expectations and somehow makes us question our assumption and definitions; at this late date (68 years after the death of Anton Webern), music coming out of the Darmstadt aesthetic, and indeed a whole lot of other stuff we generally describe as “new music,” does not meet those criteria.


Webern’s star still shines in Vienna.


Though, to be perfectly honest, the most talked about composer in Vienna is still this one.

The public day of the IAMIC Conference, which was held at Vienna’s Arnold Schönberg Center on November 11 also had its share of polemical interchange. The day got off to a fiery start with a talk by Dieter Hasenbach about how to measure success indicators for music. Hasenbach immediately challenged the sometimes hermetically sealed new music environment by stating that “without an audience, music might as well not happen.” But he riled some of the audience when he explained that although the marketplace fails for many types of music, specifically those that are deemed the most culturally worthwhile, no public subsidy will increase the demand for it and that ultimately it “does not make sense to subsidize training for a field where most people will fail (9 out of 10).”
Franz Kasper Kröning offered a fascinating account of how beauty has changed its meaning throughout history. According to him, it morphed from something that was transcendent and conjured the divine in Medieval times to something that accurately mirrored nature or was scientifically correct during the so-called Common Practice period, the era that spawned most of the works that have become the standard repertoire of classical music. But he argued that in the 20th century what mattered most, and was therefore beautiful, was what was socially relevant and that nowadays what is important is what is successful and that success is mostly measured in commercial terms. Karim Fanous evangelized for the digital revolution and how it has enabled a greater proliferation of music as well as a greater opportunity for anyone to reach a wider audience than anytime in human history. Samples he offered included the Harlem Shake and Psy’s Gangnam Style. But Bill Drummond (who is probably most well-known for co-founding The KLF and for subsequently burning one million British pounds) was not convinced and questioned whether viral online phenomena could actually build a sustainable career.

David Keenan, a Scottish music journalist who writes for The Wire, gave an impassioned talk about the Texas-based outsider musician Jandek in which he decried commercial popular music stating that “most pop culture says you must say no to yourself…what would saying yes involve?” In the concluding panel, which was held in German, Gerald Bast, a professor at the University of Applied Arts Vienna, offered some of the most salient comments of the day (which I quote via the real-time translation that I listened to on headphones):

Why are we discussing success? What do we need that for? There has been a tendency for the past twenty years to quantify everything… Why do people make art and why do they stick to it? It gets hard after graduating, one can start to be more successful in a different field. A better question would be a serious discussion about why we need art and why artists exist. Which part of society is represented by political parties? Not the artists. Nobody questions why billions are being given to the banking sector and nobody screams out that this money should go to education and to the arts and to improve the living conditions of artists. It’s a waste of resources.

Although the IAMIC sessions concluded on November 12 and the ISCM sessions concluded on November 14 and I was on vacation from then until now, first spending a day in Berlin and then a week in Hong Kong, which I flew to with a brief stopover in Doha, Qatar, my mind remained fixated on many of the discussions that transpired in Bratislava and Vienna and what it would take to create a truly world-wide new music scene. I failed to find music of any kind in the insane Duty Free mega-emporium that greeted me when I arrived in Doha though some interesting occasionally microtonally inflected instrumental music was piped in on the P.A. system of both the Qatar Airlines’ Berlin-Doha and Doha-Hong Kong flights before take-off. There were some fascinating old Arab movies available to view via the in-flight entertainment though none were subtitled and all were from Egypt (which I learned from doing some subsequent online reconnaissance after landing in Hong Kong).

Doha Duty Free

I couldn’t spot any recordings in the massive duty free emporium that awaits arrivals to the airport in Doha, even folks like me who arrived in the middle of the night, but there were tons of perfume, designer bags, and even cars for sale there, plus–one concession to regional geography–plush camels.

In Hong Kong, I did not have a lot of time to search out music (I was mostly there for family stuff), but I did pick up a pile of qin recordings from the gift shop of a rock garden that is maintained by Buddhist nuns. I also went to several record shops which were mostly located in the myriad shopping malls which dominate the islands and peninsula that comprise the Hong Kong Special Administration Region. While I didn’t wind up acquiring any additional recordings at any of them, I managed to buy over 80 DVDs of motion pictures from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan and Mainland China, including a bunch of Cultural Revolution era propaganda films. Many of these motion pictures undoubtedly will contain music that I will want to explore further, but that will have to wait until I get over my jetlag.

Hong Kong Records

One of the two branches of Hong Kong Records in Kowloon, which I wound up visiting twice.

On the ride back from Hong Kong yesterday, first to Seoul and then finally to JFK, I tried to listen to as much recent pop fare from South Korea, Japan and the various Chinese speaking territories (which are commonly referred to respectively as K-Pop, J-Pop, and C-Pop) as I could get through. Much of what I heard of this music in the past has struck me as somewhat watered down versions of Western pop music, but I hate to dismiss anything out of hand and certainly haven’t heard enough to have anything remotely resembling an informed reaction to it. I was intrigued by Ayumi Hamasaki’s “Never Ever,” which opened with some really oddball electronic timbres, as well as Nana Nizuki’s “Synchrogazer” which featured some strange chord changes. The thing that grabbed my attention the most, however, was a recording of an indie rock group from China whose album I listened to from start to finish. The album had the word “Hertz” in the title, but by then the battery on my PalmPilot was wiped and I could not turn on my smartphone on the plane, so unless I’m able to find a way to locate a list of Korean Airlines in-flight entertainment offerings online I might be out of luck ever hearing it again. The Google queries I did for Chinese indie-rock hertz left me empty-handed.

Korean Culture at the Airport

It was nice to once again briefly visit the spaces devoted to traditional Korean culture, including traditional music, at Incheon Airport during my layover between flights from Hong Kong and to New York City on Sunday.

But as I was listening for new sounds among the East Asia’s popular music acts, I kept thinking of some of the comments that were made following Kyle Gann’s presentation. The moderator for the symposia that day, Andreas Engström (editor of the Swedish Nutida Musik), spoke briefly in a panel later that day about the underground music scenes in Egypt and Lebanon and how it is worlds away from most of the music that gets programmed during the annual ISCM World Music Days. A truly international representation of new music needs to be open to everything, but such an aesthetic position won’t be readily embraced by the folks who were reminded of shopping malls when they heard the examples of recent American music Kyle Gann sampled during his talk in Vienna. There’s a bit of bittersweet irony in all of this. If only we could get the new music we love played in shopping malls!

Coat Check

One final anecdote from my time 2013 ISCM experience that’s worth mentioning was my encounter with a coat check attendant at the Vienna Conservatory who was wearing a John Cage t-shirt. My coat check number was 101 which led to a fun conversation about Cage with her.