Tag: ethnomusicology

I’m Learning Middle Eastern Music the Wrong Way

An historic drawing of a group of five Aleppo musicians performing on (from left to right) a daff, a saz, a ney, a kamancheh, and a pair of naqqāra


On March 21, 2019, Google released their first ­­­­AI powered doodle to celebrate the birthday of J.S. Bach. The AI was charged with the task of recreating a Bach harmonization of any given melody through analyzing over 300 Bach chorales. A learned musician might scoff at this idea on the premise that this is now how you learn music. But in the arrogant scoffs toward the machine’s ignorance, the musical elite forget the magic of what happened. Something which had no way to learn Bach previously, now has the ability to create art.

Do all the results sound like Bach? No, it still wasn’t the “right” way to learn and technology doesn’t have the capacity to learn functional Baroque harmony yet. But the machine knew its goal and every so often, it got close.

I spent my whole day on that machine–testing its abilities with a wide array of melodies. I spent hours exploring how the AI handled themes from Die Kunst Der Fuge and comparing its results to my own melodies. I witnessed a machine become a composer at its first opening of opportunity. Technology, which never had the option to compose in the style of Bach before, made its first steps into creating art in a style of its choosing.

I relate more to this AI than I do to theorists and academics who laud pedigree, process, and a more perfect pedagogy. I too am collecting information about an artform I cannot learn “correctly” and am creating new, more “incorrect” art by learning through whatever bits and pieces I may find.

Moving Away From Classical Music

I create music in a hostile atmosphere which will never give my voice the home it deserves.

I was never fond of the New Music scene (or whatever semblance of a scene it may have). I already discussed the racial violence and orientalism/otherism Middle Eastern and North African, along with Black and other PoC, musicians face. I create music in a hostile atmosphere which will never give my voice the home it deserves.

I started to realize in college that I was limiting myself and my potential by staying in the classical field. Instead of wasting my time educating others on the basics of inequality, I could instead collaborate with like-minded artists to create artwork that best expresses what we want to share.

I needed to be around individuals who challenged me to be better, and surrounding myself by musicians who don’t know how racism works or how to even communicate with a person of color wasn’t doing it. I needed to find artists I can work with outside the realm of Classical music.

As the realization that Classical music has and always will be racist in its core sat in, I admit that I felt weak. My love for Classical music was one-sided. If I wanted a future as a musician, I couldn’t be loyal to that one genre. I realized that my relationship with the field was abusive. I gave it all I could, and was spat on in return.

Classical music has and always will be racist in its core.

I discovered that, if it weren’t for colonization, I would be studying my own culture’s music. And would probably have more success as an artist. So I took my Bachelors of Music degree and set out on my next journey: to learn the musical tradition of my own people.

A score sample showing a melody transcribed into Western staff notation.

Reconnecting with My Culture

I am one of the lucky immigrant children. We still had family in Lebanon who we would visit. We stayed connected to our roots. While I’m not fluent in Arabic, nor can I read it well, I at least know the basics and can hold a conversation. Barring the language barrier, I managed to learn the basics of oud in Lebanon, and heard a concert there.

My ability to research Middle Eastern traditional music is limited.

But my ability to research Middle Eastern traditional music is limited. I was the only artist in the family, everyone else being working class folks who only knew baladi. There were songs I grew up with, sung by Fairouz and Umm Kulthum. I knew the Rahbani brothers, but didn’t know the names of any other composers. After all, it’s the singers we talk about in conversation, rarely the composers.

And while I was connected to people through my family, I cannot say that I feel welcome or comfortable speaking to everyone. Lebanon, like anywhere else, has a spectrum of beliefs between leftist, liberal, and conservative. And these beliefs also tend to vary depending on the region. Navigating those beliefs while growing up in a different culture means that I’m not as able to connect as quickly and easily as I would like to others in my community. Navigating issues like homophobia, language barriers, and religious differences in a manner that is safe is necessary before building community.

As I said in my previous article, colonization takes a culture’s beliefs and indoctrinates the populace so that the colonizer’s beliefs replace those of the colonized. My family didn’t know a lot about our own culture and subscribed to the belief that Western classical music was a higher form than their own music. They knew we had a classical tradition, but couldn’t help me get closer to what it was.

A reproduction of an image from a 1994 manuscript featuring a drawing of the musician Sadiq Ali Khan performing on a rebab as well as two other annotated drawings of a rebab with extensive text, in Arabic.

Initial Research

I started off a lot like that Bach AI. I was broke, needed to work as much as possible to stay afloat, and didn’t have any connections. I knew what the right way to learn was. I wanted to find a teacher or go study at a summer institute or even a school. But those options weren’t available to me.

But I also wasn’t going to let colonization win. I needed to learn however I could.

I didn’t have the lesson plan or the pedagogy. But I had a few hundred songs, a few singers, and the internet. Like the doodle, I also started with a tiny sample of a much larger, broader style. I spent hours, days, and months studying these scores. I found a website called maqamworld and I compared all the music I could find to these maqamat.

I spent all my free time, gathering these bits and pieces, trying to recreate this style like an AI.

My Limitations

I did all the research I could, but it cannot be understated how limited that time was. As soon as I graduated, I struggled to find a job. I looked around for freelance work and took whatever jobs I could.

I battled mental illness, and it didn’t really go away. A year after graduation, I talked to a psychiatrist and found out that my post-grad depression was actually PTSD. Taking care of my mental illness is itself a job.

I worked on my credit ratings and applied for a dozen credit cards. Lacking any jobs or credit, I had to use a new credit card to buy a used car. It wasn’t a lot, and I had a plan to pay it off before the 0% APR plan expired. But then I got in a car accident. And after that I was forced to leave an abusive job.

In this entire mess, I was constantly shifting between 2-3 jobs. Now I’m glad I found some stability, but a freelance workload is still not easy. Occasionally, I would add a retail job here and there.

(Some might also argue that composition is not a job, but my mental illness doesn’t care. Labor is labor, and my spoons are spent.)

All of this is to say that I’m chronically exhausted. And not just exhausted but stressed from poverty. After working more hours than full time, I still am barely paying my bills, barely covering my debts, and have almost nothing to spend for myself. And on top of all that, I still have PTSD, which means that I need to work at about half of what I’m doing now to stay healthy.

I’m sharing this information because it is a huge deterrent to learning things the right way. It means that not only can I not afford a teacher, but I can’t afford to take time off to see people’s workshops, to meet and network, to go to concerts, or do almost anything a composer does to build a career. I manage to sneak these things in when I can, but it’s very limiting.

The effects of poverty are exacerbated by my language. I would be able to learn Middle Eastern music theory much more easily if I knew Arabic. But I don’t know it well enough to study books and resources, so I’m stuck with maqamworld – which is an amazing first step, but doesn’t get you to where five terms of Western music theory would.

While colonization kept my family from knowing and believing in their culture, it kept me from being able to finance an education of my own heritage, and deprived me of the very tongue needed to speak and understand my culture. All of these limitations made learning my culture’s music properly impossible.

An historic photo of 3 Aleppo musicians performing (from left to right) on some sort of not completely identfiable frame drum, an oud, and a ney

Feeding the AI

LGBT+ composers of color might be pretty discouraged by now. If it’s not poverty, it’s sexism, if it’s not sexism, it’s homophobia, if not homophobia, racism. And I haven’t even touched on the unique issues transgender and non-binary PoC face. Or how the field is also uncaring to disabled people or that everyone’s ignoring some serious fatphobia. For minorities who face oppression from many angles, being a musician can be deadly.

For minorities who face oppression from many angles, being a musician can be deadly.

But our work is not futile. We just have to find a different path. We need to carefully think about the people who recommend us a “correct” path and recognize when those are unavailable to us. Classical music is designed to keep QPOC out, so following a traditional route means we walk right into its trap.

But we still run into the problem that learning however we can will result in something that doesn’t quite make the mark.

And that’s okay.

After I fed my AI on all the Middle Eastern music I can find, I set out to compose a piece free of unwanted Western influence. I failed with that goal, but with whatever knowledge I could, I created a piece that’s not quite traditional Middle Eastern music, but it’s also not classical either.

These conditions led me to create a piece I’m most proud of: Decolonized Arabesques.

Sure, the piece has influences from both traditions, but that doesn’t make it part of those traditions. Instead, my work came out with something entirely different. Just like the Bach AI as it gathered its own style trying to become Bach, I found a personal style trying to reject what I learned and strive for a pre-colonized ideal of what my music should be.


It still hurts, and will always hurt, that I will never be able to shake the violence Western culture has done to my culture and my discovery of it. But just because I speak English does not mean that I can’t speak about my culture. Just because I’m in the U.S. does not mean I’m not Lebanese, and just because my music resembles a Western style does not mean that it is not 100% Middle Eastern.

The voices of minorities with a colonial scar on their sound are capable of creating amazing, new, and awe-inspiring music.

Every composer has a personal voice, and the voices of minorities with a colonial scar on their sound are capable of creating amazing, new, and awe-inspiring music. We just need the support of our colleagues from all walks of life. The fringes of New Music, visual artists who love to collaborate, our friends and family back home, multi-media artists and curators. It is time we recognize that we are people free of a social order instead of begging for acceptance from classical musicians who can never love us for who we are.

Remembering Halim El-Dabh (1921-2017): A Citizen of the “Fourth World”

I still remember the first time I heard recordings from The Columbia Princeton Electronic Music Center that were issued in the early 1960s on Columbia Masterworks, as major a label as it got back in those days. (In fact, the head A&R guy there, Goddard Lieberson, was so powerful that he had the nickname “God.”) But by the time I got my hands on these LPs, bought for a pittance in a second-hand shop in the early ’80s, their liner notes’ claim of this being the music of the future seemed somewhat quaint. There was, however, a track on one of those records that didn’t sound at all like either wishful thinking from the past or a never-arrived-at future; it was just plain weird, but in a wonderful way. It was Leiyla and the Poet by an Egyptian-born composer named Halim El-Dabh.

El-Dabh came to the United States on a Fulbright in 1950, studied with Ernst Krenek and Aaron Copland, and wrote scores for Martha Graham. He was subsequently invited to work in the electronic music studio at Columbia University by Otto Luening and Vladimir Ussachevsky, after having already pursued electronic music independently. (Over a decade earlier in Cairo, he had already experimented with manipulating sounds using wire recorders at least four years before Pierre Schaeffer “invented” musique concrète.) To my 1980s ears, the 1959 piece he created at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, Leiyla and the Poet sounded like a bizarre amalgam of psychedelic rock and the emerging global “world music” that was being created by traditional musicians from across the globe. But of course, Leiyla and the Poet predates all of those developments, too.

For decades that was the only piece of his I had ever heard, even though I treasured it. Then, at some point a little over a dozen years ago, Halim El-Dabh showed up briefly at the offices of the American Music Center to give us a copy of Denise A. Seachrist’s 2003 biography of him, The Musical World of Halim El-Dabh. After reading the book, I learned that in the late 1960s, El-Dabh accepted a tenured position at Kent State University in northeastern Ohio and, though he continued to travel around the world to teach and perform, it remained his home for the rest of his life. I had hoped to listen to more of his music, which is woefully underrepresented on commercial recordings (though there are some intriguing samples of it in a CD that accompanied the biography and on his website), and to eventually do a talk with him for NewMusicBox. But it never happened. On September 2, 2017, El-Dabh died at the age of 96, just a few months after attending the premiere of one of his recent compositions.

Back in June 2017, Tommy McCutchon, founder of the vital Unseen Worlds record label, conducted an extensive interview with Halim El-Dabh which might contain El-Dabh’s final in print reflections on his three-quarter-century involvement with musical traditions from around the world and finding ways to connect them together. In his preface to the interview, McCutchon stated that although the term “Fourth World” is now acknowledged as “the conceptual invention of American composer Jon Hassell, used to describe a particular style of ambient music he first popularized in the late seventies in collaboration with Brian Eno,” another example (which also predates it) is the “fully integrated cultural representation” in “the work of Egyptian-born composer, educator, electronic music pioneer, and ethnomusicologist Halim El-Dabh.”

‘Fourth World Music’ has since become a dominant sub-genre designation for any music that combines avant-garde electronic processing with a mélange of world music aesthetics. In it, familiar reference points intersect at an unlocatable place in the listener’s imagination, where the intellect is allowed to thrive. We can easily locate the Third World in popular culture, news, and travel, but the Fourth is the lesser-known beyond. It is not unlike four-dimensionality: we all know what 3D is, but the concept starts to get fuzzy when we talk about a fourth dimension.

For El-Dabh, however, this lesser-known beyond was where he and his music lived his whole life, and it was how he taught music to all people:

“I don’t like the idea of separation, and looking at it as something different. I don’t like that about Western music education. The way you start at school, the children have a natural rhythm. Teaching everything in 4/4 or 2/2 [meter]—I think there’s more to teach [than that]. I’ve met with a lot of elementary schools, and the kids have natural rhythms, a variety of natural rhythms. So, why should I hammer in them certain rhythms they’re really not used to? When you talk about Western music, that’s a huge tradition you’re talking about. The influence of Western music is huge. We just have to look at it in a variety of ways, and enhance in certain ways.”

“World Music” in the Era of Travel Bans

Two weeks ago, a new executive order rolled out from the Trump White House designed to restrict United States entry for travelers from six Muslim-majority nations in northeast Africa and the Middle East. Legal challenges to the new order already have arisen, but the debacle of the administration’s previous effort at a “Muslim Ban” is fresh in Kinan Azmeh’s mind. The Syrian-born clarinetist, a member of Yo-Yo Ma’s polyglot Silk Road Ensemble, was on tour in Europe on January 27 when the original order provoked a ruckus of confusion and protest at America’s airports, and it appeared that even green card holders—such as Azmeh, a longtime resident of New York City—might be refused entry to their own adopted homeland.

The order met immediate pushback on multiple fronts, and Azmeh faced no unusual difficulties on his return at John F. Kennedy International Airport. Yet, while the situation caused the high drama that has become routine during the nascent Trump administration, such tension is nothing new to artists such as Azmeh. “I’ve been living here for 16 years and entering was always an issue,” says the musician, one of the prominent personalities in Morgan Neville’s documentary The Music of Strangers. “Things didn’t change since I moved to New York, which was a week before 9/11. I remember the times you had to register every time you exited the country, or coming back and being held for a few hours waiting to be questioned. A lot of people don’t know this has been happening a long time.”

The situation is an active threat to the ability of global music artists to tour the United States.

Only now it is happening with a new intensity. The situation is an active threat to the ability of global music artists to tour the United States— something that is often already complicated—and arrives, paradoxically, at a time when audiences are more easily immersed in international sounds than ever before. It seems like an opportune moment to consider the meaning and relevance of what has been called “world music,” as a global refugee crisis and a rise in nationalistic fervor in Europe, Russia, and the United States newly threatens open cultural exchange.

“I’m from the world,” says Oliver Conan, with a touch of irony, when I mention the phrase “world music” to him. “I’ve always been a part of the world.” In 2002, the musician launched Barbès, a shoebox-sized bar and performance space in Brooklyn’s Park Slope, an enterprise he shares with fellow French expatriate and frequent bandmate Vincent Douglas. Both men hail from Paris, and named their nightspot after their favorite neighborhood in the City of Light, the one notably populated with immigrants from African countries once colonized by the French. Over the years, the bar has served as an essential hub for all kinds of international sounds. On any given night, a visitor might drop in and hear The Mandingo Ambassadors, founded by guitarist Mamady “Djelike” Kouyate (a Guinean refugee who came to the United States for political asylum), or French guitarist Stephane Wrembel’s homages to Django Reinhardt. More than anything else, though, the bar has showcased a border-busting hybridization of musical traditions and innovations that leap across languages, genres, and historical eras.

Conan, as you might guess, isn’t fond of the term “world music.” Coined in the 1960s and introduced as a marketing label in the 1980s, “It was a way to display records that were not from America or an Anglophone country,” he says. “Before that, we had ‘Latin Music,’ ethnic markets. World music was a way to bring the ethnic market to the mainstream.”

Nonesuch Records, under its Explorer Series banner, began doing just that in 1967, without benefit of a one-size-fits-all category. When the project concluded in 1984, the label had released 92 Explorer titles, with field recordings of everything from Balinese and Javanese gamelan to Bulgarian village music. The scholarly, ethnographic approach veered in a more commercial direction with the launch of Putumayo Music in 1993. An offshoot of a clothing and handicraft business, the label packaged its idea of the exotic in frolicsome artwork and an easy-listening vibe that suggested a kind of crunchy nostalgia. Between those polarities of attitude and branding, the broad idea of “world music” inspired a number of record labels over the past four decades, the most notable of them closely linked with investigative musicians both famous and not-so. Peter Gabriel’s RealWorld label, founded in 1989, was higher-minded, taking a curatorial slant eclectic enough to push legends (Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan), fusion concepts (Afro Celt Sound System), and even all-American gospel ensembles (The Blind Boys of Alabama) to a wider audience, which was aided by Gabriel’s status as a cofounder of the WOMAD festival. David Byrne, like Gabriel a musician deeply invested in a kaleidoscopic range of sounds and traditions, launched Luaka Bop in 1988, championing once-obscure greats like Brazilian tropicália superstars Os Mutantes, reclusive Nigerian funk genius William Onyeabor, and São Paulo avant-gardist Tom Zé. Wilder and weirder, Sublime Frequencies, based in Seattle and co-founded by Sun City Girls bassist and vocalist Alan Bishop, has released more than 100 titles since 2003. The label’s focus on sources such as field recordings, radio broadcasts, and even shortwave transmissions, and its initially limited LP runs of 1,000 copies, gave it a markedly rawer vibe, with the literally ephemeral buzz of recordings such as Broken-Hearted Dragonflies: Insect Electronica from Southeast Asia or Princess Nicotine: Folk and Pop Sounds of Myanmar.

The broad idea of “world music” has inspired a number of record labels closely linked with investigative musicians.

Conan has run his own house label, Barbès Records, for several years now. It serves as a platform for several of the venue’s regular acts, cross-pollinating outfits like Slavic Soul Party—an ensemble of improvising jazz musicians who mesh Balkan brass sources with other street band traditions for raucous dance parties—and archival enthusiasms, such as Conan’s deep dive into 1970s Peruvian garage-cumbia psychedelia, and the label’s two-volume breakaway hit, The Roots of Chicha.

Such an anti-orthodox perspective renders the idea of “world music” as a signifier of undistilled folk traditions obsolete and celebrates the promiscuity of sounds migrating between cultures. “Anything I’m interested in is not authentic,” says Conan. “Any great musical genre I’ve been interested in has been the result of some crazy bastardization, whether it’s salsa or the kind of cumbia I was really into from Peru.” In the ‘90s and the aughts, the multicultural influences began to seep potently into indie rock—witness Vampire Weekend, Beirut, Dengue Fever, and others. “It’s not really world music,” Conan says, “but using the same elements that people were using in the ‘80s that were called world music. That’s one reason why the label makes no sense anymore.”

New York’s World Music Institute was founded in 1985, about the time that the phrase “world music” was becoming popular. Decades on, the organization is actively challenging the fustiness of the term through its programming. “I really try to push the boundary of what the term can mean,” says Par Neiburger, artistic director. As an example, he points to a concert with the minimalist composer Steve Reich, celebrating his 80th birthday, that took a detour from all the other events marking the occasion. “The average person doesn’t know that [Reich] spent a good amount of time in Ghana studying African music,” Neiburger says, noting that the piece Drumming was composed soon after Reich returned from West Africa. The WMI concert juxtaposed an ensemble playing traditional Ghanian music, led by Reich’s long-ago Ghanaian instructor, master drummer Gideon Alorwoyie, who is now based in Texas, and the American group Mantra Percussion, playing Drumming. Eventually, the two played simultaneously. “It became its own new composition of music in a way,” Neiburger says.

Gideon Alorwoyie bowing with Mantra Percussion and Gideon’s students from U North Texas at National Sawdust

Gideon Alorwoyie bowing with Mantra Percussion and Gideon’s students from U North Texas, at the World Music Institute show at National Sawdust on December 10, 2016. (Photo by Aleba Gartner.)

The crosstalk is organic and not really new. Neiburger cites Fela Kuti, perhaps the most singular and iconic figure to have his records filed under “world music.” The Nigerian bandleader’s Afrobeat sound was very much a hybrid, boldly influenced by James Brown’s propulsive funk. “There is only so much music out there that is purely from a non-Western culture that no way has an influence from Western culture,” says Neiburger, who looks to artists as different as the Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto and the Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq as exemplary, contemporary boundary pushers.

Another one might be the rising Ghanaian pop star Jojo Abot, featured last year in WMI’s annual Africa Now! showcase at the Apollo Theater. She has spent much of her life in the USA, and began her songwriting career about five years ago on the MTA, somewhere between Brooklyn and Queens. A subsequent visit home to Ghana turned into a three-year odyssey, as she discovered a contemporary music scene where techno and drum-and-bass blended with popular genres such a highlife and hiplife. The fusion resulted in new forms such as azonto, a dance craze that quickly migrated to Paris, Amsterdam, and London. “You talk to your peers in a way they can directly hear,” says Abot, whose own songs make prominent use of her jazz-diva vocal skills, buffered by beds of percussion and electronics. The new generation of artists back in Ghana are rewiring Western influences, “exploring new ways of expressing themselves.”

Ghanaian afrobeat and jazz singer-songwriter Jojo Abot performs with her band with backup vocalist Abbie Richards (left rear) at the fourth annual 'Africa Now!' presented by the Apollo Theater and World Music Institute at the Apollo Theater, New York, New York, Saturday, March 26, 2016. Photograph © 2016 Jack Vartoogian/FrontRowPhotos. All rights reserved.

Ghanaian afrobeat and jazz singer-songwriter Jojo Abot performs with her band with backup vocalist Abbie Richards (left rear) at the fourth annual ‘Africa Now!’ presented by the Apollo Theater and World Music Institute at the Apollo Theater, New York, New York, Saturday, March 26, 2016. Photograph © 2016 Jack Vartoogian/FrontRowPhotos. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Syrian-born clarinetist Kinan Azmeh frames it in another way.

“I don’t really see where Bartók ends and Mozart begins,” he says, “or where Mozart ends and gypsy Romanian clarinet music begins.” The clarinet, he notes, isn’t exactly a classic Arabic instrument. “It was invented somewhere between Russia, France, and Germany. Then it traveled back east and stopped in Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Armenia but never traveled further south.” When he toured the United States a decade ago, playing the smaller towns between the coasts, the performer met with great curiosity. “People asked where Syria was,” he says, recalling how underexposed audiences also thought the clarinet must have been a Syrian instrument. “I’m the only musician they met from that country and I play the clarinet,” Azmeh explains. “Now there’s a big switch. People know where Syria is, and you get asked another kind of question. ‘Oh, do people do music in Syria?’ They know geographically where it is, but they don’t know anything about the culture.”

The way things are going, those audiences will have fewer chances to learn – at least first-hand. The digital revolution has made endless gigabytes of every music genre available for listeners at their fingertips. But flesh-and-blood encounters are imperiled.

The digital revolution has made every music genre available, but flesh-and-blood encounters are imperiled.

Neiburger has been understandably nervous about how a travel ban will impact his bookings. Of specific concern is a May concert with Omar Souleyman, a Syrian singer who has recorded 500-plus albums,  collaborated with Björk and Four Tet, and done much to bridge the traditional dance music known as dabke with contemporary electronic music. The artist, who now lives in Turkey, is such a frequent performer in the United States, you might think he resides in Brooklyn instead. “He’s performed something like 20 times,” Neiburger says. “But I don’t mean 20 performances. I mean 20 tours.”

Souleyman has a year-long visa, so ordinarily his entry into the US would not be an issue. Now, however, Neiburger says, “We’re looking at the very real chance that we’re going to have to cancel the concert.” The programmer is hopeful that a waiver clause within the executive order will be applicable to the performer. And as he’s quick to note, “It’s not a political statement. We’re just trying to bring a musician here who has performed here many times.”

Steve MacQueen, artistic director of the Flynn Center for Performing Arts in Burlington, Vermont, fears an impending chill. “It’s going to hurt Americans more than it hurts other cultures,” he says. MacQueen believes the ban will even discourage artists who aren’t targeted. “Let’s say you’re Algerian. You’ll do Europe now. Go to China. There’s lots of other frontiers. It kills me to see us abdicate our position. Since World War II, the place everybody wants to play is the U.S. It’s the birthplace of all this stuff. It’s where Louis Armstrong and Elvis Presley were born. But now that seems like it’s over to me. This kind of stuff marginalizes us to the rest of the world. Why go someplace where you’re not welcome? Why go someplace where you’re going to get hassled? You don’t.”

Azmeh says he was deeply moved by the urgency of American protests against the initial travel ban. Yet he also is adamant that art not become subservient to politics. It can speak entirely on its own terms.

“Why go someplace where you’re not welcome? Why go someplace where you’re going to get hassled? You don’t.”

“I don’t think you can burden the actual art-making with lots of political slogans,” Azmeh says. “It’s not like I want to play with XYZ person because I want to cross barriers. I think, ‘There is another person, who can play beautifully, and I’d like to play with that person.’ Of course, it takes a more important role when the surrounding context suggests the opposite. It’s interesting that sometimes we have to repeat phrases that should be the standard practice. This is when you have to make your message a bit louder, and hope that it’s contagious.”

Stuff I Learned Writing Music for Advertising—Problem Solver, Not Widget Maker

In my first post, I talked about many of the changes that technology has brought about in my industry and described a world where walls were evaporating. The problem with change, of course, is that it alters the playbook. During the early parts of my career, I benefited from being inside that exclusive world, where a large portion of advertising projects involved composers and original music.

Today, stock music—now more euphemistically called “production” music—is a huge business that leverages the democratization of music production technology, the ease of cloud storage and tag-based searching, and the growing and diverse needs of media creators for inexpensive solutions. If you just need some underscore in a certain genre, maybe with a build and an ending, your track is out there.

Simultaneously, the battered world of music publishers and record labels has been like a scrappy tree that grows sideways towards its one source of light. Not only are artists eager to place a wistful lost-love song underneath a diaper commercial, some of them are even considering the needs of advertisers and TV shows as they write. “Sync-friendly” is a real term in the business now!

So you can have a million options at your fingertips, all cheaper than original music, and you can license almost any song in your iTunes library, if you want the authenticity. Why incur the hassle of hiring a composer to write something from scratch? The answer to that exact question is the first thing I try to teach students I work with at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

The composer must become a partner in the creation of the whole piece of media.

The short answer is that some projects simply need to be written from scratch because of the specificity of the scoring needs or because they are conceptually unique. And while one could perhaps find production or licensed music, the road to the perfect score involves a whole bunch of thinking that hasn’t been done yet. Either way, the composer must become a partner in the creation of the whole piece of media, rather than simply the creator of a commodified piece of music that is used inside it. And the key to becoming that partner is understanding all of the different ways that music can function in a piece of advertising, and then helping to determine what is right for the task at hand. In short, it’s not the “what,” it’s the “why” when it comes to writing original music for advertising. So where do we start?

A Strategic Approach

Why does an ad use music? Television advertising grew out of radio advertising. Early radio advertising started as live sponsored announcements, much like the small segments we still hear on NPR. But as pre-recorded material became available, advertisers seized upon humanity’s most ancient memory technology and began to package messages within neatly crafted songs—jingles—and a medium was born. Look at television and streaming advertising now and it’s harder to find jingles, but they are still there. Think McDonalds’ current jingle, “I’m lovin’ it,” with its series of notes that immediately makes you think of the golden arches when you hear them played or sung. It’s primarily a catchy memory device. Secondarily, there are demographic and emotional reasons for what that melody is, who wrote it, and how it’s often arranged. In my experience, most advertising uses music for multiple reasons. Thankfully, agencies and brands are usually able to prioritize, either consciously in their creative briefs, or unconsciously in that mysterious process of choosing among multiple strong approaches created in the competitive demo phase. Figuring out what the strategy is behind a piece of music is, in my humble opinion, THE skill to develop to be successful doing this.

Here’s my cheat sheet:

1. Branding with Music and Lyrics

Fusing recognizable, unique musical events with a brand is a powerful way to make it stick. Something that is mentioned often by clients (so often that it’s a cliché) is the “other room test.” This is shorthand for saying that the music we write should be so good and so recognizable that if it’s on TV, you’ll recognize it even if you hear it from another room. Clients also love to ask for something as memorable as the Intel logo.

Functionally, I tend to split this strategy up into two tactics:

Music we write should be so recognizable that you’ll recognize it even if you hear it from another room.

Logo treatments/mnemonics are the musical versions of visual logos: a discrete sequence of notes or sounds, like that beloved Intel logo or the NBC chimes, that identify the brand. Over the years, I have found these are easy to write and hard to sell. They’re easy to write because they are like little puzzles that you have to solve. Most brands want to communicate something within that short moment: an emotion, a cultural space, a sense of modernity or tradition, so once you start trying to address those sub-motivations, it becomes a fun musical game. They are hard to sell, however, because clients often arrive with unrealistic expectations. How could you ever write something as recognizable as the Intel logo without the benefit of drilling it into people’s heads over a number of years?

I’d like to share two sonic logos that I helped create. The first is the ID for cable network American Movie Channel (AMC), and I would describe the approach as sound collage.

The second example is a recent Jell-O campaign that revived their historic melody from the 1950’s.

Jingles, in the traditional sense, are songs with lyrics that mention the brand by name and, through the magic of the lyricists, manage to tell a story or paint a picture of a brand. This tactic seemed to peek in the ‘70s and ‘80s and fall out of favor in the last couple decades, meaning that when they are done well now, they really stand out. I could share something I worked on more recently, but I think this is the perfect time to revisit a melody of my childhood:

2. Storytelling: Scoring the Mini-Film

As early as the ‘60s, advertising creatives realized that film and television were powerful storytelling media, and that perhaps rather than simply telling the audience that a product is great, a brand could present a short, digestible, and entertaining story as a Trojan horse for its message. While the point of the ad is still to sell the product or raise awareness, the job of the composer in this case is to treat it as a condensed film cue, drawing on whatever aesthetic and stylistic influences might be suggested by the story being told and the way it is being told. If the story is artfully conceived, the emotional and narrative inflection points will naturally drive home the message in subtle ways that an announcer or jingle can’t. In my experience, director’s treatments and storyboards are really helpful for understanding what needs to happen and how it needs to happen. For example, when looking at a director’s treatment, I can probably get a sense of whether this would be a Michael Bay action scene or a PT Anderson character study.  Each of these directors would select a distinctively different composer and musical approach.

I always love showing this long-running television commercial for GE, because it feels so much like charming moment in a a Disney or Pixar film.

For a different approach to scoring, here is an Oxfam Public Service Announcement that owes its visual language to the modern psychological thriller.

3. Emotional Response

There’s an imaginary line that most film scores stay behind. Transmitting the emotion of the scene is often the goal, whereas manipulating the viewer through hyperbolic emotional material might seem tacky, over-dramatic, or—even worse—dated. But in thirty seconds, there’s so little time for subtly and craft. And in advertising, manipulation just might be the goal and the music must be a blunt instrument, going directly for the viewer’s emotional gut. While some spots meditate on one feeling, many others take the shape of a problem/solution story: a problem is depicted, the product/service introduced, and voila, problem solved. This is very common in the ubiquitous category of pharmaceutical ads. While the shift from dark to light is certainly scoring, I see this as a unique strategy because it’s common that the client is looking for an emotion that goes beyond what we’re seeing in the story.

This Johnson & Johnson television commercial is a perfect example of creating one emotion, which I will call “heartstrings.” Notice how a feeling of warmth and humanity is created, and then the brand, by simply being there, benefits from that feeling.

This piece, for a large hospital network, is a great example of a subtle but powerful shift from tense to hopeful.

4. Brand Embodiment and Demographic Identification

“Well, I don’t really know about this, but if you tell me this is what the kids are listenin’ to, I’ll sign off on it!”

This is how I remember a senior officer (general?) signing off on my first big TV campaign for the US Army. I got that gig, my very first, primarily because I was 22 years old, going out clubbing, and listening to techno curated by my brother, who was a DJ at the time. I knew just enough about writing music to put down ideas that were closer to what I was listening to than anything they’d heard from other composers. The spot featured an edgy, young voice actor reading a pretty in-your-face call to action, and lots of hyper-saturated shots of technology. This was the late 1990s, during the “dot com” boom, and recruiting numbers were way down. The strategy of the campaign was clear: connect with young Americans and convince them that they could get a free and highly relevant education in technology by signing up. And in order to be heard, the Army felt they needed to break from previous campaigns rooted in proud, militaristic brass/orchestra/chorus, and speak the lingua franca of “the kids,” techno.

Thinking back, sure, there was thought given to creating an emotional feeling (excitement), and there were moments that artfully helped add drama to the story being presented in montage form (like when the music drops out as the skydivers jump from the helicopter). But for my money, the strongest motivating factor for the agency—evident in everything from the video edit, the hyped color correction, and the many rounds of demos of music—was to “rebrand” the Army as young and tech-savvy, and music was perhaps the strongest statement of that in the piece.

The music must be relatable to the intended audience.

I should note that in the last ten years, the most direct route towards doing this musically has been licensing an up-and-coming artist, leveraging the artist’s authenticity and removing any doubt about whether an original demo might be “of the moment.” But in my experience, this strategy is broad, deep, and often subtly superimposed on other strategies, even when it’s not the driving force. Regardless of the story or mood, just imagine a financial spot with a dubstep track or an energy drink spot with a Copland-inspired orchestral anthem! No matter what other strategies are at play, the music must be relatable to the intended audience, and this strategy is omnipresent in modern advertising.

5. Source (i.e. “diagetic music”)

This last strategy is the easiest to spot, but also the rarest. I’ve been lucky enough to work on a few projects requiring source music, and it’s always a fascinating process. Source music, also known as diagetic music, refers to music that exists in the world being portrayed on camera. Street performers and bar bands are a common example. Clock radios are also great examples, though those moments are more often solved by licensing something that might actually be on the radio. My favorite bit of source music is undoubtedly the “cantina” band in Star Wars, particularly because John Williams wrote something that felt alien yet relatable enough to help tell the story of where they were.

As a composer, the process of writing source music takes a completely different creative shape than any other process. To get it right, it’s one part ethnomusicology, one part composing, and one part method acting. You have to understand just what that ensemble would be playing at that moment, in that world, and then you have to pretend to be that composer until the music comes out. This strategy is less likely to mix with others, though it’s easy to imagine scenarios where the type of band portrayed on camera speaks to the audience demographic being targeted, or the emotion created by the piece is central to the scene making sense narratively.

I cannot tell you how much fun it was to work on this Florida Citrus spot, which involved two trips to Miami and Ricky Martin’s drummer. I’ll just leave it at that.

These are the broad strokes, and there are certainly areas like comedy that don’t follow the rules. Next week I’ll be back to talk about the scraps of certainty we start writing with—needledrops, creative briefs, and voice overs.

Still from U.S. Army ad scored by CO-PILOT featuring a group of enlisted men and the caption "Paid for by the U.S. Army"

Adam Rudolph: Languages of Rhythm

It’s very difficult to categorize Adam Rudolph and that’s perfectly fine with him.

“I prefer not to adhere to the idea of a genre or category,” he advised when we visited him at his home in Maplewood, New Jersey, over the summer. “I think those things exist for the convenience of buying and selling.”

But verbal communication—by its very nature—often involves categorization. It’s how we explain things to each other and try to make sense of the world we live in. And making sense of the world we live in seems to be one of the focal points of Adam Rudolph’s life, even though the way he has chosen to do so is through making music, most of it collaboratively. He could just as well have become a philosopher—he even looks and sounds like one when he speaks—but that would not be hands-on enough for his worldview. As he explained:

[E]verything is vibrating in the universe. So, we’re sitting on this planet. We’re sitting on these chairs. We’re bodies, but when you move into the finer elements of vibration, we can talk about it as thought, or even feeling or spirit. By spirit, I’m not talking about religion. I’m talking about mystery. Music is all about communication in this finer element of vibration. But it’s not just words. When you really think about it as a manifestion of what we do, vibration manifests as a duality. That’s what you were referencing. The duality being motion and color, we could say. What motion is, of course, is that we perceive reality temporally, so that has to do with musical terms, what we call rhythm, and how rhythm comes into being. And then the other side is color, which has to do with the overtone series and of course harmony and melody. But the thing is they’re both manifestations of the same thing.

Although Rudolph tries to eschew compartmentalizing music into different genres, he does acknowledge that music has emerged for three distinct purposes among most of the world’s peoples: an “art” or “classical” music which has “a pedagogy associated with it and a certain kind of codification of elements and a class thing about who consumes it”; a “folk” music that comes straight from the people, usually poorer people; and finally, devotional music. But he’s quick to point out that most of his musical heroes—such as John Coltrane, Yusef Lateef, and Don Cherry—played all three. All of the musical activities that Rudolph himself engages in blur and merge these demarcation points as well. He has played hand drums and a variety of other percussion instruments both alone and in improvisatory collaboration with others (such as in his duos with Lateef, fellow multi-instrumentalist Ralph Jones, Moroccan Gnawa master Hassan Hakmoun, and Cuban pianist Omar Sosa, as well as in the seminal Mandingo Griot Society he co-founded with Gambian griot Foday Musa Suso in the late 1970s). In the 1980s and ’90s, he composed for and fronted the quartet Eternal Wind, which incorporated instruments from Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and the Americas; since then he has led an equally eclectic octet called Moving Pictures. He has also composed fully notated chamber works for a variety of ensembles, including the Oberlin Percussion Group and the Momenta String Quartet. Perhaps most importantly, he has established a new kind of orchestra which seamlessly weaves composition and improvisation and has involved musicians from across generations and the world’s musical traditions.

“I was interested in trying to solve the challenge of how you can have as much freedom in this spontaneous compositional setting as possible with a large orchestral ensemble,” said Rudolph. “The Organic Orchestra came about because these musicians were from different backgrounds: people who were trained in so-called classical music; people who were in world music, especially percussion—Indian, African, Indonesian, Middle Eastern musicians; and then people who wanted to expand their conception of so-called jazz, or we’ll call it spontaneous composition American music.”

While Rudolph’s multifarious musical activities seem almost by design to exist beyond labels, in his conception they all relate to one another and speak a common language—call it a language of rhythm or an acknowledgement, through music, of the vibrational forces that are always at play in the universe as he has explained, all of which ultimately derive—at least for him—in the physical gesture of playing hand drums.

[T]here’s no doubt that when the hand strikes the drum it’s a kind of sacred act, because it’s a motion. … If you took that sound and slowed the other waveforms way down that would even be a symphony. That’s what’s being informed through me physically interacting with the wood from the tree and the skin of the animal—the vegetable world and the animal world, all of those things are in the act of playing the hand drums. … It absolutely has informed who I am as an artist and as a person. So it manifests when I write a through-composed string quartet, that activity, the physicality of it. I think about my music as a kind of yoga. … [T]ension and release, moving through different colors, all of these different processes inform one another.

Adam Rudolph in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
at Rudolph’s home in Maplewood, New Jersey
July 15, 2016—11:00 a.m.
Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Frank J. Oteri:  World music is a label that gets attached to you for a variety of reasons, so I was wondering how you feel about that term.

Adam Rudolph:  I prefer not to adhere to the idea of a genre or category.  I think those things exist for the convenience of buying and selling.  You can go to the fresh vegetable section of the grocery store or the dairy section.  It’s like that.  When I started being interested in doing research and performing in an arena that is now referred to as world music, there was no term like that. But I like even less the word jazz, which has also been attached to my music.  So I don’t know.  We all live in the world.

FJO:  You grew up in Chicago. What was the first music you were exposed to there and how did you get connected to it to the point of wanting to make music yourself? What initially sparked your passion?

AR:  My father was a music lover in the best sense of the word. All his life, he went to at least four or five concerts a week.  Always.  He had an LP collection and it was enormous. He had all kinds of music up until probably 1955 when I was born, when I think maybe he had to start buying diapers instead of LPs.  He also took me to hear Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Stan Getz, Mongo Santamaria, and Max Roach and quite often to the Chicago Symphony just at the tail end of when Fritz Reiner was conducting.

I did some classical piano as a child with a teacher who was uninspiring for me.  But I came to have a passion for music and a real relationship to it myself.  It was something I wanted to do.  When I was 14, I lived in a neighborhood on the South Side called Hyde Park.  Steve McCall lived a couple of doors down from me.  Henry Threadgill lived on 56th Street.  Most of the AACM members were my neighbors.  Leroy Jenkins was good friends with my high school music teacher, so a lot of those musicians played at our high school at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. And they also played around the neighborhood.  Also great artists like Howlin’ Wolf, Otis Spann, and Muddy Waters lived nearby.  On Sunday afternoons, you could go to the Checkerboard Lounge and just listen if you were under age.  So I used to go to the Checkerboard and I took some real life-long lessons from experiencing that music.

Being around the AACM musicians really showed me a lot about the idea that whatever you can imagine your music to be, if you have the facility, you can do it.  And not only the facility, but the courage to really pursue whatever it is your vision is.  On 55th Street, there were a lot of drummers playing hand drums.  It wasn’t Caribbean drumming.  I would call it African American Folkloric Indigenous drumming.  I just really enjoyed it and when I sat down, these drummers were really generous with me.  After hanging out all day, they’d let you play.  And it was something that called to me, and came to me.  So that’s how I got involved in playing hand drums.

Later on I did a lot of study and travel, but right from the get go, I was interested in developing my own language and way of approaching hand drums to play the music that I was interested in because I was also listening to the Art Ensemble and to John Coltrane, and then Bitches Brew came out.  So it was a completely intuitive idea.  There wasn’t really a precedent of somebody I could look to who could play that way, so it’s always been for me a process of being self-taught and self-directed in terms of what I’ve developed on my hand drums.   And that expanded into my compositional approach.  Hyde Park, the South Side of Chicago, in the late-‘60s, early-‘70s was an incredibly fertile place.  These hand drummers I was playing with, many of them were part of a group called The Pharaohs, which had come out of Phil Cohran, who had come out of Sun Ra.  Then a lot of drummers with The Pharaohs actually later became members of Earth, Wind & Fire.  So there’s all this incredible history and cultural vibrancy that was going on at that time.

Some of the many hand drums in Adam Rudolph's studio.

FJO:  One of the musicians you mentioned being taken to hear live by your father was Max Roach. He seems like someone who could have been an important role model for you.  The reason I wanted to ask you what first sparked your passion for music was to get a sense of what aspect spoke to you first. Many people say that before they started making their own music, there were certain melodies they heard—either live or on recordings—that they latched on to. Others have spoken specifically about certain sonorities, instruments, or the sheer power of the sound. And then there are folks who were captivated by rhythms, harmonies, even bass lines.  But the way many people are taught about music initially is that there’s a melody and then everything underneath it.  But music is much more than that.  It’s all of these components.  On your website you include an autobiographic essay in which you mention vibrations being the prime thing that brought you to music. But I think, and maybe you’ll debate with me on this, that vibrations are perhaps an ur-concept that then trickles down first to rhythm, and then to everything else.  Putting rhythm first is about looking at music in terms of how it happens in time and in pulsation.  In Western classical music, the role of percussionists has mostly been marginalized. The role of even the most prominent orchestral percussion instrument, timpani, is mostly just as an embellishment in the repertoire. In jazz, the drummer has historically been a core member of a combo or a big band, but was usually still a side man. Then Max Roach came along and was the leader of his own groups. He really foregrounded the element of percussion to the point where when you listen to a Max Roach solo, he’s playing melodies on his drum set.  Art Blakey, too, and as the leader of the Jazz Messengers, he nurtured generations of musicians. You described the epiphany you had with the hand drummers, so clearly you were responding to the physicality of percussion and rhythm.

AR:  You’ve said a lot of really interesting things.  There’s a great quote of Max Roach that I can paraphrase that resonates with me today: “I’d rather be a musician than a drummer, and I’d rather be an artist than a musician.”  That’s always been very inspirational to me and it’s what I strive to do.  There are a lot of great musicians, but not everybody has a vision about what they want to do.  He did, clearly.

But the other way to respond to what you’re talking about is that our culture in some ways is sort of this upside down world.  When I lived in Ghana in 1977, I experienced what people call a “master drummer.” It meant that you had a significant understanding of a lot more than just playing music.  Often times the people actually looked to the drummers as sort of a moral compass and people who approach things with a certain kind of ethic.  They understood about the virtuosity of what they did in resonance with the functionality of what you were trying to do.  Like if you’re trying to call down spirits, or help somebody pass beyond life into what comes next, or come from what came before into life.  All of these kinds of things.  You have to have a really deep understanding of that.  It’s very inspirational to think about that idea.

Whereas here there’s a sort of denial of the idea of rhythm. I think it’s related to the history of slavery and racism. But even beyond that, I think it goes to the roots of European so-called classical music. It has to do with the denial of the idea of the play of Shiva and Shakti—the male and female energies—which has to do with sex, the fundamental thing from which everything happens and is created and born.  I think that denial or repression of rhythm in European classical or upper class music was also transferred over here.  In this so-called jazz world, there’s this upside down idea that Elvin Jones was accompanying John Coltrane, or Tony Williams was accompanying Miles Davis.  That’s not how it worked, and that’s not even how they themselves thought about it.  Coltrane could never have done what he did without being in dialogue with Elvin Jones.  And vice versa.  One time I was at Ornette Coleman’s house, and we were listening to a duet record that Yusef Lateef and I had done, because he loved Yusef and his playing, and he said, “It sounds like Yusef is accompanying you.”  And I knew exactly what he meant.  It wasn’t that I was out front or anything like that, but we were in a real dialogue.  And actually I think during that period of the ‘40s and ‘50s, especially after Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, there was a certain kind of codification of instrumentation and functionality of what the instruments did.  Yet even when you go back before Louis Armstrong or Jelly Roll Morton, there’s much more of this sense of dialogue going on.  But let’s be clear: the drums were banned here.  And there’s still a stigma about it.  I mean, every pianist can be a band leader and go out and front.  But for a drummer, it’s difficult. Beyond that, for a hand drummer, it’s even something else again.

More of the drums and other hand percussion instruments in Adam Rudolph's studio

People have fixed ideas about what they know—about genres, what’s expected of you, and who’s allowed to do what or what should be doing what, or whatever.  To me, the creative impulse goes back to when I was 14 and this intuitive idea of developing my own language on hand drums to play the music that really fascinated me and that I started to imagine.  I didn’t really know what that was going to be, but it’s amazing because now, going on 40-plus years later, it still is serving me, and I’m still pursuing that.  The idea of the cultivation of intuition is very important because there is this interplay, of course, between the intellect and intuition.  But, a lot of times, the cultivation of the intuition itself is fascinating.

To address something else you said—because you actually said a lot—when I was talking about vibration, what I mean is that everything is vibrating in the universe.  So, we’re sitting on this planet.  We’re sitting on these chairs.  We’re bodies, but when you move into the finer elements of vibration, we can talk about it as thought, or even feeling or spirit.  By spirit, I’m not talking about religion.  I’m talking about mystery.  Music is all about communication in this finer element of vibration.  But it’s not just words. When you really think about it as a manifestion of what we do, vibration manifests as a duality.  That’s what you were referencing.  The duality being motion and color, we could say.  What motion is, of course, is that we perceive reality temporally, so that has to do with musical terms, what we call rhythm, and how rhythm comes into being.  And then the other side is color, which has to do with the overtone series and of course harmony and melody.  But the thing is they’re both manifestations of the same thing.  And they relate to each other in a very specific way because when you move into dimensionality, the overtone of the [perfect] fifth is the overtone that gives you the dimensionality of all the pitches possible.  In rhythm, it’s the three and the two element which gives you all the potentiality of rhythms, both horizontally and vertically.  So it’s very interesting because three and two is the sonic relationship of the fifth [3:2], so that’s the same thing.

In 1977, I went up to the Dogon. I stayed in a village called Sanga, which was not so easy to get to then, and I started to learn about the Dogon philosophy.  The female energy they call tolo and the male energy they call nya. They have a proverb that roughly translates, “Everything is a marriage and an interplay between male and female energy.”  So Tolo/Nya, Shiva/Shakti, Ying/Yang, this kind of thing.  Again, we’re into this idea of this energy that becomes creative.  As I said before about the harmonic series, you have a linearity of the octave, but as soon as you have the fifth, the next overtone, that opens it up to the fifth of the fifth of the fifth, the circle of fifths, and the pentatonic scale.  Everything becomes possible, so that three and two, that male-female energy, is very interesting.  Those manifestations of vibration are really significant.  Now why is that important?  It’s important to me because as a composer, as a spontaneous composer and a writing composer, I’m interested in elements.  These are the most pure elements.  I read a book by Michio Kaku called Hyperspace, and in it, he’s talking about theoretical physics where there are 11 dimensions.  What’s interesting is as you move into the higher dimensions, the laws of physics become simpler and simpler.  And I think this is true in music, too, as we move from style into elements.  And it’s liberating to me. It’s a full circle back to Max Roach and this idea of being an artist and what is your vision of what that could be. How that manifests in this culture, in this time and place, is a challenge for many of us in a lot of different kinds of ways.

The doorway into Adam Rudolph's sitting and listening room.

FJO:  I’ve never heard such a succinct correlation between the rise of Western classical music and the suppression of sexuality.  I’m curious about how these relationships play out in other cultural paradigms.  I’m thinking about the North Indian and South Indian classical music traditions where there’s either a vocalist or a melodic instrument in a musical dialogue with a percussionist. They are equal partners to some extent, but there’s still an idea that the musician playing the melodies of the raga is somehow the lead soloist and that the tabla or mridangam player is the accompanist. So even though they feed off of each other, there is a perceived hierarchy.  But then when you get to Africa and all the various musical cultures there, whether it’s the Manding culture that spans from Senegal and Gambia through Mali or the traditional culture of the Shona in Zimbabwe, that hierarchy is largely eroded. In other places, such as Ghana where you spoke of master drummers, the hierarchy is completely flipped. The principal drummer is the central figure.

You could say there’s three kinds of music—classical music, folk music, and devotional music.  John Coltrane played all three.  Yusef Lateef played all three.  Don Cherry played all three.

AR:  I personally don’t believe in class systems, in music anyway—you know, hierarchies.  What I think you’re talking about is actually true in Africa. And the diaspora—we grew up in it, all of us, whether we’re aware of it or not. If you’re fans of James Brown or ZZ Top, you’re basically listening to music that traces its origins back to the Aka and the Babenzelli and the Mbuti, which is where I personally feel is the root of all of that kind of conception—a rhythmic conception that deals with what I call ostinatos of circularity.  And that provides a kind of lift.

Actually when you look at it, you could say there’s three kinds of music—classical music, folk music, and devotional music.  John Coltrane played all three.  Yusef Lateef played all three.  Don Cherry played all three.  But these are not distinct; there are all these overlaps.  So even in India, for example, this hierarchy of the melodic soloist over the drums does not exist in the folk music.  In a lot of the devotional music, too, drums are very, very important—the whole thing about circularity and lifting of the moment.  I studied tabla for over 20 years, and I used to be able to play a one-hour solo in matta tal, an 18-beat cycle. My teacher, Pandit Taranath Rao, shared that with me.  There is an elevation of that drumming there also.

But these classical music traditions, so called, where there’s a pedagogy associated with it and a certain kind of codification of elements and a class thing about who consumes it, a lot of times rhythm can be sort of shunted aside.  I don’t know so much about the history of it, but to me, it kind of has to do with the church origins of European music—Gregorian chant—and of course that exquisite beauty, but also the elimination of this idea of what we call the groove.  But that groove can lead you into the cosmos, too, to transcendence, if we know anything about George Clinton or Bata drumming. Right?

FJO:  I don’t know when you started writing music, but I find it interesting that you didn’t go on to study composition or pursue a performance degree. Instead you got a degree in ethnomusicology. I’m curious about what led to that and how the orientation of that academic discipline helped to shape your musical thinking.

AR:  Well, let me go back.  I was on my way out the front door—I finished high school young.  I was 16—metaphorically with my drums on my back—congas—on my way to New York, and my parents were like, “Hold it.  Get a degree.”  So I went to Oberlin. At that time, ethnomusicology was not considered an undergraduate study.  But you could design your own major, so I designed my major and I called it ethnomusicology. It was a way for me to study everything that was interesting to me as a young artist that I could.  So I read books and things, but it was more of an informal discovery.  I don’t consider myself a formal ethnomusicologist.

Going back to the question about when I started writing music. When I was taking classical piano lessons and playing my Czerny and Mozart, I was already making up my own pieces.  Finally one day, I got my courage together to show my piano teacher. God bless her, poor lady, she didn’t know any better.  I played them for her and her response was, “Okay, now let’s look at your E-flat major scale.” Nothing else.  That was the beginning of my being out the door. I said, “I don’t want to do this.”  But when I really came to starting my own compositional ideas was when I lived with in Don Cherry’s house in Sweden in 1978 and he started showing me a lot of Ornette’s pieces by rote on the piano. It was an inspirational environment where I just started creating pieces. I was also motivated to start composing because there wasn’t really any music that existed that was the vehicle for what I was doing on the hand drums.  Ever since then, there has been this kind of interplay between how and what I play and how I write.

Adam Rudolph at the piano demonstrating his "ostinatos of circularity."

Of course, I’m now writing string quartets and percussion pieces that are completely through-composed and that’s a fascinating process, too.  Process is what’s crucial for all of us.  If you can generate your own creative process, then your music is bound to be prototypical.  So I’m interested in exploring different kinds of processes.  When we say composing or improvising, both of which are ambiguous terms, especially improvising, it really just has to do with different ways of approaching the creative process itself.  Anyway, I started putting music together in 1978.

FJO:  Was this after you first met and started working with Foday Musa Suso?

AR:  Well, okay, a little bit of linearity to answer your question.  You were talking about hearing a transformative concert.  The Art Ensemble of Chicago did a concert at Ida Noyes Hall, not long after they came back from Europe. It was the first time I heard them, and it was a magical experience.  Then, of course, I heard many concerts. There were a lot of great series.  I remember hearing Marion Brown and Steve McCall playing a duet.  And the first concerts of Air.  Of course, all the concerts my father took me to were great, but experiencing music on my own as a young adult or teenager was really transformative.  And also Sun Ra and the Herbie Hancock Sextet—the Mwandishi group.  I saw them many times.  To me, still to this day, they were really playing some kind of future music—Miles’s group at that time with Mtume, the early Weather Report, and what Alice Coltrane was doing, too.  There was so much to listen to and I was hearing it all, along with the blues musicians.  So I was inspired. McCoy Tyner would pull out a koto. All of a sudden they’ve expanded the orchestration, and they’re bringing in these colors, and also these approaches to things.   So, my thought was that I should go deeper into these ideas.  Also, I should mention Don Cherry’s Relativity Suite.  It’s a very important early record for everybody in “world music.” Don, along with Yusef, was a pioneer in collaborating with musicians from so many cultures.  He had musicians from different cultures and concepts from different places going on—Mali, India, China—but somehow in this very integrated, beautiful way. Hearing that record and records like [Miles Davis’s] On the Corner, my thought was, “Let’s study these and then go as deep as possible.” That was the beginning of following my intuition into studying Afro-Cuban drumming, Afro-Haitian drumming, tabla, Indonesian—wherever it led me.

I drove a cab when I finished Oberlin and I started playing in Detroit a lot, which is where I got introduced to Schillinger and a lot of rhythmic ideas, working with the Contemporary Jazz Quintet.  By this time, I’d been playing with Fred Anderson and Maulawi Nururdin, who were really important mentors. The courage that they demonstrated opened this up for me.  So I spent a year in West Africa, kind of on my own; I was 21 by then, living there and experiencing the living philosophy of it there.  And I traveled around.  When I came back, Foday Musa Suso and I started the Mandingo Griot Society in ’78. Then we invited my good friend Hamid Drake—whom I met in a drum store when we were 14—to be part of the Mandingo Griot Society.  He’d been playing with Fred Anderson, and we had listened to Don Cherry together.  So we contacted Don, and he came and played on the record.  He’d liked what Hamid and I were doing, so he invited us to come and stay in Sweden in this farmhouse that he and [his wife] Moki had in the countryside. We spent the summer there.  Then we went on tour in the fall.  That’s how Don became a very important mentor for me, as he was for many people, I think.

Side by side album covers for Mandingo Griot Society's three LPs, two of which show a young Adam Rudolph with Foday Musa Suso, Hamid Drake, and Joseph Thomas.

Mandingo Griot Society (Foday Musa Suso, Hamid Drake, Joseph Thomas, and Adam Rudolph) released two LPs: their 1978 eponymous debut which featured a guest appearance by Don Cherry followed by Mighty Rhythm in 1981. With the shortened name Mandingo they released the Bill Laswell-produced Watto Sitta on Celluloid in 1984.

FJO:  There were so many different musical elements that came together in the Mandingo Griot Society. There’s obviously the Manding tradition of griots singing epic tales and accompanying themselves on the kora; Foday Musa Soso grew up in a family of griots in the Gambia and is one of the world’s greatest masters of that instrument.  But there were also all these other elements that the group incorporated.  Earlier on you talked about there being three different kinds of music—the so-called classical music of the nobility, the folk music of the people, and sacred music.  One could argue that popular music is a kind of folk music, but as it evolved it really morphed into something else—certainly by the time you were growing up. In the late 1960s and ‘70s, people like Miles and Weather Report were doing stuff in the jazz scene that incorporating elements of rock and R & B.  At some point some musicians even started incorporated disco elements, like Herbie Hancock doing stuff with a vocoder on the album Feets Don’t Fail Me Now.  I can also hear those elements on Mandingo Griot Society records.  “Woman Dance with Me” is almost like a disco tune.  It’s certainly very directly referencing the popular music of that time.  So I’m curious about how far the group was interested in going in that direction.  I think it was a very pioneering group in terms of that.

AR:  Well, thank you.  I think it was, too.  There had of course been others.  We talked about Max Roach. He helped present [the Ghanaian musician] Guy Warren to the world—and Ahmed Abdul-Malik and Randy Weston and Dizzy Gillespie and, of course, Yusef Lateef.  So there was this interest.  But the Mandingo Griot Society was unique and ahead of its time in that it was a griot musician bringing his repertoire and tradition, but in terms of the conception of it, it was really a collaboration in the sense that Hamid and Joe Thomas and I brought our sensibility of growing up with what we call rhythm and blues and what we call jazz and blues, in particular, to the table.  The connection is very organic in that way.  So we were one of the first groups many people heard doing something like that, for sure.  People had never seen a kora.  Now there’s a gazillion of these kinds of collaborations, but we were amongst the first and we toured all the time.  We were on the road from ‘79 to like the mid-‘80s, pretty constantly—trains in Europe, driving a station wagon around in the U.S., playing everywhere all the time.  And people would come and they would dance to the music.  So it was exciting.  We didn’t have any sense of what it meant in any continuum; it was just what we were interested in.  The tradition is to sound like yourself. So even though the framework was Mandingo music, and also Wolof and Fulani music, the resonance of it was contemporary.  It was our experience of who we were in our time and place.  That’s been a key part of a lot of the collaborations that became very important for me, like working with Hassan Hakmoun and L. Shankar.

FJO:  Now, in terms of how the Mandingo Griot Society developed, it gradually got more electronic. I’m thinking of Watto Sitta. It definitely seems to be tapping the same well of what groups like Talking Heads had been doing—somehow reconciling traditional African music, contemporary pop music, and a wide array of electronic elements.  It all came together in a way that I think must have overlapped audiences in the same way that had happened in the late 1960s when there seemed to be a great deal of common musical ground between what composers were doing in various electronic music studios, what psychedelic rock musicians were doing in recording studios, what so-called free jazz musicians were doing, etc. They were tapping into a very similar energy and I think a similar phenomenon happened in the early 1980s.

AR:  That’s interesting. I never thought about it that way.  I felt like what we were doing was an extension of my fascination with or appreciation of groups like the Art Ensemble of Chicago—but also reflecting on [Herbie Hancock’s] Head Hunters and whatever else was going on.  A lot of us had come up playing rhythm and blues.  For me the really interesting period was the ’70s. There was a real breadth of ways of approaching things—what Tony Williams was doing, and people like Marion Brown and Terry Riley.  It was just an amazing period.  But by the ‘80s, the Mandingo Griot Society just traveled and traveled and followed that thread through.

FJO:  What strikes me as so interesting is that you had started another project concurrently that continued on—Eternal Wind.  Once again, there were tons of different influences from cultures from all over the world.  But I think it was an extremely different sound world.  Eternal Wind and the Mandingo Griot Society are almost a yin/yang. The Mandingo Griot Society was very rhythmic whereas Eternal Wind was much more expansive.  So I’m wondering how that came about and how the collaboration with the other musicians in Eternal Wind worked.

AR:  You’re right. They’re very different.  The framework for the Mandingo Griot Society was the music on the kora and the dusungoni.  There’s something special everybody gets to bring to the equation.  One of the things I learned from Don Cherry was how to be able to play with a musician from any culture, to have enough respect and understanding of what they do, but still maintain your own voice and identity and apply your own musicianship to the overall lifting of the musical moment.  So we were doing that in the framework of what that music could do.  But we couldn’t really go outside of that.  So even while the Mandingo Griot Society was going on, I was starting to write my own music and so I wanted a format for that.

I actually moved out to California from Chicago after living in Sweden, and I reconnected with somebody. I have to backtrack.  While I was at Oberlin, Charles Moore and Herb Boyd were driving down from Detroit every week and teaching African-American music, or so-called jazz.  When I met Charles, I’d already been playing with Fred Anderson and Maulawi Nururdin.  He started inviting me to go up to Detroit and play with the Contemporary Jazz Quintet, which at that time had expanded into a larger group.  This is the group with Kenny Cox and the Contemporary Jazz Quintet.  They did some incredible records for Blue Note, but now they were also opening up.  So I’m this kid.  I mean these are very, very advanced musicians, and I’m like 17, just kind of hanging on.  Charles was the one who really introduced me to Schillinger’s concept.  It was the beginning of my real connection with the Detroit scene which, later on of course, working with Yusef, was my second home and my second school, like Chicago was.  Kenny Cox and Charles Moore were very important mentors.  By the time I came back from Sweden, I was playing with a lot of Latin bands and Haitian bands and things around Chicago, but I was ready to move on and decided to go to California because there was more going on there in African music and Indian music and it was something different. It just felt like I wanted to go somewhere else.  So I reconnected with Charles Moore and Ralph Jones from Detroit, and we started the Eternal Wind group, which became the first real vehicle for my compositional ideas.

The covers for the three Eternal Wind LPs

Eternal Wind released three LPs on the Flying Fish label: their eponymous debut, Eternal Wind (1984); Terra Incognita (1986); and Wasalu (1988)

And it was collaborative. Charles and I were the primary composers, but not exclusively.  It became the outlet for our vision of music.  We were doing what’s now called world music where the orchestration is really huge.  There were instruments from different parts of the world, percussion especially. Conceptually we were thinking about a lot of different things also, but the root we go back to is the so-called jazz world.  We’re coming from that as this tradition of creating environments in compositional functionalities that have spontaneous composition involved in them and were looking for new ways of structuring that and of opening up the instrumentation.  Why do I have to have bass, drums, piano, and horns?  Why do we have to have this kind of formalistic idea of playing a tune and then there are solos? What other things could we do?  Again, this is also what was beginning to be opened up in the early ‘70s.  We talked about ethnomusicology.  My interest in music from other places was not just about studying tablas and different kinds of African drumming and Indonesian music. I also became interested in the construct of the music, which was a deeper element for me—ways that you can organize. For example, how gamelan music is organized with these layers of colotomic structures.  It’s very interesting as a formula, or as a way, or process.

Even beyond that, and what interests me more and more as time goes on, has to do with relationships—what the relationship of musician to music is. (By the way, it’s not always even called music and musician in every culture.)  What is the relationship between the person and the instrument?  What is the relationship of the human being to the context in which they create music? That’s hugely varied, so that can open you up to different kinds of ideas, too.

FJO:  Another term that is largely misunderstood and which once meant something very different is the moniker New Age, which now has a somewhat pejorative connotation.  Groups like Oregon, which was doing a lot of exploration of various world music traditions, got folded into the original definition of New Age. Now we think of Windham Hill and George Winston, even though he has a very broad range of things that he does. People associate a certain sound with what New Age is.  But not originally. So I’m curious if you would have considered what you were doing in Eternal Wind to be New Age.

To reflect the sense of who you are in where we are now is our task.  Every generation has the challenge to manifest those things for themselves.

AR:  Again, I don’t feel like and have never felt like being part of any of those things. I can’t comment on the people you’re talking about who are New Age. I feel more and more like part of the lineage that came from the African-American tradition of so-called jazz, which also is an ambiguous term that I don’t subscribe to.  In terms of how we approached what we did—in other words, creative attitude and the way of thinking about things—we were definitely and I am still now, really dealing in an extension and an evolution from that tradition, I think.  But the tradition is, as I said, to sound like yourself.  To reflect the sense of who you are in where we are now is our task.  Every generation has the challenge to manifest those things for themselves.

FJO:  Toward the end of Eternal Wind’s existence, the group played with a full orchestra in what was in essence a concerto grosso that was composed by Yusef Lateef. I’m curious about how that connection to Yusef came about, especially since it determined a lot of the subsequent course in your musical life.

AR:  Absolutely.  In 1988, I was invited to actually complete my dual masters at Cal Arts.  They gave me a scholarship because they wanted me to teach. I was also collaborating with Peter Otto.  We were doing some work with a lecturer who was working with Morton Subotnick doing electro-acoustic research.  When I finished I then lived in Don Cherry’s loft in Long Island City, downstairs from, I think, one of the people in Talking Heads by the way.  At that time, through Eternal Wind—because of the Detroit connection with Charles Moore and then Kenny Cox—we were put in touch with Yusef Lateef.  He had recently returned from four years of living in Nigeria.

By the way, you mentioned New Age music.  He won the first New Age Grammy for his Little Symphony, the first record he did when he came back.  I remember him calling me and saying, “What is New Age music?”  Anyway, when Yusef came back I think it was another period for him; he was really looking for another kind of orchestration.  He heard Eternal Wind and invited us to do this concert with him in the summer of 1988 at Symphony Space, along with Cecil McBee.  And by us, I mean the Eternal Wind—Charles Moore, Ralph Jones, Federico Ramos, and myself.  And Yusef, in the way that was so beautiful and generous of him, actually invited us all to bring our own compositions.  We played, I think, three or four of my pieces along with Yusef’s compositions.

So the way the Cologne Radio project came about was I was on tour with Don Cherry, Hassan Hakmoun, and Abdul Jalil Codsi and we played at the Moers Festival.  I ran into Uli [Ulrich] Kurth [from the radio station WDR in Cologne]. I said that I was working with Yusef now, and he said that Yusef is such an innovator in so many ways.  One of them is that he was one of the first musicians coming from an improvisational, African-American music background to really be writing very extensive pieces.  Yusef had already written some pieces for orchestra, and so they commissioned him to write the African American Epic Suite, with the Eternal Wind plus himself as soloist, and the Cologne Radio Orchestra.  And that’s how we did that.

Photos of Adam Rudolph and Yusef Lateef in front of various ethnic percussion instruments.

FJO:  It’s an extraordinary piece.  Thankfully it’s documented on a recording, but it could and should have an ongoing life in live performance, I think.  I imagine all the orchestra parts are fully notated.

AR:  They are.

FJO:  But how much of what Eternal Wind was playing was created in the moment?  Could it work with another group?

AR:  I think absolutely it could work.  It’s a shame that it hasn’t been performed more.  We performed it with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and also the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.  And I think that’s been it.  Charles Moore passed away and Yusef has passed away, but there’s absolutely no reason why it couldn’t be performed.  Yusef invited each of us to bring to the table that which we do best.  So, the orchestra players are reading, but my parts were somewhat episodic. They were very descriptive in some ways about what to be thinking about.  There are parts where there’s harmonic motion outlined for Federico Ramos or whatever guitar player would be there.  So yeah, it would be different, but the same—which is of course referencing the tradition of so-called jazz, but also referencing the real essential tradition of European classical music, too, where pieces were not rendered in this very codified kind of way.  It would be incredible to perform this piece again. The piece is very playable and straight ahead for a quality orchestra and for any improvisers who have some kind of imagination.  But it’s a challenge.

FJO:  So it makes sense that the next step in your own musical evolution after Eternal Wind and then working intensely with Yusef, including being a part of a large-scale orchestral piece of his, would be to form your own unique kind of orchestra in which the strands of what is composed and what is improvised are impossible to differentiate. That in essence seems to me to be what the Go: Organic Orchestra is about.

AR:  Well, coming from Eternal Wind, I started this project called Moving Pictures, which was sort of my compositional vehicle for a mid-sized ensemble.  And it’s still going on.  I’m mixing a new record now of the Moving Pictures.

Covers of the six commercially released CDs of Adam Rudolph's Moving Pictures

To date Adam Rudolph’s Moving Pictures has released a total of six CDs: their eponymous debut (1992); Skyway (1994); Contemplations (1997); 12 Arrows (1999); Dream Garden (2008); and Both/And (2013).

Go: Organic Orchestra had its beginning in 2000 when I was living in California.  There were a couple motivations for it. This music is an oral tradition.  It’s really about mentors.  For myself, it’s going back to starting with Fred Anderson and Maulawi Nururdin in Chicago, and then Charles Moore and Kenny Cox in Detroit, and then Don Cherry and Yusef Lateef. We stand on their shoulders. It’s not about the information they shared with us, but it’s about creative attitude and the way of thinking about things—creative process, an attitude of courageousness, cultivating your imagination, cultivating intuition, and about, as I said, your relationship with your art.  Those were very important things that those mentors shared with me.  So in 2000, when I living on the west side of Los Angeles, there were a lot of musicians who were interested in what I was doing.  So I thought it was maybe time for me to create a format for me to share a lot of what I had been so fortunate to glean from these great artists. The Organic Orchestra came about because these musicians were from different backgrounds: people who were trained in so-called classical music; people who were in world music, especially percussion—Indian, African, Indonesian, Middle Eastern musicians; and then people who wanted to expand their conception of so-called jazz, or we’ll call it spontaneous composition American music.

When you listen to those Eternal Wind records, they’re very orchestral.  We did a lot of overdubbing.  One of the fun things was creating these amazing palettes of sound.  I was interested in trying to solve the challenge of how you can have as much freedom in this spontaneous compositional setting as possible with a large orchestral ensemble.  That’s how I began to experiment with this idea of the Go: Organic Orchestra.  Those were the two impulses for me.  And it was just a fascinating thing right from the get go, the idea of it not only cutting across musicians from different backgrounds, but the idea of having the instrumentation be wide open.  Also having it be cross generational. Great artists like Bennie Maupin have been in the ensemble.  And he might be sitting next to a 14-year-old flute player. It’s about trying to create an environment of sharing and community that I grew up around.

I still go every year to Los Angeles and I maintain a Los Angeles orchestra.  I go every year to Austin, Texas; I have a regular orchestra there, too.  I also have one in Naples, Italy.  And in Istanbul.  And of course in New York, now, is the core orchestra I work with the most.  We started that in 2005.  Most of those musicians are still performing today with the Go: Organic Orchestra, so there’s something really of value.  But I travel all over the world and teach and do residencies because, through the process of how Go: Organic Orchestra works, there is an introduction to elements.  I’m sharing elements and trying to allow people to have an opportunity to express themselves.  It’s a 21st-century vision of what an orchestra is.  The dynamic of the community of it is setup with a different kind of hierarchy.  It’s not like this hierarchy of composer and conductor and then musicians rendering their vision.  Of course, it’s my vision in the sense of how the process works and what the elements are, but every Go: Organic Orchestra concert and ensemble sounds different than the others.

The covers for the eight Go: Organic Orchestra CDs released thus far.

The Go: Organic Orchestra discography thus far: Go: Organic Orchestra: 1 (recorded live in concert Friday, Nov. 1, 2001 at the Electric Lodge Venice, CA); Web of Light (recorded live in concert March 1 and 2, 2002); In The Garden (with Yusef Lateef, March 1 and 2, 2003); Thought Forms (June 2006); The Pietrasanta Project (recorded live in Italy in 2009); Can You Imagine … The Sound of a Dream (live at Roulette Intermedium, NYC, March and November 2010); Sonic Mandala (studio recording, April 20, May 5 and 6, 2012); and A Glimpse (included in the Ensemble Dissonanzen’s limited edition five-CD boxed set Dissonanzen, 2014).

FJO:  I witnessed the performance you did a couple of years ago at the Shape Shifter Lab, and it was mind-blowing.  It made me want to learn more about how spontaneous, improvisatory conducting works. How much of the material that the musicians perform is written out?  How much is improvised?  I couldn’t tell.

AR:  That’s so interesting. Sometimes you listen to music and you call tell if they’re reading or improvising; it’s very clear.  I’ve always been interested in setting up parameters, through composition, that become the arena in which we discuss things aesthetically and functionally.  With the Organic Orchestra, a lot of things are going on there. But in the most basic sense, there’s a score of three pages.  Page one and two are made up of what I call matrices and cosmograms.  They’re basically interval systems.  It’s not written in the Western notation.  Some of them are related to classic retrogrades and inversions. One of the great things we can do in music syntax is read it forward, backwards, upside down, up.  So they’re based on interval systems.  And then there are these cosmograms that are also based upon thoughts about ways of thinking about intervals—things like triple diminished patterns, symmetric hexatonic scales, plus tonal patterns: pentatonic and some of them are based on actual ragas and makams.  All of these are different and there are ten of them. I have ten fingers, so I can cue people to improvise inside of those.

Or I can orchestrate with various conducting signals also.  This can happen when I have somebody improvising. I can create the orchestration around them based upon listening to what they’re doing in the moment, or we can create dialogues that way.  The reason these matrixes and cosmograms have become so successful is—I won’t say the opposite, but—they’re very different than a lot of times when you see graphic notation.  I’m not directing what kind of shape or phraseology or breathology people bring to it, but we are deciding that this is a topic of conversation.  Like a raga.  Every raga is not like every other raga.  Right?  So it’s more than a scale; it has to do with this combination of intervals and the sound and the rasa.  In Indian music, rasa is what informs the raga.  Rasa is the emotional coloration.

So each one of these matrices and cosmograms have to have their own kind of emotional coloration or topic that we want to talk about.  But the reason it’s beautiful for me is that somebody who comes from a background of, say, rock guitar or somebody who comes from a background of playing European classical music on bassoon or a saxophone player—everybody’s going to bring their own breathology and phrasing, and hopefully project their feelings through this matrix, which is the topic.  They can communicate with each other because we’re talking about a certain kind of sound arena.  Beyond that you can combine these arenas against each other, and then you get into this beautiful, fantastic realm of painting coloration and motion.

Now the third page is what I call ostinatos of circularity.  These are interval patterns that are based upon the same kind of materials you find in the matrixes and in the cosmograms, but they’re patterning like what you find in Aka or Mbuti or Babenzele music—not that sound but that concept.  That is the link to the other part of the Organic Orchestra concept, which has to do with the rhythm concept. Going all the way back to when you talked about Max Roach, Max Roach also famously said something to the effect of that there was another evolution of this music when Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and Monk started using extensions of chords and higher partials—the rhythm concept really changed.  This rhythmic evolution of the music is not talked about as much, relating to what we were speaking about before.  So my thought has always been how we move the music forward into the next idea of what we can do rhythmically, how we can create new languages and new concepts of rhythm.  Because rhythm ultimately leads to form.  And form next, along with process, are the most significant things that I’m interested in.

FJO:  That 2015 Cuneiform CD of the Go: Organic Guitar Orchestra sounds completely different from any other thing of yours that I’ve ever heard.  You’re conducting it improvisationally, but you’re actually not playing on it at all.  I was reminded of this a few months ago when I went to hear your string quartets at Roulette and you actually couldn’t be there because you had gotten really sick.  So you weren’t there. But you were there because your music was there.  That’s the weird magical thing about this rarified tradition of notated Western classical music. You can be responsible for music that you actually did not perform, whether by conducting what other musicians play or writing the notes that the musicians read and perform from.  You didn’t make a sound on the Go: Organic Guitar Orchestra recording and, in the performance of the string quartets, you weren’t even in the room. At yet you were.  For you, as someone who initially became involved with making music as a physical process—playing hand drums—to venture into this other non-physical way of making music is actually pretty fascinating to me.

AR:  It is fascinating.  What a great thing to be an artist and to be fascinated by and be in involved in a lot of different things.  It’s what I’m saying: creative process itself is so significant.  The process of writing a through-composed piece for the Momenta String Quartet and a series of pieces for the Oberlin Percussion Group, where I don’t have to be there, is fascinating to me.  As is the process of conducting the Go: Organic Guitar Orchestra—which by the way, is the same as how I conduct all the Go: Organic Orchestras. I think there are 12 recordings out now of the different Go: Organic Orchestras, and I don’t play on any of those recordings.

The cover for Cuneiform's 2015 CD of the Go: Organic Guitar Orchestra

The 2015 Cuneiform CD Turning Toward the Light documents Rudolph’s Go: Organic Guitar Orchestra which differs from all previous incarnations of the orchestra in that all the musicians play the same instrument. So while the concepts behind the music are the same as those of previous Organic line-ups, the result sounds like nothing else Rudolph has ever done.

That process of conducting that music spontaneously and the interaction between the score materials that I’ve generated in advance—I actually call it decomposing.  Or finding those elements that have the most flexibility and then playing in my Moving Pictures Group, where I’m playing drums. Or when I would play a duet with Yusef Lateef.  We would generate forms and we would also play inside of compositional forms.  We got to the point where we didn’t need to speak about what we were doing at all anymore; we would just go out and begin our conversation.  Why not be interested in all of those things?

Four CD covers of duo album featuring Adam Rudolph with Wadada Leo Smith, Yusef Lafeef, Omar Sosa, and Ralph M. Jones.

Four of the many extraordinary duo albums Adam Rudolph has made over the years are Compasssion (with Wadada Leo Smith, 2006), Live in Seattle (with Yusef Lafeef, 2014), Pictures of Soul (with Omar Sosa, 2004), and Merely A Traveler On The Cosmic Path (with Ralph M. Jones, 2012).

The last recording that came out at the same time as the Go: Organic Guitar record is this Hu Vibrational recording, which is the percussionists from the Go: Organic Orchestra.  Since I lived in Africa, I’ve been fascinated with the idea of composing rhythms; this is a great time-honored tradition that people don’t really talk about much.  Look at someone like Doudou N’Diaye Rose [from Senegal] or Jnan Prakash Ghosh in India, or my tabla teacher in fact, or the Diga Rhythm Band with Zakir Hussain, or James Brown for that matter.  This idea of organizing thinking about that, that’s something that’s a big part of what I do with Go: Organic Orchestra, composing these group rhythms.

I felt like this was a new arena that we could be moving into, bringing that idea to this tradition of music that I’m trying to extend or make my small contribution to.  So with the Hu Vibrational record, I actually took those to James Dellatacoma whom I worked with at Bill Laswell’s studio.  We did very extreme, very in-depth, electronic processing of those sounds, which harken back to my work on a Buchla at Oberlin in 1973.  That also referenced my interest in the idea of African handmade musical instruments, which are often designed to complexify the overtone sounds, like on a kalimba or on a djembe or a dusungoni. I wanted to look for ways of complexifying these overtones and creating these sort of secondary voices moving like ancestral voices with these electronics.  So that record was not a document of what we played.  We played, but then I used the recording, mixing, editing, and incorporating electronics as part of the process.  So I’m interested in all of these things.

The cover for Hu Vibrational's 2015 CD, The Epic Botanical Beat Suite which features a drawing of a cat.

The other most recent recording by Adam Rudolph is Hu Vibrational’s The Epic Botanical Beat Suite (2015), a studio creation that could not be performed live.


What a great thing to be an artist and to be fascinated by and be in involved in a lot of different things.

But there’s no doubt that when the hand strikes the drum it’s a kind of sacred act, because it’s a motion. It’s moving from what in India they call nadabrahma. In the Kongo they call it sese, the unstruck sound, the audible realm of om.  If you took that sound and slowed the other waveforms way down that would even be a symphony.  That’s what’s being informed through me physically interacting with the wood from the tree and the skin of the animal—the vegetable world and the animal world, all of those things are in the act of playing the hand drums.  It’s a really unique instrument that way.  It absolutely has informed who I am as an artist and as a person.  So it manifests when I write a through-composed string quartet, that activity, the physicality of it.  I think about my music as a kind of yoga.  I’ve been practicing hatha yoga since 1975.  And yoga means limbs—the relationship between body, mind, and spirit.  All of those things are always moving, circling around to one another.  Those things inform all of these different processes that are interesting to me as an artist.  It’s great to have a lot of different interests, right?  It’s inspiring.  And they all inform each other.  I mean, writing a string quartet changed my whole way of thinking when I went back to playing, because now I’ve really had this time to sit back and look at life. And wow, how does this form? How do you lay this out?  And you know, tension and release, moving through different colors, all of these different processes inform one another.

Right now I’m in the midst of mixing this new Moving Pictures recording. I don’t even know how I’m going to deal with that yet, and it’s very exciting.  I’ve done a few dozen records now of my compositions, and I try with every recording to do something that I haven’t done before.  And that’s what makes it fascinating and inspiring and interesting.

The inside of the "art car" designed by Adam Rudolph's wife Nancy Jackson

One of the most amazing things we encountered when we visited Adam Rudolph’s home in Maplewood was the “art car” designed by his wife Nancy Jackson with whom he also collaborated on the 1995 opera, The Dreamer.

Auditory Tourism

My enthusiasms for “World Music” have been exuberant and far-flung. I also tend to embrace independent, analog media, such as locally-based broadcasts from the heart of a community. One special radio changing-of-the-guard I look forward to each time I’m able to listen in happens weekly on New York’s radio ether: Saturdays just before 8PM on WNYE, a brokered [rent-by-the-hour] public service station, this certain transitional moment occurs between two vibrant programs. Winding down their last hour is Elena Marouletti’s Aktina FM—“the only Greek Cypriot American radio show in America”—and coming up, Trinidadian DJ Trevor Wilkins brings on “the longest-running calypso show in the world.” Not only do I enjoy listening to two of my favorite musical genres airing back-to-back at 91.5 on the dial, there’s also what sounds like real camaraderie between the enterprising hosts whose personalities shape what is for me a bonus to this prime-time non-commercial double bill.  At this sign-off/sign-on cusp, they seem genuinely fond of one another, and of each other’s musical traditions, too. From mics in separate studios, each encourages their respective loyal followings to keep listening and tune into the other’s program offerings. They represent year-round commitments to keeping their own cultures vital, and in this ephemeral pivotal sequence, also voice mutual respect and affection, warmly acknowledging each other’s music, heritage and listenership.

CD cover for the Rounder Compilation Calypso Pioneers.

Rounder’s compilation Calypso Pioneers 1912-1937 is a great place to begin a discovery of Trinidadian music.

While we can only wonder how many of their regular listeners actually heed this call to keep their ears open—and certainly both hosts must run fund drives about twice a year, so it never hurts to cross-promote to another fleetingly captive audience—it’s sweet to imagine rembetika fans staying tuned to enjoy climactic chromatic “pan” [steel drum] passages and syncopated patois innuendo, and West Indian music fans maybe developing new tastes for modal melodies and odd meters. Both the shows feature a wide array of vocals and instrumentals, from various eras: vintage and newer selections, all drawing from highly eclectic island heritages. Though I tend not to favor the more slickly-engineered contemporary ‘pop’ varieties of either repertoire, each show seems steered by its own savvy producer/host (going on a first-name basis) to nurture appreciation of the rootsier side of their playlists. Both Aktina’s Elena and her Caribbean counterpart (whom she affectionately refers as “Trevi”) operate as MC/curator/ambassadors, peppering their multi-hour broadcast stints with community announcements, music dedications and song commentary, on-air call-in contests, event promotions, homespun spots with the “kind compliments of our sponsors,” and occasional fund drives—to subsidize what Trevor reminds us is “precious, expensive airtime” which really could be lost if not enough contributors come through. I am grateful that these devotees have found a way to share their music and earn support to keep it available this way. And while I’m already familiar with many tunes from each of these traditions, each show brings me both new retro discoveries and the pleasure of familiar songs I’ve already grown to love (sometimes with different riffs or settings I’ve never heard before).

While I am usually able to hear these shows full of down-to-earth vibrancy, I still have the privilege of visiting as an auditory tourist.

One added appeal for me on the current-day WNYE—in addition to the modal, mellifluous music of the Aegean and the syncopated rhythms of the Caribbean which nurture my ears and my being, and the very human presentation by Elena and Trevi—is that while I am usually able to hear these shows full of down-to-earth vibrancy, I still have the privilege of visiting as an auditory tourist. Only occasionally am I aware of any cultural politics which might affect my pure enjoyment of this artistry in community context.

Of course, motivated aficionados can surf the web on their own for the most obscure “ethnic” music examples, and closely study audio online. I have even pursued specific pieces after tantalizing or intriguing introductions on the radio shows. There are great live performances which I’m thrilled to be able to attend sometimes, often with dance and even singing along—something I revel in even if I may not jump in myself. Generally, resources abound for study and involvement: music workshops, CD liner notes, ethnomusicology treatises, and “world music” magazine format shows, both independent and syndicated. Meanwhile for a weekly connection, whether in my car or my living room, the radio context is far more interesting than any Pandora stream, even if I’m not fond of all the music on offer in the course of any show or may not relate to every point of view I hear.

Even as a non-native listener, I respect and try to understand whatever issues may come up in these broadcasts. Naturally I may sometimes want to remain either oblivious or able to keep my distance about any drama behind the scenes or within the material that might distress me, I am sometimes keenly aware both of liberation politics I respect as well as controversies that are upsetting. (On one occasion I heard a fascinating but distressing track from the early ‘70s—“London Gay”—and when I wrote in to Trevor Wilkins, he avowed himself to be no homophobe, saying this was just “West Indian satires.” Those lyrics are very clever indeed if I even catch half their meanings, but ending with a rhyme of “fail” with “jail” and “no bail” still leaves me wondering, given the deadly serious homophobia in many parts of the Caribbean and its diaspora. And the show host’s on-air laughter—with no commentary—also made me question, but I’m glad he took the trouble to write back. I give him the benefit of the doubt and was in a sense grateful for the revelation of an artifact I would never otherwise have found.) On the other hand, hearing Greek vocals often touches my emotional core even though I understand only a smattering of the words. And in yet other instances, it’s been truly touching to be aware of what’s happening, such as Trevi’s on-air grief and remembrance when his mother had recently passed away.

The cover of a Greek rembetika compilation which features a drawing of the iconic singer Sotiria Bellou

A rembetika compilation featuring recordings by the iconic singer Sotiria Bellou (1921-1997) who is featured in the illustration.

The “tradition” of communities and musicians overhearing each other goes back centuries, probably millennia, before radio. By the broadcast era this certainly created interesting infusions for New Yorkers even more commonly back in the “Golden Age of Radio,” which was also an era without air-conditioning, leading to even more open windows and doors and ears. I’ve seen accounts of various crossover hits born out of the curiosity and enthusiasm of cultural mixing this way. My own affinity for Yiddish and Greek music reflects the interplay between these genres, demonstrated by shared melodic repertoire which bands I’ve been part of (more on that in the coming weeks) have covered in styles reflecting both sources, and likewise by recordings made by the such renowned greats as klezmer clarinetist Dave Tarras under his own name as well as under pseudonyms for other labels to put music by the same players out to various different ethnic markets from New York’s industrious studios, labels, and distributors!

The “tradition” of communities and musicians overhearing each other goes back centuries, probably millennia, before radio.

Actual crossover with commercial intent is yet another vast topic spanning various eras which can be charted in copious novelty tunes superimposing two seemingly unlikely genre combinations (often reflecting excellent command of each style in their arrangements and performance, even if using clichéd material in juxtaposing digestible, stereotypical forms). I’m fascinated by these, too, in part as a reflection of how well musicians did know at least certain aspects of each other’s traditions, and how curious neighboring people might be about each other’s languages and customs. Through various instances, both in heterogeneous “Old Country” settings as well as in the challenging worlds of immigrants thrown together, musicians might have both the opportunity and the impetus to take on tunes, style vocabulary, knowledge of dances and popular repertoire etc. to make themselves employable for as many situations as possible, whether as performing or recording artists, and sometimes even cross-cultural impresarios or polyglot producers.

Back to considering what commonalities fascinate me among these distinct genres, trying to generalize beyond superficiality, I find variously energetic, aesthetic and even intellectual connections. In both Greek and Yiddish genres, as with other related musics of “Near Eastern” provenance, inherently majestic, mysterious and emotive qualities, effusive yet controlled, are carried by highly variegated modal sounds. As to Calypso and Klezmer, though these may share no discernible links of direct mutual influence, I am attracted to the propulsive, rowdily sophisticated rhythms and structure in each genre’s upbeat dance forms, as well as the hilariously nuanced wordplay often found in both of these genre’s vocals—each originating in a humorously incisive macaronic mindset commenting semi-covertly from a vantage point outside, but very familiar with, the dominant culture.

As a drummer and an enraptured listener, many more related worlds beckon too—Brazilian music and Balkan music offer huge joys encompassing many of my favorite qualities in a plethora of gorgeous, challenging forms. As to West Indian and Greek: So far my schedule has never yet allowed me to join in the Brooklyn steel drum rehearsals I used to contemplate, and I only once sat in on dumbeq at Astoria’s now long-vanished Akroama nightclub ages ago when called up unexpectedly by someone I knew on the bandstand (the same person who later introduced me also to Portuguese fado). My ears and my heart liven up with these sounds, which—in lieu of a live concert, parade, jam, or party—are still great to hear on-air, programmed by people rather than algorithmic formulae. I’m grateful for any regularly-scheduled, lovingly-grounded radio infusions with a real sense of context, personalities, language and human connection; it’s an atmosphere where the music lives and breathes.

Eve Sicular playing on a drum set.

Eve Sicular at Joe’s Pub. Photo by Albie Mitchell.

Eve Sicular is a New York-based drummer and the founder/bandleader of Metropolitan Klezmer (1994) and its “sister sextet,” Isle of Klezbos (1998). Eve’s arrangements have been heard on Showtime’s The L Word, HBO’s Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags, CBS Sunday Morning, and London’s Royal Ballet at Covent Garden, as well as in pieces at New York Theatre Workshop, the Museum of The City of New York, The Wexner Center, The Jewish Museum, and the Contemporary Jewish Museum. Sicular’s debut as a composer/lyricist/playwright, J. Edgar Klezmer: Songs from My Grandmother’s FBI Files, was performed at HERE Arts Center in New York in June 2015. Her publications and lectures include topics and titles such as The Yiddish Celluloid Closet and Music in Yiddish Cinema.

New Music for Chinese Instruments

In my opinion, the most exciting new music being composed and performed in East Asia is for traditional Asian instruments.  I’m particularly intrigued by the new music people are writing for Chinese instruments.

A lot of what excites me about these new works is the sound of the Chinese instruments themselves, as well as their rich musical and performance histories.  In fact, in most cases, these instruments’ histories are even older than most contemporary Western instruments.  For example, the “xiao” (a vertical end-blown flute) and “dizi” (a traverse—e.g. horizontal—side-blown flute) both have histories and performance practices that date back thousands of years.  Also, the music and performance practices of Chinese instruments are often deeply tied to Chinese aesthetics and philosophy.

The best new music for Chinese instruments engages with these instruments’ cultural associations as well as contemporary thinking.

For me, the best new music for Chinese instruments engages with these instruments’ cultural associations as well as contemporary thinking.  I also think that compositions that use this kind of informed approach provide a good example of the “confluence of cultures” that composer and thinker Chou Wen-chung (周文中) advocates.

For this post I’m first going to provide some background by describing some of my experience learning about traditional Chinese music and then discuss some of the 20th-century history of Chinese instruments.  Finally, I am going present some new music for these instruments by seven contemporary composers.

I began to study music for Chinese instruments nearly nine years ago while I was earning my doctorate at the University of California, San Diego.  Some of the first new music I encountered for these instruments were pieces composed by my wife Chen-Hui Jen (任真慧), whom I first met at our graduate student orientation.  I later learned more about the history and aesthetics of Chinese music while auditing a course taught by the Chinese-born American composer Lei Liang (梁雷, b. 1972).   Lastly, one of the most meaningful experiences I had with Chinese music at UCSD was taking “guqin” lessons with Alex Khalili – a fellow doctorate student who had studied the instrument in China with the master Zeng Chengwei (曾成偉).

The guqin is a seven-string fretless zither that is often associated with scholars and thinkers.  For example, experts and guqin masters even speak of a “qin tao” (way of the qin) and use the playing the guqin as a way to understand the right way to live, or even reach enlightenment.  The guqin is also one of the world’s oldest instruments.  For example, the oldest extant composition for a solo instrument in the world is a guqin composition that is commonly attributed to Confucius –“Lonely Orchid” (幽蘭 or 碣石調幽蘭).

The guqin also has a rich classical tradition where the many different playing techniques—such as specific strokes of the fingers, various types of vibrato, and the numerous ways one can play each pitch—are each imbued with deep poetic and spiritual significance.  For example, most classical guqin compositions start with plucked open strings and harmonics.  The open strings are supposed to signify the earth, while the harmonics signify the sky or the heavens.  By starting a composition with these sounds, the beginning of the composition provides a definition of the universe.  After this introduction, the performer then begins to play music by stopping the string with his left hand.  These stopped notes, in contrast to the natural images that the open strings and harmonics evoke, symbolize humanity and human will.

Guan Pinghu (管平湖,1897-1967) performing “Flowing Water” (流水), a composition that first appeared in notation in 1425.

While studying the guqin and traditional Chinese music, I was particularly struck by its relationships to poetry and philosophy.  I’ve also found that the symbolic coding of sounds that I first encountered in classical guqin music has now become central to how I compose and think about my own music.

(Before continuing, if you are interested in learning about the different types of Chinese instruments, there are fortunately many online resources.  For example, the Taiwanese ensemble the Little Giant Chinese Chamber Orchestra has a good basic description of the most widely used instruments on the English version of their website.  Wikipedia also has an introductory entry on Chinese instruments that links to entries on nearly every Chinese instrument.)

Most new music for Chinese instruments can be described by the Chinese term “Sizhu” (絲竹, silk and bamboo).  This term refers to the materials that these instruments were traditionally made of.   Historically these instruments were also not widely standardized and performers often played traditional Chinese music together in small ad hoc chamber ensembles.

In 1920s China, there was a movement to modify as well as standardize the tunings and performance techniques of these instruments.  The advocates of these modifications looked to Western instruments as models for ways to “improve” the local instruments.  Some of the modifications included replacing silk with stronger metal or plastic-wrapped metal strings to make the instruments louder, adapting instruments to fit equal temperament, and increasing the pitch ranges of instruments like the sheng (a mouth organ) and the pipa (a four-string fretted lute).

One of the leaders of this movement was the composer and musician Liu Tian-Hua (劉天華, 1895-1932).  Lin studied Western composition and founded “Guoyue Gai Jin She” (The Organization of Chinese National Music Improvement) in the 1920s.  He also adapted the five-line staff for both his compositions and transcriptions for Chinese instruments.  This notation made it easier for Chinese instrumentalists to play together.  In terms of modifying the instruments, he added additional frets to the pipa so that it could play more pitches and play in 12-tone equal temperament. He also borrowed techniques from Western string playing to adapt the erhu (a two-string fiddle) from an instrument that primarily plays accompaniment to a highly virtuosic instrument not unlike the violin.

Today, the modern Chinese orchestra is a firmly established ensemble all over the world, and most major cities in the Chinese-speaking world have their own local Chinese orchestra.

All of these modifications of Chinese instruments also led to the founding of the modern Chinese orchestra, a large ensemble modeled on the Western orchestra.  The Chinese orchestra groups Chinese instruments into different families in a manner similar to how the Western orchestra groups instruments together.  For example, in the Chinese orchestra all of the huqin (different sized two-string fiddles) are grouped into a large string section that sits at the front of the ensemble.

Originally these Chinese orchestras mostly played music based on traditional Chinese music and themes.  People called this music National music in order to distinguish it from the music that a Western orchestra performs.  Today, the modern Chinese orchestra is a firmly established ensemble all over the world, and most major cities in the Chinese-speaking world have their own local Chinese orchestra.

In the past, Chinese instruments were mostly taught and performed within societies  (i.e. groups of people interested in performing, studying, and teaching Chinese instruments).  Although I am unfamiliar with other countries in the region, in the 1970s Taiwan began to offer official Chinese instrument training at universities, high schools, and even elementary schools throughout the country.  As a result of these and similar education programs, there are now many highly skilled Chinese instrument performers through Asia and across the globe. The education programs have been so successful that many young Chinese instrumentalists are just as virtuosic on their instruments as the best Western instrument performers.

A Taiwan elementary school Chinese music ensemble performing National music.

In recent decades, a number of composers have worked to write and promote a kind of “new music” for Chinese instruments that moves beyond the aforementioned National music.  I am going to focus on just a few of the many composers who write new music using this approach. Also, since most of my Asian experience and knowledge of new Asian music is based in Taiwan, I am mostly going to present the music of Taiwanese composers.

Ma Shui-Long: Concerto for Bamboo Flute and Orchestra (1981) for dizi and Chinese orchestra

Ma Shui-Long (馬水龍, 1939 – 2015) was one of the most important senior composers and composition educators in Taiwan, as well as one of the first Taiwanese composers to gain an international reputation.  Ma was also one of the first Taiwanese composers to frequently compose new music for the modern Chinese instruments.  In addition to writing more serious concert music, he also wrote more popular works, such as the Concerto for Bamboo Flute and Orchestra.  As a university administrator as well as a member of the Taiwanese Ministries of Education and Culture, Ma also played a crucial role in developing music composition curricula in Taiwan.

Pan Hwang-Long: East and West VII (2016) for three Chinese instruments and four Western instruments performed by C Camerata Taipei

Pan Hwang-Long (潘皇龍, b. 1945) is one of the most important and influential living composers in Taiwan.  After studying with Isang Yun and Helmut Lachenmann in Germany from 1976 to 1982, he returned to Taiwan to teach, compose, and promote new music in Asia.  Pan also developed a composition technique to synthesize some of his teachers’ methods for writing for instruments with Asian musical approaches and thought.  In this system, he classifies the different types of sounds that instruments make—such as trills, glissandi, harmonics, tremolos, etc.—into different categories.  He then uses these categories as the elements that define or guide the structure and form of a composition.  One of the tremendous advantages of this approach is that it presents a way to merge Lachenmann’s modern deconstructive approach with a traditional Asian focus on sound as a structural element.  This approach also presents an intelligent way to combine different instruments and create novel methods of structural and formal expression.

In the 1990s, Pan Hwang-Long began to regularly collaborate with the Taiwanese Sizhu ensemble Chai Found Music Workshop on creating and promoting new music for Chinese instruments.  In 1998, Pan wrote his first work that combined Eastern (or Chinese) and Western instruments together, East and WestEast and West VII is the seventh piece in this cycle of works that combines instruments from different global cultures.  This composition features a unique, angular, bold, and distinct character that any listener familiar with Pan’s music can easily identify.

(N.B. Although the title of this cycle officially translates to East and West, the original Chinese title 東南西北 translates to “East South West North.”  Unlike the simple opposition that the English title suggests, the original Chinese title carries many additional layers of meaning that are literally lost in translation.)

Tung Chao-Ming: Lotusduft (2008) for solo guzheng

This past Sunday, I attended one of the best Chinese instrument concerts I’ve heard.

This past Sunday (May 15, 2016), I attended one of the best Chinese instrument concerts I’ve heard – a concert of guzheng music by Qin Wenchen (秦文琛, b. 1966) and Tung Chao-Ming (董昭民, b. 1969).  A highlight of the concert was when the tremendous young guzheng virtuoso Kuo Min-Chin (郭岷勤, b.1986) performed the three works I’ve shared directly above.

Qin Wenchen is considered one of the most important living Chinese composers.  He was born in Inner Mongolia and studied at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music.  After graduating he was hired to teach composition at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, the most prestigious music school in China.  After becoming a professor, he received a scholarship to study with Nicolaus Huber in Germany from 1998 to 2001.  Qin’s music is very special in that he aims to develop an aesthetic that focuses on Chinese arts and his own Mongolian culture rather than any aspect of Western culture.

Chao-Ming is, in my opinion, one of the best younger Taiwanese composers.  He is also a dear friend and one of my colleagues at National Chiao Tung University.  Chao-Ming was one of Qin Wenchen’s classmates when they both studied with Huber.  While living in Germany, Chao-Ming also studied with Mauricio Kagel.   Besides composing, Chao-Ming plays many Chinese instruments, often works with technology, improvises, and frequently produces large collaborative inter-media theater pieces.  These other activities often influence his compositions.  For example, his music often features theatrical elements and/or experiment with instrumental techniques and the choreography of performance.  Recently, like Qin, he has been working to create a new, uniquely Chinese and Asian approach to composition.

The modern guzheng is a 21-string zither with 21 movable bridges.  Traditionally performers pluck the strings on the right side of the bridge and apply pressure to strings to the left side to raise or lower the sounding pitch.   The guzheng is also traditionally tuned to a pentatonic scale.

Qin Wenchen breaks both of these traditional guzheng approaches in his companion compositions Prayer Flags in the Wind (2010) and Chorales in the Wind (2011).  Both works require the performer to tune every string on the right side to different octaves and small microtonal variations of the same pitch.  In Prayer Flags in the Wind, the performer does not pluck the strings.  Instead, he or she bows and strikes the guzheng with a fiddle bow to evoke a sustained aura of Lamaistic ritual music.  In performance, the resulting sounds of the guzheng’s sympathetic resonances fill the concert space and gave me visions of the wide-open expanses of a desert.

A remarkable feature of Qin’s guzheng tuning for these two pieces is that the left side of the guzheng, which performers normally don’t pluck, is tuned very close to a pentatonic scale.  The composition Chorales in the Wind takes advantage of this by slowly revealing a simple melody played on the wrong side of the bridge.   To me, the uneven and slightly broken timbres of these strings evoke an impression of an exotic Chinese folk instrument playing a lost traditional lament.

In Lotusduft, Chao-Ming deconstructs how each hand and subtle finger movement is used to play the guzheng to create new methods of playing the instrument.  These new techniques, although related to traditional ones, greatly expand the timbral, gestural, and expressive power of the instrument.  As the work unfolds, these unique sound combinations reveal many related melodic fragments that progressively unify the work.  Also, at a few points in the work, Chao-Ming even choreographs the performer’s movements in the air above the instrument.  In those moments, it feels to me as if the work’s life and energy is so great that it cannot even be contained within the guzheng itself.  (N.B. Although I posted an audio file of this composition directly above, I also recommend watching this video of Yu-Chen Wang playing the same work so that you can appreciate its visual elements.)

Chen-Hui Jen: Through a Fading Autumn (2009-2010) for 2 huqins, pipa, and guzheng

Chen-Hui Jen (任真慧, b. 1981) is a young and very talented composer from Taiwan, as well as my lovely wife.  In Taiwan, she worked with Lee Tzyy-Sheng during high school and her undergraduate studies, and then with Pan Hwang-Long during her master’s studies.  After moving to America, she worked with Chinary Ung during her doctorate studies at the University of California, San Diego.

Chen-Hui grew up around music for Chinese instruments.  Her mom plays the guzheng as well as many other Sizhu instruments, and both she and her sister studied erhu before entering college.  Since finishing her undergraduate degree, Chen-Hui has composed many pieces that feature Chinese instruments.   A number of these works have won major prizes in Taiwan and have been selected for performance at international festivals.  Since 2008, she has also collaborated regularly with the Little Giant Chinese Chamber Orchestra.

Through a Fading Autumn is one of Chen-Hui’s most personal and deeply moving compositions.  The work is a memorial honoring her younger sister, who passed away in the fall of 2009.  Structurally, the work can be described as a concerto for two huqin that act either as one super huqin or as two soloists.  The two huqin can also be seen to represent Chen-Hui and her sister.  The plucking sounds of guzheng and pipa are designed to provide a timbral contrast.  However, given the personal nature of the work, one could also interpret the guzheng and pipa as representing their mother and father.  In the beautiful last minutes of the work, all four instruments share a Buddhist funeral prayer melody.  One could hear this moment as the four family members praying together.  (N.B. This recording features the huqin teacher Chen-Hui and her sister studied with.  Also, two of Chen-Hui’s closest cousins play huqin and pipa on this recording.)

Jacob Sudol: …after a mountain stream rain  (谿山遇雨) (2011) for six Chinese instruments, performed by members of Chai Found Music Workshop

…after a mountain stream rain (谿山遇雨) is the first piece I composed for Sizhu ensemble.  I wrote the work for the Chai Found Music Workshop Formosa Landscape/2011 Sizhu Music Composition Contest and the work won third prize.

The composition draws its inspiration from a trip I took with Chen-Hui and some of her family to Xitou, Taiwan, in July 2010.  The composition represents a sonic memory of the first walk we took after arriving at our destination.

The work is broken into two sections; each describes a different scene from this walk.

The first part, approximately one half of the composition, evokes the high mountain forest in Xitou. This begins with rubbing and breath sounds that represent both literal and metaphorical or nostalgic mists, similar to the rubbing sounds in the classical guqin composition Mists over Xiao and Xiang Rivers (瀟湘水雲).   In …after a mountain stream rain, these rubbing mist-like sounds occasionally go along with pitch bends in the same way they would on the guqin.  However, as the music progresses, these mist-like sounds develop new identities such as the winds that precede an afternoon Summer monsoon rain and the scratching of forest locusts.  At the same time as these sonic transformations, pitches begin to arrive and gradually begin to descend and swirl like a pre-sunset rain shower.

The second half evokes a grand view of clouds evaporating and lifting from the edges of the mountains near Xitou.  As the music progresses to the end, the material gradually fades away, resembling both the darkening sky and the scene receding back into memory.

  • If you are interested in hearing more new music for Chinese instruments, Little Giant Chinese Chamber Orchestra’s YouTube channel has an incredibly large collection of videos from their performances. You can also typically find more videos online if you search a composer’s Chinese name.
  • If you are interested in learning more about the guqin, I highly recommend the book The Lore of the Chinese Lute (1938) by Robert H. Van Gulik. This work is so widely appreciated that I’ve even seen Chinese translations of it on sale in Taiwan.
  • Finally, I need to mention that I would not have been able to write this post without the help of my lovely wife, Jen Chen-Hui. She graciously shared some of her research to help me write the parts about Pan Hwang-Long and the Westernization of Chinese instruments. She also gave me advice throughout the writing of this post as well as suggested and helped me track down a number of the online musical examples that I was unable to find on my own.

Classical and Contemporary Cambodian Music and Dance

What happens to a country’s rich classical music after a small group attempts to systematically destroy it?

I have wondered about the answer to this question since I read about how the Khmer Rouge tried to eradicate nearly all of traditional Cambodian culture after taking over the government of Cambodia in 1975.  Thankfully, in the face of this tragedy a number of people dedicated themselves to preserving the Cambodian classical traditions by helping artists escape Cambodia, as well as by learning, teaching, performing, and helping to develop organizations dedicated to preserving the Cambodian arts.

My mentor, Chinary Ung, is one of these people who has devoted much of his life to preserving traditional Cambodian culture.  For nearly ten years, starting in the mid-1970s, Chinary stopped composing to dedicate most of his energy to this task.  It was not until the mid-‘80s, when he was confident that classical Cambodian music was finally safe, that he began to compose again.  After this gap in composing, his compositions from the ‘80s until today all reflect his deep understanding and relationship with the music of Cambodia.

During my doctoral studies at the University of California San Diego, Chinary Ung regularly spoke to me about Cambodian and Southeast Asian music, as well as his thoughts and dreams for its future. Since graduating in 2012, I have been working with and collaborating with him on some of these projects and, recently, I have begun to regularly travel to Cambodia to help work on some of his and my own projects in the country.

I first travelled to Southeast Asia last February for the 2015 Music and Performing Arts International Festival at Burapha University in Chon Buri, Thailand.  A dear friend and another one of Chinary Ung’s former composition students, Koji Nakano, invited me to attend this festival as a guest lecturer as well as a participant in the Asian Young Musicians’ Connection activities.  For the latter, I collaborated with young Thai musicians at Burapha University on a composition for three Thai instruments, two handheld transducers, and live electronics—…spaces to listen to from within (iv)—that was performed during the festival.  During the same festival, Chinary Ung was also present as a featured composer. Chinary gave a keynote lecture and had his work, Spiral XI, performed as part of the AYMC concert.  While at Burapha University, Chinary also led a one-week composition workshop for a small group of young Thai and Cambodian composers.  Three performers prepared the young composers’ works and then presented them to a jury consisting of Chinary and guest composers from throughout the region.  Koji had helped Chinary organize this workshop as part of Chinary’s Nirmita Composers’ Institute (NCI), a mobile institute dedicated to fostering the next generation of Cambodian composers.

Right after the festival in Thailand, I joined Chinary and his wife Susan Ung in Cambodia.  Chinary had invited me to join him for this trip so that I could help him make recordings as well as join him and Susan for some important meetings about the future of music composition and new music in Cambodia.

Before continuing, I would be remiss not to mention the impressions that Thailand and Cambodia left on me.  When I arrived in Thailand, I had expected that it would be far different than anywhere else I had been.  Instead I found that what I saw of Thailand resemble a less developed Taiwan to me.  My wife, who is from Taiwan and joined me on this trip, had a similar impression.   She told me that Thailand reminded her of what Taiwan was like in the ‘80s.  Cambodia, on the other hand, was drastically different than anywhere else I had been before.  Soon after leaving the airport in Phnom Penh, I was struck by a deep disparity between the rich and poor that I had never seen before.  For example, along the streets of Phnom Penh one regularly sees slums and piles of uncollected garbage next door to gated mansions or luxury car dealerships; or across Palace or National Museum, adults and children rags mob tourists begging for money.  I don’t want to go into more details about this disparity here, but many signs of deep economic inequality that I encountered left a strong impact that continues to resonate within me to this day

The day after we arrived in Cambodia, Chinary, Susan, and I attended a concert that the Cambodian composer Him Sophy had arranged in honor of Chinary Ung’s visit.  This concert took place at the Him Sophy School of Music, a private school that Him Sophy founded.  (As an aside, because there are few government institutes for the arts in Cambodia, a number of individuals such as Sophy and Sethisak Khuon have recently founded their own schools and organizations to help with local arts education.)  The concert included performances by the only marching band in Cambodia, a student pianist, and music for a Khmer harp that Sophy had designed after a lost Cambodian instrument, as well as an outstanding performance of traditional Cambodian music featuring one of the few living masters of the roneat ek.  For the last piece of this concert, violist Susan Ung and I performed my work Vanished into the Clouds (雲隠) for viola and live electronics.  Chinary wanted us to perform this piece on the concert because it used technology and had an approach to sound that the Cambodian audience had likely never encountered before.  After the concert, it was obvious that this performance had made a strong impression on many of the audience members as a number of people spoke with Chinary about wanting to combine this new approach with traditional Cambodian music.

On our third day in Cambodia, Chinary, Susan, and I led a three-hour workshop for the members of Cambodian dance troupe Amrita Living Arts.  As Cambodian classical dance and music are traditionally combined as an art form, the Amrita staff members were eager for us to discuss how they could improve the music in their productions.  After a lengthy discussion with the staff and then the troupe members, they then showed us some videos of their previous works so that we could critique the music selections.  Although the music obviously needed more consideration or expertise, we were all struck by the very high quality of the dance work and, in particular, by how all the works meaningfully addressed Cambodian dance traditions and demonstrated thoughtful ways to move these traditions forward and make them relevant for today.

A few days later we met with a number of arts administrators from Cambodia as well as staff from the Cambodian non-governmental organization Cambodia Living Arts to discuss Chinary Ung’s plans and dreams for the Nirmita Composers Institute (NCI).  As I mentioned earlier, the main goal of NCI is to help foster the next generation of composers in Cambodia, as well as to heighten compositional activities throughout all of Southeast Asia.  In the near future, the main project for NCI will be a two-week workshop ­for young Cambodian musicians who either compose Western-based music or perform Cambodian traditional music.  The workshop will include composition and performance faculty from the USA and across Asia and will take place in July in Siem Reap, Cambodia.  The long-term hope is that this workshop will continue annually and that NCI’s activities will broaden to include many other music projects that take place throughout the year as well as throughout Southeast Asia and, eventually, the rest of the world.   One of the main reasons to work on this project is Chinary’s observation that although Cambodian traditional music has been preserved, the music is no longer developing and now more closely resembles a museum rather than a living art.  In our discussions during this meeting, many of the local Cambodians were very excited by Chinary’s project and brought up how in the last decade or so, nearly every other art form besides music has begun to pulse with new creative energy in Cambodia.  The hope among many of the people there was that the Nirmita Composers Institute and our initiative to educate and promote the work of young Cambodian composers and traditional musicians will be able to help music reach the international stage in the same way that other Cambodian art forms and artists have in recent years.

There are multiple cultural sounds in Cambodia that Chinary Ung has wanted to record for many years to use in compositions that include electronics.  As Chinary does not have very much experience with writing for electronics, he has talked about collaborating with me.  When we were in Cambodia, we thankfully had the opportunity to make some of the initial recording for these composition projects.

Two stone idiophones from the National Museum of Cambodia’s collection

Two stone idiophones from the National Museum of Cambodia’s collection.

The first sound that Chinary wanted to record was an ancient percussion instrument that he had seen a number of years before at the National Museum of Cambodia. Chinary had messaged the National Museum’s director a request to record this instrument while we were in Cambodia and, although the director did not give us a response to our request, he arranged for us to meet him in person to discuss our plans. Hopeful that we would get permission, Chinary, Susan, and I showed up early to our appointment at the National Museum with my recording equipment.  While waiting, we also tried to find the instrument that Chinary remembered but, unfortunately, couldn’t locate it.

When we met with the director he was rather enthusiastic about Chinary’s musical ideas and graciously gave us permission to record whatever we wanted to from the museum’s collection.  After we all then toured the museum’s public displays and were again unable to find the desired instrument on display, the director mentioned that they had some ancient “stone bells” in storage that might fit Chinary’s description. When we saw the objects, they were unfortunately also not what Chinary had remembered. However, after we examined and heard them, Chinary, Susan, and I agreed that they would be worth recording and might even be superior to what we had originally sought to record.

Jacob Sudol sitting at a table recording a pair of stone idiophones located underneath the table.

Recording the stone idiophones in the National Museum of Cambodia.

According to the National Museum of Cambodia’s archives, the two stone idiophones (or “stone bells”) had belonged to the museum since it first opened in 1917.  There was no information in the records about when or where the idiophones had been acquired.  Likewise, the staff and archives had no information about their age, what they were originally used for, or whether they were a part of a set of idiophones or isolated instruments.  While there, one of the staff members mentioned that archeologists had recently found a number of similar but smaller stone idiophones in the Cambodian jungle.  He also showed us photos that demonstrated the how the newly found idiophones resembled the ones in the museum’s collection; however, as Cambodia contains a lot of archeological terra nova, it’s hard to group objects together.  Although I’m not an archeologist or an ethnomusicologist, the two stone idiophones we recorded remind me of separate blades from the Chinese bianqing (編磬) or the related Korean pyeongyeong, as well as the descriptions of the lost ancient Chinese stone bells that Confucius wrote about and supposedly played.

One of the stone idiophones was originally broken in two and was recently fixed with a metal bar.  The other idiophone was unbroken and has a remarkably resonant harmonic timbre.  This unbroken idiophone also has a few low pure frequencies that sustain for a very long time after the idiophone is struck.  The timbre of both idiophones also changed significantly depending on where and how loudly I struck them.

Chinary Ung and Yos Chandara with a Cambodian singing kite.

Chinary Ung and Yos Chandara with a Cambodian singing kite. N.B. the blade and reed are attached to the top of the kite.

For over forty years, Chinary Ung had dreamt of recording the sound of Cambodian Singing Kites.  On the last day of my first trip to Cambodia, Chinary worked with the former dean of the Cambodian Royal University of the Arts, Yos Chandara, to arrange a morning where staff from the Khmer Kite Museum would fly three Cambodian singing kites for us in a dry rice field just outside of Phnom Penh.

The sound of the Cambodian singing kites comes from a blade on the kite that houses a long stiff reed that is suspended by a piece of rope on each end.  When the kite is flown, this reed makes sound by spinning at different rates.  The timbre of this reed is rather faint when the kite is flying because of how high one needs to fly the large kites to keep them in the air.  To better capture the sound of the reed, I attached a wireless microphone to the kite itself.  Thankfully, this approach worked and I was able to make very clear recordings of each of the three Cambodian singing kites.  When we were flying the kites, a local Cambodian told Chinary that in Khmer mythology, the gods are said to fly on these kites.  Following this myth, in a sense, we had just recorded what these gods hear when flying.

Since the kites were large and hard to fly, the director of the Khmer Kite Museum removed the blade with the reed from the kite and attached it to a string so that he could spin it around his head.  By doing this, he had much greater control of the tones than one could while the blade was on a flying kite.  This sound of the isolated blade is loud, beautiful, and also very musically expressive.

With gracious funding from a Fulbright East Asia Regional Travel Grant, I returned to Cambodia for a week last November.  For this trip, Amrita Living Arts had invited me to be an International Guest Expert for their Fall 2016 Contemporary Dance Platform in Phnom Penh.  The platform is a recent initiative for dance and theater that provides artists with resources and a period of time to create or refine a new work.  At the end of a platform, the new works are presented publicly.  For the Amrita platform I was invited to participate in, three dancers/choreographers from the Amrita Dance Troupe were each given six weeks to create a new work.  As the guest expert, I went to the first performances of the completed works and then gave a four-hour critique of the works as well as a four-hour workshop on new music to all the dancers/choreographers of Amrita.  Although the dancers are not trained as musicians, I was impressed by how critical, open-minded, and hungry for knowledge they all were.  I was also struck by how much they had learned and absorbed from the brief workshop Chinary, Susan, and I had had with them in February.  Likewise, I was impressed by how Amrita Artistic Director Chey Chankethya had noticed that the music has been one of the weakest components of their productions and was eager to bring in people to help the group’s members improve this.  Since this trip, I have also begun to regularly collaborate with Chey Chankethya.  For example, she has used some of my music in some of her recent dance works that have been performed in Japan and Singapore.  I am also currently discussing other ways I can collaborate with Amrita in the future.  In particular, I want to develop projects where members of Amrita and I can combine dance, music, and live interactive technologies.

While in Cambodia in November, Chinary, Susan, and I also met with staff from Cambodian Living Arts to work on organizing logistics and meet the student participants who will join the aforementioned 2016 Nirmita Composers Workshop.  While we auditioning and meeting with the workshop’s participants, I was particularly struck by how strong and musically talented the traditional Cambodian instrumentalists are.  Although the traditional musicians don’t have experience with writing their own music, I believe that they are much stronger and more creative musicians than the participants who will be studying Western-based composition at the same workshop.  Following this, I’m wondering how we can help to teach traditional Cambodian musicians to move their music forward in a manner similar to what the dancers in Amrita have done.  I’m also wondering how we will be able to help young Cambodian composers advance in ways that composers from other Asian countries such as Thailand, Taiwan, Korea, China, and Japan have.  I’m also hopeful that the young Cambodian composers who mostly write Western-based music will learn from their culture’s strong classical music tradition.  Hopefully, with many people dedicating their time and energy towards projects such as the Nirmita Composers Institute, the answers to these questions will begin to reveal themselves in the near future.

Chinary Ung working with Cambodian musicians in a village outside of Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Chinary Ung working with Cambodian musicians in a village outside of Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Jen Shyu: No More Sequined Dresses

A conversation in Jen Shyu’s Bronx apartment
February 23, 2015—10:00 a.m.
Video presentation and photography (unless otherwise noted) by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu

“The voice has allowed me passage into meeting people from every part of the world,” beamed Jen Shyu when we visited her at her apartment in the Kingsbridge neighborhood of the Bronx. And indeed, she has met people from all over the world—her peregrinations have taken her from Peoria, Illinois (where she was born) to extended stays in San Francisco, Cuba, Brazil, Taiwan, Indonesia, East Timor, China, South Korea—she returned there again for a six-month residency just a couple of days after our talk—and New York City, which has only been her home base since 2004.

Those worldwide travels have also broadened her aesthetic horizons far beyond anything she imagined growing up in the Midwest. It was there where she initially trained to be a concert pianist (she performed the third movement of the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto with the Peoria Symphony Orchestra at the age of 13) and then became obsessed with musical theater (where she developed her passion for singing). She even remembers composing what she described as “Rachmaninoff-ish songs.” But she did not really feel a sense of personal ownership over what she was doing musically until she started exploring jazz, which she still considers the core of what she does musically. As she explained:

Once I tasted that, improvising, it was really hard to go back. … I do feel tied to the continuum—or the tradition—of innovation, and I think jazz is very unique in that way. It’s such a large and dangerous word, but I still feel like what Randy Weston said is that he’s a fan of the music. I still feel like I’ll always be a fan of it—the study and the honoring of those giants, the deep looking inside of it and knowing these musicians, seeking out elders. I feel tied to jazz in that way, and that has inspired a lot of what I do and how I go about doing it.

Admittedly Jen Shyu’s definition of jazz is extremely broad at this point. She was deeply influenced to go in her current music direction through formidable interactions with multi-instrumentalist Francis Wong, a pioneer of the Asian-American jazz movement, and her many years of performing with the omnivorous Steve Coleman in his group Five Elements. It’s a direction that took her from performing standards “wearing very sequiny dresses” to writing her own material and becoming proficient on many traditional East Asian instruments and in many different traditional vocal techniques, including Indonesian sindhen and Korean p’ansori. In fact, her monodrama Solo Rites: Seven Breaths–which incorporates many of the techniques she acquired through her immersive Asian travels and synthesizes them into a fluid whole—is a far cry from what you might usually hear in most jazz venues. However, the mesmerizing performance I heard her give of it took place at The Jazz Gallery, a non-profit space that showcases experimental jazz. But is it still jazz?

That’s where I leave it to you. You tell me. … Then you have to define jazz. That’s such an impossible thing. That whole show, there’s a structure, but … there’s improvisation all the time. And I feel like I’m telling stories of struggle. … I see value in everything and in every musician, and I think that inevitably, if someone feels very strongly about something—maybe they think music should be a certain way or that jazz should be a certain way—I would say, “Yeah, well everyone’s entitled to believe what they believe.” I’m looking at what people’s contributions are: what are they giving musically and energetically to our music? That’s what I’m more concerned with. I try to stay away from things like ownership. I feel like I have very little time on this earth relative to the whole scope of things, so I want to figure out what I am going to contribute.

Shyu’s referencing of “stories of struggle” in her explanation of how even her most musically far-ranging work is still connected to jazz is very telling. Jazz has been the soundtrack of social struggle long before the legislative victories of the civil rights movement, and it is something that all three of the vocalists we spoke with addressed in describing their work.

We all have our way to do it that I think has to be—there’s an Indonesian word called sesuai, which means to match your character. I believe in subtlety. … I don’t use sequined dresses anymore. And I’m playing all these instruments, and singing and writing all the music. That in itself is already a statement.


Pages of Chinese calligraphy in frames on the floor next to a laptop and a few DVDs on a desk

Jen Shyu’s work area is an amalgam of old and new: framed pages of Chinese calligraphy share space with a laptop and DVDs.

Frank J. Oteri: You do tons of different things as a musician, but in the first sentence of your bio you describe yourself as an experimental jazz vocalist. So I wanted to ask what that means to you.

Jen Shyu: Experimental is the first thing, I think. I always will be trying to break down any preconceived notions of anything that I’m supposedly doing. The word jazz is in there because I do feel tied to the continuum—or the tradition—of innovation, and I think jazz is very unique in that way. It’s such a large and dangerous word, but I still feel like what Randy Weston said is that he’s a fan of the music. I still feel like I’ll always be a fan of it—the study and the honoring of those giants, the deep looking inside of it and knowing these musicians, seeking out elders. I feel tied to jazz in that way, and that has inspired a lot of what I do and how I go about doing it. And vocalist? Voice has become my main instrument, even though I think my first love was dance, and it still is a deep love of mine. But I find that the voice has allowed me passage into meeting people from every part of the world. Even if I don’t speak the language yet, if I explain I’m looking for these older songs, then if I sing a little from another culture, then they’ll understand what I’m looking for, just from hearing that. And then they’ll understand, oh, this isn’t just someone wanting something from our culture. There’s a relationship that’s immediately built. I feel like I’m very lucky to have such a tool that can make that connection with people so quickly.

FJO: So many of the things you just said, both about jazz and about being a vocalist, are about tradition: going and gathering stuff from another culture or dealing with elders. But then there’s that word “experimental,” which is the opposite. Those other words are about yesterday, but experimental is about tomorrow. So there’s a pull.

JS: Yes, very true. You would think that they’re diametrically opposed, but for me I feel like we can learn so much from looking at tradition. A lot of traditions are built on necessity and just looking at what’s the best way, what’s the most efficient way that we can do something, while honoring our ancestors. So it’s a beautiful marriage, being innovative but honoring those who came before us and showed us the way. I think they work together very well. For me, to gather the best of those worlds is how I would reach the full potential of who I am as an artist. Also, when I see those qualities in other people’s work, this kind of nod to the future but with deep rootedness in the past, I’m immediately attracted. Whenever I see that relationship in a deep way where it is something new that I haven’t seen before, then that’s my “ooh, I want to work with that artist.” To me it’s very clear when something is coming from a sincere place as opposed to coming from “we’re just trying to get over” place.

FJO: I think we’re now more in a state of détente than we’ve been in quite a while, but over the last 50 years there have often been great tensions between experimental jazz and more straight-ahead approaches, to the point that they’ve felt like warring camps.

JS: I try not to worry too much about that. I’ve met and had wonderful interactions with people from both camps, from different camps that maybe, if they themselves came together, might have these great tensions. I see value in everything and in every musician, and I think that inevitably, if someone feels very strongly about something—maybe they think music should be a certain way or that jazz should be a certain way—I would say, “Yeah, well everyone’s entitled to believe what they believe.” I’m looking at what people’s contributions are: what are they giving musically and energetically to our music? That’s what I’m more concerned with. I try to stay away from things like ownership. I feel like I have very little time on this earth relative to the whole scope of things, so I want to figure out what I am going to contribute. So I have to know where my parents are from. I was born in America, so what does that mean? I’ve been so lucky to have met people like Francis Wong, Jon Jang, Steve Coleman, and Von Freeman. Each of those meetings meant so much to me, to be able to interact—I feel like, wow, if I were able to have met John Coltrane or Charlie Parker, it’s the same weight of meeting someone with such creativity and vision. What if I could have met Bartók, who’s like this kind of shining idol to me? It’s been humbling along my own journey to intersect with these big geniuses in our time. I feel like I’m so lucky to be here.

I’m just focused on the path. Being able to travel and spend long periods of time in other countries exploring my own ancestry, but also going to Korea because I wanted to go. That’s a gift. So I think there’s a way to find peace in all of these supposedly opposing viewpoints. I think everyone ultimately is searching for their own voice and how they will contribute. Human nature is that way, especially when you have very opinionated people. They’re going to feel like things could be in this direction or could go in that direction. But I hope that as long as everyone’s beliefs and music can be allowed to happen and be heard, I think it’ll be okay.

A page of handwritten manuscript and a Bartók score published by Universal Edition are side by side in front of a Boradman upright piano

Jen Shyu keeps some Bartók sheet music alongside an original score at the upright piano in her apartment.

FJO: To take this back to being a vocalist, specifically being a jazz vocalist, that phrase has a special meaning as opposed to another kind of vocalist. So I was wondering what for you distinguishes a jazz approach to singing versus other kinds of approaches to singing.

JS: The deepest study I did of the tradition of jazz improvisation was with Steve Coleman, just sitting at the piano and then listening on repeat to Art Tatum phrases and Charlie Parker phrases and then singing them and then learning them on the piano. Then looking at those small fractions of a second to look at why they did this. “What do you think, Jen? How are you going to build that in there?” And for a long period of time—years—going that deep with other musicians, making music and performing, being tested on the bandstand and being just terrified. In the first year I was just terrified, but knowing, “Well, I’m a performer, so be cool on stage.” Then after a gig, “I didn’t get this, and I didn’t understand this.” Going back and asking Steve, “What was this one? How did this happen?” That constant dialogue of seeking and growing and messing up all the time, but then getting back up—having come from a classical background, making mistakes and errors was such an issue. It was a very different approach to the right and wrong of things. It wasn’t about right and wrong anymore. It was about, “How are you going to improvise out of this and make the best out of whatever just happened?” It was a complete shift for me. Then with the voice, what was interesting was that Steve really didn’t want me to approach singing jazz or whatever, at least in his band, in a normal—I don’t want to say normal, but I guess in a traditional—way. He’s like, “Jen, we’re not going to be the band playing behind you. You’re going to be part of us. And you’re going to know as much information as we do, and you’re going to be free to do whatever you want and not just be out in front.”

FJO: That’s very interesting because you can instantly recognize the voice of the most iconic jazz singers—people like Billie Holliday, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald—and their voice is primarily what people are listening to. But the whole tradition of jazz singing was largely about being the front person, but at the same time usually having less control either of the actual material they sang (in terms of authorship) or how it was arranged. There are gender issues wrapped up with that—the female singer, the male band leader, etc. Somebody who really broke that mold was Abbey Lincoln.

JS: I love Abbey. Again I thank Steve so much for introducing me to Abbey and I’ll never ever forget being at her house. It was me and Steve and then a poet who’s his wife, Patricia. It was just the four of us talking with each other and she was so strong. When we first met, she kissed us all on the lips. She just held me and then kissed me on the lips. I was kind of terrified. But then Steve was like, “Jen, call her. Now you’ve seen her, call her. Just talk to her. It’s not a big deal. Who knows how long she’ll—” and of course, just a few years later, she passed. But I did call her and started to ask her about growing up, what was her time like in Chicago? I’ll never forget—this is a funny anecdote—Steve, when we were at her house, told me to give her my CD. I think I gave her a demo or something of For Now maybe. It was so many years ago. I felt weird about it, but he’s like, “No Jen, give her your CD.” And then Abbey, she’s like, “Oh yeah, I’ll listen to it.” I called her when I was in Chicago, just called her up and we were talking and then I said, “I don’t know if you got to hear my CD or not.” And she’s like, “I’m not listening to your CD. If I were listening to music, I’d be listening to my own music, or just listening to the silence.” I learned a lot from that. The obvious things, you know: here’s a master, don’t be laying your stuff. Of course Steve kind of pushed me, but just to hear her say that was a great lesson for me.

FJO: I think with Abbey, the other layer there is that, whereas I think it would have been really cool to get her reaction to Jade Tongue, the album you gave her is predominantly standards. This is stuff that I think she did incredibly well back when she recorded that stuff in the ‘50s with Max Roach and Julian Priester and those incredible groups. But it’s what she rebelled against. She rejected that material for herself, so why would she listen to you sing it.

JS: Yeah, completely. I got to hear her sing all of her songs at Aaron Davis Hall. I even got to sing one of her songs in an early production of Sekou Sundiata’s 51st Dream State. He wanted me to sing one of her songs. I sang it half in Chinese and half in English. He had me translate it into Mandarin. So she is such a model to me, her phrasing and her technical things also. Steve—because Steve played with her, he was one of her sidemen—was always pointing those out to me. Actually one of the ballads on Jade Tongue, “The Human Color of our Veins,” was totally inspired by Abbey. I was completely channeling her in a way for that song.

CD cover for For Now featuring a picture of Jen Shyu singing into a microphone

Jen Shyu’s first, self-released CD For Now, from 2002 is a collection of eclectically arranged standards.

FJO: There’s a seismic shift between your first album, For Now, and Jade Tongue. Already on For Now, even though you’re doing standards, the arrangements are fascinating and often pretty weird. I was particularly intrigued by what you did with “Lover Man.” It sounds like no other version of that song, but it’s still not your song. And so you went from doing that to doing all your own music. I’m wondering how that transition happened and how gradual it was.

JS: Well, it began before I left for Taiwan and then went to New York. Francis and Steve both really encouraged me to go to Taiwan. I had this instinct that somehow I had to go there, because I was dealing with these folk songs that my dad had given me from my fourth grand auntie. I was already treating them in the Bay Area. I was using sheet music and then just kind of doing arrangements of them, but I knew it wasn’t deep. My own approach to it was just musical; it wasn’t grounded on experience. So Francis was very encouraging when I told him that I needed to go to Taiwan. He’s like, “Yeah, that would be good. I think you should just hang out.” That’s exactly the words he used. Then when I met Steve, he had this project he was doing—the album Lucidarium where he was using a lot of voices. That’s kind of how we met. He was looking for vocalists at the time. I studied at his house for like eight days. Right after that I went to his house in Allentown and starting studying Art Tatum and Charlie Parker. Then he asked me, “What do you want to do?” And I said, “I want to go to Taiwan, but I didn’t get this grant.” It was a grant I’d written, but I didn’t get it, and so I was kind of figuring out what I wanted to do. He said, “Jen, you should just go. Borrow money from your parents and just go. You know, you might get hit by a bus tomorrow. Save up money from whatever jobs you had in San Francisco and just go and you’ll figure it out. If you don’t go, you may as well move to New York, because you’re kind of spinning your wheels here.” He just knew I was. I was kind of still in the jazz singer role. I was wearing the dresses. I had a gig in a restaurant where I was wearing very sequiny dresses. Then Steve told me this story of Abbey Lincoln. She used to wear those dresses, too. She said Max had told her to throw away that dress. So it was like, whoa, that’s so strange that that would parallel what happened.

So I went to Taiwan for two months. I didn’t have keys. I was not homeless, but I didn’t have a place. I had all my stuff. I moved from San Francisco. I dropped everything and went to Taiwan. Then I came back. I did a recording with Steve briefly, and then I went to Cuba, because I was interested in the Chinese diaspora there. Again it was Steve saying, “Yeah, why not. Go to Cuba. Do it.” So I went there, and that is what inspired the piece that ended up on Jade Tongue, the whole suite. I just had a sense that these are stories that needed to be heard. And I wanted to tell them musically and originally.

The cover for Jen Shyu's CD Jade Tongue featuring original abstract art.

Jen Shyu’s 2008 album Jade Tongue is a fascinating synthesis of experimental jazz and traditional Asian music.

But the shift was from working with Steve, starting in 2003. It was like an apprenticeship. It really turned my world upside down, just the work I had to do to sing his music. It changed everything. You can hear a lot of his influence I think in Jade Tongue, in terms of composition. That was 2009, so it was a long period of gestation, taking extra musical things and translating them to music and then using traditional texts. It was all coming together. I think Jade Tongue was this kind of “well, this is all the work I’ve done, let me just put it on a record.” I had started my own band and it was really exciting for me; it felt like a true transformation.

FJO: Now you talk about having the whole world turned upside down, but it was the second time that had happened to you musically, because before you got involved with singing jazz you actually had a classical music background. So you went from performing other people’s music and doing your best never to make a mistake, trying to be totally in control, to doing music where your individual interpretation became the focal point even if it was someone else’s music to, finally, doing your own music.

JS: Oh, and it’s still going Frank. It’s very true. But I’m always thankful for the classical training, starting from ballet, piano, violin—the rigor of practicing four or six hours a day and competing, doing piano competitions and violin competitions. In the classical realm, I think my piano performance excelled the most, so I started to focus on the piano. But at the same, right when I started doing that, I was beginning musical theater. So I was doing shows like A Chorus Line; I was Diana Morales in A Chorus Line.

Right at the time when I was most seriously doing piano, like from eighth grade through junior year of high school, I was with an amazing teacher who was a student of Soulima Stravinsky. My teacher was Roger Shields, this brilliant piano teacher. I was memorizing all the repertoire for the competitions—a Bach toccata and fugue, Chopin barcarolles, Stravinsky etudes. Somehow a year after I started with him, I was playing the third movement of the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto with the Peoria Symphony Orchestra. I think I was 13. I don’t know how I did it, but I was up there playing. So that kind of focus and training has prepared me for a lot that I don’t even realize because I was young.

But I didn’t improvise at all when I was that age. My only improvising came from singing. When I began musical theater and getting obsessed with musicals, I would sing in the garage. When no one was home, I would sing Natalie Cole, that famous arrangement with her father, “Unforgettable.” I would just imitate it and try to get that voice. I felt there was something magical and fun here that was so different from the rigor of piano and all of that. Being on the stage doing shows was like the liberation for me, so different from performing and competing in this context of I had to get this right. So it was all this stuff happening. Then when I went to college, I started focusing on opera. On opera! So it was like taking the voice and becoming like, let’s train it in the Western classical way, which was what I’d done with ballet and piano and violin. I was just following that track. I trained with Jennifer Lane, an amazing voice teacher at Stanford who was molding me into an opera singer—the breathing and the control, the technique, we really got into the nitty-gritty of that.

But voice was the fun thing. So entering into jazz via the voice was kind of a natural thing. That’s what got me out of the classical realm. Once I tasted that, improvising, it was really hard to go back.

FJO: So all the time you were doing classical music, no one ever suggested or it never occurred to you that you could write your own music?

JS: No one pushed me. My parents weren’t artists. My dad was an engineer. My mom was a librarian. And they loved classical music. That’s kind of all that they knew about. My teacher at the time, and we’ve talked a lot since then, what he feels as a piano teacher is that when he’s training these young artists to do competitions, the pressure is so high on him from the parents. You know, my child has to achieve this and this. So there’s no room or time for pedagogy to develop with improvisation and composition. There’s just no time, if he’s on that pressure to schedule—O.K., now she has to memorize the complete Bach preludes and fugues.

But I did start writing, I think at the end of high school, these romantic, Rachmaninoff-ish songs, art songs in English, but very little. I can really think of only a few pieces. Then I started writing a little more at Stanford when I was in composition class. But I felt like it wasn’t a natural thing for me. I felt like a performer. I was a technician. My training was so much of that, execution and delivering of the song or the material. I kind of regret that I didn’t take a second to really write my own things, but I guess I’m making up for it now.

FJO: You’ve definitely more than made up for it. But the other part of the whole equation for you is that while you said your parents loved classical music even though they didn’t have a musical background, the music you’re talking about is Western classical music.

JS: Yes.

FJO: But such a fundamental part of your mature musical identity has involved incorporating elements of traditional Asian music. Not just music from your own particular background—Taiwanese and Timorese music—but also material from mainland China, Korea, all of this. Did you grow up hearing any Chinese music?

JS: No, very little, and what I heard of it was very commercialized, what you’d hear in, you know, ding ding ding-ding-ding. It was kind of comical what we heard. We’d hear it at gatherings of the few Asian families that were in Peoria. We would gather for Chinese New Year and have dinner, and then they’d play this stuff on the speakers. I couldn’t stand it, and at that age I had no interest. To me it was all about the great Western composers. My interest in that stuff began in the Bay Area with Francis and Jon and all the amazing artists that I met there. They were nudging me to check out some of this music. Then I heard things on recordings that I’d never heard before. I was at Amoeba Records in San Francisco and I found this French label had released this Aboriginal Taiwanese music, the indigenous music from Taiwan. I’d never heard it. And I listened to it and it was like, “Oh my God, it sounds like African music. This sounds like these chants that I had begun to learn of the Santeria. Santeria, which is in the Lucumi language, sounded so much closer to that than any of this “Chinese music” that I’d heard.

So I wanted to understand where that came from. I was determined from that point on. There’s a lot I don’t know about music in Asia. And I naturally was drawn to this stuff that I’d never heard before and that is not played in the States. People don’t know about it, so I’ve been on a mission to not just learn the music on a surface level, but to understand where it came from. What does Taiwanese indigenous music have to do with the Ainu people in Japan? What about Malaysia or the Philippines, or the Austronesian migration? It gets much more difficult to trace. It’s impossible to say Chinese music. You’ve got thousands of different ethnic tribes and you’ve got all these different dialects. And then, okay, let’s go to Indonesia. Oh my God, there are hundreds of different kinds of music in this archipelago. It’s so much bigger and I feel like a mission for me, or it’s my duty having been born here and having that advantage of English as my native tongue. I feel like I have to be that bridge. There are a lot of things that I’ve dealt with, like racism as a child, that I just knew this is because people don’t have exposure to these other people, and I have to break all of that. Every stereotype. I just feel like it’s my job to do that.

Jen Shyu singing and ribbing a brass bowl in an outdoor ceremony .

Jen Shyu performing in Indonesia. (Photo by Ganug Nugroho.)

FJO: In terms of how this mission connects to jazz, jazz has always been this music that combats social injustice, even before the civil rights movement, Ellington, and even Louis Armstrong—Benny Goodman playing with an integrated band, Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit” which is about a lynching. And then in the 1960s things like Max Roach’s We Insist, Freedom Now Suite, which Abbey Lincoln was such an important part of. This is extremely visceral music that serves as a powerful reminder of the injustices that were wrought upon the African-American community in the USA. But other groups have stories to tell through this music as well. There have now been two generations of Asian-American jazz musicians—Francis Wong, whom you worked with, and the late Fred Ho, who was based here in New York for many years—making very charged political music that speaks to these issues. How central is the politics to your music?

JS: It’s a question that’s always in the forefront of my mind. I myself am kind of turned off when someone’s yelling at me to do this or think that way. I think there are ways to address these issues in a way that is not—oh, how do I say this? I think even doing what I’m doing oftentimes is already a political statement. But I feel like the power of just doing and being oftentimes does more, and it affects people more and they want to listen. So, for instance, a song that I have recently been writing and performing, part of it is I’m interpreting a traditional song from East Timor, at the beginning and at the end, so they’re kind of the bookends of the piece. Then inside are my own lyrics. It was inspired a little by Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, and I guess it is kind of a protest song.

I wanted a beautiful melody, then inside is a text that’s quite violent. At the end are actual testimonies of women who were raped by the Indonesian military. These women were reporting back as part of this commission report that was made. But I think it’s beautiful. And so I believe people will want to hear it. It’s a statement. I’m not telling people what to do; it’s more like it’s just their testimony.

Everything that we do should have meaning. Fred had told me, “Jen, your music should be revolutionary.” Fred told me a lot of things and I didn’t agree with everything. I miss him because he was so strong about what he stood for and I loved that. We had a meeting once where it was just like “I’m going to tell you about the music in the street,” things that I’d never talked so openly about before. So I appreciate that. Let me tell you, I’m constantly grappling. I still get mistaken for being some of my Asian colleagues, like Linda Oh. Someone had said, “Oh, your bass playing is so wonderful.” I’m like, “Oh, I’m not Linda Oh.” He’s like, “You’re not?” and just ran away. I get it all the time, I mean all the time, and from people who really should know. Again, I’m not accusing anyone, but it’s just very clear we have a lot more work to do. As a female artist and an Asian artist, it all means something. I don’t talk about it a lot, but it’s in all my work.

We all have our way to do it that I think has to be—there’s an Indonesian word called sesuai, which means to match your character. I believe in subtlety. I think that song is pretty strong and graphic, but I still think it’s beautiful and that it will be something people will want to hear. That’s why I love Joni Mitchell. I think there’s the balance there that is necessary. I mean for me, it’s there. But I also think that just the way I perform or now, you know, I don’t use sequined dresses anymore. And I’m playing all these instruments, and singing and writing all the music. That in itself is already a statement.

A traditional four-string Chinese moon lute

This yueqin, a four-stringed Chinese moon lute, is one of many traditional Asian instruments in Jen Shyu’s apartment.

FJO: There are a couple of other pieces that I heard of yours that went toward that direction like Inner Chapters, but your solo piece in which you play all these instruments—Solo Rites: Seven Breaths—is the furthest away from jazz of anything you’ve done. It’s the furthest away from wearing that sequined dress and singing “Lover Boy” that I can imagine. So is it still jazz?

JS: Well, that’s where I leave it to you. You tell me. Someone asked me, “Are you trying to redefine?” I believe that I’m always trying to redefine anything I do, but it’s not for the sake of just doing it. It’s more like I’m trying to find the fullest expression of me. There are so many stories. It was almost three years that I was out in Indonesia and there’s so much transformation that occurred. Then you have to define jazz. That’s such an impossible thing. I mean you have to start telling the whole story. But I feel like if you’re looking at improvisation, that whole show, I mean there’s a structure, but every moment I’m dealing with the lighting. I’m dealing with the sound. I’m dealing with what I hear from the audience. So there’s improvisation all the time. And I feel like I’m telling stories of struggle. I’m channeling these different characters.

Jen Shyu, wearing a traditional white Asian dress and a red scarf sitting on the stage surrounded by a moon lute and a zither singing and making hand gestures

Jen Shyu performing Solo Rites: Seven Breaths at Roulette in 2014. (Photo by Steven Schreiber.)

Whatever you want to call it, I think the essence of it is not just jazz at all. There are traditions that I’m quoting directly from sometimes. But also in my own compositions, just embedded inside the music and my arrangements, are qualities from these other traditions that I’ve been inside of. So, again, because I wrote Seven Breaths over such a long period of time, when I worked with the director Garin Nugroho to put it all together it was more like a summation. Let’s find an order. He found order very intuitively by looking at all my field work, and that’s where the structure came from.

He’s a wonderful director. He’s a filmmaker primarily. I told you about finding people’s work that magically and beautifully melded the modern and the traditional. When I saw his film Opera Jawa, that’s exactly what I felt. I was like, “I have to find him.” So I asked him to direct this piece and it was the first time he directed a solo show, one performer. When we were sitting there, he said, “Okay, Jen, this is the first structure.” I came up with the breaths part, but he came up with seven.

Starting in East Timor, then Java, Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, and then Korea, back to Indonesia, but [this time] Kalimanthan, which is where I did some fieldwork. Then East Timor again. Returning home, then kind of having a nowhere world, a nowhere zone. We were trying to lose all culture. Each world had a message: East Timor was departing home. In Java, I was really interested in the oppression of women that I experienced when I was there. Not me, but seeing all my friends who were Javanese women. Overall I felt that a woman is behind the husband; she gives up everything, even if she was a great artist she gives up everything to support the husband. It’s very normal there. But some women were not happy with that arrangement, so I was addressing that.

FJO: In terms of definitions, I didn’t know until this morning that you had studied opera. It’s interesting that you also call the work an opera because that’s another loaded word, maybe even more so than jazz, or—even more complicated—jazz opera. What does that mean?

JS: I know. Well opera, I’m still grappling with this word. Now that I’m starting to tour it, and people are like, “Well, what is it?” Most recently, I called it a solo music drama. But I like opera because the focus is the voice. The voice is what ties everything together. So, that was in my mind. That’s how I think of opera—the voice is the main message giver. But just in this sense. I’m not singing like a Western classical opera singer, which I was trained in, but then you go to Java and it’s their version of classical singing, which is different though in some ways, there’s some overlap. Then in Korea, pansori, you know, actually that’s more folk music to them. But it’s an opera in that it’s dramatic, playing all these roles. In Korea they have fully staged versions of pansori which I’ve seen. Instead of having just one character, they have a whole cast playing all the characters. But again, I’m not so interested in the hard and fast definitions. If I’m concerned with making something new, then that’s fine. Those things will have to somehow be lost anyway. But jazz opera—maybe you can come up with a better word. I just make this stuff, so I’m still experimenting with this label.

Jen Shyu singing and playing a moon lute on an outdoor stage in a park.

Jen Shyu performing in South Korea. (Photo by Thitipol Kanteewong.)

FJO: There’s one other thing that I would hate not to talk about because it’s just such a great album, your duo Synastry with Mark Dresser. What’s so wonderful about it is that it’s just the two of you and it’s really exposed. That’s another thing that’s been an undercurrent tradition in terms of jazz vocal albums where somebody works with one musician. You know, Ella Fitzgerald with Joe Pass, Tony Bennett with Bill Evans, but perhaps more to the point, in terms of its relationship to this record, are all the voice and bass duets that Sheila Jordan has done. Was her work in any way an inspiration for what you and Mark did?

The CD cover for Synastry featuring original abstract artwork

On Synastry, a duo album by Jen Shyu and Mark Dresser released on PI in 2011, the voice and double bass are equal partners.

JS: Not directly with this album, but I love Sheila and the fact that I can email her and we have contact is amazing. It’s a blessing to me. But this project was more an idea that Mark and I just came up with. We were at the International Society of Improvised Music, ISIM, in 2008 when I was singing with Steve Coleman. We met, and then we thought let’s just have a session. Let’s improvise together, and we did. I think we rehearsed at Cornelia Street [Café] for the first time, and then we just kept meeting up. If he was in New York, or if I was in San Diego or L.A., we would do a gig. And we both realized that it was very full, even though it was just two of us. You know, I was always doing movement, and his sound is already a whole world. That was very easy for me to step into. And we had this material that was all our own compositions.

FJO: And I do think you’re again engaging with redefining things. Most people, when they hear a singer and an instrumentalist, will probably hear the singer above whomever the singer’s singing with. You were talking before about Javanese classical singing which is unusual in that singers are often in the background and are just one of many layers; their voices are not supposed to be foregrounded. But in pretty much any other musical tradition I can think of, if there’s a singer, the singer’s out front. So you think, “O.K. Jen Shyu with Mark Dresser.” But it wasn’t singer and accompanist. It really was a duo in the full sense of the word. You were equal partners and that’s what makes it so musically compelling.

JS: Well, he’s a melodicist. I mean, big time. He’s just lower. And then he’s got those harmonics that he uses, so it was this world that I was just dancing around. In terms of melody, I never felt like he was just supporting me. I felt like we were completely just having this conversation and always discovering.

FJO: In terms of your output thus far, it’s sort of a left turn. You had this progression from singing standards to being a sideperson for Steve Coleman to creating music for your own group to doing an immersive solo performance piece that explores other cultures. That path seemed like a linear developmental trajectory, but this duo was something else entirely, at least to my ears. So are there going to be other turns in the road? Two years from now, might you be singing standards again somewhere, or doing another duo with somebody. Are all of these still options on the table or do you have a clear direction of where you want to go and so you’ll just follow that?

JS: Well, it’s funny you say that. There is probably a record coming out that I’m a sidewoman on and there are some standards on it. I feel like it’s all related. The thing with Mark really came out of my relationship with Mark as an artist. I feel it is part of the path. As humans, we have so many different aspects.

My newest album is Sounds and Cries of the World. Right now that’s the title. I think that’s going to end up being the title. It really was a culmination. A lot of material is from Solo Rites, but with the band. It was a whole other thing, and for me such a great joy. Wow, I don’t even know how to define it; it’s just getting into this other realm of sound that I believe exists. A lot of those songs came out of dreams that I had when I was in East Timor, very strange, oftentimes scary dreams. They’re laden with everything I absorbed from my travels, especially the last three years.

I do a lot of things. There’s a duo with Ben Monder as well. We haven’t recorded anything, but we will, I think. It’s about these radiant people that I’m able to share these moments with. I love Mat Maneri, too, so he’s been in a lot of my recent projects. I’m drawn toward certain artists. I’m just following the music and the imagined music—I’m following that as well.

A two-stringed moon lute resting horizontally on the floor next to a rug and a puzzle.

A two-stringed Taiwanese moon lute, another one of the many traditional Asian instruments in Jen Shyu’s apartment.

Read conversations with two other extraordinary vocalists:
Sheila Jordan: Music Saved My Life
Fay Victor: Opening Other Doors

Psychedelic Citizenship: Jimi Hendrix as Tone Poet

JSAM Jimi Hendrix

The year 2014 marked the 200th anniversary of the Star-Spangled Banner, celebrated by the projects of Star-Spangled Music, an educational initiative established by scholars, musicians, and teachers. University of Michigan professor Mark Clague led the project and has also taken a musicological approach to the national anthem in his research, investigating its history as re-imagined by Jimi Hendrix. This article was published in the November 2014 issue of the Journal of the Society for American Music, and has been generously made available to the public by Cambridge University Press. Below, Professor Clague has also provided a brief explanation of his scholarly findings.

READ: “This Is America”: Jimi Hendrix’s Star Spangled Banner Journey as Psychedelic Citizenship (full text)

Psychedelic guitarist, singer, songwriter, and composer Jimi Hendrix (re)-introduced himself to America at the Monterey International Pop Music Festival on June 18, 1967. Having lost a coin toss, Hendrix was forced to perform immediately after the U.K’s The Who and their ecstatic, instrument-smashing rendition of “My Generation.” Guitarist Pete Townshend brought their performance to a violent climax by swinging his “axe” against the band’s amplifier stacks while smoke bombs flashed. Drummer Keith Moon kicked his set to the stage floor, even as he continued to pound away on the toms that remained while frantic stagehands rushed to save expensive microphones from destruction.

Not to be outdone for outrageousness, Hendrix brought his own hyperbolic performance to a close by suggestively squirting lighter fluid onto his guitar and lighting it aflame. He slammed the burning instrument against the stage and finally tossed the fingerboard of the demolished guitar into the audience. Take that, Townshend!

Such antics made Hendrix a media sensation, yet this celebration of the psychedelic showman is simultaneously a dismissal of his work as an artist. Jimi’s drugged-out, purple-haze persona easily overshadows Hendrix as composer or political thinker. Yet Hendrix was both of these. As an artist, Jimi found more during his 1967 sojourn to London than fame, validation, and band mates Noel Redding (bass) along with Mitch Mitchell (drums). Looking from Europe back across the Atlantic, Hendrix saw his own country anew; he saw a United States torn by racism and war in Vietnam, but also a nation in which music inspired activism. This transnational perspective galvanized a shift in Hendrix’s own artistic consciousness.

At Monterey, Hendrix’s set his guitar on fire as a blazing coda to his rendition of the English rock anthem “Wild Thing.” Today many might hear the title as descriptive of Hendrix himself, but it was fitting tribute to Jimi’s time abroad. “Wild Thing” had topped the Billboard charts in 1966 as recorded by the English band The Troggs. Yet “Wild Thing” was written by New Yorker Chip Taylor (James Voight) and first recorded by an American band—John Christopher and The Wild Ones. Thus Jimi’s cryptic preamble proclaiming the song to be “the English and American combined anthems together” signifies more than just stage banter; Hendrix was making a claim that music could comment on national identity.

Hendrix introduced no fewer than four songs—“Wild Thing,” “Purple Haze, “Voodoo Child (Slight Return),” and of course “The Star-Spangled Banner” as national anthems of one sort or another. It’s not too much to claim that during the final two years of his life, Hendrix was fixated on anthems, both musically and socially. In music, Hendrix explored his own identity, especially as an American citizen.

Hendrix’s “Woodstock Banner” is among the most iconic moments of rock history—a symbol of the art’s social and political potential. Fans consider Hendrix’s rendition history’s most profound recitation of Francis Scott Key’s anthem; others hear the “Woodstock Banner” as the most infamous. As I argue in the Journal of the Society for American Music, it is both and more. Jimi Hendrix’s played “The Star-Spangled Banner” more than sixty times and, in fact, the “Woodstock Banner” marks just the midpoint in the guitarist’s two-year fascination with Key’s song. Hendrix began playing the United States national anthem at Merriweather Post Pavilion on August 16, 1968, and this obsession ends only with the guitarist’s death in 1970, not long after five performances that July.

Rather than an ecstatic, singular improvisation, Hendrix’s “Woodstock Banner” is a pre-composed tone poem, arranged over the previous year through a series of musical explorations that range from a multi-tracked patriotic fireworks display to a six-minute dystopian tone poem as national portrait titled “This Is America.” Just one of four powerful Winterland Ballroom anthems from October 1968, “This Is America” features free improvisation, rock riffs, squealing cries, and violent feedback-strewn pictorialisms of the words “bombs bursting in air”—today better known from the Woodstock version.

At other anthem performances Hendrix incorporated quotations from popular TV shows such as Bonanza, The Mickey Mouse Club, and the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports. The Civil War eulogy “Taps” had further become a main ingredient of Hendrix’s musical commentary. In fact, Hendrix’s interest in the anthem melody seems to begin as framing for this bugle call that honors the fallen. With war in Vietnam and battles for civil rights at home, there were all too many heroes that Hendrix might have intended to memorialize, from Martin Luther King to his former comrades then fighting in Vietnam as members of the Army’s 101st Airborne.

Hendrix saw the Woodstock Festival as a hopeful demonstration of the political potential not only of music, but of America’s youth (that is, his fans). At Woodstock, Hendrix’s anthem was the first of a series of encores that thanked his fans for their attention and applause, certainly, but also for their spirit of community—a revolution that could change the nation and the world.

In its strains of protest, the “Woodstock Banner” stares unflinchingly at violence and discrimination—things that must be changed to realize Key’s lyrical vision of a “land of the free.” In its patriotic sentiment, however, the “Woodstock Banner” offers Hendrix’s own vision of a nation made manifest though psychedelic fellowship. The “Hendrix Banner” is thus less a thing in itself than a musical process of community formation through social commentary. For Hendrix, “anthem” was not a noun, but a verb—a song in motion.

Mark Clague

Mark Clague is an associate professor of Musicology, Afro-American and African Studies, and American Culture at the University of Michigan. His article “ ‘This Is America’: Jimi Hendrix’s Star Spangled Journey as Psychedelic Citizenship appears in the Journal of the Society for American Music (fall 2014) Volume 8, Number 4, pp. 435–78.

He is the producer of the recent recording project Poets & Patriots: A Tuneful History of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and editor of an anthem history website and its associated YouTube channel.