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Were it not for the rapid spread of the Omicron variant of COVID-19, last week would have been the 10th anniversary season of PROTOTYPE, a festival held in New York City each January devoted to boundary-pushing new opera and music theater. One of the highlights of this year’s offerings was to have been The Book of Mountains and Seas, a collaboration between Chinese American composer Huang Ruo and experimental puppeteer Basil Twist. I was so excited to see and hear this work, especially after being so deeply moved by Huang Ruo’s hour-long string quartet A Dust in Time which the San Francisco-based Del Sol String Quartet premiered online in October 2020 as the virus raged around the world. (In October 2021, Bright Shiny Things issued Del Sol’s recording of A Dust in Time on a CD that is packaged with a coloring book of Tibetan mandalas which listeners are encouraged to color in as they listen to the music.)
So in late December, I talked with Huang Ruo about A Dust in Time, The Book of Mountains and Seas, and many other works of his. No matter what he composes, whether it’s a bona fide opera or an instrumental work for a chamber ensemble, there is usually some kind of visual stimulation and often an element of theater involved in the performance. For Huang Ruo, music–like theater–exists in a four-dimensional space, which is why it is often difficult to capture his work in a merely two-dimensional medium like, say, most CD recordings. In fact, in one of his most intriguing creations, Sound of Hand, the solo percussionist barely produces an audible sound.
In our conversation, Huang Ruo remembered telling David Schotzko, the percussionist for whom the piece was originally written, “I want to approach it like a Chinese medicine. I want to give you this piece; clean out all your right or wrongs in your system. Just to rebuild you, from nothing to something. From bottom up. So then I created this piece, I want a piece to have the hand, just as the instrument, without holding anything. The hand itself could be the skin of the drum. The cymbal. The surface of a percussion instrument. Sometimes they are moving in the air. People might not hear anything, but they could see everything. It is a performance art piece. It is not just a piece for solo percussionist. … A dancer could do it. A regular person, they could see the score, they could learn it almost like Tai Chi, like a Kung Fu piece. I hope this piece could help people to build their own being, mental and also physical.”
There is a larger purpose in most of Huang Ruo’s work. His recent Angel Island Oratorio is based on poems that were scrawled on the walls by East Asian detainees in the immigration processing center located on this San Francisco island which is the antithesis of Ellis Island and all the myths we’ve been taught of how welcoming the United States has been to immigrants. His 2014 opera An American Solider, which he created with playwright David Henry Hwang, was based on the true story of Private Danny Chen, who committed suicide in Afghanistan after being harassed and beaten by his fellow soldiers for being Asian. The Sonic Great Wall, which was a joint commission from Ensemble Modern, Asko Schoenberg, and London Sinfonietta, shatters the fourth wall between performers and the audience.
There was so much to talk about with him and our conversation all in all lasted an unwieldy hour and a half! But since the performances of The Book of Mountains and Seas have been postponed until next year, we decided to save the portion of our conversation about that piece for a later date. There is still so much material in the hour we are presenting here which we hope will be inspiring to read and or listen to during these unfortunately ongoing precarious times.
According to Huang Ruo, “We need to learn to live with challenges, including this ongoing pandemic. One thing for sure, art and music should continue and should find its own way to be shared, to be created. And of course, doing it online. … We all need to connect, but also we need to be safely distancing ourselves. Now, yes, physically performer and audience might need to be distancing, just for safety reason, health reason. However, the main idea, why we exist, why we create art, why art exists, thousands of years, even until we are long gone, I believe this idea will still be there, is to be shared, to connect, to connect people, to share with people. And that’s the joy, the tears, that’s the laughter. That’s why we feel the burning of the art. I believe that no matter what, that will still be felt, and still carry on. If we are persistently looking, searching, and thinking, we will find a good way to create that.”
Listening to a CD will give you two-dimensional space, instead of four, when you really see a theatrical performance.
One big lesson I learned during the pandemic is accepting our fate. Accepting where we are, but also learning how to let go of the things we might have to lose.
The only way we can learn not to repeat the same mistake is by really learning what happened in the past.
A critic who came to review our opera wrote that both David and I created this very bombastically anti-American work. ... It was absolutely not our intention to create division.
Each character has their own dilemma, has their own duty to be bound to. It's not just easily black and white, who is right or who is wrong. To me, opera should tell a story more complex than that to let audiences reflect and to think. To find their own answer.
The true meaning of revolution is not about just being successful, but about keep trying.
I believe everything happens in our life for a reason.
To me the idea is to use music to bring down the barrier of what the physical wall normally is.
I think we need to learn to live with challenges, including this ongoing pandemic.
Why we exist, why we create art, why art exists, thousands of years, even until we are long gone, I believe this idea will still be there, is to be shared, to connect, to connect people, to share with people. And that's the joy, the tears, that's the laughter. That's why we feel the burning of the art. I believe that no matter what, that will still be felt, and still carry on. If we are persistently looking, searching, and thinking, we will find a good way to create that.
It’s hard to believe that our sit-down talk with composer, flutist, and vocalist Nathalie Joachim was a mere 23 days ago. So much has changed in the world for everyone. I imagine that many of us have now spent weeks sheltering in place—if we have been lucky—in our own homes with no foreseeable end in sight in order to protect ourselves and each other from the further spread of a deadly pandemic that has already claimed thousands of lives around the globe.
But I have to remain confident and believe that Nathalie’s exuberant, forward-looking attitude about music-making and her inspiring comments about how she came to follow her creative path still represent our collective future. It’s something I believed about her music the first time I encountered the debut album of Flutronix, her duo with Allison Loggins-Hull, nearly a decade ago which I then described as “a strong case for a post-stylistic, post all-powerful-single-auteur-driven music, one that allows multiple voices to share in the shaping of a music that is equally indebted to and comfortable in several musical lineages.”
At that time, and in fact until our conversation on March 7, I had no idea how Nathalie and Allison met or how they decided to make music together. It was fascinating to find out that they actually discovered each other via MySpace and that when they finally met in person they immediately decided to collaborate.
“So that day Flutronix was born,” Nathalie remembered. “Our rapport with one another was super natural. Not supernatural, but it was very natural! We just sort of hit it off. Sometimes you just meet your people and you know. And Allison was that for me. We just shared that instinct. Immediately we were like, ‘Alright, well there’s no music for two flutes and electronics or two flutes and beats. Who’s writing that music?’ Right away, we were like: ‘Alright, we better get to work, because if we’re going to play some concerts, we need some music to play.’ We started writing music right away.”
It was a sea-change from Nathalie’s experience as a classical flutist studying at Juilliard.
“If you’re a performer, it becomes a little bit harder for you to engage as a composer at this school,” she explained. “That wasn’t something that I could do within the curriculum, because I would have had to formally audition to do that. And up to that point, it had never even occurred to me to call myself a composer, even though I was experimenting with writing music. I had a deep interest in exploring different styles. I was doing a lot of song writing with my grandmother, but unless I could formally present someone with a score of mine, I just wasn’t going to be studying composition at that school, at that level. Not to mention the fact that the people who claimed that title of composer did not look like me, did not live like me, and did not write the music that was coming into my brain.”
Still, she concedes that her time at Juilliard, which began in her childhood as a student in the Music Advancement Program through the Pre-Collegiate Program and progressed through her undergrad years, has provided her foundation as a musician. No matter what genre of music she finds herself involved with (or, more to the point, what genre other people might assign to her), she acknowledged that her in-depth study of classical music “informs my understanding of every other musical style that I engage in.”
In fact, she confessed that at one point in her career an internal “obligation … to the classical world” she was feeling led her to question whether the music she was engaged in was “serious” enough. At the same time these thoughts were tugging at her, she received an email out of the blue from Lisa Kaplan from Eighth Blackbird asking her if she’d be interested in auditioning to be a member of that celebrated contemporary music ensemble. Although she was just beginning to receive commissions to compose works for other musicians and Flutronix continued to be an important focus in her musical life, she auditioned, got the gig, and moved to Chicago.
“It was an incredible experience,” she said. “But for me it was very challenging. … I was the only one who came to the group with this kind of band identity with Flutronix, if we’ll call it that. My sort of alter ego. And I’ve got this composition work that’s starting to brew and I come with this different music education background, but I also was so challenged right away with touring; you kick up with what that schedule is. Everybody else in the group, when we weren’t on tour, they were home with their families, taking a rest. Not that anyone’s taking it easy in that group, but I was just fitting in these other parts of my career in the midst of that. So I was ridiculously busy. I almost was never at home when everyone else was at home. I was really working constantly around the clock to succeed in all of these other ways. I think I didn’t realize how much everything else would take off at the same time that I joined the group.”
During her last two years with 8bb, Nathalie began developing Famn d’Ayiti, her most significant musical undertaking to date. A celebration of her Haitian heritage, this song-cycle cum sonic documentary cum concept album ties together multiple strains of her composite musical identity, merging her classical training, her singing traditional folksongs with her grandmother, and even her early explorations of audio production and sound design. It received rave review from “classical” music critics and even managed to fetch a Grammy nomination in the “World Music” category.
“It was interesting to have ended up in a category that I think no one else saw me popping up in,” she admitted. “I’m committed at this point in my life to making music that is true to me. And so I’m happy for it fall into whatever box it needs to.”
Not to date myself, but I happened to be on MySpace when I was in my first year of grad school at the New School.
There’s no book that you’ve read and there’s no piece that gets printed in the newspaper that doesn’t also have an editorial eye that’s not the writer’s.
I was allowed go to Tower Records and to Ollie’s, which used to be an old Chinese restaurant, and Barnes and Noble.
When I first arrived at Juilliard, I knew very clearly in my mind that I did not want to be an orchestral musician.
The people who claimed that title of composer did not look like me, did not live like me, and did not write the music that was coming into my brain.
My family in Haiti was often like: It’s strange that anybody even pays you to make music. We all make music. Everybody makes music. That can’t actually be your job. It’s just who we are.
We felt it was important for us to lean into more of a commercial side or pop side of what we were doing, because at that time we were still getting this questioning eye from classical corners.
I had this piece of my brain tugging at me that’s like: Are you a serious musician still?... Right at that moment, in my inbox comes this email from Lisa Kaplan of Eighth Blackbird asking me to audition...
I gained a lot of respect for composers.... What piqued my interest most was this opportunity to engage with other artists in a different way.
It’s not really about the finished product. The premiere of the work is the beginning of the life of the work.
In America we seem to be absurdly attached to needing something to fit into a box.
So much of my career has been spent in classical music, so it was interesting to have ended up in a category that I think no one else saw me popping up in.
Towards the end of our hour with Nathalie, we talked about what was to be the next live performance of Famn d’Ayiti at the extraordinary Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee, where she was also scheduled to appear on a panel about defying genre, organized and moderated by New Music USA’s own Vanessa Reed. Obviously neither of those events happened, since the 2020 Big Ears Festival was one of the many casualties of the waves of cancellations that hit the performing arts community in the past few weeks. Nevertheless, we decided to include that part of the conversation after a section break at the very end of this transcript to reflect on what might have been and what we must continue to hope will be again after we get past the current hiatus in all of our lives.
On September 1, 2018, we lost a true musical giant, innovator, NEA Jazz Master, and a warrior for the elevation of African-American pride and culture. His compositions disseminating the richness and beauty of the African aesthetic are unparalleled.
Randy Weston was born during an era of extreme racism, segregation, and discrimination in the United States. His life’s mission was one of unfolding the curtain that concealed the wonderful greatness and extraordinary accomplishments inherent on the African continent.
I am super blessed and honored to have been a member of Randy’s band for 38 years. Baba Randy was a spiritual father and mentor for myself, and so many people. Our last public performances were in Rome and Nice in July, with Billy Harper on tenor sax, Alex Blake on bass, Neil Clarke on percussion, and myself on alto saxophone and flute.
I will always remember Weston’s extreme kindness and generosity. My first four impressions of him revealed who he was and what he cherished:
The first time I ever heard Randy Weston perform live was at The East in Bed-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, in the early 1970s. His band was a duo with his son Azzedin on African percussion. The communication and symmetry of father and son were beyond belief. This was a clear demonstration of his love for and mentorship of his children. I also remember Randy inviting the great James Spaulding to sit in on flute.
In the late 1970s, I performed with the legendary South African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim at Ornette Coleman’s Artist House Loft in Soho, New York City. Randy attended this show with his father Frank Edward Weston and his manager Colette. I witnessed first-hand his profound love, respect, and reverence for the elders and his admiration for other musicians especially from the continent of Africa.
Also in the late 1970s, I had my first opportunity to perform with Randy. It was at a fundraiser in support of the South West African People’s Organization, which fought against apartheid in South Africa. This was yet another demonstration of his commitment to the struggle for civil and human rights worldwide.
Then during the summer of 1980, I was overjoyed by having my first hired performance with Randy and his African Rhythms group at the House Of The Lord Church in Brooklyn, which again displayed his support and commitment to keep jazz alive in the black community and his in-depth love for the African-American church.
Much more recently, when my mom Lois Marie Rhynie passed in 2014, there was a last-minute issue with the church piano. Weston paid for the rental of a beautiful baby grand and performed gratis.
My last visit to Randy’s place in Brooklyn was on August 18, 2018. He was so happy and energetic. Coincidentally when I walked in the room he was listening to a CD of his solo improvisatory piano incursions of the highest level. With each note and phrase, both of us were in a profound state of excitement. I asked, “Hey Chief, where’s this from?” He candidly replied, “The Spirits of Our Ancestors.”
May 20, 1991 marked the first day recording sessions for The Spirit of Our Ancestors, a landmark recording by Randy Weston and African Rhythms at the world-famous BMG studios in New York City. When I arrived at the building lobby, the elevator door opened and standing inside was Dizzy Gillespie with his longtime close friend and associate Jacques Muyal, who was living in Switzerland. On my first trip to Tangiers in 1985, I visited Jacques’s home and met his mother and brother. Mr. Muyal is an extraordinary gentleman and jazz producer with a deep love of our music.
I was quite overwhelmed knowing I would be on the same recording as the great Dizzy Gillespie, responsible for the major evolution in jazz history called bebop. We hit it off right away and Maestro Gillespie greeted me with a warm smile and hug. Once we started the session I handed Dizzy a Bb trumpet lead sheet for “African Sunrise.” He stated his preference for a concert lead sheet. After his perusal of the music he noticed an E minor7(b5) to A7(b9) resolving to D minor7. Dizzy then went to the piano and said, “Look at the E minor7(b5) as a G minor6 with the 6th in the bass.” Then he proceeded to play the most gorgeous chord progression. He was a pure musical genius! When he later did the first and only take of “African Sunrise,” Dizzy never looked at the music.
Soon to arrive in the studio were the leader Randy Weston and his longtime arranger and trombonist Melba Liston. Melba had recently endured a stroke and was confined to a wheel chair. However she taught herself how to compose and arrange on the computer using her left hand only. (Her right hand was incapacitated due to the stroke.) Preceding this recording Randy and I were performing in Los Angeles and we would frequently check on Melba to see how she was doing health wise and how the arrangements were unfolding.
Shortly after their arrival an A list of jazz practitioners blessed the room with their astonishing presence: First Idrees Sulieman, the great trumpet player and who also could burn on alto sax. Next was Benny Powell and we had become really close since our joint performances and tours for African Rhythms dating back to 1985. (I was also featured on his album Why Don’t You Say Yes, Sometimes? which was recorded around the same time as Spirits of Our Ancestors.)
There were three tenor sax legends. Billy Harper—I first heard Billy with his band at Joe Lee Wilson’s jazz loft The Ladies Fort Festival in the mid-1970s. He was on fire and I also heard him later with Max Roach. Dewey Redman—Dewey often spoke very highly about a young upcoming tenor titan that was not yet very well known, but soon to be the unconquerable master tenor sax player Joshua Redman, who also happened to be his son. It was my first time to play with Dewey and he was also featured with Randy’s band for a concert at Lincoln Center not too long before he passed away. He was a gentle man and a giant on the tenor sax! Up next was Pharoah Sanders—I was a huge fan of Mr. Sanders since my high school days in Long Island. During my senior year the early 1970s “The Creator Has A Master Plan” was our anthem. It was quite awe-inspiring to have an opportunity to record with a master and spiritual beacon of improvisation.
On bass, Alex Blake—Alex and I are best friends and his artistry on the bass is quite breathtaking. This was our first recording together, but I had first heard him in duo with Randy at the Village Vanguard in the mid-1970s. Also on bass, Jamil Nasser—Maestro Jamil and Randy were extremely tight. Randy credited Jamil with introducing him to four great pianists: Oscar Dennard, Lucky Roberts, Phineas Newborn, and Ahmad Jamal. (I was blessed to be a member of Benny Powell’s Quintet since the late 1980s and Jamil was one of the bassists. His knowledge was vast and deeply spiritual.)
Idris Muhammad played the drums. It was my first opportunity to perform with Idris. Wow, he always displayed an in-depth sensibility for the second-line New Orleans aesthetic and kept everything modern with melodic underpinnings. Randy loved Idris dearly and they had previously recorded together for Verve Records. Arriving next was Big Black, an outstanding percussionist. Words are inadequate to describe his dexterous rhythmic interplay and soulful drive on the hand drums rooted in the Mississippi delta blues, jazz, and the traditions of Africa and its diaspora. (I was so overjoyed to perform many concerts with Big Black since then; his sense of time and swing was quite astounding!)
Randy’s son Azzedin Weston also played percussion and his rhythmic pulsating groove remained ever present. He was a natural genius who also spoke several languages fluently and his artwork could rival Picasso’s!!! (We were like brothers and I was very sad at his passing.)
Finally, there was Yassir Chadly on genbri and karkaba. Yassir was part of the Gnawa musical tradition from Morocco and he resided on the west coast. Randy’s original plan was to have six Gnawa musicians from Morocco but they were not allowed visas at the last minute. Yassir did a wonderful job as their replacement.
I will always remember Randy’s extreme happiness to have so many heavyweights in the same room. Randy treated all of the musicians as family and our respect for the Chief was quite evident. There was so much history between Randy and Melba, Melba and Dizzy, Idres Sulieman and Jamil Nasser, Big Black and Randy—they already had tremendous musical collaborations during one of the most fruitful and fertile period of jazz’s evolution. But there was an unbelievable bond established among all participants. The first 2 and 1/2 hours of very expensive studio time was dedicated solely to warm greetings, hugs, handshakes, more hugs, more handshakes, etc.
Finally the producer asked me to help him coral the troops so we could start recording. It was physically difficult for Melba to direct, so I was called to the task. I also had to solo after Dizzy on “African Sunrise,” which was a daunting endeavor. Melba wrote some immensely memorable arrangements capturing the spirit of our ancestors. Please check out the three tenor saxophones in battle on “The African Cookbook”!!!
Subsequently I went on to record the following projects with Dr. Weston: Volcano Blues, Saga, Khepera, and Spirit, The Power of Music. And on his last two ensemble recordings—The Storyteller and The African Nubian Suite—my duties included being an associate producer. I was truly fortunate to spend 38 years performing, recording, and touring the world with Randy Weston, a true African Griot.
Randy Weston is the last pianistic link between Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk. His forays into improvisation are clearly a manifestation of the highest tier regarding a creative genius with astounding originality. His compositions are in the pantheon of renowned jazz standards.
Words are inadequate to express my love, admiration, appreciation, and gratitude for such an incredible human being. May his spirit rest in paradise for eternity. We will miss you Baba Randy!!!
So you want to write music for the koto, the shakuhachi, or the shamisen? Well, you’re in luck. Up until fairly recently, you would have been hard-pressed to find a traditional musician who would be willing to oblige. Beginning in the late 19th century, with its influx of Western culture and the ensuing dominance of Western music, traditional Japanese music was taught within families that jealously guarded their performance practices and repertoire. As a result, a kind of tribalism developed, split along family lines known as Ryūha (schools). Students in one line were unable to venture past the walls of their ryūha. In the last 20 to 30 years, this extreme isolation has begun to fade. Traditional instruments are now being taught in universities in Japan (and in the U.S.A.) where these strictures do not apply. Consequently, a younger generation of traditional players has emerged, and they are very open to a broader musical education. Many seem to be on a mission to share their instruments with a wider world, seeking newly developing and yet-to-be developed musical forms. It is not uncommon to hear jazz being played on the koto or shakuhachi. Some shamisen players have even taken to playing rock ‘n’ roll (and it’s a magnificent fit). In addition, with global culture inspiring an increasing number of non-Japanese masters of traditional instruments, there is a growing pool of performers available. This is particularly true of the shakuhachi, which has truly become a global instrument.
Notation: Most Japanese instruments have an extensive solo repertoire, possibly a reflection of the inward-looking nature of Buddhism. Until the 19th century, instruments were taught and learned orally, so when notation systems were created, each instrument developed its own notation. Of course, they are mutually unintelligible to one another. As a result, in chamber music there are no scores that combine all of the parts, as is the case with Western music. When the instruments first came together to play in ensemble, they simply joined by playing the same melody—hence the heterophonic texture in Japanese chamber music. For all Japanese instrumentalists, their specific notation systems are their primary notations. The good news is that increasing numbers of professional players are now fluent in reading Western music and at last have a common language for printed music; particularly the university-educated generations. Composers can write for Japanese instruments using Western notation and need not learn koto, shakuhachi, or shamisen notation. Frustratingly, many of the subtleties of playing techniques cannot be represented as precisely in this notation, but it nonetheless serves the very important function of providing common ground for music making.
When I commission a piece, composers are generally writing for Japanese instruments for the first time.
Compositional approaches: When I commission a piece, composers are generally writing for Japanese instruments for the first time. But I want them to write music that is in their voice, not to bend their ideas to find an Eastern sonority that somehow suits their style. That green light to go Western can make for some daunting performance and technical challenges, but that is the time-honored role of the beleaguered performer.
Performers of traditional Japanese instruments have spent years mastering their technique based on the melodic patterns found in the Japanese pentatonic scales. Western classical musicians have mastered major, minor, whole tone, etc. scales for their practice. As such, each group will be more comfortable playing what they have for years drilled into their fingers and ears. But this doesn’t mean composers should write pentatonic music for Japanese and diatonic for Western. Composers should write what they write. Performers will either make it work or politely suggest a change.
Audiences: Kyo-Shin-An Arts is in its ninth season of presenting chamber music concerts that mix and match Japanese instruments and Western ensembles via commissions, new music, and standard repertoire from two traditions. Every concert introduces new audience members to one or more Japanese instruments. Some of the audience is extremely loyal and has been returning for years because each concert has a distinct flavor. The differences lie in the unique styles of the composers and the partnering Western ensembles. Over the years, KSA concerts have presented the Arianna, Cassatt, Ciompi, Colorado, Lark, and Voxare string quartets, Ensemble Epomeo, Sybarite5, and many individual virtuosos gamely tackling commissions and favoring the audience with fantastic renditions of Debussy or Beethoven or Shostakovich. I have never heard a single attendee find this to be strange or daunting.
Nonetheless, it is still a common industry paradigm to automatically equate music that uses Japanese instruments (or any non-Western instruments for that matter) with something extra-musical such as cherry blossom season, moon-viewing, or samurai lore. Once, in proposing some of KSA’s commissioned works to a major orchestral institution, the somewhat unenlightened response was typical: “Well, it might work if we were to have some special Asian festival.” For high-profile institutions, programming new music of any kind has always been a challenge. It can be wielded as a marketing hook or slipped in under the radar of a standard blockbuster. Living composers fight the good fight, and tastes evolve. But from my vantage point, the idea of classical music that incorporates Japanese instruments still sparks the notion of exoticism and “otherness.” I want to change this norm. Imagine a musical landscape where non-Western instruments are heard alongside Western instruments without notice. I am striving to achieve this through Kyo-Shin-An Arts with concerts on our series at home at the Tenri Cultural Institute in NYC, as well as in concert venues around the country and abroad. It is my hope that one day the sounds of these instruments will be welcomed simply as yet another color in the orchestra, as the clarinet or the celeste once were.
Ensemble partners: Performing partners with whom we have worked with over the years have enthusiastically embraced our commissions. This includes several orchestras in addition to the numerous string quartets, instrumentalists, and singers who have performed with KSA in NYC and on tour. All of the musicians have welcomed Japanese instrumentalists with interest and respect, not merely curiosity and tolerance. Clearly it is the musicians themselves who may be the strongest driving force for the creation and presentation of this new music.
Western classical musicians need to be sensitive—and unbiased—when they encounter Japanese instruments.
Is it difficult to work with Japanese instrument performers? Yes and no. Language can be a challenge, so working with Japanese musicians who speak English or having a member of the Western ensemble who speaks Japanese can be quite helpful. And as I mentioned earlier, Japanese instruments have remained pretty much the same for the past several centuries and did not advance technically as they did in the West. Compare the modern silver flute with the blockflöte of Bach’s day and then the five-holed bamboo shakuhachi across the same time period. Western classical musicians need to be sensitive—and unbiased—when they encounter the limitations of the Japanese instruments. But in general, it is not difficult, and ultimately a joy.
In a time when cultural sensitivity and discourse seem to be receding, understanding through the language of music remains one of the strongest expressions of our humanity. Integrating world cultures through music transcends divisions of nationality, ethnicity, and religion. Creating and presenting new music for Japanese and Western instruments is my pursuit, and over the last several years I have been gratified to discover that more and more composers, performers, and ensembles are exploring this work as well. Audiences and musicians alike are intrigued with the idea and the results. It is a global movement, and I am proud to say that I have been a positive influence for some of it. I look forward to continuing my work and celebrating Kyo-Shin-An Arts’ upcoming 10th anniversary in 2019.
Paul Moravec’s Shakuhachi Concerto, a Kyo-Shin-An Arts and Meet the Composer commission, performed by James Nyoraku Schlefer and the Orchestra of the Swan, David Curtis Music Director.
I have been writing about myself, my work, a little history of Japanese music, and the intersections or disconnects between Western and Japanese music. Now I would like to discuss musical elements that are distinctly Japanese.
MU / MA–無 / 間: Perhaps the most ubiquitous and well-known concept in Japanese aesthetics is that known as Ma. Translated as nothingness or emptiness, Ma emphasizes the space, in time or dimension, which is prevalent in all Japanese art forms including theater, architecture, gardening, and—of course—music. It is the space between objects, the silence between sounds, and the stillness between movements. Much more than the absence of something, it is a palpable entity. In music, Ma typically manifests as the silence we “hear” between phrases. It is that nothingness that separates sound and removes it from a position of prominence. After the first phrase of a shakuhachi solo is played and the player takes a breath, that silence, or Ma, can create a tension that brings a small relief when the next phrase eventually begins. Or if that silence separates the sounds completely, and allows each phrase to be independent, then the silence becomes its own world upon which to meditate.
Timbre as a compositional element: The musical traditions of the globe have each charted their own paths, and Europe was no exception. Western classical music evolved as an ensemble art, and beginning in the 17th century, tempered scales became the standard for composition. The evolving manufacture of musical instruments developed to suit this pitch-oriented musical language. Eventually, keyboard instruments could play all the chromatic tones and do so with a consistent timbre. Woodwind instruments transformed from tubes with holes to ever more complex machinery, the goal being consistent timbre between the ranges and tighter control of pitch. Thus, the trajectory of Western instruments has long held the goal of equalizing the sound quality across the full range of the instrument.
Japanese instruments embrace the difference of timbres between pitches, and the music developed to accommodate that.
Japanese instruments, on the other hand, embraced the difference of timbres between pitches, and the musical language developed to accommodate those differences. Frequently the same pitch is heard with different fingerings, resulting in a vastly different dynamic level and tone color. Take for example the sawari sound of the shamisen. The lowest string is purposely positioned off the nut at the top of the fingerboard to create a distinctive buzzing effect similar to the jawari sound of the sitar. To the Western ear this buzzing may come across as unfocused or unclean, but this is in fact an indispensable sound of the instrument. Likewise, pushing the string on the koto to raise the pitch, rather than plucking a neighboring string with the same pitch, results in an almost imperceptible but distinct sound. And the robust pitch of an open hole on the shakuhachi contrasts with meri, the same pitch achieved with a partially covered hole and the lowering of the player’s head. As a result, Japanese music evolved to accommodate the dissimilarities inherent in the physical makeup of the musical instruments.
Wabi-Sabi: Wabi-sabi is an idea—an essential concept in Japanese aesthetics constituting a view centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. It is not an official element of Japanese music, but as a composer and performer, I do feel that it is important for Western listeners to appreciate the concept. As an example, the pottery items used in the most refined and exacting Japanese tea ceremonies are often rustic and simple looking, with shapes that are not symmetrical and colors or textures that appear to be coarse. The tea bowls may be deliberately chipped or nicked at the bottom. It is up to the observational ability of the participant to notice and discern the hidden signs of a truly excellent design or glaze. So too, in Japanese music, must the listener be able to discern the subtle differences in sound quality and execution, putting aside preconceived musical experiences to appreciate the artistry.
The urgency to “fix” the sounds of musical instruments never entered the minds of Japanese musicians.
The urgency to “fix” the natural sounds of musical instruments never entered the minds of Japanese musicians as it did in the West, and the beauty of these subtle nuances of timbre became the standard. This is a fundamental difference in musical philosophy that presents one of the greatest challenges in merging the sounds of East and West. Nonetheless there have been many composers in the last few decades, both Western and Japanese, who have forged ahead to create some magnificent and ground-breaking new music; some are facing the challenge by essentially ignoring the disconnect, some by probing into the subtle complexities.
A performance of the composition Miyako no Haru (都の春) by Yamase Shoin I (1845-1908) on May 21, 2017 featuring Yoko Reikano Kimura, koto and voice, Sumie Kaneko, shamisen and voice, and James Nyoraku Schlefer, shakuhachi. Yamase was engaged as the first professor of koto music, at the Tokyo Academy of Music, and composed this work for the inauguration ceremony concert of the Institute in 1890.
The first time I tried playing a shakuhachi, it was an epic fail. It was the spring of 1979. I had just attended my first performance of traditional Japanese chamber music. I was quite taken with the incredible virtuosity and commanding technique of all the players but paid particular attention to the shakuhachi, the instrument that was closest to my own. There was an incredible richness to the sound of the bamboo and an unexpectedly wide range of color and dynamics, which I found captivating.
“As a classically trained flutist, surely it should not be so difficult to make a sound on an open tube of bamboo,” hrrumphed the arrogant 22-year-old that I was. I tried again, and again, repeatedly, until much to the delight of the three Japanese members of the ensemble, I handed the instrument back to its owner—frustrated but with quiet respect.
Record stores occasionally had a small section labeled “International.”
At the time, to me, the nascent term “world music” meant Ravi Shankar and Babatunde Olatunji. And record stores occasionally had a small section labeled “International.” It was only years later that I realized how incredibly rare it was to encounter a concert of Japanese instruments, and to attend a performance like the one I had just heard in of all places, an apartment in New York’s famed Dakota building. I related this story to the contemporary flutist Harvey Sollberger, with whom I was taking some lessons at the time, and he replied that he actually had a shakuhachi but had given up on it because he couldn’t make a sound. (I began to see a pattern.) Would I like to borrow it? Well, of course I would, and over several days, with concerted effort, I began to make a sound.
A local cliché is that you can find anything in New York. Well, true to form, I found a shakuhachi teacher in short order and began what was to become a lifetime obsession with learning, teaching, performing, and composing music for the Japanese bamboo flute. The late Ronnie Nyogetsu Seldin was my first teacher. My initial approach to practicing was casual, to put it kindly, but over time (decade number one) I began to get better. And as I learned more and more about Japanese traditional music and musical culture, and made multiple trips to study in Japan, I became more and more fascinated. I observed that the rigor of the training, the complexity of the music, and variety of musical genres required a deep understanding of a highly sophisticated and complex tradition and that each had a parallel with that of classical music training for Western instruments. After years of study it became clear to me that while Japanese classical music bears no relationship whatsoever to European music, the rigor of technical mastery and knowledge of performance practices are remarkably on par.
Fast forwarding through the 39 years following my first, singular experience with the recalcitrant bamboo—countless lessons, performances, teaching, and three degrees of certification later—I have at last developed a decent technical ability on the instrument. I humbly lay claim to a fairly comprehensive understanding of both the traditional solo and chamber music repertoires, and I have moved beyond the traditional into the world of contemporary and new music for Japanese instruments.
As my composer courage grew, I thought, “Why not bring my professional training in Japanese and Western music together in my work?”
My latent composer genes began to surface in 1997. I began by writing original music for shakuhachi, and then ensembles of Japanese instruments with koto and shamisen. My personal influences of rock, the blues, and Western classical music seeped in and colored my explorations. As my composer courage grew, I thought, “Why not bring my professional training in Japanese and Western music together in my work?” I took the plunge in 2006 and wrote Quintet No. 1 for shakuhachi and string quartet. Three years later, my pursuit of this idea led me to brazenly complete and perform my first concerto and to found Kyo-Shin-An Arts, a contemporary music organization that commissions and presents new music combining Japanese and Western classical instruments. I wanted to play Western-style music again—this time on the shakuhachi—and the repertoire needed to be helped along. Through KSA, the last decade has brought the great joy of bringing some remarkable composers to the Japanese well, convincing them to attempt a work outside of all previous experience, and shepherding the premieres of quite the trove of fantastic music.
In homage to a daring and intrepid bunch of wonderful composers who have joined me in my journey this past decade, my gratitude goes out to Victoria Bond, Chad Cannon, Ciara Cornelius, Douglas Cuomo, Carlos Sanchez-Gutierrez, Daron Hagen, Matthew Harris, William Healy, Takuma Itoh, Kento Iwasaki, Mari Kimura, Angel Lam, Daniel Levitan, Gilda Lyons, James Matheson, Paul Moravec, Mark Nowakowski, Thomas Osborne, Charles Porter, Yoko Sato, Somei Satoh, Benjamin Verdery, Aleksandra Vrebalov, Donald Womack, and Randall Woolf.
Spell No. 8 composed by Aleksandra Vrebalov, a Kyo-Shin-An Arts commission, performed by Jennifer Aylmer (soprano), Jennifer Choi (violin), Wendy Law (cello), Kathleen Supové (piano), and James Nyoraku Schlefer (shakuhachi) on November 19, 2017, as part of the concert “Exploding Chrysanthemums” at the Tenri Cultural Institute in NYC.
Nowadays American musical creators can aesthetically do pretty much anything they want to do, but there have been few musicians who have embraced as wide a range of musical idioms as Béla Fleck. While he first made a name for himself as a teenager playing newgrass (a harmonically and rhythmically progressive off-shoot from bluegrass), he quickly began exploring jazz and soon reached a huge audience with his band The Flecktones, which merged jazz, bluegrass, funk, and lots of other musical ingredients into something that no one could quite define. In the past 20 years, he has collaborated with traditional musicians from India and China, as well as multiple nations in Africa. He has also begun composing works to perform with classical chamber music ensembles and symphony orchestras. In March, Rounder Records released a recording of his second banjo concerto, Juno Concerto.
“I’ve realized that I only make my life poorer by deciding there’s something I’m not interested in,” Fleck opined when we met up with him in between another interview and a soundcheck for a concert in New Jersey later that evening. “Your life gets richer the more things you decide you like.”
Yet despite the extraordinary variety of the musical projects he has been participating in since the late 1970s, everything he’s done revolves around the banjo, an instrument he has been obsessed with since he heard it on TV while watching The Beverly Hillbillies as a young boy growing up in New York City. His grandfather bought him a banjo right before he entered 10th grade at the High School of Music and Art, but there were few opportunities for him to explore playing the banjo there. He recalled getting nowhere with the French horn before they decided to put him in the chorus where he “screeched.” Nevertheless, he “became a non-stop, type-A, freakazoid, play-all-the-time, addicted dude,” took private lessons with “monster genius” Tony Trischka, and within just three years he “could play exactly like him.” In his senior year he navigated his way through the tricky banjo part in Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue at a school concert. But he didn’t apply to any colleges and as soon as he graduated from high school, he embarked on a professional music career.
“I wanted to go play the banjo, not go to college where nobody could teach me about the banjo,” he remembered. On Trischka’s recommendation, he was hired by the Boston-based band Tasty Licks and recorded his first album with them while still a teenager. But he quickly realized that he needed to do more than imitate his teacher.
“That wasn’t going to get me anywhere,” he realized. “So I started having to dice out these parts of myself that I loved so much and that I learned from [Trischka].” At this point he also started to compose his own music. That first album he appeared on, Tasty Licks eponymous 1978 LP, features Fleck’s first recorded original composition “Reading in the Dark.”
“At the time, I was trying to write things that were complex and hard intentionally,” he admitted. “I haven’t heard that in a long time, and I’m a little scared of what it would sound like if I listened to it now. If you listen to some of Tony’s music from that time, you would hear where maybe I was just cracking out from what he did a little bit, but it could have been something he did, too. But I was starting to use some of my new techniques, a few licks that were idiomatic to me.”
Wanting to get closer to the roots of bluegrass music led Fleck to move down South—first to Lexington, Kentucky, and then to Nashville, where he still makes his home. Yet ironically, instead of playing with more traditionally oriented musicians, he went from performing with the progressive Spectrum to the even more radical New Grass Revival to his own uncategorizable Flecktones. Yet despite all the innovations, he has always been extremely mindful of his antecedents.
“Time makes something traditional,” Fleck said. “I’m trying to come up with something that has some reason to exist, not just do new stuff to do new stuff. … I feel good that the things that I’ve contributed feel, to me at least, like they’re supposed to be that way. They’re not just, ‘How hard can I play? How difficult can I make things?’ but there’s some integrity to why I wanted to do them and why they’re on the banjo rather than some other instrument.”
Béla Fleck has found ways to make his instrument “sound right” whether he’s improvising duets with jazz great Chick Corea, fusing Indian, Chinese, and Appalachian idioms with Vishwa Mohan Bhatt and Jie-Bing Chen, accompanying the legendary Malian singer Oumou Sangare, or playing with a symphony orchestra. According to him, “If the banjo was going to have any place in this world, there needed to be a banjo concerto.”
But nowadays he spends most of his time making music with his wife, Abigail Washburn, an innovative singer-songwriter who, of course, is also a banjo virtuoso.
“She plays in a different style from me, what we call clawhammer; I play three-finger,” Fleck explained. “They’ve almost never historically played together. So what we’ve got within our household is an opportunity to create something that’s never been before.”
Béla Fleck in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
Recorded at the offices of Razor & Tie, NYC
April 7, 2017—11:00 a.m.
Video presentations by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Frank J. Oteri: You were named Béla Anton Leoš Fleck, after Bartók, Webern, and Janáček—three very important 20th-century composers. That’s a lot of weight.
Béla Fleck: It is. It gets even more complicated since, soon after I got that name, my mother and my father split up. I never saw him again until my 40s, when I went and searched him out. So it was complex. In fact, I wasn’t even interested in that music for a while because of that. It took me a while to go back and start to listen to Bartók with more of an open ear. I finally did that when I was starting to write my first banjo concerto. So I got all these names, but no influence. Nobody was showing me why I was named those things. Ironically, my mother remarried a cellist. Those weren’t necessarily his guys, but there was some classical music in my world at that point because he liked to play string quartets and quintets, and go and play with orchestras and stuff like that. So I would hear him do that. But I didn’t really think it had a lot to do with me and my musical identity because I had secretly fallen in love with the banjo. I’d learned some guitar and I was playing some folk songs, Beatles songs, Simon & Garfunkel songs, and a few blues scales. I actually loved the banjo, but I hadn’t told anybody because it wasn’t a very popular thing. But the banjo sounded so amazing and fast and complex. I didn’t imagine that I could ever play it. It was just a secret love.
FJO: It’s funny to hear you say that you only came to Bartók recently, since I think of Bartók as someone who took folk music traditions and completely transformed them in a way that’s not completely unlike what you have done. And also, his music was chock-full of unusual scales and odd meters, which are also things I hear in your music going all the way back to your earliest recordings.
BF: People have said that to me, “You and Bartók have so much in common; it’s cool that your name is Béla.” And I’d be like, “Cool.” I only heard little bits of it. It’s an acquired taste, like coffee. The first time you drink it, it’s like, “I don’t know why anybody likes this.” A little later you’re like, “It’s pretty good.” Then pretty soon it’s like, “I gotta have it; it’s so good.” Bartók for me was kind of like that. When I finally got into it, the harshness [I heard] at first stopped being harsh completely and it became so badass and cool, so interesting and deep and rich. So I’m a big fan of him all the way around, and I’m proud to be named after him.
FJO: How about Janáček and Webern?
BF: I don’t know much about their music. I’ve listened to a little bit of it. It didn’t hit me. I need to give it more time. I haven’t put in the time. I’ve had a lot of other things that really did hit me squarely in the chest and changed me so that I couldn’t not do that. I was just so in love with the sound of the banjo and bluegrass, and then I was in love with certain jazz and certain classical music that hit me that way. Others didn’t. But eventually time rolls on and you’re ready for some things that you weren’t ready for at another point in your life. That’s how it was for me with Bartók.
FJO: Now in terms of the banjo hitting you, you grew up in New York City. That’s not an instrument you would have found here very much, at least not then.
BF: Well, there was the folk boom—or the folk scare, as some people like to call it—which was happening, so it wasn’t totally alien. There were actually a lot of New Yorkers playing the banjo. But in my world, where I was going to school and just among normal kids, nobody was into that kind of music. I had just happened to hear it on a television show; The Beverly Hillbillies came on and it was Earl Scruggs.
Scruggs had taken a technique that was starting to become used in his region and exploded it into this comprehensive way of playing the banjo that changed the history of the instrument and brought a lot of people to that instrument. It was kind of dying out. The banjo has a long history, coming from Africa with the slaves originally and working its way into becoming the instrument of America in the late 1800s, the instrument everybody had around. People were playing classical music on it. There were banjo orchestras. It was in the early days of jazz. It was in Louis Armstrong’s early groups and Jelly Roll Morton’s, before the guitar took over. It was also this Appalachian instrument in old time music. Then it morphed into this bluegrass music offshoot, which was kind of a performance art. It wasn’t really a folk music; it was music that was designed to be played on microphones in front of people, but built out of folk music.
“I just became a non-stop, type-A, freakazoid, play-all-the-time, addicted dude.”
But I had nothing to do with any of that until I was 15. I think because he knew I’d been playing guitar and because “Dueling Banjos” became so huge because of that movie Deliverance, my grandfather, who lived in Peekskill, got me a banjo. It was just a garage sale banjo, a cheap little nothing, but when I went up to visit him, which was the day before I started high school at Music and Art up on 135th Street, I was so shocked and amazed and excited to see this instrument in front of me that I never would have had the nerve to go get. So the fuse was lit. Someone showed me how to tune it on the train on the way home and I just became a non-stop, type-A, freakazoid, play-all-the-time, addicted dude. Before that, when I played guitar, it wasn’t like that for me. I was a kid who was interested in something, but I wasn’t on fire. The banjo was different. When I finally got the banjo, everything else went away.
FJO: You went to the High School of Music and Art. I went there, too, so I know that there are no banjo classes there.
BF: Right. Yeah. But ironically, Eric Weissberg, the guy who played “Dueling Banjos,” went to Music and Art as well.
FJO: I didn’t know that. Wow.
BF: Yeah, he was there quite a while before I was there.
FJO: I came in as a pianist-composer, so they threw me in the vocal department because they didn’t know what else to do with me. They could always use more voices in the chorus.
BF: That’s what they did with me. I got in on guitar, playing “Here Comes the Sun”—I had a nice fingerpicking version. And they said, “Okay, you have some musical aptitude.” I remember there was a rating system of one to four, and I think I was a two. I was definitely not in the ones, but I could tap back when they would give me rhythms. Then, I think I had to sing back some pitches. I could do all of that pretty well. So they said, “Okay, we’ll teach you to be a musician.” They gave me a French horn and a mouthpiece and said, “Go in that room and come out when you can play an F.” I just sat in the room and I never could get anything out of the instrument. Finally they said, “There really aren’t enough boys in the choir. Maybe we can put you in the choir.” I was disappointed, but I went and I sang. I screeched all the way through high school. I think I would have been a baritone. I was not a tenor. I couldn’t hit the pitches, and I didn’t know how to sing. I didn’t know how to read, but I could sort of sing along with the guy next to me and watch. I knew if it was higher I had to go up, but I didn’t know what a fourth was or a third or how to do it. So I was around classical music, even though I wasn’t playing it on my banjo. And then I took banjo lessons.
“I screeched all the way through high school.”
One cool thing that happened was that partway through senior year, they said, “Béla, come see the conductor.” He said, “You can get out of chorus if you want, if you will play in Rhapsody in Blue in the semi-annual recital. We found a banjo part. If you want to play this banjo part, you can get out of chorus for the rest of senior year.” I didn’t really want to get out of chorus with all my friends, learning this German music and this French music. I was social and it was music. So I said, “I’ll do both.” So I did. The part was somewhere in the middle of the piece. There were a couple of things I never could figure out, but I got to sit next to a girl I had a crush on who played the oboe. And that was good enough for me.
FJO: But instead of going off to conservatory after you graduated from Music and Art, you wandered off to Boston and started playing in professional bands. You were already recording with them as a teenager.
BF: Yeah, I came right out of high school into professional life. I guess to toot my own horn, I started playing the day before high school and three years later, I came out and I was on a pretty high level. My third banjo teacher was Tony Trischka. Tony is one of the monster geniuses of the banjo of this century. I would argue he’s changed banjo technique and ideas as much as Earl Scruggs did. He was the guy of that time, and I had had a few lessons with him. But by the end of high school, we’d be at a party and jam together, and someone would say, “If I close my eyes, I can’t tell which one is which.” And it was true. I was imitating him so well, I could play exactly like him by the time I was out of high school after playing for three years. So I was moving fast. I was also working on my own ideas and trying to think of what I could do that he hadn’t done. I realized there already was a Tony Trischka. The guy who said, “I can’t tell which one is which”—maybe that’s not so good. For a long time, that was my goal, to be playing just like him, but that wasn’t going to get me anywhere. So I started having to dice out these parts of myself that I loved so much and that I learned from him. He goes by feel. He finds these incredible, complex ideas, but it’s not like he’s going to sit around and play all the modes and scales up and down the banjo and do this sort of scholarly thing. So I thought, “Well, there’s something.” I started working on these ways of playing the scales methodically that gave me a bunch of tools that Tony didn’t have—and really nobody had at that point. It gave me the ability to play virtually anything because I wasn’t stuck in these keys with certain centers that were rich and had a lot of things I could do but that had holes in the middle. I was basically filling in all the holes that people weren’t using on the banjo and just making it more of a workable instrument that could fit into different kinds of music. That became my thing that I could do.
FJO: Because of the way the banjo is played and the way it’s tuned, it’s optimized for playing diatonic music in common time. But what you’ve done is created super chromatic music for it with loads of complex meters. You’ve done all these counter-intuitive things, yet they sound completely idiomatic.
BF: Actually that’s the part I’m most proud of. You’ve just hit the things that I’m trying to do—things that sound right. I’m trying to come up with something that has some reason to exist, not just do new stuff to do new stuff. Again, if I was going to toot my own horn, I would say I feel good that the things that I’ve contributed feel, to me at least, like they’re supposed to be that way. They’re not just, “How hard can I play? How difficult can I make things?” but there’s some integrity to why I wanted to do them and why they’re on the banjo rather than some other instrument. It’s something that the banjo told me to do, that was obvious and that should be that way.
“I’m trying to come up with something that has some reason to exist, not just do new stuff to do new stuff.”
FJO: You’ve really been describing all of this stuff from a performer’s point of view, being a player on an instrument. But when you say that it was important to you to do more than imitate someone else’s sound and do your own thing, that’s starting to sound like a composer.
FJO: It’s interesting that for the very first professional group you were with, Tasty Licks, on the first album you recorded together, there’s an original composition of yours called “Reading in the Dark.” I can already hear your compositional voice in that—the constantly shifting keys, the metrical complexity. It feels like it’s about to crash, but it always holds together somehow. You already had had those ideas.
BF: At the time, I was trying to write things that were complex and hard intentionally. I haven’t heard that in a long time, and I’m a little scared of what it would sound like if I listened to it now. [Since then] I have learned a lot about playing the banjo with a good tone and with good timing; having a tight rhythmic focus hadn’t become my focus yet, but the creativity was there. I was also very Tony influenced. If you listen to some of Tony’s music from that time, you would hear where maybe I was just cracking out from what he did a little bit, but it could have been something he did, too. But I was starting to use some of my new techniques, a few licks that were idiomatic to me.
In addition to being the first recording featuring Béla Fleck, the eponymous debut album of Tasty Licks also features the earliest Fleck composition on record.
FJO: One thing I’m curious about in all of this is that what got you interested in the music in the very beginning was hearing Earl Scruggs, who was the embodiment of traditional bluegrass. It’s funny to call it traditional because, in a way, how Scruggs helped develop bluegrass out of Old Time music parallels how Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie developed bebop from swing. It was a similar seismic moment where it was somehow avant-garde and traditional at the same time. By the time you came on the scene, it was definitely traditional. But even though it was what you first heard, and what got you hooked, you gravitated toward the more avant-garde end of the spectrum—the progressive bluegrass scene in Boston instead of going to Kentucky or Tennessee or somewhere deep in Appalachia.
BF: Right. Well, I want to address one thing which is that Earl Scruggs was radical. There’d never been anything like what he did before. We call it traditional now because it was so right that it became imprinted on everybody. Nobody had a problem with it. Nobody was saying, like they have with Tony or even with me a little bit, but Tony a lot more, “That’s not how it’s supposed to go; that ain’t traditional.” Nobody said that when Earl Scruggs came around. They went, “Holy crap. What just happened?” It changed everybody’s perception about what a banjo was; it was incredible. The thing about him is he’s so rooted in tradition. Even a lot of the songs he worked on were from before he came along, although he added a lot of new stuff to the repertoire. Time makes something traditional. Now he’s traditional, but usually traditions are more than a hundred years old. We’re not even close to a hundred years from when he got well known in the ‘40s. That’ll be in another 30 years.
“Time makes something traditional.”
FJO: O.K. This begs the question even more, considering how deeply you revere Scruggs. If he was your hero, why didn’t you go to where he was instead of going to Boston?
BF: Well, Earl was really not around very much. He wasn’t out and seeable for a lot of the years when I was coming up. He was out with his sons, but I wasn’t as interested in that music. And I had become a Tony Trischka freak and a modern banjo freak, so I was interested in the people who had taken it to the next step. I wasn’t that interested in Earl after the initial thing. I got all into this new information that guys like Tony, Bill Keith, Bobby Thompson, and so many other wonderful banjo players brought new to the game—Eddie Adcock, Allen Munde, Ben Eldridge, so many people. It was such a rich field, full of people who, when you heard them start to play, you knew it was them. J.D. Crowe. Sonny Osborne. It goes on and on. At any rate, at this point, I was into modern. I wanted to do new things. I discovered in high school that if I played a Led Zeppelin song, people would go, “Yeah!” But if I played bluegrass, they’d start flapping their arms. And I didn’t like that. So I already had realized that there was something to this “new thing on the banjo” idea.
Anyway, Tony got an offer to join a band in Boston right after I got out of high school, and he couldn’t do it because he had roots in New York and wanted to stay. But he said, “I’ve got this student that’s really hot; you should hire him.” I had graduated in the spring and this was in December. What happened to me was actually so fortunate. My mother and my step-father had a child kind of unexpectedly as I became a senior in high school. The world had changed so suddenly and now this was their new focus and nobody paid any attention to me. So I didn’t apply to any colleges and nobody noticed. Now, if you can understand that my mother was a school teacher and my father was the chairman of guidance counselors of the Brooklyn school system, and then imagine that their son never applied to colleges, you see how bizarre this is. But I snuck under the wire and got to the end of school and then I was a free agent, which is exactly what I wanted to be. I wanted to go play the banjo, not go to college where nobody could teach me about the banjo. I didn’t want to go study theory. I wanted to play the banjo.
“I wanted to go play the banjo, not go to college where nobody could teach me about the banjo.”
When they realized I hadn’t applied to schools, they were kind of dismayed and we found out that you could take courses at Juilliard if you just paid for them. It’s called the Juilliard Extension School. So they put me in a class that I went to starting in the fall, while I played little gigs around the city and tried to figure out how I was going to do this thing. That’s when the call came to go to Boston and join a band up there. There was a professional band that went around New England, and one of the guys in the band was a guy named Stacy Phillips who used to play with Tony Trischka in a band called Breakfast Special. They were my heroes. So I was going to get to play with one of my favorite musicians if I moved to Boston and joined this band. Also, Berklee was up there. There was a huge jazz scene up there. I was excited about being part of that. It was a great college town. There was a music store called the Music Emporium. There were jam sessions. There were people playing traditional music of various kinds. There was square dance music up there. That scene was fun. So anyway, I moved to Boston, and I was there for three years or so. That was my first touring experience in a band that occasionally made it down south. I did a lot of New England touring, and I worked on my banjo playing in that band.
FJO: And you had already gotten the attention of Rounder Records, which was founded maybe just only a few years before that. And they put out a solo record of you already. That was crazy.
BF: Right, so that was part of the whole thing because the leader of the band was a guy named Jack Tottle. His girlfriend, Marian Leighton, was one of the three Rounder people. I ended up living right across the hall from Marian and Jack and being part of that Rounder scene. They were waiting for me to ripen. They wanted to do a record with me when I was ready. I think that was wise on their part, but I wasn’t smart enough to understand that. It was rankling that they hadn’t asked me. At a certain point, I went and made a demo and let them know I was going to be presenting it to all the labels. Then they immediately signed me before I could get away. I think it was a much better record than it would have been if I had done it right out of high school when I moved out there.
In 1979, a year after his recording debut with the Tasty Licks, Rounder released Béla Fleck’s first solo album, Crossing The Tracks, which 38 years later still sounds fresh.
FJO: Talk about having a long history, and we have a long way to go before we talk about the new recording of your second banjo concerto with the Colorado Symphony, but that album is also on Rounder.
BF: I went back to them in the last decade. I’ve been through all the majors. I was on Capitol with New Grass Revival, and I wanted to get away from Rounder when I started the Flecktones. I had made eight solo records on Rounder. Some of them did well and some of them didn’t, but I wanted to be on a jazz label. With the Flecktones, I didn’t want it to be a Rounder Record. I needed to break from that scene. So I went out. We had Flecktones records on Warner Brothers, and then we went to Sony. Then I was on MCA with Strength in Numbers. I started to have all those experiences. And then the music industry changed a lot.
Basically what would happen is I would get signed and then I’d have these advocates, and we would have a great year or two. Then they would be fired, or things would change, and I’d be stuck with several more albums that I owed and nobody at the label that gave a crap about what I did. That happened over and over again. Then, I was getting ready to do an album—I can’t remember which one it was, it might have been the Christmas record with the Flecktones—and I wanted to take a meeting with Rounder because I had seen something they had done well. I took a meeting and everybody was still there that had been there when I’d left twenty years ago. That struck me. And they were eager to have me back. They’d been proud of everything I’d been doing and they started doing stuff with me. They had much better results with some of those projects than I was having with the majors, so I’ve kept doing things with them. I do a record at a time. The first concerto record I did with Deutsche Grammophon—foolishly—because I wanted to get the banjo onto the major classical label of the world. But they didn’t do a good job. They didn’t do anything. So when I got the chance to make the second banjo concerto and I wanted to record it, I asked Rounder if they would do it, and they said they would. They’ve already done way better than Deutsche Grammophon did because they know how to reach my audience. There is no classical audience. Nobody’s buying classical records. This needs to be marketed to people that like my music and want to hear what I am doing with an orchestra. We’re not going to sell a lot to folks who are hardcore classical listeners. I wish we could, but I don’t know that that’s being realistic.
The first recording devoted exclusively to “classical” compositions by Béla Fleck was the 2012 Deutsche Grammophon release The Imposter, which features his first banjo concerto performed with the Nashville Symphony conducted by Giancarlo Guerrerro as well as Night Flight Over Water, a quintet for banjo and string quartet performed with Brooklyn Rider.
FJO: A discussion of how music is marketed could eat up the rest of the day, but it actually makes me curious about how marketing and musical genre—which I believe is largely related to marketing—played out in another early band you were part of called Spectrum, whose records I’ve had for many years and still treasure.
BF: You’re kidding.
FJO: Especially Live in Japan. I love your performance of “Driving Nails in My Coffin.”
BF: That’s cool to hear. I never hear anybody talking about Spectrum. It’s kind of the forgotten band.
FJO: Which is a shame because those records are great. But what’s particularly fascinating is that while on the one hand it sounds very much like traditional bluegrass, a lot of the material wasn’t. You performed songs by Paul Simon and Paul Anka, as well as stuff by Duke Ellington and Fats Waller, so it was really open-ended.
The cover of Spectrum’s final album, Live in Japan, released in 1983, but unfortunately currently out of print.
BF: Yeah, it was freedom in the cage. The cage had gotten bigger and we were filling a hole in the bluegrass festival scene. That was the only place we could work. We didn’t seem to be druggy. We were clean cut, nice gentlemen, but we played progressive—considered progressive—music. We weren’t far out like New Grass Revival. Glenn Lawson and Jimmy Gaudreau had been playing in J.D. Crowe’s band, after his great band—The New South—with Ricky Skaggs, Tony Rice, and Jerry Douglas, that was so popular. Wisely, J.D. didn’t try to follow that incredible band. I’d say it’s on a level of Flatt and Scruggs in impact, but he didn’t try to copy it and do that band again. He got a whole different sound. And he got these guys and they went in a whole different direction. Anyway, I moved to Kentucky, because I had the opportunity to work with some guys that worked with J.D., and I really wanted to get some of that true bluegrass feel. Ironically, what I was trying to get from moving to Lexington was not what these guys wanted to do, but I still was going to get it.
“I knew I was a Yankee banjo player.”
What I moved to Kentucky for was to get around and to be part of the real traditional stuff. I knew I was a Yankee banjo player. I knew there was a stigma to that, and that there are some areas that Yankee banjo players don’t tend to be respected for the way the southern banjo players are. What we’re usually talking about here is tone, time, and taste. The three Ts. It all comes from J.D. Crowe, but originally from Earl Scruggs—certain periods where his right hand and his tone were just so glorious, creamy, and solid, metronomic but with soul, and everybody was aspiring to play like that. The northern players tended to have a lot of imagination. A lot of great innovations were coming from there, but not only from there—Bobby Thompson wasn’t from there. There were some great people like Bill Keith and Tony, but Tony was widely frowned upon by the bluegrass community as a whole. And I was very aware of that. I said, I don’t want to be like that. I want to be able to do everything. J.D. Crowe had these great bands in which the people were playing pretty progressive music, but he was playing just like Earl. Or in J.D. Crowe language, he was playing very traditional, and I thought there ought to be somebody who can play with those guys. I think there’s a hole in that scene for a banjo player who does a little bit more, but I wanted to be able to do it with the authority that J.D. did it with.
So after those three years with Tasty Licks, we broke up and I played on the street for a summer, in Harvard Square, which was a lot of fun. Then I got this chance to go to Kentucky. So I moved down there and just spent all my time watching J.D. Crowe when I wasn’t on tour. There was this Holiday Inn—Holiday Inn North it was called—on Newtown Pike, and they would put on a bluegrass band for three weeks, then they’d bring in another one from a different part of the country. The top people would come in and play this place. When they didn’t have Ralph Stanley or the Country Gentlemen or whoever, they would have J.D. Crowe because he was their in-town guy. So when I was there, anytime I wasn’t out of town playing, I was at the Holiday Inn sitting, listening, and watching him, trying to understand how he got that sound and how he had that feel which I did not have. I couldn’t do what he did, and he was a god to me. I never got to sit with him and he never explained it to me, but I was very focused on him.
At that time, I also made a lot of friends in the bluegrass community who talked to me about banjo set up, about how to get a great sound out of a banjo. There was a guy named Steve Cooley who was a great young banjo player and who, like me, was a big fan of Crowe. Then I started studying all these old Flatt and Scruggs live shows, which is the next inner circle. You get past the recordings everyone knows about and you start to get into these broadcasts and you get to hear how much greater he was than on the recordings. It’s so badass. All of a sudden that became really important to me, being able to play the banjo in a strong, traditional, powerful way, which I would say is a lot of southern influence. The things that are great about southern banjo playing sort of crept into my style at that point. And that’s the point when I got a call from Sam Bush and New Grass Revival to move to Nashville. Well, the band was originally in Kentucky, but we ended up moving to Nashville, and that was the next big change in my life after that.
FJO: So although you wanted to get immersed in the tradition, you wound up playing in super progressive groups. That first record you made with New Grass Revival, On the Boulevard, is full of chromatic stuff, and there’s even a Bob Marley tune on it. I’m not sure a bluegrass purist would even acknowledge this as bluegrass.
BF: No. They called it newgrass, and lot of bluegrass purists didn’t think newgrass was bluegrass. But the thing about New Grass Revival is that they were at a whole other level. They had been a fixture and a prime mover in the modernization of bluegrass. Sam Bush was beloved by everyone across the board, whether you liked traditional or modern. He was often called to play on traditional records, because he was simply the best mandolin player on the scene, especially in the south. A lot of people also loved David Grisman, but he was in California and he was doing his own music. But Sam—as a mandolin player and a fiddle player and a force—was one of the greats of the generation.
It was even clear to Bill Monroe, who showed his regard for Sam by treating him with incredible disrespect. He wouldn’t have done that if he didn’t think Sam was a force to be reckoned with. He did the same thing to Earl Scruggs. You know what I’m saying? So Sam was the anointed one.
If Bill Monroe or Doc Watson wanted me to play with them, I wanted to make sure that I could play and they’d go, “Hey, he’s good at this stuff” and not judge me for being a modernist. I wanted to have that, but you can’t change your spots. I was gonna be a modernist and a guy from New York City, even if I tried to get rid of my accent around these guys and tried to get an old banjo. I think they respected me for trying, though, and for valuing what they did.
“I wanted to make sure that I could play and they’d go, ‘Hey, he’s good at this stuff’ and not judge me for being a modernist.”
Playing with Sam, I knew, was going to mean playing with one of the best musicians I had ever played with. Also, by joining that band and moving to Nashville, I would get to know a whole world of people I was really interested in—like Norman Blake and John Hartford, whom I was a huge fan of, and the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and all the people who were doing that. I would learn a lot about music that I didn’t know about yet. Things I hadn’t valued yet. Like blues and rock and gospel, things that those guys were really into—the Allman Brothers, all these things that I was not paying attention to because I was a New York jazzer at heart who loved bluegrass. That was also when I found the local great jazz guitar player, and I took lessons from him. I went to play casual gigs, trying to learn jazz. I was in the closet trying to continue my work on my scales at the same time. I was a busy little boy.
Béla Fleck’s 1984 LP Deviation, in which he is joined by the members of New Grass Revival, is miles away from newgrass but according to Fleck still isn’t quite jazz.
FJO: All these different kinds of music came together for you in a solo record you did with the other members of New Grass Revival as sidemen called Deviation. I think it’s a very apt title because it doesn’t sound like any of the other music you had recorded up to that point. Now things have gotten so blurry, to some extent as a result of what you and many of the musicians you’ve worked with were doing then. But at that time, the barriers between different musical genres were a lot less penetrable. You mentioned that Sam Bush could travel back and forth between bluegrass and newgrass, but what was the difference? What couldn’t you do in bluegrass, and what can’t you do in newgrass? When does newgrass stop being newgrass? I think most fans of newgrass would have thought that Deviation wasn’t newgrass. I’m inclined to call it a jazz record, but I’m sure there would have been jazz purists at the time who would have said it isn’t jazz either. Purism versus non-purism was a big issue back then, no matter what the genre was.
BF: Yeah, it was. I love Flatt and Scruggs. I love early bluegrass. Most of the modernists do. That music really reflects a time and a place and, now, a kind of looking backward. But at the time, it was still reflective of some people’s actual lives. They were singing about their lives, so it wasn’t some history thing. So if somebody loves hearing that kind of music—which I love as well—and that’s what they want to hear, I don’t fault them for it. It’s like somebody saying, “I want to listen to Louis Armstrong. ” Well, I like Louis Armstrong and I really like Charlie Parker. I don’t fault anybody for liking what they like, but your life gets richer the more things you decide you like. I’ve realized this because I’ve also been an elitist. I don’t listen to that, or I don’t listen to this, or whatever. That’s not good. I’ve realized that I only make my life poorer by deciding there’s something I’m not interested in, that I’m above this. But people do that. We all do that. The truth is you have the right to make those choices. You don’t have to listen to everything just because someone tells you to. This isn’t school. This is your life. You should listen to music that turns you on and makes you feel something and makes your life more complete.
“I don’t fault anybody for liking what they like, but your life gets richer the more things you decide you like.”
So, back to your actual question, I think newgrass expressed the truth for the people of that period. And newgrass is a dated thing, too. Newgrass is actually the music that was done after Flatt and Scruggs, not the music New Grass Revival did. Sam Bush was going to bring back some of the music that the people that followed the originals did, go back to the sound that Jim and Jessie and the Osborne Brothers and the Country Gentlemen had, and work from there. That’s why they called it New Grass Revival, which is interesting. A lot of people say, “Oh, that’s newgrass.” New Grass Revival is newgrass, but it became newgrass in people’s minds after a while because the name of the band was New Grass Revival.
FJO: Looking back at that time now, there definitely was stuff that was even more progressive than newgrass, like perhaps what the Dillards were doing or Frank Wakefield or, as you already mentioned earlier, Tony Trischka.
BF: Right. For a while, you wouldn’t really call what Tony did newgrass, but by current standards, we can go back and go, “All that stuff kind of fits neatly into this box.” That’s where people are stretching: dawg music—the stuff David Grisman was doing; what the Dillards were doing with drums; Herb Pederson; what New Grass Revival was doing; what Bill Keith was doing with Jim Rooney. Call it what you want. I don’t care. It doesn’t matter. You either like it or you don’t.
FJO: Now in terms of calling something jazz, did you find acceptance from the jazz community when you began heading in that direction?
BF: Back then I was clawing my way in. I wanted to be in, and I wasn’t really up to the task yet. I tried to put together some groups to try to do that. I don’t think you could really call Deviation a jazz record. I guess you could probably call it a pop instrumental record with jazzy overtones, but pop with bluegrass instruments. I don’t know what to call it, but there’s not a lot of improvising, just a little bit. Everybody had little solos, but it wasn’t open. When I think about jazz, I tend to think that improvisation is the core—conversation from every angle: the bass player talking to the horn player, the drummer playing to the saxophone player. There’s a discussion going on and people are making decisions on the fly. To me, that’s a lot of what makes it jazz. But a lot of music is like that, not just jazz.
FJO: Bluegrass is like that sometimes, especially when groups play instrumental breakdowns.
BF: It can be, but there are more immovable things in bluegrass. The mandolin is generally going to play the offbeat and play certain chord shapes generally. They’re not going to play that different just because of what the banjo player does. The bass player’s not going to walk. He’s not going to have a lot of freedoms. He’s going to play within a certain set role. It’s not like he’s spontaneously deciding what the harmony’s going to be for the soloist from the bass. That’s not going to be going on in bluegrass. At least not so far. It tends to be that when people expand bluegrass, with the exception of dawg music, it’s pretty scripted. There’s a lot of planning. With Strength in Numbers or the Punch Brothers, it’s very scripted. In a way, it’s more like classical composition, mixing with pop and bluegrass. So it’s not often as free as it might feel like it is.
FJO: But with the Flecktones, you did introduce all those elements.
Béla Fleck (center) in performance with the Flecktones: Victor Wooten (far left, playing electric bass guitar), his Roy Wooten a.k.a. Future Man (far right, playing the Drumitar)
BF: Yeah, I think you could call Flecktones a jazz group, if you were willing to call all the different kinds of music throughout from Louis Armstrong up all jazz. Duke Ellington’s jazz. Charlie Parker’s jazz. Those are very different. Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew is jazz. Return to Forever is jazz. Mahavishnu is jazz. Is Shakti jazz? I don’t know. Maybe not. I don’t know. It’s very highly improvised, but is it jazz? It’s probably more like Indian music. We could be as different from jazz as Shakti was from jazz. But that’s the world we were trying to claw our way into. And we didn’t have such an easy time, especially at first, because it didn’t sound like it was necessarily jazz—a banjo player with a guy playing a drum machine guitar, a guy with a harmonica, and a funky bass player. It was very confusing to people exactly what we were. So for as much as we wanted to be embraced by the jazz world, it was very slow going. The jazz guys would go, “Oh, okay.” They weren’t going to fall all over themselves, but they didn’t hate us at all. The musicians all seemed to like us and think it was pretty cool. But luckily, regular people liked us. And we would get on TV, and a bunch of people would go, “Wow. That’s hip, whatever that is.” We managed to get quite an audience pretty quick—against all odds, honestly. So when people would say, “Béla sold out now.” I’d feel like, “I sold out?” You could not plan the Flecktones, and you could certainly not plan for them to be successful. There was one time people said, “They added vocals. Dave Matthews is on the record just to sell records.” If you heard the track, it’s in 17/8. And it didn’t sell any more than any other Flecktones records. It would have been nice if it did, but it didn’t work out that way.
“We would get on TV, and a bunch of people would go, ‘Wow. That’s hip, whatever that is.'”
FJO: One of the greatest things in the world would be to get people on the street humming in 17/8.
BF: That’s what’s always been exciting to the Flecktones—can we get people feeling an odd meter as if it’s not odd at all? Dave Brubeck did it wonderfully on “Take Five.” There’s a pop sensibility, too. We’re all kind of creatures of the pop world. The guys were into James Brown, and I was into the Beatles. Howard was into Bulgarian music. It was a lot of different things coming together in that band.
FJO: Now in terms of making contributions to different musical traditions, you mentioned Shakti, which was really about John McLaughlin immersing himself completely into classical Indian music and performing with some of the greatest Indian musicians, like L. Shankar and Zakir Hussain. So I have to bring up your own Tabula Rasa, which is probably one of my all-time favorite recordings of yours.
BF: Thank you. That’s another hidden one not too many people know about.
FJO: It’s such a fluid synthesis, not just between Indian music and bluegrass, as per the dedication on the album to Ravi Shankar and Earl Scruggs; traditional Chinese music is also at the core of this music. It really is a fluid trio between you, Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, and Jie-Bing Chen.
BF: I didn’t do the dedication; that was from the record company guy named Kavi [Kavichandran] Alexander. He’s a cool guy and he has this wonderful recording technique. He records stereo in a beautiful church in Santa Barbara. He arranges the musicians in front of the mic until it’s in balance. He’s got a good ear for that, so maybe the mridangam player is back here and you’re over here because you’re louder, that whole weird thing that you have to do to record on one mic. But then the room fills up with sound and it all comes into that microphone and he records it to tape, and it sounds awesome. Part of the cement and connectivity has to do with that great recording approach and also the fact that you’ve got to sit there and play the music right in each other’s faces and really listen to each other since you’re super close to each other.
On Tabula Rasa, Béla Fleck, Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, and Jie-Bing Chen seamless weave Appalachian, Karnatic and classical Chinese traditional music.
FJO: What’s so wonderful to me about that record is how it references three seemingly very different musical traditions in a way that’s faithful to all of them, yet it’s completely fluid. A word that we haven’t yet used in our conversation with each other today is fusion. In terms of what the word actually means, I think it’s very positive, but critics coined this term and many have used the term quite disparagingly.
BF: Because they got tired of rock drums with jazz and the way that the jazz players couldn’t have a conversation with the drummer. It just became very bombastic. They called it fusion, and they got tired of it. I understand why it happened. The original fusioneers’ music was actually very interactive and responsive and very jazzy. There’s a lot of great music that came out of that. Mahavishnu Orchestra and Return to Forever were really special for that time and they hold up really well, as well as a lot of eras of jazz held up. But what came after, when people started to imitate them—it just became a sea of sameness and less freedom and interactivity in the conversations that were happening in the music. And I think that to the people that love jazz, fusion became a bad word because they weren’t seeing the things that they loved in the music anymore.
FJO: Someone who was a key creative force in that music—in fact he was the founder of Return to Forever—is Chick Corea, but he’s also done tons of straight-ahead jazz and was also part of a free improvisational quartet with Anthony Braxton, Dave Holland, and Barry Altschul. He’s even performed standard repertoire classical compositions and also composed his own works for chamber ensembles and orchestras. You’ve played some extraordinary duets with him in recent years, but you’ve been into his music for a very long time. You played his composition “Spain” on your very first solo album back in 1979, and it later became part of the repertoire of the Flecktones. So he seems to have been an important musical hero to you from the beginning.
BF: Oh my God, he still is. He’s a great example of somebody who not only is super talented, but is super good at being himself. He has the strength to be himself over and over again, whether it’s popular or not, because what he does is very wide-ranging and a lot of things he loves to do are not for everybody. When he likes to play his crazy atonal stuff, he can do it like nobody in the world. That’s not the easiest stuff to sell. But he also has put a high premium on communication. He’s learned that—and he knew this all along—there’s nothing wrong with playing beautiful music that people like, like the music he did with Gary Burton, or different periods in his life when he’s tried to do music that’s more consonant. He doesn’t see it as one being better or worse than the other. They are just a lot of different expressions for different times and different feelings. And he’s gone after a lot of different things. So I’ve always listened to everything he does. I’m always curious and I also find it very inspiring because of his tight rhythmic command of the piano. You could either accuse it of being too perfect or too rhythmically tight, or you could say, “Holy cow, nobody in the world plays like that!” You know it’s him from the first second, and it gets you if you’re a rhythmic-based person. It gets you in a way no other piano player can get you. He has always gotten me that way. So the banjo being a sharp-attack instrument, like his acoustic piano or his Fender Rhodes, I thought that’s more of a template for how I’d like to play the banjo. Not that I ever could or ever will. He also does a lot of short, stabby things that don’t use the whole piano. A lot of piano players have a hard time using just part of the piano; they’ve got to the use the whole thing. But you don’t have to use everything. You don’t have to use the whole orchestra. You can use just a violin for a while. Because of the limitations of the tuning, I couldn’t get the banjo to do a lot of the things the piano could do or a lot of instruments can do. He showed me that I didn’t have to do that; a lot of that came from listening to him.
“I was a stalker. I would go to his shows and go to sound check and try to sneak in or try to meet him after the show.”
When we finally met, that was incredible. I was a stalker. I would go to his shows and go to sound check and try to sneak in or try to meet him after the show. I gave him some bluegrass records I made. Then I ran into him at the Grammys and introduced myself again, and he had seen the “Sinister Minister” video when the Flecktones finally came up out of the ground. Anyway, one day I was playing at the Newport Jazz Festival and his agent came up to me and said, “Next year, Chick is thinking about doing these duets with three different people and he was wondering if you might consider. You’re on his list of possibilities.” And I said, “Count me in.” I just dropped everything, and we went and made this record and started touring together as a duo. This was a dream come true.
We’ve done a lot. He seemed to like me, and he’s given me a lot of rope to learn how to do the things that I’m not as good at. We do a lot of the same repertoire, so I’ve been able to get better at it, and I’m throwing new things at him now that he’s interested in. On the last tour, I taught him a really cool Bill Monroe tune, and he was really all over that. It’s turned into a really great relationship. We’ve been playing for seven or eight years now. Almost every year we get together and do a month or a couple of weeks. This year it’ll be the same. We’ll be going to Europe as a duo in July, and then in August, we’re going to put the Flecktones and his electric band together and do a couple of weeks of summer touring. So that’ll be a lot of fun.
FJO: It’s surprising how well the piano and banjo blend with each other. They don’t seem like instruments that would complement each other. The same is true for your collaborations with all these extraordinary musicians from Africa, like Oumou Sangare, although—as you pointed out earlier in our conversation—the banjo’s origins are in Africa. But to take it back there and actually work with musicians there is yet another re-contextualization. What is this music? Is it world music? Is it traditional music? To my ears, it sounds like something else entirely.
BF: Well, it’s more of a mash up than I usually like because I didn’t have the opportunity to work with them so that they would change as I was changing. It’s more of me trying to morph into their world. It’s like them doing their thing and then, oh, look there’s Elmo in the middle. I was trying my best to try to do that thing we talked about, where you try to make it feel like it’s supposed to be there, not like a mash up on the Grammys where B.B. King is playing with Metallica and they just do their thing at the same time.
For me, a great collaboration is when both parties are changed by the collaboration and they don’t just do their thing. They actually have to adjust to each other. But because of the speed of that project, where I was in four countries over the course of essentially four weeks and playing with different people every day, there wasn’t time for that breaking in thing. It would have been interesting to see what would have happened with some of those people if I could have played with them for two weeks before we recorded. I was trying to do so much. At a certain point, I realized I didn’t have enough time to learn each musical situation as much as I wanted to, so I could really fit in. Eventually I just had to be myself in the situation—me with my positive and negative attributes in the middle of their music, doing my best. In some cases, I could really study something and really actually learn some deep things about their music and be able to play that on the banjo. In other cases, I would play like a jazz musician and just play what came to me.
“A great collaboration is when both parties are changed by the collaboration and they don’t just do their thing.”
FJO: So-called classical music—the Western classical variety at least—is different from all the other kinds of music we’ve been talking about today. In all of these other traditions, whether it’s bluegrass, jazz, karnatic ragas, or the praise songs of Malian djeli, individual musicians come together and find their own musical voices as they navigate various pre-established practices. But with classical music, the blueprint for the actual music already exists in an idealized form on paper and it is then brought to life when musicians play it. In a piece of music for a classical chamber music ensemble or an orchestra, each musician is given a specific written part. These musicians are trained to be the best they can possibly be at interpreting what somebody else has already written and then making all those parts fit together. That’s very different from you coming and playing with them, and then you all grow and do other things in response to each other. That’s not what classical music is about.
BF: The way a classical musician can improvise is with feel and tempo. They can stretch things. They can take things at totally different tempos. They can play with the tone and with the intensity. They can play with dynamics. The dynamics don’t have to be written in stone. In fact, in a lot of Bach’s music, he doesn’t write any dynamics at all, which gives the musician a chance to play with it. But no, I get your point. I’m just being difficult.
FJO: We talked earlier about traditions and how they evolved in bluegrass and in jazz; traditions evolved in classical music, too. Bach’s scores have very minimal dynamic indication and there are no metronomic indications at all because the metronome hadn’t been invented yet. So there are these amorphous tempo indications that musicologists now fight over. What does andante mean? How fast or slow should it be? But once you get to Beethoven, you get the metronome. Then throughout the 19th century, the details grow more and more specific.
BF: Imagine how frustrated these guys were with hearing their music played poorly. Why don’t they know to play this section stronger? It’s obvious, but it’s not obvious. They can’t tell, so I’ve got to write in these marks, just trying desperately to have some control over the situation. A lot of times, the premieres were disasters and got reviewed as such. Then you find out some years later that this is one of the greatest musical pieces ever created. Nobody ever heard what the composer had in mind till a long time later. Yeah, it’s got to have been very hard on those guys.
FJO: Your first foray into classical music, Perpetual Motion, was as an interpreter, performing transcriptions of classical pieces. But before that you did Uncommon Ritual with Edgar Meyer and Mike Marshall which, once again, is something else entirely yet it connects to classical music because it was embraced by classical music listeners even though it was an album of original compositions for instruments that aren’t necessarily part of the sound world of classical music. Perpetual Motion, however, consists of your own interpretations of classical music repertoire. But that’s different than writing classical music compositions that other musicians are playing, which is what you’ve been doing for the past five years.
BF: Right. So Edgar Meyer is my entrée into that world. I met Edgar when we were both very young, and he was in Aspen going to school there in the summers, in the string school that’s there. I was playing with New Grass Revival in one of my first years in that band. I heard there was this great bass player who played on the street, and I was like, “Oh, that’s cool. I used to play on the street in Boston.” So I went to see him that night and ended up getting out my banjo. We ended up having this jam and then going to someone’s house and playing late into the night. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Here’s a guy who’s a little younger than me who’s probably the greatest classical bass player who ever lived, but a lot more than that. He also has a great love and ability outside of that world, but has a lot of training as a classical player and is also a composer, although he’s insisted he was never actually trained as a composer. He just started writing. He’s been doing it the way he wants to, and he’s a genius composer.
So now I had a friend. When I got into bluegrass and first started listening to Flatt and Scruggs, it was a long time before I had a friend who was great at traditional music. It was a guy named Pat Enright, who joined Tasty Licks near the end. That’s when I really started being interested in traditional music again, when I heard somebody doing it great right next to me. Part of why I wanted to move down south and really understand that music was because of this Pat Enright character, who was such a great traditional singer that he gave me respect for the idiom. My stepfather is a wonderful guy and a good musician, but he’s not a charismatic young figure on the cello. He just loves to play classical music as a part of his life. But now with Edgar I had a young guy who’s my age, who’s dashing and exciting, and he plays the bass like no one’s ever played it before. And we’re peers, so I am not looking up at him like if he’d been Jascha Heifetz; he’s my pal. So that opened the door. “Hey, you want to learn some Bach?” I was like, “Okay!” And he would sit there and teach it to me one note at a time until I could play it. He had the patience to guide me through it. I would go see him do a recital with the piano and do some Scriabin and some Bach, and I would think, “Four hundred people sitting here listening to somebody play really beautiful, quiet music. I never get to do anything like that. For me to go play a recital with a piano player and learn some pieces like these, that would be neat.”
Then I watched him do his first orchestra piece, and it was brilliant. Then my other friend Mark O’Connor did one and I thought, “People like me are doing things like this. I should be thinking about doing this someday!” Though it wasn’t something I was excited to hurry into because I just didn’t feel very qualified. The door opened because there I was, in that orbit of Edgar. At a certain point we wrote a piece for banjo and string quartet that was commissioned by someone in the Nashville Arts Commission for the Blair String Quartet. That was the first writing I had done like that, and I saw how he did it. I saw how he thought and how he built. I provided ideas and melodies, and he would say, “That’s good; let’s work with that one. I can do a lot with that.” And he would just start doing stuff; he was the mastermind. Most people that are great classical composers are not good collaborators at composing. Edgar’s actually very good at trying to find a way to take a lot from the other person while still having the control of making it the kind of piece it should be to stand up in that world.
FJO: One of the most amazing things you composed together with Edgar and also with Zakir Hussain is a triple concerto that the three of you recorded with the Detroit Symphony. I’m curious to know how the three of you worked together on that.
BF: Edgar was open at the right times and he was closed at the right times. He took control when it was necessary. He let us contribute, but he knew the backbone of the piece needed to come from someone with an overview. So he was looking for the through story. Zakir was like, “I’ve got all these tablas. I can have different ones for different movements or different sections.” And Edgar said, “What if you have just one tabla in B and in the first movement we’ll play in F, and it will be the tritone, then we’ll move. The next one’ll be in A, and the B will be the second or the ninth, and then, when we’ve finally reached the third movement, we’re in B.” I don’t think that’s exactly the piece, but you get the idea. The creative tension and the resolution would be when we got to the last movement and we were really actually in B. That tone would be going through the whole piece. That was a good idea; it gave the piece a storyline. Anyway, first Edgar and I did a double concerto for the Nashville Symphony. Then they asked us to do a triple concerto when they built the new hall, because they wanted a piece to commemorate the opening.
“If the banjo was going to have any place in this world, there needed to be a banjo concerto.”
Then it was time for me to finally do my own. I had done a string quartet with Edgar. I had done a double concerto and done the triple, but there was still no banjo concerto. In a weird way, I thought the banjo concerto was the biggest missing piece in the repertoire. If the banjo was going to have any place in this world, there needed to be a banjo concerto. Until I started doing it, it didn’t seem like a hard thing to do because it’s so different from the orchestra. There are so many things you can show off that haven’t been heard in that context. But the trick is: Where’s the backbone? Where’s that brilliant Edgar mind to figure out how the whole thing’s going to go? That was where I struggled: not in coming up with ideas, but coming up with a big picture.
FJO: You wrote very extensive notes for the DG recording of your first banjo concerto, and in them you mentioned that you never felt particularly comfortable reading staff notation. You were really good at reading tablature, and so instead you composed with a banjo in hand then jotted down stuff in tablature. Thankfully, you could enter tablature into Sibelius, and it would convert it into notation.
BF: Sibelius changed my life. When I did Perpetual Motion, it was a much harder time to do a project like that. There were these transcriptions, and I had to get all the notes right. Somebody can play them all into MIDI, and you can have all the pitches and you can manipulate them if you want. Finale was the only program that was working at that time, and they had this goofy little tablature thing that didn’t take itself very seriously. The closest thing I could find was a four-string banjo tablature. I would copy all the notes and paste them onto that. There was no fifth string [in the tablature], so it would just put the notes anywhere on the neck it wanted to. They were the right notes, but I couldn’t manipulate them. Once they were on, they were on; I couldn’t change them. So I would print that out and then add an extra line and start whiting out them and moving them to the right string, to create fingerings that were possible. Before I learned each piece, I would go through this extensive process of getting the notes right and getting the fingerings right, because you don’t want to learn them before the fingerings are right. Banjo playing is all about playing things in the right place, because there are a lot of places to play the same thing. But if you play them in a wrong place, it’s not going to lead to the next phrase and you’re stuck. You can’t get to there from here. Everything has to lead properly, so it was a hell of a project. But then Sibelius came out and their tablature program was so great. If an E was a two on the second string, but I needed it to be at the 14th fret of the fourth string instead of down there, because the next note was going to be way up here, I could just pull it and the number would change, and it would go to the right number all of a sudden. It was a very effective tablature program, and it would have made Perpetual Motion so much easier to do and so much more fun. Now I have a way that I can really manipulate the tablature. If I write something complex, I can take that tablature and paste it onto a music staff and Howard Levy or Chick Corea can read it. I have a way to communicate with those guys, even though I can’t read their notation.
FJO: So when you were working out individual parts in the concerto like, say, a part for clarinet, did you originally write it out in banjo tab and then convert it back using Sibelius?
“Sibelius changed my life.”
BF: Not exactly. Writing the banjo concerto, with orchestra staves which have all the instruments, I had a variety of things I could do. One is just throw notes on there and move them around until I heard the pitch I wanted, and then change the value until I got the value I wanted, and then add the next note—do it one at a time like that. Or I could come up with a banjo idea, put it into tablature, and then orchestrate it slowly with that same procedure. Or I could get an idea in my head and try to put it in one note at a time on the clarinet—sing along, like I would if I was producing a record and someone came in to do a clarinet part, and we’re trying to come up with the part. I would just start singing until I found something that was missing from the music. They’d learn it and then they would embroider it. I could do that by myself. I could build the bass part, build the melody, then look for inner voices that were missing and sing them, then try to find them and put them in one note at a time. I did the orchestral writing more that way. Because if you put a note on a staff and pop it up until you find the note you want, it’s kind of like writing in the dark, writing by ear rather than by writing by knowledge. So that’s how both of those concertos were written.
FJO: What’s interesting though is they’re written and they’re fixed on the page. It’s not the same as humming a clarinet part to a studio musician who could learn it that way and then, as you say, embroider it. In classical music, the musicians expect to have the music that you want already worked out—down to tempo markings, dynamics, and articulations—so they can do right by you.
BF: Yeah, you’ve got to give them everything. But you don’t start out with that. You start out with: where’s the heart of this thing? Where’s the beat coming from? Then gradually, as you get closer to the end point when you have to deliver it, you start to fill in all the dynamics. Now you know what they all are because you realize as you’re going along that you actually know everything you want. But you don’t know that when you’re first writing. I do it as a constantly evolving process. I keep on adding to it.
FJO: So how flexible are you then with it?
BF: You mean once I get to the orchestra?
FJO: Since you come to other music with an improvising player’s sensibility, I wonder how open you are to musicians reshaping your original intentions.
BF: When I work with Brooklyn Rider, who are also on the new Juno record, it’s so much more of a flexible situation where we could talk about every measure. Everybody’s going to have an opinion about every single phrase, about how they should bow it, about whether we should pull it back rhythmically. You can’t have that dialogue with 90 people on an orchestra stage. But you have the illusion of that kind of dialogue with the conductor where he says, “Maestro, it’s your music. Just tell me what you want.” And I go, “No, you’re the conductor. If you have a strong feeling, please let me know.” But in the end, it’s really going to come down to us doing it as close to what I envisioned as possible, and he’s going to be a sweetheart about it, and he’s going to try to get it there. I’m going to be flexible if it’s tough and there are things that we can’t quite get. I’m going to be cautious and not overstep my bounds as a visiting artist with the symphony. It’s this dance. It all has to happen very fast. You get one rehearsal and then a dress rehearsal the next day. It’s hard music. So there has to be a structure and free will is not really an option. Sadly.
I’m going to be flexible if it’s tough and there are things that we can’t quite get.
FJO: You wished you had more time to work with the musicians when you were travelling around Africa, rather than only a week, but with an orchestra you’ve got just two hours.
BF: Right. That’s why everything has to be set. It really is two hours. We’ve got a two-and-half-hour rehearsal. You only get the first hour because they have to practice the Copland for the second. And the next morning, we get to do a run through, a dress rehearsal. We play it down and we fix a few things, and then that’s it. Luckily I’ve got my part down. I know how valuable that rehearsal time is and when I show up in front of an orchestra, I need to convince them this is worth them caring about somehow. So I play every rehearsal as if it’s the final performance. I try to play my parts as convincingly as I do at the concert because I want them to go, “Oh, this is actually pretty good. I’d better sound as good as the soloist.” I want the band to sound as good as the soloist. A lot of times they’ve got 150 services that year. They’ve got to have a reason to care about each one. Everyone wants to do a good job, but it’s just coming at them day after day after day. You’re going to be gone in two days. It’s just like being a session player. You want the session player to care about your song. You want passion.
FJO: You called your first concerto TheImposter, which can mean many different things depending on how you interpret it. It could be about feeling like you’re somehow not a “real” composer because you’d never written such a thing before.
FJO: But now you’ve written two of these things, so you’re definitely not inexperienced at this anymore. The second one had to have been easier to write than the first one.
BF: I wasn’t as frightened while I was writing it.
FJO: And in your description about this second concerto, you described how writing music has become an activity that you can do at all hours, really late at night or early in the morning when your wife and three-year-old son are both asleep. You treasure having this alone time to write this music, but this is completely different than how you’ve been creating music your whole life—making music with other people and getting ideas from being in that zone.
BF: It’s really different. I’ve also had to learn that if you’ve only got a half an hour, or 45 minutes, you can’t go, “Well, that’s not enough time to get something done.” It’s kind of like being healthy. I need to learn these things, too. I’ve only got 15 minutes; that’s not enough time to work out. Well, it is. You can go do some pushups. You can go walk around the block. So I say, “Okay, I’ve got 15 minutes, maybe I can just work on that counterpoint in movement three.” I can work on that because I know I haven’t got that piccolo thing working right with the bassoon, or whatever thing that I’m working on. I’ve learned that you can accomplish a lot of little things. You should never look at a small amount of time as a reason not to work. Just put on the headphones. Go listen and do some work on something you’re not satisfied with. At some point, you’ll have to put in enough work to have something worth working on. Tweaking is just a piece of it. You have to have inspiration. You have to have melodies you love enough and materials that you think are meaningful enough to develop.
“You should never look at a small amount of time as a reason not to work.”
The great thing has been that I don’t have to travel away from my family very much. If I go do actual performances, it’s going to be three or four days. It’s not like I’m joining a band and going around the world to promote a new record. Orchestra dates are not constant. They’re occasional, and the writing is a way for me to continue to explore and be the kind of musician that I want to be in the context of this new life where my wife and I are playing a more folk-based kind of music as the center of what I’m doing with my life, so that in this period where my son is young, we can all be together. We travel together as a family. But that doesn’t mean I don’t still need to do complicated music.
FJO: So now that you realize you don’t have to tour around the world and that you can write music from your home, the next step is for you write pieces that you’re not playing in.
BF: I haven’t gotten to that point yet. I’ve thought about it, but I haven’t quite crossed over to that. Edgar finally did his first one, just a few weeks ago. He wrote a piece for the Nashville Symphony, his first symphony, and he’s not playing on it. I have to talk to him about how that felt. I’m not sure that anyone would be that interested in it if I wasn’t playing, but we’ll see what happens. Maybe someone will ask me to do something like that one day.
FJO: I’m totally interested. I want to hear a wind quintet by you, especially after hearing about your attempts with a French horn in high school. You could get some other French horn player to finally play that F!
BF: Yes. You get the F, man. I’m not getting the F. I’ll get the G. The banjo’s tuned to G. But it’s exciting to put the banjo in front of an orchestra. It’s a classy situation. It presents the banjo in a way that has been very rare, and I’ve been able to do it a lot now. And it broadens the reach. My audience, a lot of them might not go to a classical show; some of them would, but a lot of them might not. But because they like what I do, they will come and see an orchestra and have this different experience. They want to see what that’s like. Then there’s the audience that only goes to classical shows, which is a lot of people in our country. They bought the series tickets in this town or that town, and they come to all the shows, ten shows a year, whatever, and that’s their musical life. Now here I am stuck in the middle of that, and then they see that. Between those two audiences, it’s usually a pretty good audience. A lot of times the orchestras tell me that it was a really solid turnout for what they do, or better than normal. So it makes me feel good.
FJO: How would you feel about another banjo player playing one of your concertos and you sitting in the audience?
BF: That’s fine. I’m hopeful that that will happen one day. There are certainly four or five now that could do them probably better than me in terms of ability—like Noam Pikelny or Ryan Cavanaugh. They wouldn’t conceptualize things or write things the way I can, but they can play the things and they have their own music that they’re obviously great at. There was a long time when I was the only person who could play this stuff, but I think that’s changed and I’m excited for that. And that’s part of why I want to create a lot of repertoire for the banjo in the classical world, so that banjo players have something they can do. There was no repertoire. Playing transcriptions is really a losing game because a piece that’s written for the piano, by the time you reduce it to fit on the banjo, it’s just not what it was made for. But if you can write some new music that is made for what the banjo does well, then it can win. It’s not trying to be a violin. You can learn a lot from learning music for other instruments, but in the end you’ve got to be yourself. Classical music for the banjo should be written around what the banjo does great, just like Chopin is written around what the piano does great.
“Classical music for the banjo should be written around what the banjo does great.”
FJO: The banjo has been so central to your life that you’ve even married another banjo player, Abigail Washburn, who is also an extraordinary musician and now—which you’ve already mentioned—you play music together. I’m curious if living with someone else who is also a formidable force on the instrument has changed your musical aesthetics in any way and vice versa. Are you influenced by what she’s done? And she by you? How has that played out?
BF: I think we both helped each other be better musicians, and she’s certainly helped me to be a better person. And the process of having a child has taught me a lot about putting things into perspective. What’s important is not always the same at every given moment. Music doesn’t always win. But sometimes it makes you a better person to realize that, and then it makes you a better musician—the things that you care about writing and the way you approach it. And she’s taught me. She plays in a different style from me, what we call clawhammer; I play three-finger. They’ve almost never historically played together. So what we’ve got within our household is an opportunity to create something that’s never been before, which is a musical form based around these two banjo styles interacting. And luckily she’s a fabulous singer and a very good songwriter. What she does great is she creates bedrock parts to build the songs around, which means I can be free-wheeling on top, being a soloist, or I can be the bass player. Or she can be the bass player and I can do the other parts. There are a lot of different ways to arrange those two banjos. She also gives me a chance to play some beautiful music in a different style than I’ve gotten to do in a long time and to work with a vocalist, which I haven’t gotten to do really since New Grass Revival days in a regular way.
“I think that instrumental music is great for the brain, but it doesn’t mean I don’t love great vocals.”
I love working with vocalists. It’s not that I’m anti-vocal. I love the banjo being the center, too, and not having to have a vocal for the music to be complete. I think that instrumental music is great for the brain, but it doesn’t mean I don’t love great vocals. She has a purity and a warmth and a truth-ness to her singing that moves me, and I get excited about working with it and creating musical structures around it and improvising around it, too. So that’s really good. And I teach her, because her style and the way she’s learned it, she was never ambitious to become a hotshot banjo player. In that world of banjo, that’s not really what it’s about anyway. Old time playing is more about groove and rhythm. But I’ve helped her to add things to her toolkit to make the songs better and voicelead a little bit when we’re creating a song. I’ll say, “Well, that part’s great. Just add this note. That’s going to give you the flat sixth, and it’ll be really cool as a passing chord on the way to this.” Then suddenly we have a voiceleading in her part that gives me the opportunity to do something else on top. You know, those kinds of things. But I try to point her towards things that are super natural—not supernatural—for her style. And she seems to enjoy just getting pushed out of a corner. She’s used to doing this. What if you have to restart after five notes? It’s the same pattern you always do, but you’ve got to restart it. That suddenly gives us a new kind of groove to play with. I throw ideas at her, and she throws ideas at me.
FJO: You named your son Juno, but as far as I know there are no significant 20th-century composers named Juno.
BF: Right. Some writers.
FJO: So is Juno going to be playing the banjo?
BF: He plays a little ukulele banjo now, strumming. And he loves to buck dance. He sees momma dance on stage with me and so he copies that. It’s really fun to watch him do that. He loves to play golf. That seems to be his biggest passion so far. Neither of us are golfers. It’s just one of those fluky things. He saw it on TV when he was with his grandfather, because we don’t watch TV with him right now very much at all. We don’t want to get that going. But once he saw that, all of a sudden, he wanted to golf, and so he’s been pretty serious about that for the last couple of years.
FJO: Beware of watching TV because watching the Beverly Hillbillies on TV is what set you on your way.
BF: That’s right. It was a very special thing that they let us watch TV for that hour in my grandparents’ bedroom when I was four or five. It was an unusual thing. We weren’t afraid of TV back then. This would have been like ’62 or ’63. Now we know we should be afraid of it.
Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn’s son Juno graces the cover of Fleck’s latest recording Juno Concerto, released by Rounder Records on March 3, 2017, which features his second banjo concerto performed with the Colorado Symphony conducted by Jose Luis Gomez as well as quintets for banjo and string quartet performed with Brooklyn Rider.
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 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.”
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.”
“I hear what you are going for,” Hafez said to me. “You have clearly worked on this music and developed these Indian ornamentations within your improvisation.” It was my first week at the Banff International Workshop for Jazz and Creative Music in 2013, and I was fortunate enough to get a lesson from saxophonist, composer, and conceptualist Hafez Modirzadeh. I had just played a solo saxophone piece that I had developed over the previous couple of years and my adrenaline was pumping a little more than usual. Hafez’s recordings were frequently on my playlist, and I was excited by this opportunity to study with him. After a slight pause to think about my solo, he suggested, “But you know the goal is to move beyond ethnic stylizations towards a concept of universal music.” Universal music? No ethnic stylizations? That blew my mind. “That’s not even my idea,” Hafez continued. “John Coltrane said that.”
I felt the thrill of the unknown. Prior to this lesson, I was fervently driven by a personal mission to express the hybridity of my biology and experience as a half-Indian/half-Euro-American person within my music. The search for stylistic confluence manifested itself in numerous trips to study in India and four recordings of original music that explored Indian concepts, environments, and sounds within my jazz quartet. Despite my commitment to an ethnic-identity-driven music, Hafez’s words resonated deeply within me. On an intuitive level, I knew that this was the next step in my journey. I had a deluge of questions. How is universal music possible? Is not music, like language, born of culture and environment? Is not each musical style a unique expression of place and experience? For years, ethnic stylization had been one of my favorite aspects of music. I treasured the diversity of forms music seemed to take across cultures. Could I really abandon an idea so integral to my identity? In a sense, Hafez’s challenge threw into question everything I believed in artistically. The nature of music itself—what it is, why we make it, and its function in our lives—may not be what I was conditioned to think it is. It was a life-changing moment that sent me down a path of inquiry, exploration, and creative destruction that I am still traversing to this day.
Hafez’s call to action was only the first of many revelatory experiences during that opening week in Banff, Canada. Composer/pianist Vijay Iyer gave me the first building block I would use to develop my ideas surrounding universal music. In a room full of workshop participants, he said something akin to, “Genres don’t exist. They were invented by record companies to sell albums. Genres are an attempt to categorize a community of people who come together and create something.” Once again, I was confronted with a paradigm shift. My musical training, rhetoric, and artistic upbringing had been a world of categories, styles, and genres hinged together. I thought of the countless hours spent trying to play a style correctly and how often I seemed to fail in that goal. At that time, I was already bothered by the mentality that our musical ancestors had somehow received the divine right to invent and that all the rest of us could hope for was to imitate. Yet I was encumbered with the popular notion that I needed to “learn the rules” before I could “break them.” At what point were the rules learned and the breaking could begin? The goal of stylistic execution was perpetually in conflict with my interest as I attempted to occupy both worlds. I embraced Vijay’s comment. He was giving me the words I needed to articulate what I believed and felt all along.
I also tried to untangle myself from some of the ideas about art that hold us back from reaching our imaginative and creative potential.
Over the past three years I have thought long and hard about Hafez and Vijay’s words. It is a topic that I am always eager to discuss with the artistic communities I encounter in my work. Through this series of essays, I am excited to share the recent odyssey that changed the way I conceptualize and create music. Though the story begins in Banff, Canada, it crosses the globe to Kolkata, India, and lands in New York City. Inside these environments, I played music with numerous people and gathered experiences that would contribute towards a concept of universal music. I also tried to untangle myself from some of the ideas about art that hold us back from reaching our imaginative and creative potential. However, before I could start building a model of universal music, I had to remove a large obstacle that was in my way: the genre.
Genres Don’t Exist
As I ruminated on my Banff experience, I began to understand that the idea of musical genre is an illusion that ignores the plurality of ideas, experiences, and sounds that exist within a community. When a sonic experience is reduced to a category, we establish boundaries that inhibit creativity with notions of stylistic correctness. This approach creates myriad problems that throw into question the objectivity that is inherently placed on genre. Among these problems are two issues that I feel are of particular importance.
The concept of genre divorces music from the people who create it.
First, the concept of genre divorces music from the people who create it. In order to define a style, we homogenize seemingly congruent elements across people and time to assemble a grocery list of digestible characteristics. Jazz is reduced to a collection of ride cymbal patterns, walking bass lines, seventh chord voicings, and improvised chromaticism. Hindustani music becomes a modal jam within odd time signatures peppered with exotic ornamentations. Music that was once riding the crest of mutative feedback loops becomes frozen in time. What is left is a shell of compiled theories, historical patterns, and reductive features often devoid of the processes and unquantifiable elements of creativity. The genre now exists abstractly. It looms over us large and menacing as we struggle to determine if this composition is ambient or minimalist and if that improviser is playing hard-bop or post-bop. In our desire to identify the sound, we lose the nuance of each performance that made the music so powerful in the first place.
Essentially, musical systems are neither bound to nor described completely by fixed, geometric abstractions (including scales or tunings), for they are developed qualitatively, through a personal relating to acoustical properties and organizing principles of sound not fully understood through a quantifiable lens.
In this statement, Hafez touches on several critical points. To truly understand the art experience, we need to embrace the unknown. Much in the same way the ancient Greeks resisted the mathematical concept of zero in order to protect their certainty in a static universe, we depend on genre to bolster fixed artistic beliefs. Modirzadeh acknowledges the existence of musical systems while simultaneously liberating them from the world of “fixed, geometric abstractions.” This embrace of the infinite offers an alternative viewpoint to the one fixed by idiom. The unknown allows us to focus on the infinite processes of creativity.
When examining art through the lens of style, we are immediately bombarded by another problem: what person or which group of people has the privilege of defining a genre and its characteristics? In the history of music, the role of the definer becomes a political conflict. Within North Indian communities, the term classical was often attached to raga music as a way to equalize their own complex and highly structured sounds in the context of colonial rule. Definitions of jazz often illuminate racial polarity and social movements in the United States, while European classical forms often frame class and patronage systems. Who has the power to define music? The critic? The academic? The audience? The artist? In the book Forces in Motion, Graham Lock shares Anthony Braxton’s view on definitions of jazz:
The problem with jazz, and this is a point I’d like to stress, is that they’re defining the music in such a way that you cannot do your best. So there’s something inherently wrong with how jazz has been defined. They have it defined now where, if you think of writing a piece for 500 saxophones, you’re looked at as having nothing to do with jazz. Or if you practice your instruments to where you really gain the kind of facility you need, and create the kind of language that expresses that, they say it’s not jazz. Take rhythm. How many articles have I read about the fact that my music doesn’t “swing”? Yet all of the masters have developed their own relationship to forming, to rhythmic contours, etc. The situation now is designed so that jazz is framed in a little box and if you don’t follow in someone else’s footsteps, someone who is so-called jazz, then you’re automatically excommunicated. But all the masters followed their own steps, so it’s a contradiction in terms.
Anthony Braxton immediately challenges the act of defining jazz and the limits these definitions put on creative work. As soon as a category gains specific criteria, such as the common phrase “jazz must swing,” the problem of definitions continues. What is “swing” and who gets to define it? Braxton aligns himself with the masters who “followed their own steps” as a reference to his creative process. This emphasis of process over product further contests the role of the definer as one that is actually removed from the history of the music, rather than upholding it. Ultimately, the act of establishing a genre risks becoming the act of one group of people defining the identities of another group of people.
Our society loves the illusion of a lone genius. When we dig a little further, we uncover the reality that creative work is born of collaboration and community.
Once genre was out of the way, it became easier for me to understand that music is about communities of people. People making sound, people listening to sound, people moving to sound, people navigating sound, and even people trying to ignore sound. In place of static and definitive categories what we have are people. And people are messy. People have fluid identities, can be unpredictable, and are trying to navigate an existence they do not fully understand.
When I started looking at music through the lens of human interaction, what emerged was a world of collaborations. I realized that my favorite works of art were born of very specific relationships that existed within a flowing spectrum of social dynamics. One of my favorite polymaths is J.R.R. Tolkien, whose friendship with C.S. Lewis was pivotal in his work. Tolkien once said of Lewis, “The unpayable debt that I owe to [Lewis] was not ‘influence,’ as it is ordinarily understood, but sheer encouragement. He was for long my only audience. Only from him did I ever get the idea that my ‘stuff’ could be more than a private hobby.” Similarly, Vincent Van Gogh’s brother Theo acted as patron and critic to the artist in addition to his familial role. We could list creative dyads for the rest of this essay: Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway, Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Alla Rakha. Individually these people are certainly hard workers and creative thinkers, but what struck me was the realization that their work was always collaborative. Our society loves the illusion of a lone genius re-inventing genres within a vacuum. When we dig a little further, we uncover the reality that creative work is born of collaboration and community.
Hafez Modirzadeh student ensemble at Banff International workshop, August 2013.
This emphasis on human relationships brings into question the idea of artistic tradition. Tradition implies groups of people sharing behaviors over a course of history, so wouldn’t it be simple enough to replace the word “genre” with the word “tradition”? Yet this also falls into the same trap of categorization. While traditions encompass human activities, it is still too easy to define them as collections of static practices and performances devoid of the immeasurable nuance of artistic process. Traditions fall prey to the same questions that confront styles. They often take on a life of their own and are subject to the politics of definition. Every tradition was at one time a new idea, previously untried and wholly experimental. The process of someone teaching another person how to create a sound will always mutate the practice and performance of that sound.
What is left now that we have crossed out the words genre and tradition? Rather than upholding a tradition, I argue that we are really contributing to a continuum. The continuum implies a process that includes the past, present, and an undetermined future. Instead of working towards a fixed arrival, it allows us to be the next segment of an indefinable shape. The continuum acknowledges that we wouldn’t be in our present state without what has come before, establishes the importance of the present moment as the only one that exists, and allows for a future of unlimited possibility.
In this argument against genre, I am not suggesting that we eliminate the words bebop, minimalism, or dhrupad from our vocabulary; rather, I am advocating that we change the way we think about and use these words. These words represent people who lived in a very real place and time. They navigated the struggles of life while creating, discussing, disagreeing, and influencing each other. Yes, past communities of people shared musical vocabulary, but each person’s use of that vocabulary was ultimately unique. This recognition that traditions and genres are simply people engaging in the exact same creative processes we have today is liberating. We are no longer obliged to contain our creativity within someone else’s box, and we can take the “greats” off of their pedestals and bring them back down to earth.
Aakash Mittal and Julius Schwing in the Banff Center recording studio. August 2013.
What Music Can Be
What is left when we have eliminated the terms, groupings, and rules of style? Sound.
This break from categorization and genre towards communities and relationships reveals a universal thread that ties musical continuums together. What is left when we have eliminated the terms, groupings, and rules of style? Sound. It is so simple and yet is so profound. Hafez and Vijay were not trying to tell me to abandon all concepts of ethnic identity. They were encouraging me to see past the illusion of static categorization towards the reality of our nature, which is that we are making sound as part of a spectrum of human relationships.
This emphasis on sound was further clarified for me in a letter the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Luther Adams wrote in response to the chairman of a graduate composition program. “My traditional background is sound—an intense love for sound and very little else. The power of sound will always be more important to me than any techniques, conventions or traditions.” Adams’s prioritization of sound over genre allowed him to create imaginative works such as songbirdsongs and Strange and Sacred Noise that blur the lines between the categories that societies use to define art. His music often explores the liminality between sound and noise. Within his music, I hear rigorously composed designs that could be improvised or aleatoric. The process that Adams uses to reach the sound is secondary to the sound itself.
I was similarly struck when the mythologist Joseph Campbell said that “sound is the transcendent unknown” during his interview for The Power of Myth. In simple terms, Campbell is addressing the importance and weight of the sonic experience without reference to genre, style, or even music. The word transcendent implies a journey “beyond ordinary limits,” which can also be viewed as a “bottom-up” approach, whereas genre purports to fill the void with definitive answers where they don’t exist, which could be conversely thought of as a “top-down” approach.
The bottom-up model is a continuum that starts with fundamental elements and experiences that build in complexity and direction over time while moving infinitely towards the unknown. The top-down model starts with a definition or arrival point and works backwards establishing a concrete path towards the destination. The top-down model is useful for many things in life, but all it takes is one hiccup along the way to remember you are actually traversing a continuum.
Without the boundaries of style, we are only limited by our imagination, patience, and stamina.
It is easy to confuse this denunciation of category with the abandonment of rigorous study and hard work. Where would we be without the hours spent practicing etudes, transcriptions, and paltas (north Indian scale patterns) that are so often tied to the concept of genre and tradition within music study? I am not encouraging a rejection of the theory and systematic practice that frequently accompanies the study of a genre. These elements are very important to numerous people’s creative process. Theories often provide tools, logic, and systems for creation. Rather, I am advocating that we prioritize human connections and sound when embarking on a creative endeavor. We can keep theories theoretical and open them up to examination and reinvention. This will allow us to explore the process from which systems emerged and use that process to create our own methods. Let us remember that at the core of our musical traditions are sound and people.
This viewpoint gives us an opportunity to enter a new dimension of creative potential. Without the boundaries of style, we are only limited by our imagination, patience, and stamina. Other people become fellow creators and sound makers rather than members of musical castes. These relationships create landscapes of human activity that generate dynamic and meaningful work. When this work is divorced from top-down constraints, it has the potential to resonate within our primordial being as well as design futures previously unimagined. When we let go of the need for genre and embrace the plurality of sound experiences and human relationships, we become open to “not just what music is but what it can be.” We also take a step toward creating a universal music.
1. This is how I remember my conversation with Hafez Modirzadeh.
2. Specifically Coltrane said, “If you want to look beyond the differences in style, you will confirm that there is a common base . . . take away their purely ethnic characteristics—that is, their folkloric aspect—and you’ll discover the presence of the same pentatonic sonority, of comparable modal structures. It’s this universal aspect of music that interests me and attracts me; that’s what I’m aiming for.” Quoted in: Porter, Lewis. John Coltrane: His Life and Music. Porter, Lewis. John Coltrane: His Life and Music. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998. pp. 211
3. This is how I remember Vijay’s talk at the Banff workshop.
4. Modirzadeh, Hafez. “On the Convergence Liberation of Makam X.” Critical Studies in Improvisation, Vol. 7, No. 2. 2011, Criticalimprov.com pp. 1
5. Seife, Charles. Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea.. Penguin Putnam Inc. 2000. pp. 46
6. Banerjee, Prattyush. “North Indian Classical Music: Traditional Knowledge and Modern Interpretations.” Lecture presentation at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, India. March 20-22 2014. In south Asian languages it is called Hindustani raga music.
7. Lock, Graham. Forces in Motion: The music and thoughts of Anthony Braxton. Da Capo Press, 1988. pp. 91
9. Suh, Anna H. Van Gogh’s Letters. Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, 2006. pp. 9
10. The idea of thinking in terms of continuums was introduced to me by reading Anthony Braxton’s interviews and writings.
11. I chose to represent continuums linearly for the sake of this essay. In reality, I believe they are even more webbed, curved, and more complicated than my simple drawing.
12. Adams, John L. Winter Music: Composing the North. Middletown, CT. Wesleyan University Press. 2004. pp. 31
13. Campbell, Joseph. The Power of Myth, with Bill Moyers. Anchor Books. 1991. pp. 121
14. “transcendent”. Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. 21 Sep. 2016. Dictionary.com
15. This is another Vijay Iyer quote that I remember from Banff.
Hailed as “A fiery alto saxophonist and prolific composer” by the Star Tribune (Minneapolis), Aakash Mittal is emerging as an expressive artistic voice. His self-released album, Videsh, has been regarded as, “point[ing] toward new possibilities in improvised music.” (The Denver Post) As a composer and improviser, Mittal employs colorful dissonances, meditative silences, and angular rhythms to express environments and spaces ranging from the American west to the dense streets of Kolkata.
Teresa Louis, Matt Moore, Jayanthi Bunyan, and Meera Dugal for reading and reviewing these essays. Molly Sheridan, Frank Oteri, and NewMusicBox for giving me this opportunity and your ongoing support of the new music community. Hafez Modirzadeh and Vijay Iyer for their ongoing support of my artistic growth. New York City Public Libraries for providing a quiet and air conditioned space in which I could work.
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.
FJO: One of the musicians you mentioned being taken to hear live by your father was Max Roach. He seems like someone who could have been an important role model for you. The reason I wanted to ask you what first sparked your passion for music was to get a sense of what aspect spoke to you first. Many people say that before they started making their own music, there were certain melodies they heard—either live or on recordings—that they latched on to. Others have spoken specifically about certain sonorities, instruments, or the sheer power of the sound. And then there are folks who were captivated by rhythms, harmonies, even bass lines. But the way many people are taught about music initially is that there’s a melody and then everything underneath it. But music is much more than that. It’s all of these components. On your website you include an autobiographic essay in which you mention vibrations being the prime thing that brought you to music. But I think, and maybe you’ll debate with me on this, that vibrations are perhaps an ur-concept that then trickles down first to rhythm, and then to everything else. Putting rhythm first is about looking at music in terms of how it happens in time and in pulsation. In Western classical music, the role of percussionists has mostly been marginalized. The role of even the most prominent orchestral percussion instrument, timpani, is mostly just as an embellishment in the repertoire. In jazz, the drummer has historically been a core member of a combo or a big band, but was usually still a side man. Then Max Roach came along and was the leader of his own groups. He really foregrounded the element of percussion to the point where when you listen to a Max Roach solo, he’s playing melodies on his drum set. Art Blakey, too, and as the leader of the Jazz Messengers, he nurtured generations of musicians. You described the epiphany you had with the hand drummers, so clearly you were responding to the physicality of percussion and rhythm.
AR: You’ve said a lot of really interesting things. There’s a great quote of Max Roach that I can paraphrase that resonates with me today: “I’d rather be a musician than a drummer, and I’d rather be an artist than a musician.” That’s always been very inspirational to me and it’s what I strive to do. There are a lot of great musicians, but not everybody has a vision about what they want to do. He did, clearly.
But the other way to respond to what you’re talking about is that our culture in some ways is sort of this upside down world. When I lived in Ghana in 1977, I experienced what people call a “master drummer.” It meant that you had a significant understanding of a lot more than just playing music. Often times the people actually looked to the drummers as sort of a moral compass and people who approach things with a certain kind of ethic. They understood about the virtuosity of what they did in resonance with the functionality of what you were trying to do. Like if you’re trying to call down spirits, or help somebody pass beyond life into what comes next, or come from what came before into life. All of these kinds of things. You have to have a really deep understanding of that. It’s very inspirational to think about that idea.
Whereas here there’s a sort of denial of the idea of rhythm. I think it’s related to the history of slavery and racism. But even beyond that, I think it goes to the roots of European so-called classical music. It has to do with the denial of the idea of the play of Shiva and Shakti—the male and female energies—which has to do with sex, the fundamental thing from which everything happens and is created and born. I think that denial or repression of rhythm in European classical or upper class music was also transferred over here. In this so-called jazz world, there’s this upside down idea that Elvin Jones was accompanying John Coltrane, or Tony Williams was accompanying Miles Davis. That’s not how it worked, and that’s not even how they themselves thought about it. Coltrane could never have done what he did without being in dialogue with Elvin Jones. And vice versa. One time I was at Ornette Coleman’s house, and we were listening to a duet record that Yusef Lateef and I had done, because he loved Yusef and his playing, and he said, “It sounds like Yusef is accompanying you.” And I knew exactly what he meant. It wasn’t that I was out front or anything like that, but we were in a real dialogue. And actually I think during that period of the ‘40s and ‘50s, especially after Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, there was a certain kind of codification of instrumentation and functionality of what the instruments did. Yet even when you go back before Louis Armstrong or Jelly Roll Morton, there’s much more of this sense of dialogue going on. But let’s be clear: the drums were banned here. And there’s still a stigma about it. I mean, every pianist can be a band leader and go out and front. But for a drummer, it’s difficult. Beyond that, for a hand drummer, it’s even something else again.
People have fixed ideas about what they know—about genres, what’s expected of you, and who’s allowed to do what or what should be doing what, or whatever. To me, the creative impulse goes back to when I was 14 and this intuitive idea of developing my own language on hand drums to play the music that really fascinated me and that I started to imagine. I didn’t really know what that was going to be, but it’s amazing because now, going on 40-plus years later, it still is serving me, and I’m still pursuing that. The idea of the cultivation of intuition is very important because there is this interplay, of course, between the intellect and intuition. But, a lot of times, the cultivation of the intuition itself is fascinating.
To address something else you said—because you actually said a lot—when I was talking about vibration, what I mean is that everything is vibrating in the universe. So, we’re sitting on this planet. We’re sitting on these chairs. We’re bodies, but when you move into the finer elements of vibration, we can talk about it as thought, or even feeling or spirit. By spirit, I’m not talking about religion. I’m talking about mystery. Music is all about communication in this finer element of vibration. But it’s not just words. When you really think about it as a manifestion of what we do, vibration manifests as a duality. That’s what you were referencing. The duality being motion and color, we could say. What motion is, of course, is that we perceive reality temporally, so that has to do with musical terms, what we call rhythm, and how rhythm comes into being. And then the other side is color, which has to do with the overtone series and of course harmony and melody. But the thing is they’re both manifestations of the same thing. And they relate to each other in a very specific way because when you move into dimensionality, the overtone of the [perfect] fifth is the overtone that gives you the dimensionality of all the pitches possible. In rhythm, it’s the three and the two element which gives you all the potentiality of rhythms, both horizontally and vertically. So it’s very interesting because three and two is the sonic relationship of the fifth [3:2], so that’s the same thing.
In 1977, I went up to the Dogon. I stayed in a village called Sanga, which was not so easy to get to then, and I started to learn about the Dogon philosophy. The female energy they call tolo and the male energy they call nya. They have a proverb that roughly translates, “Everything is a marriage and an interplay between male and female energy.” So Tolo/Nya, Shiva/Shakti, Ying/Yang, this kind of thing. Again, we’re into this idea of this energy that becomes creative. As I said before about the harmonic series, you have a linearity of the octave, but as soon as you have the fifth, the next overtone, that opens it up to the fifth of the fifth of the fifth, the circle of fifths, and the pentatonic scale. Everything becomes possible, so that three and two, that male-female energy, is very interesting. Those manifestations of vibration are really significant. Now why is that important? It’s important to me because as a composer, as a spontaneous composer and a writing composer, I’m interested in elements. These are the most pure elements. I read a book by Michio Kaku called Hyperspace, and in it, he’s talking about theoretical physics where there are 11 dimensions. What’s interesting is as you move into the higher dimensions, the laws of physics become simpler and simpler. And I think this is true in music, too, as we move from style into elements. And it’s liberating to me. It’s a full circle back to Max Roach and this idea of being an artist and what is your vision of what that could be. How that manifests in this culture, in this time and place, is a challenge for many of us in a lot of different kinds of ways.
FJO: I’ve never heard such a succinct correlation between the rise of Western classical music and the suppression of sexuality. I’m curious about how these relationships play out in other cultural paradigms. I’m thinking about the North Indian and South Indian classical music traditions where there’s either a vocalist or a melodic instrument in a musical dialogue with a percussionist. They are equal partners to some extent, but there’s still an idea that the musician playing the melodies of the raga is somehow the lead soloist and that the tabla or mridangam player is the accompanist. So even though they feed off of each other, there is a perceived hierarchy. But then when you get to Africa and all the various musical cultures there, whether it’s the Manding culture that spans from Senegal and Gambia through Mali or the traditional culture of the Shona in Zimbabwe, that hierarchy is largely eroded. In other places, such as Ghana where you spoke of master drummers, the hierarchy is completely flipped. The principal drummer is the central figure.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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 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 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.
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.
Frank J. Oteri is an ASCAP-award winning composer and music journalist. Among his compositions are Already Yesterday or Still Tomorrow for orchestra, the "performance oratorio" MACHUNAS, the 1/4-tone sax quartet Fair and Balanced?, and the 1/6-tone rock band suite Imagined Overtures. His compositions are represented by Black Tea Music. Oteri is the Vice President of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and is Composer Advocate at New Music USA where he has been the Editor of its web magazine, NewMusicBox.org, since its founding in 1999.
Oct 1, 2016
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