On Thursday, April 10, just a week after the incredibly successful SEAMUS national experimental music conference, Crowell Concert Hall was once again filled with innovative and exploratory music, this time provided by renowned composer and performer Adam Rudolph. Specializing in hand drums, Rudolph took the stage with his Moving Pictures ensemble, a collection of brilliant musicians from across the country. The instrumentation included several African-style drums played by Rudolph, a piano, two horns, an electric bass, percussion, a synthesizer, and many random objects, such as a chain, a metal dish, and rain sticks for added sounds.
The pieces alternated between periods of quieter, seemingly formless sonic exploration and tension-building bass and drum grooves ripe with intricate repeated musical themes. In the former, each performer produced sound from hir instrument with intense deliberateness. Even the traditional instruments were approached in non-traditional ways, such as the direct strumming of the strings on the piano and the coaxing of airy squeaks from the horns. These sections would slowly develop, or sometimes abruptly erupt, into more structured grooves driven by Rudolph’s emphatic drumming.
Many of Rudolph’s rhythms have a world-music sound, a mixing of Ghanaian and Indian textures (both places he has lived and studied) as well as a discernible influence by the jazz musicians from his childhood home, Chicago. When performing Rudolph’s compositions, the musicians were allowed some freedom to improvise within certain rhythmic and melodic frameworks. For the final two songs, Rudolph brought six current Wesleyan students to the stage for a raucous finale.
I had the opportunity to speak with Adam Rudolph just before his two-hour workshop on composition and creativity.
The Argus: What was it about your growing up in Chicago that initially sparked your interest in world music?
Adam Rudolph: I grew up in an area called Hyde Park on the side of Chicago. I was a teenager in the late ’60s/early ’70s and it was really one of those confluences of time and place where it was a lot of incredible cultural activity going on there. The first thing that really influenced me was that a lot of the great blues musicians from the delta lived nearby. The ones who influenced me the most were Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, so I got to hear musicians like that live on a regular basis. Secondly, the AACM, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, which I think [Wesleyan Emeritus] Professor Anthony Braxton was part of, were all my neighbors. Steve McCall lived two doors down, Henry Threadgill lived down the street, I knew Joseph Jarman….
I would say the Art Ensemble of Chicago in particular in that period had a huge impact on me in that I was really inspired to step deeper into music (I was more interested in visual arts), but what they kind of showed me was that anything you could imagine to do creatively, you could do. It really is about the imagination and the openness they brought to it. I think what I really gleaned from being around the blues musicians was sort of how musical technique is meant to serve deep feeling; that there was no gesture, no singing, no playing, that a musician would do that was really divorced from the feeling and spirit that they were trying to project in their music.
Then I started playing drums outside in the park, at a place called The Point, near the water. There were people playing hand drums, and I had already done classical piano as a kid and had been composing, but when I started playing hand drums, there was something about it that just really called to me and I was gifted at it, so I started moving into that path.
A: Was your focus as a kid mostly on music, or more on the visual arts?
AR: Well, my father had a huge collection. He had almost every jazz record that had been put out prior to 1955 when I was born, so I was listening to and grew up around that music. He took me to hear Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Mongo Santamaría, Stan Getz, Max Roach, so I credit a lot of it to my father. He also took me to see George Giulini conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He was somebody who loved music even more than a lot of musicians, I think.
I had a piano teacher as a kid who unfortunately didn’t encourage my compositional aspirations, so I sort of abandoned that after a number of years. I then became very interested in visual arts, and I got a scholarship to take classes at the Art Institute of Chicago, and I thought that was really what I wanted to do until I started playing hand drums and heard the Art Ensemble and just fell in love with that.
A: What did you discover about music and yourself while in Ghana?
AR: I almost went here, actually, but I ended up at Oberlin and met some musicians who were teaching there from Detroit. I consider Detroit my second musical home. It’s important to understand that this music I grew up with, so-called jazz, sometimes it’s called improvisational music, African American music, is, or was, an oral tradition. It was about the older musicians sharing and creating opportunities for younger musicians, not necessarily in the same instrument. So, that’s why you hear about Miles Davis having played with Charlie Parker and Tony Williams having played with Miles Davis. It’s like an informal apprenticeship system.
I spent my four years at Oberlin, went back to Chicago, drove a cab, saved my money, and bought a one-way ticket to Ghana in West Africa. At that point, I had become more and more interested in African drumming and tabla. The most important thing I learned there was that music really comes from something more than music and it’s about something more than music. I could see, experiencing that culture, the context of that music and the cosmology of the culture that informs the music.
That’s true for any music we play, [even a] Beethoven sonata. You can look at the incredible geometry of it, the architecture of it, secondary dominants, analyze it and see all the beauty of it, and even feel the beauty of it, but the impetus is coming from something greater than music. It doesn’t have to be some kind of literal or metaphoric story, it’s just that it comes from something else, and that has to do with what we are and who we are as human beings. And then it affects you in a way that’s bigger than music. It changes your life; it touches you in a physical, spiritual, emotional way.
It was very fascinating to see that in West Africa and Ghana, and that’s one of the mind-expanding things about studying music from other cultures, is that you can see things about music when you’re looking at it through a lens into another culture that you wouldn’t necessarily see in your own culture, and then start to see it as universal. It’s like, it’s obvious with the gamelan music you use a different tuning system from the piano, and yet, this is the same: they’re dealing with form, beginnings and ends, tension and release. And then even deeper than that is this idea of the human impetus. Everybody’s singing the blues in some way, talking about our condition during our little brief time on this planet.
A: What was your main idea behind this show?
AR: It definitely has a premise. Moving Pictures is the name of whatever ensemble that I’m composing for at that time. It is a shifting cast, but I always look for as much consistency as possible, and a lot of these musicians have worked with me for many years. [Stephen Haynes, who is playing tonight,] plays mostly with my Go Organic Orchestra, which is my large ensemble project. The last album I released with Moving Pictures was “Both/And.” If you look into Hegel or some of Carl Jung’s writings, or anything really; when you begin to look beyond the “either/or” way of thinking (good versus evil, black versus white), many things hold opposites, they can be both.
One of the ways that dichotomy works for me is that I compose music—I almost call it decomposing music—I write these thematic elements where I try to zero in like a laser on very particular aesthetic qualities that I want to express in the music using rhythms, different kinds of modes, interval patterns. But at the same time, while I’m trying to zero in on the aesthetic and emotional sensibilities, I am also trying to create as much freedom for the musicians as possible. We use improvisation, but in our case it means working within very particular kinds of functional and aesthetic frameworks and preparing.
For example, with the music, I say we don’t rehearse, we prepare. I’ll give the musicians a framework. A lot of my concept is influenced by north Indian music, even though it may not sound that way, but they have what they call ragas and talas. It actually goes back to how Bach might have proceeded with things. A raga is a particular group of notes that is more than a mode but less than a predetermined melody, so a kind of thematic material, certain kinds of notes that are more emphasized than others. I’ll write materials that have certain intervals or melodies emphasized and the improvisation works in that contextual framework. Tala is what they call rhythm, so I have my concept of rhythm, which I call “cyclic verticalism.”
The musicians learn what I call my “signal rhythms,” which are influenced by African and also Indian drumming, and they work in the context of that. These elements are movable, so different rhythm patterns can work with different coloristic sound areas, too. It gives them the tools, the context, hopefully the inspiration, and the focus of where I want them to be functionally in the ensemble, but within that framework I’m inviting them to bring their own voice, and this is really crucial to what people call the idea of improvisation.
I also had the opportunity to speak with Stephen Haynes, one of the two horn players in the Moving Pictures ensemble:
A: What initially sparked your interest in music?
SH: Well, I’m 59 years old, and I started when I was eight. There was lots of music in my house growing up. It was a mish-mash of classical music, Pete Seeger, and pop music on the radio. But I had really good teachers early on.
A: Could you speak a little to your musical education at UC Boulder? Is that where you were introduced to the horn?
SH: My father [worked in housing] at UC Boulder and I had the good fortune to study with Frank Baird, the head of the brass department, starting when I was 9 years old. I was playing14th chair in a college band by age 11. The music I was trained to play was all classical and written, I didn’t get into improvisation until after high school.
A: How and why did you gravitate toward improvisation?
SH: I started out in printmaking at RISD for a year, and it was there that I was introduced to improvisation by two friends, David Garland [creator of WNYC’s Spinning On Air] and saxophone player [and textile designer] Barry Miller. [After that year] I was in a trio in Providence and was looking for someone to study with, and that’s when I found my mentor, Bill Dixon, who created and chaired the Black Music Division at Bennington College. I continued to work with Bill on and off until his recent passing.
A: How did you change as a musician through your studies in the Black Music Division at Bennington College with Bill Dixon?
SH: A lot as a trumpet player and also as an improviser and composer. Everything I do today, it would be fair to say, is touched by what I learned there.
A: What sorts of ensembles are you playing with now?
SH: Mostly my own music, except for the work that I do with Adam.
A: I understand you [co-curate a performance series called Improvisations, in partnership with Real Art Ways,] in Hartford, Conn. How did that come about?
SH: Well, years ago, I did a concert there with a trio and we had a great response to our performance. We all looked at each other and decided to set this up in order to have regular work that we controlled [here, where we live]. It’s nice to have what I really do close to where I live.
A: Please explain your interest and involvement in the issue of local musicians; what is the issue and what needs to be done?
SH: The hardest thing for any artist is to have a correct level of work and pay where you live, so I’m trying to address that. Improvisations at Real Art Ways series is an example of a success. We invite artists we find interesting to come and play. It’s local and regional in focus, but its reach is worldwide.
A: Is this your first time at Wesleyan?
SH: No, I am very familiar with the school. I taught Taylor Ho Bynum [’98] while he was still a student at Wesleyan, but it became clear that he didn’t really need a teacher. We worked on a project called Paradigm Shift. I’ve known Anthony [Braxton] a while, and he is someone I’ve talked to off and on for a while and have admired.
A: How did you come into contact with Adam Rudolph and what is your involvement in the performance?
SH: A friend of mine who was working with him in [the Moving Picture] orchestra told me about it, and I was interested so I got involved, and have been playing with it for seven years.