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David Fiuczynski: In the In Between

By Published: March 4, 2013
The effect of non-Western modalities has been a huge influence on Fiucyznski from a sonic standpoint as well as an emotional one. The sounds drew him in initially, but as a result of their vastness, his process of absorbing the multitudes of microtonal influences is limited to his emotional response and what he wants to do with his own music. "With me, it's more human limitations, knowing that I'll never be a Turkish or Indian or Chinese classical player. I just always knew I wanted these ingredients in my music. The unifying thing is that, yes, you need to know the theory, and maqam theory is fascinating; I could see how you could decide to just do that. That's a field you could do for the rest of your life, and there would still be things to work on. But a unifying thing for me is that, ultimately, even with all the theory, with all the notes-per-octave systems, for me I always just tune with my heart. I'll hear an Arabic call to prayer or a Turkish nay player or Indian inflections or Vietnamese inflections, and it just goes straight to my heart."

For Western jazz audiences, the seemingly foreign scale systems shouldn't be considered too far away from the core of the music: the blues. "Basically, they're blue notes. It affects me the same way as Buddy Guy or somebody. When you go to a great blues gig, you know what's going to happen. The language is infinite, but at the same time, you can break it down to major blues, minor blues, ballads, shuffles, et cetera. There's not much going on in that respect, but even within the limited material and information given, how one person can find something within a blue note that nobody else has done is the exciting thing, and it's the same with these non-Western traditions that are even older and often even more rigid.

"When they start digging in, I think for some of them it's a gateway; it's a form of meditation. It's an emotional appeal. That's the way many of the microtonalists have started. We listened to something, and we want to know more, and we find that our ruler with 12 notches isn't good enough, so we need a new ruler. With classical microtonality, some of it's pretty harsh and cerebral, but there's some beautiful stuff in there. My particular niche is taking Eastern modes and stacking them to create harmony. That's what non-Western traditions have in common; there's not that much harmony. It's much more of a linear and contrapuntal thing. That's what exciting to me—being able to do something within a tonal context and go into an area that no one else has moved in."

Fiuczynski has translated his most recent explorations of microtonality in groove music with a new record, Planet Microjam (Rare Noise, 2012). The record is unique in its conception of various groove music specifically employed to exhibit microtonality, but it's also unique in its cast of players as well. Most of the record is of Fiuczynski's students at Berklee, which Fiuczynski describes as a crucial component in the record existing in the first place.

"I wouldn't have been able to make the record without them," he explains. "A lot of those pieces were played, at times, for years. Where I am in my life with my peers, there's not a lot of jam time; we have houses and spouses and cars and bills. There's not a lot of time to say, 'Hey, I've got this thing; it's out of tune. You want to play it?' So I would introduce tunes or ideas in a musical school context, and it doesn't matter how well it's played, but from an arranging standpoint, you can see what works and what doesn't. This is something that wouldn't have worked otherwise unless I had a lot of money."

The practical limitations of making the record have a historical precedent. "They say you can't innovate within a music-school context, and to a certain extent I agree; it's really social and economic forces that shape the music. If you look at hip-hop, people in the Bronx who didn't have a lot of money to buy instruments looked at a turntable and started doing their thing. Also, if you look at Stravinsky's 'L'Histoire du Soldat' the very unique instrumentation was due to it being composed in WWI with not a lot of money and not a lot of players. You don't have those kinds of forces in a musical school, and of course you shouldn't."

The record's main cast, though composed of students, is still incredibly diverse. "One thing that people don't know about Berklee is that it has one of the highest number of foreign students, if not the highest; it has something to the tune of one in four or one in three being from overseas," says Fiuczynski, alluding to two of the keyboardists on the record, Takeru Yamazaki from Japan and Evgeney Lebedev from Russia. Even more diverse, in style more so than geography, is the rotating cast of drummers that make up the record.

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