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Adam Rudolph: Ragmala and Prototypical Music


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The prototype is always the most resonant in the culture...You have to question everything in order to make prototypical music.
—Adam Rudolph
Adam Rudolph has been seeking to push the boundaries of musical creativity for decades, developing a unique concept of composition, ensemble interaction, and conducting. As many writers have commented, his music resists critical commentary due to its prototypical nature. Said another way, Rudolph's music doesn't sound like anything else, and its antecedents are so varied that reducing the music to common labels such as "jazz" or "world music" quickly feels trite.

The reality is Rudolph's music taps into a large number of lineages and musical systems, but does not rely on any to form its fundamental core. This is particularly true for the Go: Organic Orchestra, a collective project which Rudolph founded and continues to organize in multiple locations around the world.

All About Jazz had the distinct pleasure of discussing Rudolph's latest effort Ragmala: A Garland of Ragas, which merged the Go: Organic Orchestra with the Brooklyn Raga Massive in an ambitious endeavor, the success of which illustrates the potency of Rudolph's dedication to collectivism, community, creative expression, and heightened consciousness.

Roots and Origins

All About Jazz: Where were you born and raised?

Adam Rudolph: I was born and raised in Hyde Park in the south side of Chicago.

AAJ: Are you still in Chicago or New York-based now?

AR: I live in the New York area now, but I came up in Hyde Park. At that time the environment represented a very special time and place. We can speak more about that. But since that time, I have lived in Ghana. I lived in Don Cherry's house in Sweden. I also lived in Venice, California and since 2008 back in the New York area.

AAJ: What made the Chicago period so special?

AR: Hyde Park [was] a very interesting part of South Side Chicago, in part because that is where the University of Chicago was located. And Hyde Park was where a lot of students and faculty from all over the world resided.

AAJ: That isn't always what people think of when they think of South Side. My limited understanding is that it was a pretty segregated society during the fifties and sixties. Was Hyde Park a type of anomaly?

AR: Exactly. The history of the South Side is that it became more and more African American and it was highly segregated. Hyde Park really was an anomaly in important ways. It was half African American, half Caucasian, and very international. Again, in part because of the student body and University faculty. This anomalous nature has a lot to do with its fertile quality. The [music] history of the South Side goes all the way back to Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines. And all the way up to Gene Ammons and Sun Ra.

My first musical experiences were [diverse]. To start with, my father was a big music fan. I mean a music lover. He had an incredible record collection. He took me to hear Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Stan Getz, Max Roach, and many others— live. He took me to hear the Chicago symphony many times. I also had my own unsuccessful run with classical piano lessons for several years, but when I started composing my own pieces my teacher didn't think much of that! Then I went to the University of Chicago laboratory school founded by John Dewey. That's where George Lewis went to high school by the way.

AAJ: It feels like right then Chicago was the crossroads. The big American meeting place where many things, but definitely musical traditions, were merging.

AR: Absolutely. I don't think that should be a controversial sentiment. There has been recently an overemphasis on New Orleans as the so-called birthplace of so-called jazz. We could probably talk about Chicago forever...but let's just say that I got to hear a lot as a teenager via my father and then through my own explorations. You could go to the Checkerboard Lounge and hear Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters because on Sunday afternoon you could go underage! I also should mention a specific concert by the Art Ensemble of Chicago in 1969 that was life transforming. What inspired me about them was a certain chemistry that was magical. They demonstrated that whatever you can imagine to do in your music you can do. There are no boundaries. If you can develop the craft, the mechanism, and the language, you can do anything you envision.

AAJ: You mentioned Sun Ra, but Chicago is also the birthplace of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). Were you involved with that?

AR: I was actually about to say that my music teacher was good friends with Leroy Jenkins, an early member of the AACM. So many of the AACM musicians actually played in my high school music classes. I heard the first concerts that the Air trio ever did. Marion Brown used to come and play duets with Steve McCall. Steve McCall lived two doors down from me. Henry Threadgill lived a few blocks down on 56th street. Howlin' Wolf lived nearby. Muddy Waters lived down the street.

So that was the environment of my early years.

Lineages and Transmission

AR: Another important figure is Phil Cohran, cofounder of the AACM, though he sort of broke off eventually. First of all he was in the Sun Ra Arkestra. And when Sun Ra moved on to New York he decided to stay behind and start this Afro-arts center. He developed a different kind of aesthetic than the AACM, and though he left the AACM he still had a huge impact on a lot of musicians. And out of his influence emerged a group called the Pharaohs. Pete Cosey was in that group and a lot of the members went on to play in Earth, Wind and Fire. So in fact, Earth, Wind and Fire's Egyptian theme also runs back to Sun Ra and was a very pervasive, fascinating aspect of what was going on in black culture on the south side of Chicago. The important thing here is that you have Earth, Wind and Fire and you have Sun Ra and you think these are two different worlds, but they're not. They have this common core.

AAJ: What fascinates me here is that as much as musical styles can influence each other and cultural contexts can evolve parallels, when you look deeper, you often find it was dependent on individual people making connections and cross-pollinating lineages. When two lineages meet, then they reflect both of them and if its powerful it can create a new lineage. From a distance you only see one product that appears sui generis, or the product of broad cultural elements. But that obscures the instrumental people and events of the living art. The accidental and individual nature gets lost.

AR: When you talk about Montparnasse when Picasso and everyone was hanging out, there are influences, but at the same time it's individuals. It's individuals resonating in a certain context and cultural environment.

For example, going back to when I was young, we used to go out to the Point in Chicago where these drummers were playing in the park. I'd wait around and then I'd try to play a drum. The thing is, it was beautifully acknowledged by these African American drummers that yeah, I was only 14, but I could kind of do it. It was O.K. that I was a beginner. And those were the kind of musicians who were in the AACM, like Malachi Favors and his brother George Favors the conga player, who used to play there. Not long after that I started to learn the Indian tradition of drumming, the tabla.

AAJ: I think of tabla as being daunting to study, so you'd have to approach it with seriousness. I assume to then really understand raga takes it to a whole other level?

AR: It does. And the same thing with hand drumming too. I did end up going to and living in Africa for a year and studying some African traditions somewhat in depth. Also, I slowly, slowly made my way into a more serious study of the tabla where I studied with Pandit Taranath Rao for over 15 years.

But to go back, one more time to Hyde Park, I want to say by the time I was 16 and had been playing hand drums, I ended up playing with a man named Maulawi Nurrudin. Which might also be a name that you won't easily find, but who was a very, very important person in the scene. Maulawi Nurrudin was a great musician. He was one of these people who stayed in Chicago and playing in his group was like being in school.

You know we need to talk about oral traditions at this time. There were no so-called jazz schools. The way you learned was to play with an older musician. That was how you learned the game. Maulawi was a tenor player, a soprano sax, who also played oboe. And Jack DeJohnette, Jerome Cooper, Rufus Reid all played in his group. Many great musicians came up playing with Maulawi. So here I am 16, 17, 18, and I'm playing with great masters. And they were generous.

AAJ: You've hit another one of my hobby horses. I believe there's evidence that within the jazz culture there's a transmission that's still master student in a way we've lost in other lineages. When it's mass transfer instead of master to student, there's something lost. There's a flexibility within jazz to be able to absorb other lineages especially if it's another tradition with a master-student approach to transmission.

AR: I think that's a really interesting idea. But master-student isn't [always] really the right phrase. With the tabla teacher, that was master-student because I was learning his instrument. The transmission aspect has to do with moving from the "what" to the "how" to the "why."

The "what" is you're a young person. You grow up and you hear an ensemble or records. For me, it was hearing things like Bitches Brew. That was the music attracting me. The transmission begins when you're with an older musician playing in the same group. And a lot of times you're not playing the same instrument as them.

Then the transmission moves to what I'm calling the "how," the process. How do musicians put their music together? How do they think about music? How does their creative process work? Because that "how" has to do with the beginning of working with elements, not just the style. It's working with elements, harmonic elements, rhythmic elements, orchestration elements.

The deepest part of transmission is what I call the "why." The "why" delves into the mysticism of music. Why are we doing this? What motivates us as a creative being? This relates to my experience with two of my mentors, Yusef Lateef and Don Cherry. These are radiant beings. Everybody knows a lot about John Coltrane and how he made overt in the music what was always there. Which was the mystical or spiritual aspect of it. Well, Yusef Lateef was the same kind of person.

You could say that the "why" has to do with transmission and sharing; with communication and joy. They showed us not only by what they did, but how they did it. Even more: by how they were. We can evolve from simply playing music to "being" music itself by living in tune, in harmony and in rhythm.

AAJ: I can see you're using the phrase radiant being deliberately. That's from a very yogic tradition. Am I correct?

AR: Yes, that's right.

AAJ: Your music has been called yogic.

Yogic Music

AR: Well I don't label it anything... However, I was a practitioner of hatha yoga for over forty years. And in the last two years I've gotten serious about the practice of tai chi chuan, and research into the Tao.

But what I meant by yogic music is that when we talk about yoga, yoga means limbs. It is the connection between limbs—body, mind, and spirit. In my music I want all of those elements to be resonant. They're not separated entities; they flow into one another.

The "mind" part of course is the fascination, and the pursuit that I learned from my mentors like Don Cherry, Charles Moore, and Yusef Lateef. This rigorous intellectual pursuit of music. It's not abstract; it's applied. The mind part. The fascination part.

The "body" part is the feeling. The movement. As an aside, I don't believe in a class system of music. So if I hear the "body" part, then there's a dance element to it. You know that's what Thelonious Monk used to say—"you can dance to my music." So when you hear James Brown or Sly Stone, to me that's high art. I don't think there is any differentiation between that and if I was listening to Stockhausen.

AAJ: Nor should anyone.

AR: I agree. Yet they do. And everything is class. I'm with you, I hear you. The class system of music needs to go. Even jazz has its own class system...and I'm automatically sort of an outsider in the jazz world because I play the hand drums, which is not a traditional, standardized, or codified instrument.

But just to plow through with this "body" part. I want the groove, the feeling of it, how the quality of the music works and how it moves you. That's what I'm talking about. It can touch us in a way that can't really be quantified.

AAJ: It hits emotional centers.

AR: There are emotional centers and there are also transcendent emotional centers. The funny thing is, if you watch a car commercial and if it has the right music it can make you cry. But that's not transcendent emotion, right?

Transcendent emotion has to go somewhere deeper. It has to do with a quality of music that you can take away from it. That is transformative in your life. It's not just a moment of "wow, that's so great."

Finally, when I speak about "spirit," I don't mean religion. We are born spiritual, we learn religion. To me, "spirit" references mystery—those things which cannot be parsed and questions which have no answer. The joy of living a spiritual life means to be awake to these mysteries and the challenge of living with the unknown, with change, the joy of developing intuition and cultivating creative imagination. And then there is compassion which is about connection with nature and our fellow beings and knowing love.

In my own aesthetic and in my process, I try to have all of those qualities really present and resonant. And that has to do with how I put the music together, with the musicians that are attracted to play with me, to perform together. That informs everything that has to do with process. And I do want to arrive at this thing called process. Because Go-Organic Orchestra is not just a group, it's also a process.

Go: Organic Orchestra

AAJ: What is your definition of the project?

AR: Go: Organic Orchestra? It's a group. There's the factual history and then there's the personal journey of my involvement with it, in my own creativity. Basically, I started it in 1999. My motivation was this. I had been so fortunate to have these incredible mentors, to have these transmissions. There were a lot of younger musicians who wanted to perform with me and learn with me. And I felt it was my turn to begin sharing, you know? Transmitting what I could, the best way I could. And these young musicians had backgrounds in music from all over the world. They played the tabla. They played Indian instruments. A lot of them were classical musicians, contemporary musicians. It wasn't just so-called jazz players.

I [began] thinking about a format and had always been interested in how one solves the issue of having a large ensemble [in the creative music context]. I was always interested in orchestral music, specifically how to utilize a large ensemble, but still to have musicians who can express their own voice in resonance with the bigger voice. So those two things came together, and I started the Go: Organic Orchestra in 1999 in Los Angeles.

As I evolved this idea of the Go: Organic Orchestra, I was also evolving my interest in the process. The idea that when you generate a new creative process, your music is bound to be prototypical. This is the crucial idea. When we create a new process, we can generate prototypical art. An obvious example is Jackson Pollock.

That is what I mean when I say the Go: Organic Orchestra is a process. It has to do with the relationship between the musicians who are performing with me and the score materials. These are like the DNA of the interval and rhythmic materials that can be used spontaneously in a number of ways.

I also compose western-notated duos and trios that can unfold in the music based upon my cuing. Then there is my own spontaneous conducting that I do, an element I invented that uses a series of hand signals. The interaction in the moment, the relationship, the process of putting these things together, always generates music that is fresh, new, and of the moment.

The fact is, though, we're using words here and trying to transmit ideas that are linear. But it's actually the process of what Go: Organic is. It's about the relationships of these elements. The elements are the voices of the people who are performing and their humanity.

AAJ: As an example, how do the written elements unfold in the context of the organic process? Does that happen because some grouping of musicians has written material as a resource and when you cue it they play that as written? Or can they take that is written and do with it as they please?

AR: I would say both/and.

AAJ: I was afraid you would say that.

AR: Right. (laughs). The longer answer is this. Part of the process is my knowing and being in tune with what the musicians can bring to the table. So one of my models of Go: Organic Orchestra was this idea that in Balinese gamelan, which every village has, anybody can participate. Even the person who's not that musical but can hit a gong every 64 beats. Then there's the person who is composing the music and is an amazing virtuoso. And they're in the group together.

Let's translate that concept to the Go: Organic Orchestra. If I have an oboe player who comes with a classical music background, they [probably] love to read and interpret written music. In the same group I might have a jazz player or a rock 'n roll player—they don't really like to read. They read cause they kind of have to, you know.

In this context, I might write an etude for the oboe player based upon a triple-diminished cosmogram, which is part of the score materials for the music. The score is the fundamental three-page score that everybody has. Then I can cue my pianist who is a deep master of spontaneously improvising with the triple-diminished, and I can cue the oboist to play together. Again, the idea is the process. The elements are the three-page score that has intervallic matrices that can be interpreted. And I conduct. I cue them. There's ten of them; I have ten fingers. I can direct the musicians to the matrices and what I call interval cosmograms. And then what I call ostinatos of circularity, which is the connection between the pitch material and the rhythm material. The rhythm material is based upon what I call signal rhythms. This is my concept of rhythm, how I combine the cycles that you find in North Indian music and the polyrhythms that you find in west African music. I create my own rhythm cycles that I call signal rhythms. Everybody in the orchestra needs to learn the signal rhythms. There's only a handful of them that manifest repeatedly in my music, in different aesthetic manifestations.

I might change the score from concert to concert. I'm always refining and changing it. But the elements have to work as a kind of DNA, from which the variety and freedom can evolve.

In sum, Organic means the integrity of the relationship between me conducting, the community of musicians present, and the score materials.


AAJ: Take us to how this process relates to your latest endeavor Ragmala, which continues to receive a lot of positive critical attention.

AR: What's really amazing about working with the Brooklyn Raga musicians on Ragmala is that Indian music has been a huge influence on what I do rhythmically, but also in terms of how I work with intervals as well. I love working with the musicians in Brooklyn Raga Massive. And my experience of them is that they are world class, outstanding north and south-Indian musicians. It's been humbling and beautiful for me to be with these musicians in the Brooklyn Raga Massive because I'm learning a lot about Raga and Tala that I did not know. Another thing that is really amazing about them is that they, being so grounded in their own tradition, are still really open and really desiring to learn and collaborate and create music of the now.

Let me give you a concrete example. In the three-page score for Ragmala, the third matrix is based upon the symmetric hexatonic scale. My Go: Organic musicians know this by now, and when I work with the BRM musicians, they too can look at and discover particular ragas which relates to the scale. Everyone is looking at it in their own way and can add their creative experience as they bring it to life. When we look at the combinations of interval, we find the feelings and aesthetic. in Indian music theory there is a Rasa which underlies the feeling of every Raga.

AAJ: The seed, or the nectar....right?

AR: That's correct. The aesthetic coloration. So, way back in 1999 when I started designing these intervallic matrices and cosmograms, I was already influenced by this idea of Rasa. I wanted every one of the matrices and cosmograms to have their own combination of intervals. Their own distinct emotional flavor that would be manifest by the performance of the musicians. My point being that the symmetric hexagonic scale has a very distinct Rasa and flavor to it that is distinct from a triple diminished cosmogram. And is distinct from Shri Rag. Right? They're all distinct. But here's the beauty. It only comes to life in the moment when the musician breathes life into it.

AAJ: So as I understand it, breaking it down into this process of elements, and your own process of integrating those elements, including identifying the flavor or Rasa behind each of these elements, allows there to be a dialogue across many different traditions and styles without their having to be what I get frustrated by in so-called "world music" where you feel like the so-called world music elements are deployed the way a cook might add turmeric to something, to add some tinge of flavor. As opposed to the flavor being an integral, base element essential to expressing the totality, in this case the Rasa.

AR: Exactly. What you said was a good recap except I want to clarify that the musical elements are universal. Like in theoretical physics, when you go into the higher dimensions, the laws of physics become simpler and simpler. On one level, when you talk about the particularities of North or South Indian music at which the Brooklyn Raga are so adept, and then you talk about a triple diminished, which is the contemporary music way of organizing things by twelve tones, it appears like they're different things. When you move into the higher dimensions in music you ultimately come to the unison. The unison is vibration.

Vibration manifests as a duality, even though it's still a unison at the same time. The duality is motion and color. The overtones series. The motion is what we would call in musical terms the rhythm. And the color is the harmony, melody, and timbre of music. They're the same thing but manifesting differently. In my process, working with these universal elements helps us to be free. The elements transcend style which allows for this big umbrella that can hold anybody. Everybody can participate in the process of making music in the Go: Organic Orchestra if they're so inclined. Because of the universal elements. The relationship that's happening is the beautiful swirl of organic elements. There's also this fascinating relational aspect between the individual voice of the musician and the collective voice of the group. That's the thing that's fluid. That can't be defined. This idea of community. Of individual and community.

AAJ: If you embrace a communitarian perspective, what becomes the function of the individual?

AR: That's exactly an issue we are dealing with in the Go: Organic Orchestra. I'm not making a value judgment, but it's not like we play a head, everybody has their turn soloing, and then we're done. It's not like that. We're doing something distinctly other.

It's back to the "what," "how," and "why." We're evolutionists. If you decide you want to push past the boundaries, to move on, you have to dive into elements. Into process. You have to question everything in order to make prototypical music.

AAJ: Why is it important to have prototypical art?

AR: The prototype is always the most resonant in the culture. Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie created the prototype of Bebop. Bitches Brew was the prototype. Madame Bovary was the prototype of the modern novel.

The prototype is the least bogged down with the idea of style, nostalgia, comparison. It's the challenge for us. Because sometimes listeners first want to identify what the music reminds them of. How it relates to what they've heard before. But that's not what we're going for. That's not what it's all about. Every artist has a responsibility to create music resonant of the time that they live in. Charlie Parker said, "You have to live it in order to play it." That's also about the mysticism of it.

AAJ: About your creative process, which we just covered regarding the elements and those pieces and how they can open the door to bringing these lineages together in a very free way. Breaking down the caste system in music as far as types of music or even down to certain instruments. Yet we live in an increasingly divided time right now. I see an immediate alternative social and political model in what you're putting forward. Is that an implied byproduct of what you're expressing?

AR: We automatically are. It's not a byproduct. It's something more mysterious than that. Look, the tradition of this music automatically implies something about democracy and a dialogue between community, the individual, and the people. This gives me a chance to speak a little about the musicians in the Go: Organic Orchestra, and also the Brooklyn Raga musicians. It's amazing to me that musicians of such high caliber and from such a huge range of experiences have come together to perform on Ragmala. There are 40 musicians! Musicians with huge differences in backgrounds. But it happened in an organic way. As did the Go: Organic Orchestra, without even my volition in some ways. The musicians who are interested in what I'm doing, who are studious and curious and who are looking for something fresh, they gravitated toward this. The fact that there is such a big arena and that the music is so broad that they can actually fully express themselves in this completely new collective is really exciting for all of us. The diversity is so inspiring and illustrates something important about diversity and unity through collective creative action. The youngest musician I've had in the Go: Organic Orchestra was fourteen years old. We've had participants in their 80s. There are just about as many men as women. They are musicians from all over, besides the wonderful musicians from the North continents. There are Hindustani, there's Brazilians, and Japanese, and the list goes on.

But I've never said I must find women, or Africans, or whatever. It's just who is motivated to come and be a part of the experience. Because I'm looking at a humanistic form. It's about natural curiosity, seriousness, and humility.

A musician's art is all about curiosity. Don Cherry used to say, "Jazz is the glue." Jazz is a music of mutts. Jazz is not a purebred music in the first place.

AAJ: There's a natural process of exchange.

AR: What is the most fundamental quality of being human? This is what I'm thinking about. Not the balkanized, sad conversations that are dominating the world today.

The most fundamental, universal human condition is creative imagination. Creative imagination gave birth to the idea of a relationship with something greater.

What I hope for in making this music is that it will resonate with listeners and add to their motivation to activate their own creative imagination. You know, make a painting, draw, write a poem, or whatever.

Thus, the meaning of the music is about sharing and inspiring one another. And about the collective resonance of all who participate in it. The joy we share in creative action.

Photo credit: Jaci Downs

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