“I feel that creativity is greater than religion. It transcends race, transcends socio-political boundaries. It’s one of the things that defines us as human beings.”
At the risk of oversimplification, you could argue that this statement is a credo of sorts for Adam Rudolph, the basis of his personal philosophy. Consequently, it is probably the best starting point from which to examine the percussionist’s approach to music in its most comprehensive sense: how it’s produced, how it’s heard, how it’s interpreted, understood and enjoyed.
Rudolph himself is something of a riddle. He delves further into complicated theories so that he might arrive at simplicity. He grapples with transcendence in order to better capture the fleeting present. He values music so intensely that he refuses to limit his learning to music alone; yet everything he learns becomes reapplied to music.
With regards to the latter especially, Rudolph’s conclusions about the world and his place in it do not derive from a single source or field of study. His philosophy is infused with the writings of thinkers such as Noam Chomsky and Friedrich Nietzsche, shaped further by his direct contact with musicians such as Don Cherry and Yusef Lateef, and one which to some extent reflects the nebulous spirituality espoused by more than a few of the Californians among whom Rudolph now lives. And, naturally, this eclecticism has come to include and influence his chosen artistic vehicle.
Performing, he maintains, is a matter of “humbly trying to be prepared to let things flow out,” channelling one’s inner voice and a cosmic creative power through an instrument. “I try to tap into that sense. Wherever that source of creativity is, it feels like something great. You could even say it’s like dipping into a river. But there’s also something mundane about it, because all human beings have [that ability].”
For Rudolph, this mix of self-expression and otherworldly inspiration isn’t an entirely new development. Since he was first introduced to the hand drum during his youth in Chicago, he has held firm to the belief that there is more to playing an instrument than technique, and more to technique than proper finger or hand placement. He read extensively, travelled widely (first to Ghana, then to Sweden), performed (branching out into all types of percussive instruments), composed (alongside world music progenitor Don Cherry) and studied (graduating from Oberlin with a degree in Ethnomusicology and later an MFA from California Institute of the Arts) in order to discover new ideas and then combine them into something cohesive and useable, always with the aim of advancing his craft.
“If I wanted to have a long-term, evolutionary life in music,” he explains, “I had to study and learn everything in music that attracted me. I didn’t come up as a classical musician. I started out playing hand drums in the park and then playing with Fred Anderson. And that music was not western-oriented. There weren’t pedagogical books I could study.” He had to go in search of learning experiences.
This restless curiosity is reflected in the sheer number and variety of Rudolph’s musical projects. He leads the Go: Organic Orchestra, his Moving Pictures ensemble and the Beyond the Sky Octet, and takes a less conspicuous role in countless others. But perhaps it is Pictures of Soul , his recent collaboration with Afro-Cuban pianist Omar Sosa, that could be considered the latest stage of this long-term musical evolution that began in the 1970s.
“Omar and I had never played together. We met and he said to me, ‘Let’s make a record,’ and so we did. We went into the studio and started listening to each other. We would just start together,” and the songs would then develop themselves. The nature of this duo work therefore showcases a more introspective and urgent side of Sosa, better known for his work with larger ensembles involving eight or more members. “Omar seems to be a seeker, and I consider myself an evolutionist and a seeker. He asked me to make this record and we wanted to make it a duet. I think for both of us it was an opportunity to work with each other – there was a vibe, a feeling of connectedness – and also to have something new.”
“In the broadest sense, I was bringing the sensibility and creative attitude I bring to any project I would do,” says Rudolph, taking care to note his concerns with “ideas of emptiness and form” during the session, “which has to do with being in the moment and bringing your life experience and technical experience and creativity into the moment of creating spontaneously in conjunction with other people.”
Paired with the likeminded and musically articulate Sosa, he took part in a musical conversation in an atmosphere of complete freedom, meaning in this context a total absence of inhibition and convention. To wit: in jazz, there is usually an assumption that one performer will solo while the other marks time. Here, says Rudolph, “we could both be soloing at once,” referencing a point of apparent discord in the song “The Call” in which Sosa and Rudolph are at musical odds with each other. “It was an interesting moment. He was playing some kind of melodic, romantic theme, and my playing was something altogether different.”
He explains that this is indicative of his attempts to balance the musical statements of his collaborative partner, and vice versa - a dark to offset a light, a yin to match a yang.
“Sometimes what I wanted to do is provide contrasting elements. Call it kinetic, call it romantic – to me, there’s contrast, and if you put red next to blue, the red gets redder. It’s the poignancy and beauty of hearing a romantic line when it’s juxtaposed with something else. It’s alchemy.”
This juxtaposition is fundamentally the same as the Indian concept of rasa, a means of aesthetic evaluation first posited by Bharata Muni in his ancient theatrical treatise Natya Shastra. It is normally linked with the word “swadana” to signify the “tasting of the true flavor.” Rudolph translates the term as “emotional coloration.”
“We might call it mood. Or a transcendent feeling. I try to focus like a laser into the emotional essence and expressive quality of music at the same time as I’m trying to make it as free as possible. And those are almost diametrically opposed. Maybe the tension is what creates some kind of beauty in the music. I don’t know.”