Adam Rudolph: The Mysteries of Creation

Eric J. Iannelli By

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“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.”

“I always think orchestrally,” he adds, elaborating with a visual illustration of instrumental possibilities: “You can have parallel lines, oblique lines, a wavy line and a straight one. When you hold your hand up in front of a window, your see your hand, the houses, the trees and maybe the mountains beyond, but these are all distinct entities that you’re seeing. More than one reality can be described at one time. We don’t have to experience music in a linear sense, which is what we’re taught to do.” Keeping this in mind, he aspired to create a “three-dimensional phenomenon” with “emotional depth” on Pictures of Soul , just as he does elsewhere in his music.

In the end, though, these principles always seem to go full circle, ending at their singular origin. “It’s all about creating in the moment – right now, and then now, and then now – and being a conduit for expression. Nobody knows what’s going to happen next. Life is like that too. Philosophically, only the moment exists. We love to look back and hope or fear the future, but all that exists is the moment. We live in the delusion of routine. But it’s an illusion, what they call the eternal now.”

In this way, Pictures of Soul , released through Rudolph’s own Meta Records , was for him the fusion and application of these multifarious ideas. The album’s title speaks to how this was ultimately achieved: via snapshots of the innermost regions of the self, the place where the individual mingles with the universal. But it would be a mistake to think of this album as the exhaustion of Rudolph’s ever-developing ideas. Pictures of Soul is only one fraction of an intricate whole.

This month will bring about the release of another duo record, Beautiful , this time coupling Rudolph with fellow percussionist and Don Cherry acolyte Hamid Drake. It will be issued by the UK label Soul Jazz under the moniker Hu Vibrational. In what might seem like a radical departure from his joint efforts with Sosa and Lateef, not to mention his larger ventures with his Organic Orchestra, this project will be “more dance-oriented” and geared for a slightly more club-going audience. “It’s all acoustic,” Rudolph notes, as if to pre-emptively answer purist indignation. In March, Meta is scheduled to release another album, Rudolph’s Celebration Trio with Sam Rivers and Harris Eisenstadt. It was recorded the day before the distinguished saxophonist’s eightieth birthday. “He came over and one of my students organized it. We recorded it in a day,” he recalls.

“Sam hears everything: all the overtones, all the tuning of my drums. He has such an imagination and he has no technical limitations. That’s a formula for success in creative music-making. The two most important elements are listening and imagination. When you hear something, it inspires you to go into different kinds of places. And if you can imagine it, you can do it.”

Stepping back briefly, In the Garden , a double-CD concert recording featuring Go: Organic Orchestra and his longtime mentor Yusef Lateef was issued in late 2003, also on Meta. Although it was the third Organic Orchestra disc, it was Lateef’s first recorded outing with the group.

“I’m interested in varying my musical palette,” explains Rudolph. “Musicians always have more than one musical idea going on. And I always enjoy working in a collaborative sense with musicians who I respect and who challenge me and I can offer something to. I’ve never been a journeyman, where I work with 1,001 people. Yusef is special because he’s been my mentor and my teacher and he treats me as a peer. He’s opened a lot of doors both creatively and personally.”

Yet another Rudolph brainchild, Go: Organic Orchestra is a twenty-four-piece Los Angeles-based ensemble comprising twelve woodwind players (flutes, clarinets, bansuri flute, bassoon, oboe and bamboo flutes) and twelve percussionists (udu drums, congas, djembes, riq, frame drums, tabla, dumbek, bata, gongs). Instead of relying on written notation, Rudolph conducts them in an improvisational style using physical gestures and signs.

“We perform in a completely open format. We create this sonic landscape, but the kind of music we do invites the listener to be an active participant. And it’s exciting for an audience. It’s like reading a great book.” Rather than being a major breakthrough in music, this is merely getting back to basics. “The first creative gestures humans made had language and dance and music and painting. Just think of the first time humans came together, gathered around the fire. You know there had to be some music going on and storytelling.”

“People listen to music for a lot of reasons – comfort, nostalgia, background music, lifestyle. And I appreciate all of that. But I’m interested as an artist in reflecting my experience as an artist. This is one of the funny things about CDs, too, because the music should be live music. The energy of the audience is captured. It’s thrilling because it has a lot of authenticity and love, and this vision of real freedom and real democracy in an idealized sense.”

In addition to this push towards greater freedom and egalitarianism, the Organic Orchestra incorporates several other disparate ideas that hark as far back as Rudolph’s early experience composing with Don Cherry in Sweden.

“While I was there, Don started showing me some of Ornette Coleman’s concepts of composition. I have always had an uneasy relationship with Western music. My idea is to have an improvisational concert with as much aesthetic and functional focus in each piece of music with the least amount of written music possible. I’m trying to get away from the paper.”

The resulting hand gestures and signs are part of a unified system Rudolph calls Cyclic Verticalism. This system uses African polyrhythms in combination with Indian rhythm cycles; this in turn gives birth to the music/letter grids, language and sonic themes, Indian ragas and “diadic and intervalic harmonies” Rudolph uses to conduct the orchestra. It also spills over into his other projects.

“It’s a compositional tool. I wasn’t composing rhythm figures for the session with Omar the way I do with the Organic Orchestra. But it’s something I deal with every day, so it’s very much a part of my hand drum language. I used these grids and graphic notations that are the cells from which I conduct [the orchestra] and I gave them to Omar. It was something new for him, some of these 9-tone rows, but he was open to it. He got it. And it worked.”

While all this talk about Cyclic Verticalism and diadic harmony has the potential to sound like a foreign tongue, Rudolph isn’t out to alienate anyone. The way he sees it, complexity is another route to simplicity.

“The thing is,” he says, “in music, the more you move into higher spheres, it’s like moving into the highest dimensions in physics. As you step above styles, you see the elements that go into creating music, and they’re more and more simple. In terms of tonality, it’s all based upon overtones. Everything in rhythm mathematically comes in 2 or 3. Odd is the male energy. Even is the female energy. The tension comes from the male and female rhythms.”

Rudolph also forgoes heady theorizing when giving drum workshops for beginners. Because he embraces the rather generous opinion that the capacity for art rests in everyone, he doesn’t believe that it’s absolutely necessary to know the ins and outs of composition in order to create something genuine and meaningful.

“One of the greatest things is to inspire people to do something creative themselves. Music is for anybody. We end up creating some amazing music by the end of the [workshops]. One of the reasons I started the Organic Orchestra was that I felt that it was time for me to be doing some mentorship of young musicians. This music is an oral tradition. It’s not really taught in schools. Miles came up with Charlie Parker, McCoy Tyner came up with Trane, and with my own coming up with Don Cherry and Big Black as a hand drummer, and later Yusef – he’s been my most important mentor since 1988 – I felt like it was time for me to bring more of that to the scene out here. Not to say that the musicians are all beginners. Even if they’re the most sophisticated players, there are a lot of things they haven’t had experience with. It’s just sharing something. Music doesn’t belong to anybody. People can argue about what they want to own and have a lawsuit, but at the end of the day, this is creativity, this is about our humanity and it isn’t about ownership.”

“The origins of consciousness are in creativity,” he concludes on a shamanistic note, also – intentionally or not – returning to muse on his Grundsatz. “I don’t know how it started. I don’t know where the music is coming from. I don’t know what that mystery is.”

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