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David Fiuczynski: In the In Between


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The most recent compositional premiere by guitarist David Fiucyznski has a title that almost manages to sum up his entire sphere of influence. "Flam! Pan-Asian Microjam for J Dilla and Olivier Messiaen" premiered at Berklee College of Music in 2012 and was inspired by a geographically and temporally enormous range of styles. Fiuczynski describes the piece as a trinity of inspirations with respect to rhythm, harmony and melody.

"It's kind of a triangle between Pan-Asian music, Messiaen bird calls and having Dilla beats played either outright on drums or with more of an East Asian instrumentation," Fiuczynski explains. "I just thought it'd be kind of curious to see if you could combine Dilla's flam beats with some of the flam beats of East Asian music. There are lots of flams in the percussion in particular, like in Japanese court music [gagaku]. You also hear them in East European, Turkish, Arabic, Indian and all sorts of other musics. There are a lot of flams in the inflections; to use guitar-speak, there are pull-offs, hammer-ons, et cetera."

Fiuczynski's piece exploring commonalities was as much of an exploration as it was a receptacle of ideas. "I had been wondering if there was sort of a Silk Road continuum or if it's more of a trade-route thing or maybe a gypsy thing. There's a movie called Latcho Drom, which is all music, virtually no words, and it just follows the music of the gypsies starting in India, going through Eastern Europe and ending up in Spain. I noticed they all have similar inflections."

The incorporation of Messiaen makes the piece delve even deeper, drawing from several aspects of the French composer's oeuvre. "All of the melodies and motifs, of which there are about six or seven running throughout, are all bird calls," alluding to Messiaen's famous use of bird songs. "I also somewhat used his instrumentation, especially that of 'Sept Haïkaï,' which is somewhat inspired by Japanese percussion, bells and things, based off of seven haiku parts. I also drew from 'Oiseaux Exotiques,' which means 'the exotic birds,' which is another favorite of mine." For Fiuczynski, he mused on whether or not he and Messiaen could have possessed an even closer musical relationship. "I thought it was always interesting that he never used microtonality in his pieces, because birds obviously don't adhere to 12 notes per octave."

The non-adherence to the typical 12-note Western scale has been a defining characteristic for Fiuczynski ever since being exposed to famed microtonal legend Joe Maneri in Boston at New England Conservatory. Fiuczynski, now an educator at Berklee College of Music, has been a proponent of the music as well as an exhibitor. "Microtonality is not new. It's much older than our so-called tempered tuning; it goes back to the beginning of human beings. In regards to its age, you can go back to Delphic hymns, which were something like 128 years before Christ, or you could look at bone flutes, which have carbon dating that go back anywhere from 8,000 to 43,000 years old. And, really, microtonality is a Western construct; it's just a term for anything that's not 12 notes per octave. Considering that about 75-85% of the world's music is based on more notes per octave, to a certain extent, we're microtonal."

David Fiuczynski—Planet MicrojamFiuczynski has been a student of several different schools of microtonality, both in the realms of non-Western music and of the classical microtonality of composers like Alois Hába, Ivan Wyschnegradsky and Harry Partch, the latter of whom created systems using quarter tones, equal temperament and microtonal scales of differing notes per octave (such as 24, 33, 36, etc.). Fiuczynski's niche, however, has been trying to introduce these concepts into the realms of jazz and groove musics. "There's virtually nothing so far. There's Joe Maneri, who's been doing it since the '60s or '70s, and then there's little things here and there, like myself, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Steve Lehman. Steve Coleman had done the Lucidarium project with microtonality. There's some very cool stuff that a musician named Sevish is doing in terms of electronica, but it's still virtually a wide-open field."

He's also interested in exploring what was previously thought to be exhausted. "What I'm finding is that—though I also want to branch out in other directions—is that my approach is sometimes not so much 'microtonal' as much as it's 'micro tonal.' There's a lot you can do with tonality. Remember tonality—that old dinosaur? You can come up with new harmonies in a tonal context, and I think that's exciting"

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.

"One of the drummers, Erik Kerr, has been playing a lot with Club Delph in Boston, which is kind of a jam-trans-Moroccan band. So he has, for example, this really cool thing he does with 12/8 incorporating Moroccan rhythms, which at times are either in 3 or 4. They have kind of this rubbery quality to them. It's not the typical 3-3-3-3 triplet-based shuffle; it's more a combination of long and short rhythms that's totally different. It can be just strong downbeats, but it's also everything in between. And again, I'm always looking for new rhythmic contexts. Then there's Jovol Bell on drums, who adds this fresh J Dilla-type thing."

On the other end of the spectrum, two of the other drummers are longtime professional Kenwood Dennard, whom Fiuczynski admired for his earthy and organic way of playing, and the legendary Jack DeJohnette, who also employs Fiuczynski in his current group. DeJohnette's influence on the guitarist has been massive and expansive, mostly through his unique sense of touch.

"He's the most melodic drummer I've ever played with. It's actually a bit scary. I've been in situations where I've played with musicians that are great players; they listen, but it's often brawn over musicality. But Jack has really shown me that being sparse and having incredible touch can have just as much impact, if not more, than being loud, fast and bashing. It's a no-brainer for him to have gotten the NEA Jazz Master award. To a certain extent, the question should have been why he didn't get it a long time ago.

"Playing with him just really reinforced where music should go. The approach is very organic. Players usually end up shooting themselves in the foot from the usual hurdles, like they'll do something simpler because they can't afford to do what they want to do, or there's so much technique that they let the instrument take over, or maybe you have overdeveloped players, but they're not really composers. Jack is everything. You don't have to tell him anything; you just say, 'This is the piece,' and he does it."

The larger context of the record has been the Planet Microjam Institute operating within the context of Berklee, formed with the mission statement of introducing students to non-Western microtonal sources as well as encouraging outside-the-box thinking and innovation. Boston, through New England Conservatory, had been a major catalyst for Fiuczynski's first forays in microtonality in an academic context.

"I basically got my masters at NEC in microtonality. I took Joe Maneri's last class. Joe was the big microtonal legend in Boston. There are other classical microtonal heavyweights, but besides classical, he was also an improviser. I split my lessons between Bob Labaree, who did Turkish music studies and Peter Row, a sitarist, with Indian music studies. I took one semester of independent study with Shin-Yi Yang, who's a Chinese gu-zheng player, which is a type of zither."

Berklee proved to be a ripe breeding ground for Fiuczynski's brand of tutelage, mostly due to a statement made by the president Roger Brown. "The administration was looking to do something new, and Roger Brown had said that the ultimate purpose was to create the circumstances for miraculous music making, and I thought that was pretty happening. The exciting thing about Berklee is that small things can turn into big things. The big gospel night, which probably draws 1,000 people a year, started out as a little student club. So my institute started when my students had approached me. In order to have student club, you have to have a faculty signature. I guess they'd asked me because nobody else was crazy enough to sign up for a microtonal club. This was actually before I was doing a lot of microtonal stuff.

"So with my masters, I went to the school, and I'd asked if I can start a Japanese proto-class. I met with the head of the ensemble department, and he'd said that he honestly did not understand what I was trying to do, but he wanted to see how it would go. So I've had a microtonal ensemble for about five years, then the school wanted me to showcase what we were doing, so they would fund a few concerts per semester. We did a few in town, in New York and Philadelphia. In preparation for the Performance Division grad program, which should start in 2014, the curriculum is going to be based upon basic requirements; then the grad Performance majors will have six institutes to choose from in where they want to focus. It could be Danilo Pérez's Global Jazz Institute, a more avant-garde institute which is more interdisciplinary, where you could do dance or video, et cetera, and the MicroJam is one of those institutes. That's the next step, and then it'd be a real institute. Right now, it's just me taking one class and out of that doing different projects, some high profile like the Guggenheim one."

Fiuczynski has been equally as busy with his side project. He is presently in the studio with his longtime associates Screaming Headless Torsos, in anticipation of a new record that will be out sometime this year. His most recent sideperson work has been with Rudresh Mahanthappa on his new record Gamak (ACT, 2013), featuring Dan Weiss on drums and Francois Moutin on bass, and making recent appearances at clubs like Le Poisson Rouge for the 2012 Winter Jazz Festival. Mahanthappa has described the project, derived from the word "gamaka" (the ornamentation used in Indian classical music), as an expression of the melodic ornamentation as it relates to the beauty of melody as it occurs worldwide, which fits in neatly with Fiuczynski's conception. However, even though Mahanthappa and Fiuczynski are part of only a handful of musicians who can or even want to combine Eastern disciplines in Western contexts, there are still unique differences between them.

Fiuczynski explains, "One of our basic differences is that he has a completely different rhythmic approach; his rhythmic contexts are often (though not always) based on Indian music. Also, he basically only does quarter tones, and I work off a finer grid of 72 notes per octave. The other thing is that on the CD, it's all me harmonizing. There were no explicit harmonies, just modes, and he had said, 'Do your thing,' as we do in jazz, for the same reason I'm sure Miles Davis had gotten Bill Evans to play on his records for his sense of harmony. Rudresh and I played for a few years with Jack [DeJohnnette], and that was a fertile ground to get comfortable with each other. So I'm taking his modes and stacking them into chord scales, and I think some of the results are pretty startling."

The Indian-based rhythms, which have been a key component of Mahanthappa's music for years, were something of a difficult task for Fiuczynski. His first experiences playing with Weiss, who had been studying the aforementioned rhythmic theories with tablist Samir Chatterjee for years, was a bit of a trial-by-fire experience. "My first thought was 'Help!' [laughs]. There's a piece we played that's in 4/4, and he would start to do stuff, and I would just get lost. Dan is amazing; I'm probably just going to take lessons with him to help me along."

Fiuczynski noticed certain specific differences in the rhythms of Indian classical and Western/American groove music. "The big thing for us Westerners, or people who haven't studied Indian music, is that our music is very divisive. We're interested in how you can divide a whole note into a half note and that into a quarter note and so on. With Indian music, one of the first things that they do, and this is a gross oversimplification, is that they're additive. They're much more interested in looking at it like, 'Well, here's the cycle, and if I play this rhythmic unit, how many times do I have to play it through how many cycles until it lands on the one again?' which is a completely different way of thinking.

"Also in Western music, we often have larger units first, like 'BOOM- [rest]-boo-KAH' [funk rhythm]; it's big, then small. Think of the 'Mission Impossible' theme or 'Take Five," with the 5/4 patterns. It's 'DAH-DAH- dah-dah,' big-big-small-small. With Indian music, though, they'll often have smaller rhythmic units first, which was very difficult for me to get used to because I would always shift to the larger one being the focal point. We also gravitate towards something low being the downbeat. So if Dan does his thing, and it's a small unit first that's high, I'm basically toast [laughs]. But a big thing I put forward is that microtonality really needs a whole new rhythmic context, and this is a huge opportunity. We'll be back at Le Poisson Rouge in April, and we'll have had about 30 gigs. I think the music will be strikingly different. I'll certainly sound better, at least."

Fiuczynski's incredibly busy schedule has not been a hindrance to his creativity but a boon to it. The influence of Boston, either through New England Conservatory, The Boston Microtonal Society or the diverse range of musicians within, has been enormous. "I've been shuttling back from Boston to New York for about 30 years. People are drawn to Boston for education and New York because of all that's there. I've always been curious about mixing things, so I've kind of had that built in. I grew up in Germany, my dad's German, and my mom's from South Carolina, so I've always had that, but that curiosity is reinforced in Boston and NYC. The gospel thing is so big in Berklee, and I think that's where a lot new ideas, especially new rhythmic ideas, are coming from.

Boston's prevalent gospel music scene has been a microcosm of what Fiuczynski has come to love about New England and a prime example and summation of his ideas about music and culture. "A lot of rhythmic ideas come from the African-American community. The gospel church is such a big influence. And again, speaking social and economic factors, I know a lot of players that fund their foray into NYC by having a gospel gig in Boston, being on a 3:30 a.m. bus to Boston to do their bread-and- butter gig. Then that gospel influence, if nothing else than a really fat pocket, goes into the music. That's really exciting; I'm always looking for new musical contexts. I'm looking forward to seeing what the next 'thing' is going to be."

Selected Discography
Rudresh Mahanthappa, Gamak (ACT, 2013)
David Fiuczynski, Planet Microjam (Rare Noise, 2012)
Hasidic New Wave, Complete Recordings (Tzadik, 2012)
David Fiuczynski, KiF Express (Fuzelicious Morsels, 2008)
Hiromi, Time Control (Telarc, 2007)
Screaming Headless Torsos, Choice Cuts of... (Fuze More, 2006)
David Fiuczynski, KiF (Fuzelicious Morsels, 2003)
David Fiuczynski, Black Cherry Acid Lab (Fuzelicious Morsels, 2002)
Frank London, Scientist at Work (Tzadik, 2002)
David Fiuczynski, Amandara (Vivid Sound, 2001)
Josh Roseman Unit, Cherry (Knitting Factory Works, 2002)
Mark Shim, Mind Over Matter (Blue Note, 1998)
David Fiuczynski / John Medeski, Lunar Crush (Warner Bros., 1994)

Photo Credits

Page 1: Courtesy of David Fiuczynski

Page 4: John Kelman

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March 2013



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