Review – Anaphoria, Footpaths and Trade Routes

19/01/2010

Everyone has some music in them. Getting it out seems to be the problem. I wonder how many aspiring musicians have spent fruitless years attempting to master an instrument, or perhaps even composition, when they might have followed Lou Harrison’s advice, which goes as follows: build an instrument of your own, just the one will do nicely, then tune it to one of the many wonderful just intonation scales or modes and finally play it. It’s simply the most satisfying thing. That advice incidentally, minus the just intonation bit, is now being followed by a generation of new improvising musicians who fashion their own electro-acoustic tools for performance.

Kraig Grady is one of the leading musicians in the field of justly intoned music played on hand made instruments. To build one instrument takes time and application. To build an orchestra of tuned strings and struck percussion instruments takes courage, commitment and artistic vision. But in the end you get the music out of you; original, unique and very beautiful on the ear.

To arrive at a complete understanding of the music of Kraig Grady by means of emulating his achievements is a task which will occupy you for several years. You will never regret the undertaking: a journey through instrument building, justly intoned scale construction, microtonal composition, improvisation and ensemble playing, a deeper appreciation of non-Western musical idioms and their aesthetic leanings, to name a few of the landmarks.

I’ll talk a little more about these features later. For now, all I can say is that anyone with an interest in new original music should buy a copy of Grady’s latest album, Anaphoria, Footpaths and Trade Routes, released as a 250 limited edition vinyl LP by ini itu.

This is more than just another release. I consider Kraig Grady’s music to be more like an initiation into an incredibly beautiful sound world of integrity, depth, charm and mystery.

I assume, and I say this from experience, that touring with such large and heavy resources is difficult and costly. This leaves the option of solo and collaborative shows in and around where the instruments are located, and of course the production of recorded music. Here we have the latest in a line of excellent releases by Grady and his fellow musicians and artists. I own several and recommend them all.

In other words you really want to have a copy of this album. To own a limited edition copy on vinyl is particularly gratifying, given the currently favoured modes of new music distribution.

What you will hear on this album are three pieces of original music in just intonation played on hand built metallophones, tuned to scales devised by Erv Wilson, one of just intonation’s most revered theorists. The particular scale at the forefront of these pieces is the meta-slendro. You can follow up for yourself the whys and wherefores of this and other scales (this might occupy you for the next decade or so as I found to my cost!) on the Anaphoria site. In simple terms the meta-slendro is built on tones, which ,sounded together, create difference tones which are also part of the scale. The arithmetic is simple (I understand it!) if you take time to grasp the basics. As a compositional or improvisational tool, such a scale might seem to suffer from harmonic limitations compared to a tempered 12 tone system. But these and other scale systems offer immense variety and versatility. Played on metallophones they also allow the composer or improviser to explore musical flavours associated with gamelan and similar idioms.

Music in just intonation offers not only some of the most beautiful music you will hear anywhere, but also some of the most disgusting. On the plus side you have the beautiful music of Kraig Grady and one or two others, usually artists who have devoted their lives to the practice. On the other side I’m thinking of some of the stuff that goes around on retuned midi synthesisers, which sets out to demonstrate something theoretical and which sounds out of tune, badly so, in its attempts to emulate various harmonic modulations. There ought to be a law, etc…..

I know from following Grady’s work over many years and from frequent correspondence that there are several strands to his compositional process. He has a very good understanding of the technical aspects of the scale systems, something approaching a scientific approach to the complexities. Erv Wilson’s work, from which Grady draws most of his resources, is dense and difficult. Much of the raw research is in need of interpretation or helpful commentary for the non-specialist. Next, less well documented perhaps and more an assumption on my part, much of Grady’s work will have been improvised in the making, both in solo and in ensemble settings, at many stages of ‘composition’, before a method of organising the tones comes into play. The actual compositional method(s) used are of great interest, a range of techniques related to minimalist cell permutations, tintinnabulation and gamelan structures. In some cases a series of rigorous arithmetical and geometrical transformations are applied to the scale’s logic.

The resulting music has warmth, elegance and human appeal, as opposed to some of the dry sterile justly intoned music out there which drifts off eventually into demonstrations of various acoustic phenomena. This is because the music is played on physically sounding instruments as opposed to those disgusting midi machines. In addition metallophones are inherently inharmonic, they have their own character deficiencies so to speak, so any theoretical reliance on accurate difference tones arising will be compromised somewhat from the outset as the metal bars wobble according to their own unpredictable harmonic nature.

Finally, all of this is wrapped in narrative, myth, folklore, fantasy, fact and the stuff of dreams, principally by means of the Anaphorian connection. Grady seems to bury his character in the spaces and places of Anaphoria, out of which various characters (real or imagined?) seem to emerge and recede. He seems to have created his own personal or small collective mythology, a place where history meets nature. Strangely, I’ve never questioned the concept, if that’s what it is. It seems to have its own logic and explains much of the underlying musical aesthetic.

Kraig Grady’s output has a lot in common with gamelan in being practically tied up with shadow puppetry, with story telling and with the investigation of transcendental phenomena. This functional aspect of Grady’s work, playing for theatre, is to my mind responsible for the integrity of the music. Like Stravinsky who throughout much of his career worked with touring ballet, Kraig Grady makes work for collaboration with other performative art forms. He sets up his own performances across several media. In this he is both very modern and very ancient. But the music will tell you this in its own way.

The three tracks are: Zephyros, Hierophone A341 on side A and Ostaelo on Side B. Zephyros is described as ‘an example of a celebratory ritual meditation based on one of the sixteen winds’ This wind is described as ‘light winged and with a subtle and shifting delicateness’. Comparisons are drawn between the winds and states of being, natural forces and human emotional states are considered as sharing common subtle material properties. This to my mind fits well with a music which has such a powerful physical and emotional appeal. In simple terms Zephyros is absolutely gorgeous, a ballad of sorts, gentle, introspective. It feels to be searching in its improvised manner. What I like about this track is the feeling of the music being played as opposed to a composition being rendered. The metallophone in this work is warm, shimmering, engaging. The music makes use of space and silence, allowing the decay of tonal structures to merge and generate their own clearly perceptible harmonic structures.

Zephyros contrasts with Hierophone A341 (an extract) with its percussive pulse, fragments of human voice chanting, various emerging and receding layers of tonal sound, that omnipresent background shifting drone as the combination tones do their work. When I first listened to this piece I heard ,or imagined I heard, something of the representation of a Native American Indian ritual. Not that I would know about these things from experience, but the mind does wander around various cultural territories when exposed to this music.

Ostaelo, the longest track, is an uncompromising piece; muscular and relentless in its forward motion. It contrasts with Zephyros in that the metallophone has a different timbre, more like large bells than tubes, and the combination tones are clearly heard as structurally important elements in the work. The low end is incredible. I haven’t put this through a software spectrogram, but we’re talking here about some serious lower chakra activation. I was reminded of the metal percussion in Xenakis Pleiades, more in the spirit of the work, the feeling of instruments being performed as opposed to a piece being played, and the specific choice of hand wrought metal for its unique properties. Variety and interest are maintained throughout by careful dynamic contrast and subtle variations in the duration of sounded tones.

There are some nut-crunching dissonances in all three pieces which Grady exploits with relish. These structural features give the music an edge which cuts through any tendency towards more amorphous ambient forms. I would say, however, that both sides of the sign ‘dissonance’ need an overhaul in the context of just intonation music played on metallophones.

I love this music because of the challenges it presents. Despite the fact that many in the academic community have declared microtonality to be dead and buried, except as a tasty spice to be sprinkled here and there, the music of Grady and others takes us out of our narrow parochial frame of reference and reminds us of the wealth of non-Western forms. The mode of production of the instruments themselves is a challenge to convention. Boulez was said to have turned his nose up at Partch’s hand made orchestra. If this is true, he will have scorned the majority of instrument makers around the world who ‘roll their own’. Then there is the rejection of 12 tone equal temperament for valid and well considered reasons allied to the establishment and successful exploitation of an archive of alternative tuning systems. And the work is still in its infancy. I’m drawn also to the collaborative potential of this kind of music, in particular with with certain electronic forms.

But perhaps the most exciting feature of Grady’s music is its simplicity, which we all overlook so often in our individual and collective desire to gather, consume and achieve.

I would recommend serious consideration of Lou Harrison’s advice to build an instrument, to tune it and to play it. You might not be able to modulate freely around the cycle of fifths or to play Bach fugues (after several year’s practice) but you will be doing something musical of great beauty which is both original and unrepeatable.

Finally, I would offer the view that Kraig Grady’s music has much in common with some of wonderful drifts in new non-academic music. His music is based on the exploitation of limited resources, produced ‘locally’, on the creation of a unique sound world and on reductive approaches to musical organisation, including an investigation of structural uses of silence. His musical voice is one of the most vital and essential in these first decades of the 21st century.

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