Kraig Grady – Our Rainy Season
Grady’s new album, released on Dale Lloyd’s either/oar label, consists of two pieces, Our Rainy Season [49:12] and Nuilagi[25:54]
Our Rainy Season features only two but highly skilled improvisers: Jim Denley and Mike Majkowski. The artists were asked to improvise on single notes with extreme pitch accuracy to within one tenth of a cent, which they could evaluate with the aid of a visual display while performing. While the tuning for Our Rainy Season is from Anaphoria, it resembles a scale once found among the Chopi people in the village of Mavila in Mozambique, an area that likewise experiences its own severe rainy season. In the process of composing another work, Beyond The Windows, it became more and more noticeable how various nuances of the performers’ gestures contributed to the feel and personality of the piece. It was in Our Rainy Season that these possibilities could be fully explored.
Jim Denley plays bass flute, alto saxophone and wooden flute, with Mike Majkowski playing upright bass
Before we go into the music itself we should begin by taking a good look at the background to this music. If you don’t do this, you’ll come to conclusions such as the one I read recently which described this work as ‘modern classical music with a strong exotic touch’. I can understand why someone would say this – the music is pitch based and the instruments are conventional ‘orchestral instruments’. But the truth of the matter is that the tonal system has as much to do with classical music as intelligence has with military intelligence and the instruments are, well, simply instruments, tools for realising a musical idea. You could, if you wanted to take an non-ethnocentric view, balance the equation by saying that the music is exotic with a classical touch. I’ve no doubt that it will in time be described as ambient, dronal and (of course) minimalist, for good measure.
None of these descriptions or categories are sufficient. For a start Grady has been investigating justly intoned instrumental music for over three decades. He is held in high esteem within several overlapping musical communities, not least because of his role in carrying forward the project initiated by Harry Partch. Unlike Partch, though, Grady makes music that allows the tuning systems to develop their inner logic, the harmonies to breathe, without regressing into mere demonstrations. Though I would take nothing away from Partch’s project and pioneering work, I always felt that his music was too fast for my ears to appreciate the possibilities that the elaborate tuning system was set up to exploit. Grady is also one of the few people I know who can hold his own within the scholastic, pedantic, inquisitional arcane mathematical environment that weighs down upon most of the specialist discussion forums on tuning. I’ve pitched in to these forums from time to time and have been promptly slaughtered. In fact he sheds light where others obfuscate, simply because he puts theory into practice. He now takes time to discuss within the safe haven of a non-confrontational forum on Justly Intoned music. More recently Grady’s work is being associated with the wider field of sound art, which I welcome greatly as it brings his music to new appreciative audiences and lays down some serious benchmarks.
Kraig Grady is part and parcel of the island of Anaphoria, which lends to him something of the ethnographer and something of the surrealist, a fine combination indeed, though I’m never sure in what order. Anyone can contribute and become a friend. I’m holding out for a position as Honorary Consulate. I’ll leave you to sort out Anaphoria for yourself, pausing only to draw your attention to The Anaphorian papers authored by theorist Erv Wilson and archived by Grady, which will keep you informed on all aspects of Just Intonation, but will take you years to interpret and put to use. Erv Wilson still awaits a full appreciation by the wider musical community. Having assimilated the theory, designed (or chosen) and auditioned the scales you prefer, you then have to make your own instruments, maintain and store them, coerce other players into playing and recording your compositions, find venues and promote concerts, all largely without institutional support. It’s like running an entire orchestra on your own.
So, even before listening, I’m persuaded to hold Grady’s work in the highest esteem.
The title of the work, Our Rainy Season, is typical of Grady’s universe, where biophonic and geophonic sound worlds tend to coalesce and combine. Hence Grady’s work throughout his career in accompanying shadow theatre, where the evocation of various natural phenomena in mythical narratives is so important. From personal correspondence I’ve learned that Grady ‘did not shy away from the noise elements produced by the instruments. There are places of high hiss, almost like what one hears in a thick but gentle rain’, further evidence, possibly, of Grady’s recontextualisation of his own work within the wider field of sound art, steering sensibly away from the sterile scholastics.
Our Rainy Season makes us of a scale called Meta-Mavila. Nuilagi uses the Meta-Slendro, a scale used by Grady throughout much of his previous work. These scales are highly elaborate abstractions drawn from existing scales and scale systems: Mavila from Mozambique, slendros from Indonesia. The older indigenous scales are primarily melodic, with uneven intervals between the tones. These lend themselves to compositional techniques such as heterophony, for example, in the marimba ensembles of Mozambique and in the gamelans of Indonesia. The modern abstractions, whilst taking their ‘inspiration’ from the older forms, are designed to offer the composer a wide range of harmonic options. Because of the arithmetic involved, combinations of tones sounded together will ‘contain’ the fundamentals and harmonics of other tones in the system. Composition with these scales draws the composer into number systems, geometric representations of harmonic matrices and conceptual approaches to developing scores.
We can look at the origins of this scale with the Chopi people of Mozambique (scroll down to Sunday, January 17, 2010). To appreciate the kind of transformation that takes place when Erv Wilson turns his hand to an ‘original’ African scale, have a look at this. See what I mean by complexity and a scientific approach? Part of the reason this looks so complicated is that you have the use of numbers to refer to several different categories: pitches, frequencies, cents, ratios, tone position in recurrent sequences. For those familiar with the system, Grady has chosen a specific range as his preferred area (see page 5) for the Meta-Mavila as played in Our Rainy Season: the nine tones from 37 to 415.
Grady differs from the majority of Just Intonation composers in that he not only approaches the wonderful world of tuning like a dedicated research scientist, hence the several decades invested in his work, but actually applies what he has learned to real music played on physical instruments.
But why break with 12 tone equal temperament? That argument is for others to develop elsewhere but there are convincing answers on Grady’s own blog if you care to spend some time there. The problem is that in order to be able to listen to new systems we need first to develop those systems and then to build new instruments or modify existing ones. That seems to have been a bridge too far for the Academy in general. Digital technology can help the curious, but if justly intoned music is to make an impression on the world of 12 equal there can be no substitute for physical instruments.
The idea behind Our Rainy Season, as outlined in the sleeve notes, is that the players use a Peterson strobe tuner to monitor their tuning accuracy whilst improvising on the tones of the scale. Over the duration of a piece, with two players, various combination and difference tones will arise, suggesting new directions, and the ears of the improvisers will decide where we go from there. I can see why a Peterson would work: the strobe’s (or virtual strobe) visual display is very friendly and coaxes you along to the true pitch rather than just telling you when you’ve reached it, thereby offering an elegant solution to the problem of how wind players in particular can hold pitch in works which make use of just intonation tuning systems. You can have a virtual fouter around for yourself here.
From the very start of the piece, upper partials seem to be strongly emphasised; then the players explore the timbres and various articulations of their chosen instruments. The music is quite unlike anything else I’ve heard, utterly compelling and totally original.
Grady has previously explored the Meta-Mavila on his own hand made instruments. In choosing here to work with conventional instruments, solving the problem of tuning by a conceptual approach to appropriate technology, he avoids two of the problems that have given Just Intonation and microtonal music in general a bad press in some quarters (‘it sounds out of tune’). First, in relying on good musicians to use their ears to let the piece develop/grow/evolve organically, he avoids some of those truly dreadful efforts where bits of plumbing are welded on to clarinets, or where fast gestures are thrown together on to a meticulously notated score and interpreted by a virtuosic player, with no-one, including the player, really able to tell how close to the score we are at any given point. Secondly, he steers away from electronic methods of rendering the tones, not that I’d expect him to make use of midi synths and retuning software, but there are plenty out there who do – and unless you use your ears well it all still sounds like an effing stylophone!
So, one one level we have an excellent inventive twist on the use of the Meta-Mavila. In the simplicity of his concept he surpasses my own efforts to find practical playing solutions. In investigating ways to have conventional instruments play music composed using the Eikosany, a just intonation twenty tone scale system, I arrived at the ‘solution’ of a string quintets (actually two) with each instrument tuned to a specific scordatura, not too far from standard tuning. But how many string quintets are there out there willing to try new work in a strange tuning? The obvious answer led me to that task of constructing my own quartet of five string bowed zithers in order to realise the music.
Kraig Grady: composer, metallophone
Erin Barnes: metallophone
Jonathan Marmor: metallophone
If you’ve developed a taste for tuning detail, have a look at the Meta-Slendro, the scale used in Nuilagi and the tuning of Grady’s largest ensemble of instruments.
If there’s anything ‘classical’ about Nuilagi I can’t find it, but the simplicity of the counterpoint, the gentle polyphony, the passing dissonances, certainly remind me of early medieval works for three voices, that key period in the Western musical tradition where plainchant had recently developed into polyphony.
What we’re hearing here goes far beyond beautiful sounds on a metallophone The beauty here doesn’t arise from the fact of the metallophone, but is a result of the depth and range of sheer hard work that has gone into the overall production: precisely because of the design of the instruments, the tuning, the conceptual rigour and the fact that they work together. Thus Just Intonation in the 21st century.
Having built and played my own instruments, using just intonation scale systems designed by Erv Wilson and others, I’ve noticed that I never tire of playing and listening to these tunings in the same way that I do playing in equal temperament. I’ve also noticed how energising choral singing can be, for others as well as myself, in particular with simple contrapuntal music, which tends to move in an adaptive just intonation, from one justly intoned block to the next. I believe there’s something at work here, but I don’t quite know what it is in scientific or musical terms. It’s all very subjective. What I do know though is that some of the more tight-arsed tuning theorists among us will spit blood at the mere suggestion of transcendental qualities in tuning systems. Which of course gives me all the more reason to promote such suggestions.