Part 2

What's your take on the "Well Tuned Piano"? Especially seeing you spoke to Kyle Gann, who considers it of seminal importance.  

I have listened to parts of "The Well-Tuned Piano" from time to time, including most recently when I became fascinated to investigate the tuning used.

It's important to share how I became interested in different tunings to begin with. What happened is I attended a concert given by the Kronos Quartet in 1994 in Westwood, including a work by Ali Jihad Racy featuring percussionist Souhail Kaspar.

This piece was clearly the highlight of the program, but a few days later the LA Times made unfortunately ethnocentric comments about Racy's composition. Troubled by this uninformed opinion, I looked up Jihad's phone number where he is a UCLA professor, and left a voicemail articulating my admiration for his piece, and advising him to ignore what was written. Racy was greatly appreciative, phoning me back, and inviting me to attend rehearsals of his Middle Eastern Ensemble at UCLA. It was here that I was first exposed to Arabic tunings, finding them excitingly captivating, and began using variations upon them in works like "Aqaba" from the Robinson Gardens album, North Africa, and Malleable from the Photosynthesis album, among others.

My first album showing the influence of studies with Harihar Rao, Hamoa, released in 1995, continued my new fascination with tunings, including two different Japanese tunings, a Tibetan tuning with enharmonic tones, several different just intonation tunings, and an American blues tuning with enharmonic tones.

Most serendipitously, around the time of meeting Harihar, an amazing source for different tunings became available, this being the The World Music Menu by Stephen Nachmanovitch,  a publication that deserves to be in every music library in the world, and to be in the personal collection of every creative musician and composer, no exaggeration. Unlike other books about tuning - Stephen modestly describes it as a manual given the relative brevity - that tend to be drier than the most extreme tomes about serialism, Stephen's fantastically pithy writing and format brim with both exuberance and knowledge, luring readers irresistibly into this tantalizing realm. The World Music Menu is simply by far the best introduction for different tunings.

Stephen was a bit perplexed at the time because I was mostly interested in the tunings themselves, converting the given ratios into cents for my own methods, as opposed to directly playing the tunings with an electronic keyboard using the software accompanying the text as Stephen had envisioned. There were a few errors in the text regarding swaras (tones) of specific ragas I noticed that were passed along and immediately corrected. Since 1995, I have used different forms of just intonation almost exclusively, finding this sounds best for my compositions based upon raga form. Simultaneously, I've been expanding my personal library about tunings even if The World Music Menu remains by far my favorite text.

There have been notable exceptions to the use of just intonation, such as Nightmarchers, whereby I divided the saptak (octave) into 7, 8 and 9 equal parts;

The Fiddler of Dooney, which revisits the Tibetan tuning used for "Red Painting" from the Hamoa album;

and Ruby Soul, which revisits the American blues tuning used for "Giant Leaves" from the Hamoa album.

Additionally, I have invented (discovered) new ragas such as "Azure Rivers" from the Viridian Seas album; "Pink Monkey"; "Summer Morning"; and "Pink Sapphire".

Regarding Kyle Gann, it was very fortunate how he included my second album, Fire Monkey, among the notable recordings of 1994 for the Village VOICE, including giving what I understand to be his highest compliment for a composer, describing me as "an original." A few years later, Kyle included me on a list of 16 notable composers, living and deceased, that included La Monte and Harry Partch among other luminaries. Just five years ago, Kyle invited me to lecture about my music at Bard College. Quite opposite to myself, Kyle's introduction to different tunings came from his teacher, Ben Johnston, a Western composer influenced by Partch. While I understand and appreciate what composers like Partch and Johnston were doing, we all must prioritize what is most personally relevant, and I find the way tunings are realized in Indian classical music and other foreign cultures infinitely more compelling and exciting compared to what Western composers have done in the past. More specifically, I find just intonation and other tunings related to foreign cultures, including India, Africa, Korea, Indonesia, Persian, and Arabic countries, among others, where the focus is on melodic development rather than chords, to be preferable in terms of musical beauty and substance.

You see, La Monte focuses on chords with his "Well-Tuned Piano" improvisations, and my preference is for the purely melodic aspects of his tuning. An enormous factor that prepared me for beginning to understand Indian classical music was my deep love for innovative rock artists who engaged in modal improvisation, including The Doors, Traffic, the Allman Brothers, the Byrds, Jethro Tull, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Cream, and, very early on, the Grateful Dead, among other bands. All of these musicians were transformed by the modal improvisations of John Coltrane, who learned mostly from recordings by Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan, Bismillah Khan, Alla Rakha, and others. Those who ignored rock missed out on the monumentally substantive form that superseded jazz around the time of the Beatles, just as jazz had superseded Western classical music around the time of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, these time contexts having considerable overlapping and exceptions, of course. In addition to transforming the music of John Coltrane, and through him, jazz, Indian classical music was the dominant influence on Steve Reich, Terry Riley, La Monte Young and Philip Glass, with Steve's coming mostly through the music of Coltrane, though I suspect he was deeply touched by Indian classical music directly, too, in addition to primary African and Indonesian influences.

Steve actually was an important mentor of mine, something arranged by musicologist and arts administrator Leonard Altman, best known for leading the campaign to save Carnegie Hall, but also having a keen interest in living composers, including Olivier Messian, George Crumb, and Ralph Shapey, among others. Altman had earlier invited me to study at Tanglewood after hearing me play my two earliest compositions on the piano, these being "Promenade des Tortues" and "Spring Rains" from the Abode of Joy album. At Tanglewood, I had composition classes with Gunther Schuller, Ralph Shapey, John Chowning, Jacob Druckman, and Paul Zukofsky, together with attending conducting classes, rehearsals, and performances by Leonard Bernstein with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Altman subsequently asked me which composer I would like to have for a mentor, and my reply at the time was Karlheinz Stockhausen. Leonard replied that I had managed to pick the one composer who was out of his or anyone else's reach, and then decided on his own that Steve Reich would be a good fit for me, as proved true. Steve inadvertently convinced me to move into New York City from Nassau County, an essential transition, and also passed on a good deal of crucial advice.

Given how Indian classical music was the key influence upon the music of the four minimalists, it perplexes me how some are oblivious to that tradition. One professor even told me that his university music department decided not to teach Indian classical music because it was too difficult for students to understand. They do have a point, because Indian classical music is highly esoteric and complex, and requires a good deal of time to begin understanding, but turning one's back on that tradition in our time is like a scientist ignoring physics and computer technology, and is most self-defeating.

In terms of the four minimalists, I've found the music of Steve Reich to have been the most influential in showing potential pathways away from serialism. However, not content with music consisting predominantly of repeated patterns, I began adding through-composed melodic content as heard on Trembling Flowers, and later added through-composed percussion content to my melodic inventions upon beginning to learn raga form from Harihar Rao, this melodic and rhythmic interplay most recently found in the Drut Gat and Ati Drut Gat of my new album, A Parrot Sipping Tea.

It mystifies me how some apparently believe jazz, Indian classical music, and elements of rock and pop have little to nothing to do with Western composition, suggesting alarming degrees of ethnocentricity, hanging onto music traditions of the past as opposed to embracing newer, more potent forms because they apparently feel South Asian and largely African American forms are not part of their world. These are a central part of our world, of course, again, including Western composition if one simply begins by considering the four minimalists.

Related, it is unfortunate how some have an ideological bias against new musical instruments like the meruvina because they fail to understand how the computer is simply a musical tool like a clarinet or piano. For some the disklavier is fine, but using the same concept with an array of timbres is not, I suppose because they wrongfully feel instrumentalists are somehow offended or threatened by this. There's plenty of room for both traditional ways of playing music and newer ways.

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