Can you give a summary of what, creatively, the influence of Indian music on La Monte Young's Well Tuned Piano is?
It is very obvious that La Monte's conception is based upon the Alap of the raga form, Alap literally meaning "touch a color."
Alap is the tempo-less opening of ragas conjuring the formlessness of the universe before earth was created. Alap gradually leads to Jor, meaning "momentum," whereby a steady pulse is introduced, and Jor in turn leads to Jhala, meaning "sparkling," with the tempo increased to much faster speeds.
It would appear that La Monte's movement from softer and sparer sections to louder and busier sections approximates shifts from Alap to Jor and/or Jhala if without a discernible pulse most of the time as best I can tell.
What makes La Monte's tuning for the "Well Tuned Piano" interesting and special from your perspective?
When I set out to audition La Monte's tuning for possible usage in a new composition, I discovered, as no one has before, apparently, that it falls under Khammaj thaat, similar to the Mixolydian mode, also sounding closest to pentatonic ragas Madhmad Sarang and Megh, both of which I've based compositions upon. La Monte ingeniously transformed the chromatic scale into Khammaj thaat, not knowing if this was his intent or not. Thus, also not noticed or commented upon by anyone else, there are three enharmonic tones for Rishabha (second), three enharmonic tones for Panchama (fifth), and two enharmonic tones for Shadja (tonic).
I loved the way the tuning sounded, and began formulating a new composition in my mind and body. It is only after a composition is fully internalized that the creation of the physical score commences, this one having 61,178 individual notes and bols, not including the repeated tones of the supporting clavichord for the Jor and Jhala, of course. Having enharmonic tones affords different pitches for the same swara, the Sanskrit word for tone, meaning "that which shines." One may hear something similar in particular passages of tenor saxophonist Lester Young, the favorite jazz artist of Lee Konitz, when he plays the same tone using different fingerings resulting in similarly subtle yet powerful fluctuations. For myself, these enharmonic tones are like raindrops dancing on a hidden mountain pond frequented only by various animal life, including fish, turtles, frogs, turtles, deer, lions, snow leopards, and spirits.
I should add that a famous book about ragas by Alain Danielou includes an analysis of pentatonic Raga Gunkali also including, related to "The Well-Tuned Piano", three enharmonic tones for Komal Rishabha (lowered second) and three enharmonic tones for Komal Dhaivata (lowered sixth). My sense is La Monte is familiar with this book while not knowing if it had any influence on his tuning.
"Porcelain Nights", from my Chinese Legend album, is based upon Gunkali. Most surprisingly, while auditioning the tunings from The Well-Tuned Piano, at first I accidently switched tunings for Gandhara (third) and Madhyama (fourth), and Dhaivata (sixth) and Komal Nishada (lowered seventh). After making the corrections, I was astonished to realize how I preferred the new tunings for these four swaras.
You see, I always evaluate tunings according to the way they sound over theoretical calculations. Thus, the tuning used for A Parrot Sipping Tea includes standard just intonation for Shadja, Rishabha and Panchama, my tunings for Gandhara, Madhyama, Dhaivata and Komal Nishada, and La Monte's original tunings for two addition versions of Rishabha, two additional versions of Panchama, and one additional version of Shadja, all adding up to the twelve swaras of the saptak (octave).
You've spoken about the length and complexity of working on A Parrot Sipping Tea. What was the composing process like?
Working on "A Parrot Sipping Tea" was a most welcome siege, encompassing the entire spring of 2021. After forming the composition internally, I set about creating the score, all notated by hand using pencil on conventional music paper using both G clef and Bass clef, and a percussion clef for the Indian and Indonesian skin drum bols employed. As is my custom, not a single note from the 61,178 individual notations was altered from the original writing. After notation was completed, I began translating the score into a numerical language the Meruvina reads and performs, something I took the time to teach myself when I first began using this medium in 1984 so that the process is automatic. In other words, a score I enter in a few weeks would take someone not fluent with this numerical language over one year to complete.
After the score is fully entered, I then proof my work listening for any errors. For a Parrot Sipping Tea, this process of entering and proofing took between one and two months. Once the accuracy of the raw data is confirmed, I set about orchestrating my composition so that it is articulated in the most advantageous setting possible. Sometimes I'm amazed at how quickly orchestration solutions are arrived at, and this was such an instance, using clavichord and organ timbres never enlisted before, while returning to a piano timbre originally discovered by Ray Manzarek during the time he took an interest in my music, including working on some music projects together. Ray was the keyboardist for The Doors, of course. It was a great pleasure including Souhail Kaspar for a concert we gave at the House of Blues in West Hollywood, Souhail being the percussionist I first heard performing the work of Ali Jihad Racy.
You've stated that "focusing on tuning alone tends to be an artificial concept". Can you expand on that a bit? What would be a healthier perspective on tuning – and what role does it play in your work?
To clarify, the essay this quote is taken from, "Loving and Rerigging La Monte Young's Tuning," and it states:
"I've personally found focusing on tuning alone tends to be an artificial concept conjuring serialism, if another extreme, oftentimes based more upon theoretical concepts and numbers than music itself. I fully understand such pursuits, including knowing John Cage, who was an innovator in conceptual and theoretical music. Focusing on tuning alone in the context of ragas may compromise development and tone quality, just to begin with, missing the forest for the trees, and I tend to feel much the same for Western composition, though anything is possible, including exceptions."
Tuning is one of a number of essential elements comprising the art of music, others being melody, rhythm, timbre, dynamics, articulation, expression, and form. And I would add quality to this, quality in music being described thusly: "Quality is epiphany illuminated by a jewel of the lotus." This is a definition I composed myself around 1976, the question posed by my gifted composition teacher, Don Funes. "Jewel" represents the individuality of the utterer, as opposed to imitations or copying, and "lotus" refers to the world, with "epiphany" denoting something being noteworthy as opposed to underwhelming.
If we focus too much on one element there is the risk of compromising this delicate balance with unfortunate results. Imagine a restaurant boasting of having an incredible sauce so delectable that it removes any need for entrees or appetizers, whether vegetable, tofu, fish, chicken, beef, or pork, etc. Their claim being one only needs their special sauce for nourishment and fulfillment. This is nonsensical, of course, and I must confess to feeling the same for tuning. Tuning is fantastically crucial, of course, and one must find the best tuning for the music one is engaging with whether it be equal temperament, just intonation, or myriad other forms. But if one focuses only on tuning, again, in the context of raga, the raga development and overall substance may well suffer, in addition to the vocal or instrumental tone quality. Music requires us to engage in a rainbow of elements at once. (There are instances whereby composers are only interested in highlighting elements of tuning, deliberately negating other musical elements, so these would be possible exceptions.)
When I interviewed Pandit Jasraj, a vocalist so monumental he is known as "The Sun of Music" in India, I specifically asked him about tuning, as I did another equally monumental artist, Shivkumar Sharma, who plays the santoor. Jasraj and Sharma, in addition to Ravi Shankar and Anindo Chatterjee, among others, are musical creators second to none, including historic figures like Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven. In fact, if forced to choose, I would definitely go with the Indian artists over the German composers, and this comes from someone who loves Bach and Beethoven immensely. In "The Perfect Notes" interview, Pandit Jasraj described to me how raga tunings are related to the time of day whereby the human body interacts differently with the cycles of nature. In the "Spiritual High" interview, Shivkumar Sharma told me how he uses defining phrases informing individual ragas for how best to tune each swara so that the essence of the raga is reached.
Both of these interviews, which some kindly regard as definitive, and more interviews and related essays are available on the Interviews with Indian Masters page at Azure Miles Records.
Are there artists working with alternative tuning systems that are you personally interested in? What approaches do you find inspiring?
The alternate tuning systems that most engage me are invariably from different cultures, both traditional and classical music, including India, Africa, Indonesia, Korea, the Middle East, Armenia, Native American, China, Japan, and other indiginous modus operandi I look forward to discovering.
Using a variant of La Monte's tuning represents the first time I turned to a tuning invented by a Western composer, this being a most notable exception.