Part 4

Terms like consonant and dissonant are used in school, but mostly with very limited understanding of what they mean. How has your own idea of these terms changed over time and how do you see them today?

Stan Getz, an artist who left a wide range of jazz musicians awestruck, from Lester Young to John Coltrane, said that the essential elements for a jazz musician are originality, taste, courage, and irreverence. In this context, when someone introduces new forms of dissonance, intuitively expanding musical language while actualizing who they are musically, the term "taste" becomes paramount, something originally subjective immediately, or hopefully, eventually, moving into what becomes mostly objective. I would suggest that John Cage succeeded in this regard with his "Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano".

John was very kind to invite me to his loft during the winter of 1983, where he spent an afternoon perusing my scores, commenting how they differed from both Igor Stravinksy and Arnold Schoenberg in terms of my melodic movement being generally closer to scaler movement as opposed to wide intervallic leaps, something I immediately realized was attributable to my immersion into jazz, and later on, Indian classical music, but knowing of Cage's aversion to jazz, I kept this detail quiet, not wishing to upset him in any way for no beneficial purpose.

In terms of liberating dissonance like Cage did, the music of Lennie Tristano is much the same, if in an entirely different genre, but you will never hear his recordings on most local jazz stations because it is still considered too dissonant and intellectually challenging. Legendary software designer and code writer, Emile Tobenfeld, noted how his favorite group, the Grateful Dead, would play some of the most avant-garde music imaginable, and remain wildly popular on a grand scale, while some of his favorite avant-garde jazz artists would play something similarly abstract, and be mostly ignored. In this particular instance, I suppose what the Dead were doing was a relatively small part of their overall stance, while the jazz artists in question made such play the central aspect of their music, both instances entirely understandable and justifiable.

For myself, keeping it simple, I would say music that attracts me is consonant, however objectively dissonant it may actually be, and music I don't connect with is dissonant, regardless of how objectively consonant it may be. Thus, my aesthetic experience and preferences transcend whatever subjective and objective questions of what may be considered dissonant or consonant. Some of the most abstract ragas, like Lalit, inspiring my Lunar Mansions album;

Marwa, inspiring my Luminous Realms album;

and Todi, inspiring my album of the same name, originally sounded incredibly dissonant to my Western ears, and still do at times.

Yet my understanding is they are as consonant as consonant can be for Indians familiar with their classical music.

Do different tuning systems suggest different kinds of music? Would you say that different tuning systems are capable of expressing different, and potentially unique emotional states?

Yes, I believe that tunings are wedded to certain forms of music, with the caveat being there is always a possibility of finding new and/or different tunings for particular situations perhaps unimaginable at the present time. Indian classical music inhabits a uniquely dreamy realm while being unmatched in terms of intellectual complexity, a particularly potent pairing.

Again, given how tunings are one of a number of intrinsic musical elements, if the tuning is aligned properly with the other elements, unique emotional states are very possible and real. I recall being brought to tears by Joe Henderson's Live In Japan recording of "Blue Bossa" with Japanese jazz musicians first heard in the seventies, using well-tempered tuning, of course.

And when I was in an unhappy state in the nineties, it was a live recording of raga Shuddha Nat performed by Pandit Jasraj on the Biswas label that seemed to rescue me, listening to it over and over, this being closest to just intonation.

When I related my experience to Pandit Jasraj over the phone, he instantly said he loved me, and wanted to meet me, this being the very highest compliment he could imagine for his music. Pandit Jasraj even invited me to live with him at his home in India for one month, where he wished to take me to his favorite revered places, including sites in the Himalayas, but I was most regretfully unable to travel there at the time. Fortunately, we did spend a good deal of productive time in California, including the memorable interview, "The Perfect Notes."

So far, the focus with regards to alternative tuning systems has mainly been on harmony. But melody is affected, too. How do you personally understand melody and what changes when it becomes part of a new pitch environment?

This is how I differ from other Western composers, as is almost always the case (!), because my focus with different tunings has been almost entirely purely melodic, not generally enjoying how chords sound with just intonation and other tunings.

Having stated this, on my 2021 release, Taffeta Patterns, there are minor seventh chords using the same just intonation as for the melodic voice. And the same applies for another 2021 release, Garlanded In Wistaria, again using the same just intonation for minor triads as used for the melodic voice.

In other words, I now seem to have contradicted myself somewhat, actually finding pleasing ways to use chords with just intonation. It certainly wasn't planned. It has been unusual for me to use chords, but when I do, I auditioned different tunings for them, finding that just intonation sounded best for both Taffeta Patterns and Garlanded In Wistaria. Conversely, the chords found in "Delayed Response" from the Trembling Flowers album use equal temperament tuning, as do the chords used in the "First Part of Lahaina Lanterns". I should add that the melodic voice of "Delayed Response" also uses equal temperament tuning, while the melodic voices informing the "Second Part of Lahaina Lanterns" use just intonation.

Of course, most pertinent is how the content and expression of these compositions differ vastly from the music of other composers, and that accounts for why the chords with just intonation personally work for me.

My relatively recent adventure into piano improvisations has now led into what has been termed "radically reimagined" approaches to jazz standards. My approach has become improvising on the melodic and lyrical (lyrics) content of these songs while exploring new polymodal relationships mostly in the context of counterpoint. Prior to my recent investigations, I had thought improvising on jazz standards was a thing of the past, no longer relevant, but now I've even been finding brilliant songs jazz musicians of the past mostly overlooked. Using equal temperament to date, this has led to wildly dissonant music that has been becoming more and more consonant sounding for me as I continue to develop my approach.

One image for my piano improvisations is navigating a sea of dissonance together with sirens of consonance calling over the waves.

Are there plans of returning to the "Well Tuned Piano" tuning in the future?

While I am not specifically planning to use either La Monte's original tuning, or the re-rigged tuning I developed from that tuning, I will very much consider it a possibility moving forward.

I am extremely grateful to La Monte for the encouragement and advice he gave me thirty years ago, and in view of the great influence his tuning has had on A Parrot Sipping Tea, consider him a most welcome composition teacher along with Steve Reich and John Cage.

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