The new world music of Bill Frisell and Robert Rich
by Derk Richardson, special to SF Gate
Thursday, May 1, 2003
If the world didn’t change completely after Sept. 11, it certainly did get smaller. More people on planet Earth are sensitized to one another’s existence than ever more. Unfortunately, heightened awareness doesn’t necessarily translate into greater good will. In often fatal ways, cultural differences have grown more rigid and antagonistic.
Music has long been touted as a soothing antidote to savagery. And “world music,” that unfortunate catchall for just about any ethnic artifact that’s “foreign” to mainstream American ears, supposedly promotes cross-cultural understanding best of all.
But even as the neo-flamenco of the Gipsy Kings, the mourna of Cesaria Evora and the lilting Cuban melodies and rhythms of Buena Vista Social Club offshoots become a kind of hip Muzak at bookstore cafés and middle-class cocktail parties, I wonder how many insightful, let alone enduring, bridges are being built between the culture of the consumer and that of the artist.
Perhaps what’s called for is a new kind of world music, one that truly represents an openhearted meeting of the minds from radically disparate cultures. The experiment has been ongoing in pop for decades, from projects by Ry Cooder, Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel through grassroots world-beat bands to today’s multiculti dance-floor mixologists, but rarely has it reached the level of synthesis achieved in unique new recordings by jazz guitarist Bill Frisell and ambient soundscape musician Robert Rich.
Frisell, who appears with his trio at Yoshi’s in Oakland, Thursday through Sunday, May 8-11, offers a personal vision of cultural integration on his new CD for Nonesuch, The Intercontinentals. Rich, who kicks off a North American tour with a concert at the Morrison Planetarium in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, Sunday, May 4, conjures a new world altogether on his Soundscape Productions CD, Temple of the Invisible: Document of a Lost Ritual.
Seeing the Light
Boasting one of the most distinctive instrumental sounds among in a jazz-rock electric-guitar generation that includes John Scofield, Pat Metheny and others, Frisell has been dramatically recontextualizing his idiosyncratic style on recent albums. A former collaborator with John Zorn and other noisy denizens of the fertile New York City “downtown” music scene of the 1980s, the Seattle transplant has been sliding along a musical spectrum that ventures through high-voltage electric jazz-rock, chamber-like arrangements with brass and reeds, and alternative takes on traditional country and bluegrass. His collaborators have been equally diverse, including clarinetist Don Byron, drummer Elvin Jones, bassist Dave Holland, banjo picker Danny Barnes, cartoonist Gary Larson and rocker Elvis Costello, among many others.
On The Intercontinentals Frisell ranges more widely (if not wildly) than ever before. The global cast of Brazilian guitarist, percussionist and singer Vinicius Cantuária, Greek-Macedonian oud and bouzouki master Christos Govetas, Malian percussionist/singer Sidiki Camara and Americans Greg Leisz, on pedal steel and slide guitars, and Jenny Scheinman, on violin, weave potentially incongruent musical traditions and styles into a virtually seamless, silken tapestry. Through it all threads Frisell’s weeping and sighing guitar lines and judiciously manipulated electronic loops and effects. Without diluting the potency of the various elements — indeed, individual tracks take on dominant cultural identities — the mix makes for easy listening. Without becoming world music-lite, it insinuates itself into your consciousness with a wondrously light touch.
While the music on The Intercontinentals is self-explanatory, and Frisell’s intention to cultivate connection across borders is fairly transparent, Robert Rich’s Temple of the Invisible is harder to pin down. Rich’s Web site describes the music as “a document from a distant time and place, a lost culture with musical underpinnings that reach from Java to North Africa, from Medieval Europe to the Tibetan Plateau,” with each of the album’s seven pieces further documenting “part of a lost ritual, with mythical and spiritual components conveyed through a strangely familiar yet foreign musical language, as if unearthed from an ancient common ancestry.”
Playing flutes, zither, prepared piano, mallet kalimba and a variety of percussion, Rich recruited a mixed musical family of friends to join him on his journey: Sukhawat Ali Khan contributes impassioned Indian vocals; widely traveled virtuoso Paul Hanson plays bassoon and bombard (an obscure oboe-like reed); Forrest Fang plugs the bouzouki-like baglama and the ancient Chinese zither known as the gu zheng; Tom Heasley, known for his ambient tuba work, adds voice and conch shell; and Percy Howard, of Meridiem fame, deepens the textures with his post-operatic vocals. As with every Rich production, the attention to sonic detail gives new meaning to obsessiveness. Few studio technicians can match Rich’s mastery of sound placement and the complex relationships between aural foreground and background, while keeping the focus on musical content. Temple of the Invisible sounds like nothing — and a little bit of everything — you’ve heard before.
“I’ve been interested in musical archeology for some time,” Rich explained in a recent e-mail exchange, “often ponder what the music would have sounded like in vanished cultures. It makes me aware of the fragility of our own musical heritage. … Also I have long loved the music of Harry Partch, which somehow invents a culture of its own.
“For years now I have been playing around with trying to assemble a small ensemble to invent music from pre-Hellenic cultures,” he continues, “perhaps even pre-Sumerian Akkadian. Not exactly an archaeological forgery, it would be more like a question posed to history, projecting a ‘possible’ language into the past.”
The project, Rich explained, would be called “Rites of the Bronze Age.” But as it would take too long to realize, he scaled back to “trying to make a very personal music from my own vocabulary, which nevertheless sounds like it came from somewhere else … By including the contributions of other musicians with mastery in some different styles, especially Sukhawat Ali Khan and Forrest Fang, I was able to pull the sound a bit away from my own personal vocabulary and give it a taste of authenticity.”
Rich chose the instruments by imagining the sounds of his invented culture, consciously avoiding “some instruments that have too much of a specific cultural reference, or have become clichéd by recent ‘world music’ overuse, such as didgeridoo or gamelan.” The players came individually to his studio in Mountain View and improvised on the tracks initially laid down by Rich, who then edited it all together, giving the resultant pieces titles from a made-up language, such as “Etranon,” “Pa Tanak,” “Fasanina” and “Lan Tiku.”
“I have a vague libretto in my head,” the composer/producer admits, “but I would rather leave it hidden, to allow other people to imagine their own stories.”
All the World’s Music
Creating one’s own narrative from the limitless resources of the world’s history, culture and imagination — that’s what connects the new world music of Rich and Frisell. “I agree with Lou Harrison that all music is ‘world music,'” Rich explains, “and no music is pure. Yet calling something ‘world music’ is a bit like saying ‘Mediterranean restaurant’ — it’s meaningless and overgeneralized: Spanish, Moroccan, Provencal, Turkish food are all ‘Mediterranean,’ but very unique from each other. These general terms are convenient inventions for marketing novelty to Americans who don’t want to take the time to understand the subtleties of other cultures.
“I think we each need to find personal approaches to digest the wonderful diversity of our polyglot society, especially as information and immigration bring widely different cultures into constant contact. My own approach is to digest as much as I can of the vocabularies that personally resonate with me, and somehow subconsciously integrate them into a personal voice.”
In short, to paraphrase Wes “Scoop” Nisker, the trickster sage of ’70s alternative radio newscasts and contemporary Western Buddhism, if you don’t like the world music you’re hearing, go out and make some of your own, or listen to someone who does.
Bill Frisell performs with bassist Viktor Krauss and drummer Kenny Wollesen, Thu-Sun, May 8-11, at Yoshi’s, 510 Embarcadero West, Oakland. Show times 8 pm and 10 pm (2 pm and 8 pm Sunday). Tickets $5-$22. Call (510) 238-9200 or click here for details. For Frisell’s tour dates, click here.
Robert Rich performs Sun., May 4, at the Morrison Planetarium, Golden Gate Park, S.F. Show time 8 pm. Tickets $16. Go to the Dub-Beautiful Web site for more information. Rich also performs solo piano improvisations Fri., May 16 at Piedmont Yoga Studio, 3966 Piedmont Ave., Oakland. Concert time 8 pm. Tickets $15. Call (510) 652-3336 or click here for more information. For Rich’s itinerary, click here.
Interview with Robert Rich and Derk Richardson
Prior to the above article1. How did you come up with the premise for Temple of the Invisible?
I’ve been interested in musical archeology for some time, and often ponder what the music would have sounded like in vanished cultures. It makes me aware of the fragility of our own musical heritage. I remember an album from the 1980’s by the Atrium Musicae de Madrid (a project of the Panaiagua brothers – check spelling) trying to replicate the lost music of ancient Greece and Rome, and although some of the indtrument choices are strange (sitar, for example) the concept and execution is lovely. Also I have long loved the music of Harry Partch, which somehow invents a culture of its own.
For years now I have been playing around with trying to assemble a small ensemble to invent music from pre-Hellenic cultures, perhaps even pre-Sumerian Akkadian. Not exactly an archeological forgery, it would be more like a question posed to history, projecting a “possible” language into the past. The project would be called “Rites of the Bronze Age”.
Last year I came to feel that Rites of the Bronze Age would take years to realize, so I shifted the idea to something that I could tackle alone in my studio, the way I’m used to working. I would relax the historical veracity (like avoiding metal-stringed intruments, for example) and try consciously to evade any discreet cultural identities in the music, instead trying to make a very personal music from my own vocabulary, which nevertheless sounds like it came from somewhere else.
By including the contributions of other musicians with mastery in some different styles, especially Sukhawat Ali Khan and Forrest Fang, I was able to pull the sound a bit away from my own personal vocabulary and give it a taste of authenticity.
2. How did you select the instruments and musicians? (How’d you find Paul and Percy, especially?)
The contributors were friends of mine who had skills that I thought would fit the “culture” I wanted to invent. Paul Hanson plays in an amazing jazz-funk band called Zenith Patrol with my guitarist friend Haroun Serang. I mixed some demos for them, so we traded my studio time for Paul’s incredible performances. Haroun also introduced me to Sukhawat, who has been teaching Haroun Indian vocal techniques. Percy Howard has been a friend for several years. I co-produced,engineered and mixed a Meridiem CD with him (which never got released, sadly) and we often trade favors. Likewise for Tom Heasley and Forrest Fang. We’re all just musical family.
I chose the instruments by what sounds I could imagine in the invented culture. This involved projecting the range of their technology (eg. the extent of metallurgy), and dovetailing that with the instruments I could play myself or get someone else to play. I also wanted to stay away from some instruments that have too much of a specific cultural reference, or have become clichéd by recent “world music” overuse, such as didgeridoo or gamelan. I decided to base most of the pieces on prepared piano and mallet kalimba performances because they had an un-tethered sound, devoid of specific references. Everything else hangs around that.
3. Did people record individually and you assemble the work?
They each came separately to my studio to try things with the tracks I had started, while I suggested directions for them to experiment. They improvised several takes to the tracks, and I edited bits together. The trick was getting it all to sound organic.
4. If it’s appropriate to ask/know, what rituals did you imagine for each piece?
I have a vague libretto in my head, but I would rather leave it hidden, to allow other people to imagine their own stories. That’s one reason I used titles from an invented language. The titles actually mean something, and the language bears some resemblance to Indo-european roots, but I like to allow space for interpretation. It makes a good puzzle.
5. How does the project fit into your concept (or even your rejection of the concept) of “world music”?
This answer would probably take too long to flesh out properly. I agree with Lou Harrison that all music is “world music”, and no music is pure. Everyone borrows. Yet calling something “world music” is a bit like saying “Mediterranean Restaurant” – it’s meaningless and overgeneralized: Spanish, Moroccan, Provencal, Turkish food are all “Mediterranean”, but very unique from each other. These general terms are convenient inventions for marketing novelty to Americans who don’t want to take the time to understand the subtleties of other cultures.
I think we each need to find personal approaches to digest the wonderful diversity of our polyglot society, especially as information and immigration bring widely different cultures into constant contact. My own approach is to digest as much as I can of the vocabularies that personally resonate with me, and somehow subconsciously integrate them into a personal voice, perhaps by consciously avoiding the restatement of any vocabulary that feels “outside” of my personal gestalt. It has to feel honest to my interior sense, and should never appear like a post-modern melange. (I strongly dislike the ironic distancing of postmodernism.)
6. Any chance of this group doing concerts?
That would be lovely! The challenge would be to replicate all the overdubs in an acoustic setting. Also, some of these guys are really busy, and others don’t live nearby. (Oh, and trying to pay them. right!) The live version would probably turn into “Rites of the Bronze Age” but currently this is out of my grasp.