Visionary composer and percussionist Adam Rudolph draws inspiration from Jo Ha Kyu, the spiritual concept behind Japanese Noh theater, for imaginative new album
Focus and Field, via Meta Records, features a stunning 8-piece offshoot from Rudolph’s ground-breaking Go: Organic Orchestra
Throughout his storied career, visionary percussionist and composer Adam Rudolph has continually ventured into unexplored regions of sound – some of them real, as his studies and travels have taken him around the world and into diverse cultures; and many of them imaginary, as he melds wide-ranging traditions into startlingly original music or conjures fantastic realms that he both envisions and investigates. As Rudolph describes his approach, “With every record and every concert, I’m always trying to do something I’ve never done before.”
Rudolph accomplishes that daunting goal yet again with his breathtaking new album Focus and Field, due out December 4, 2020 via the percussionist’s own Meta Records label. The new eight-piece ensemble, an offshoot of his Go: Organic Orchestra, gathered for a mesmerizing performance at New York City’s Roulette in March, mere days before the world seemed to stop with the impact of the global pandemic. The fragile yet utterly captivating mood summoned by Rudolph and his ensemble seems in retrospect to be prescient, a stunning showcase of the healing and communal powers of spontaneous composition.
“The performance that night felt like one inhalation and one exhalation, shared by musicians and the audience,” Rudolph recalls. “The music is geared towards the interconnectedness of what we would call ‘things’ in western thought, and everybody at the concert was tuned in with a powerful focus. It was a really magic night, and my goal was to hold the magic of that space for as long as we could without breaking the spell.”
The stunning possibilities of Rudolph’s restless inventiveness have never been more evident than in his most recent releases. With his 2019 masterwork Ragmala: A Garland of Ragas, he combined his Go: Organic Orchestra with the Indian classical musicians of Brooklyn Raga Massive to create what DownBeat called “a gorgeously complex tapestry of sounds, hues and sensations.” He followed that with Imaginary Archipelago, an album strikingly different in concept, scale and sound, teaming with longstanding collaborators Hamid Drake and Ralph M. Jones to venture into an undiscovered country of sonic invention, fusing the influence of ancient traditions, real and imagined, with modern technology and techniques.
Focus and Field takes yet another unexpected turn into elusive territory, of a piece with the arc of Rudolph’s work but wholly distinctive. Given the instrumentation, which combines western classical instruments like viola, bassoon and clarinet with Japanese and Asian instruments (shinobue, taiko drums, piri, saenghwang, shakuhachi, etc.), it would be tempting for the uninitiated to characterize the album as a meeting of eastern and western traditions. But Rudolph is quick to reject such “travelogue” intentions; the ensemble was inspired by what the composer hoped would be a scintillating chemistry between the individual musicians and the unique palette provided by the collected sounds – but always with his own singular compositional/conducting concept to direct them.
Taking a new approach to his original style of conducting, Rudolph was inspired by the concept of Jo Ha Kyu, which has its origins in ancient Japanese Gagaku court music and is central to Noh theatre. Each part of the concept represents a stage in the expansion and contraction of energy: Jo the origination, Ha the breakdown and disordering, Kyu the acceleration towards a conclusion.
“Jo Ha Kyu is an overarching way of understanding the relationship of how things move in nature with the arts,” Rudolph describes. It’s really about the expansion and contraction of energy, which also relates to the idea of yin and yang. It’s a simple but profound idea, because it gives you a framework for the process.”
The core elements that Rudolph employs on Focus and Field will be familiar to followers of Go: Organic Orchestra – Cosmograms, the evocative scores that resemble the spiral arms of a sonic galaxy and work like harmonic puzzles able to be assembled and reassembled in various combinations; Ostinatos of Circularity, the layered polyrhythms that give the music its propulsive motion and complexity; along with illuminating passages written in traditional western notation, which can be cued at key moments but played with remarkable freedom of expression.
But the pieces employed on Focus and Field are entirely new and keyed to the Jo Ha Kyu concept, which creates something identifiably Rudolph’s but intriguingly fresh. At times the music summons comparisons, if merely conceptual ones, to anomalous antecedents from Toru Takemitsu to Morton Feldman to the Art Ensemble of Chicago to Rudolph’s peerless mentors, Yusef Lateef and Don Cherry.
The music maintains a thrilling tension throughout, a held breath remarkably sustained until the final cathartic release. The centerpiece of the album is the nearly 30-minute opening track, “Tsuzumi,” which features the powerful and dramatic vocals and shamisen playing of Sumie Kaneko, one of three new collaborators. Also new to the fold are piri and saenghwang player gamin, esteemed as a national treasure in her native Korea, and the great Kodo dancer Chieko Kojima, who of course can’t be heard on the album but whose presence was key to shaping the music during the concert’s second half.
The lyrics that Kaneko chose for “Tsuzumi” are from a 12th-century poem by Ryojin Hisho, relating the journey of a female shaman to bring the drum to her people. It’s an apt choice, of course, given the centrality of the hand drum to Rudolph’s music (he’s often likened his approach to conducting his ensembles to playing his arsenal of drums) and results in an evocative, sweeping narrative rife with mystery and vivid mental imagery. “It became this incredible opera,” Rudolph describes, still in awe. “It was so powerful that she was able to summon the courage and the imagination to go into these incredible realms with us.”
The rest of the ensemble members are longtime collaborators or members of the amorphous Go: Organic Orchestra. Renowned flutist and percussionist Kaoru Watanabe, with whom Rudolph originated the project, has been a member of the Orchestra since the inauguration of its New York incarnation in 2005. Rudolph’s relationship with multi-woodwind virtuoso Ned Rothenberg dates back even further, to 1974 when both were students at Oberlin College.
Violist Stephanie Griffin, bassoonist Sara Schoenbeck, clarinetist Ivan Barenboim and flutist Michel Gentile are all Go: Organic Orchestra veterans and were part of the massive version of the ensemble on Ragmala. And unlike Go: Organic Orchestra, where he sticks strictly to conducting, Rudolph does pick up his hand drums during the second piece, “Focus and Field,” spotlighting another side of his vibrant musical personality.
“I was so inspired working with this group of musicians,” says Rudolph. “They were able to focus their incredible virtuosity to the center of the process and aesthetic I was seeking. As I conducted we were able to breathe and phrase together to generate organic form.”
The results are a spellbinding display of Rudolph’s spiritual approach to music, which echoes his practice of T'ai Chi Ch'uan in its melding of movement and meditation. “I try to follow my intuitive sense of where the music wants to breathe,” he says. “You’re trying to flow and connect everything into one fluid gesture to keep your mind in this state of meditation, where the ego isn’t pushing it one way or another. It’s effortless action.”
1. Tsuzumi 28:47
2. Focus and Field 07:00 video
3. Mu Wi 09:24
Sumie Kaneko – vocal, koto, shamisen
Stephanie Griffin – viola
Kaoru Watanabe – shinobue, noh kan, fue, taiko, percussion
gamin – piri, saenghwang
Sara Schoenbeck – bassoon
Ned Rothenberg – shakuhachi, bass clarinet
Ivan Barenboim – b flat clarinet, contra-alto clarinet
Michel Gentile – c, alto, and bass flutes, bamboo flutes
Adam Rudolph – handrumset