Adam Rudolph’s “Sonic Elements”


SONIC ELEMENTS By Adam Rudolph / Meta Recordings Publishing,  121 pp., $35

Adam Rudolph, a 67-year-old percussionist and bandleader, has here thrown his hat in the ring with the late George Russell by presenting the most challenging analysis of jazz improvising since the latter’s Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization.  Russell’s book, which has inspired some and confused many, nonetheless led to his being championed by the late Gunther Schuller to head the jazz program at the New England Conservatory of Music.

Rudolph’s background includes being mentored by Yusef Lateef, with whom he recorded 15 albums, and playing with such famous modern jazz musicians as Don Cherry, Pharaoh Sanders, Muhal Richard Abrams, Dave Liebman, Wadada Leo Smith and Sam Rivers. He leads such ensembles as Moving Pictures, Hu Vibrational and the Go: Organic Orchestra, all of which, I admit, were new to me.

Rudolph describes the book thus in his Introduction:

The purpose of this book is to inspire both instrumentalists and composers to look at musical elements in new ways. This is not a ‘how to’ book, nor is it meant as any kind of music theory dogma. It is simply another way of looking at music materials. When we can think and hear in new ways, we can expand our creative approach and concept.

By playing and practicing inside the Matrices and Cosmograms a musician will develop dexterity on any instrument in ways that are different from practicing scales and arpeggios. This kind of creative involvement cultivates the capacity for spontaneous composition.

The major innovation in this book is Rudolph’s rejection of Western musical notation, substituting in its place a series of “Matrices and Cosmograms” which leave out such standard signs as tempo and pitch duration. Although Rudolph insists that these patterns “allow for multiple perspectives and interpretations of intervallic, melodic, and harmonic materials,” there is no question that they are confusing. Rudolph uses both “Hexatonic” and Nine Tone Matrices, several of each. Here is a sample of one of the Hexatonic Matrices:

Hexatronic Matrix 3

Rudolph explains this one as a “Symmetrical Hexatonic Scale” which “can be spelled with several different interval combinations, each having its own aesthetic implications.” Perhaps the musicians who have worked with Rudolph for some time find this sort of crazy-quilt presentations of tones both decipherable and helpful, but for me personally, as someone who has major problems doing Sudoku puzzles, I honestly could not decipher this or any of his other Matrices or Cosmograms. Give me the cycles of fourths or fifths, and I’m with you. Start mixing up pitches in a graph like this, and I’m lost. His Nine-Tone Scales I can follow; these are not baffling at all; but I don’t really see how they are supposed to help the improvising musician.

But obviously I’m alone in this. Both Henry Threadgill and Wadada Leo Smith, whose work I like quite a bit, have high praise for this system and claim it will help the improvising musician. Thus I decided to plunge further into the book, looking for word clues to break the cryptogram codes.

Rudolph gives these suggestions on how to use his Matrices or Cosmograms:

Start anywhere in the Matrix or Cosmogram to find and create your own melodic shapes of any length and duration

  • Use your taste and judgment to find melodies you like and then become fluent with them
  • Use your own phraseology, dynamics, range, and rhythm
  • Repeat any note if you wish, as many times as you wish
  • Any inversion of the intervals can be used. For example ↑1 (up a semitone) can be played as ↓11 (down a major seventh) or it can be played up ↑13 (up a flat ninth) and so on
  • If you discover a melodic shape you like, memorize it. Then practice it starting in all twelve keys. You can also practice it backwards. Vary the speed, range, and dynamics
  • While the Matrices use the 12 tones of Western music, feel free to use any quarter tones and/or tuning systems you are familiar with or wish to become familiar with
  • Practice approaching certain notes by sliding up or down to them in a way that sounds good to you. Then practice sliding down or up as you leave a note. Try this in different ranges and dynamics
  • Examine the intervals. Slow down and repeat a group of three or even two notes. How can you connect them? What is the rasa (the emotional color) implied in the interval? For example, does a minor third down (↓3) elicit a different feeling in you than a minor third up (↑3)?
  • Chords can be made by using some or all of the notes from a row (across) or a column (down)
  • Experiment with chord voicings
  • Experiment with chord progressions moving from a row to a column to another row, etc.
  • To add coloristic richness to a chord, you may borrow adjacent notes from outside the row or column used
  • Listen to the “language” of what you play in the Matrices. Find the phrases and shapes that allow you to “speak” or “sing” on your instrument
  • Bring your ideas, your music to it. Projecting deep feeling into the sounds you discover will bring them to life.

So not only is standard music notation out the window, so too is any semblance of Western harmony—even the Lydian mode of George Russell’s method.

As the book continues, Rudolph also introduces Raga Matrices, including a “Blues Raga,” a Mirror Matrix, Egyptian Scale Matrices, “Clustonic” Matrices which he defines as “a group of all the notes clustered between any 2 notes,” “Complexified Harmonics” which he describes as “sonic masking. In many cultures performers put on masks to transform themselves into a transcendent/mythic other. Sonic masking moves us beyond the familiar and ordinary. Transformed, the linguistic aspect of each instrumental voice is brought more into focus.” There are also “Octatonic Matrices,” “Ralph M. Jones’ Synthetic Scale Matrix,” etc. etc. He describes “Dream Forms” as

a relational bridge to that eternal mystery: the presence and intention of the unconscious. Dreams are pure nature, our aboriginal truth. Music can be considered as dreamlike soundscapes or sonic dreamscapes. Like our dreams, music holds the tension of ambiguity that intimates and points beyond itself towards the realm of mystery. It carries an energy that constructs bridges to those infinite worlds which otherwise lie beyond our rational capacities. In our dreams, images and feelings rise up unbidden and are connected in ways that often seem mysterious. Like emotive dream images, created musical sound gestures may be juxtaposed in unusual and sometimes surprising ways. A musical theme might return in a surprising manner, just as a face might return again in a different dream.

And I won’t even get into the “Tree Matrix,” “Whole Tone Row Clusters” and “Pentatonic Matrices.” Sure, I know what the whole tone row is, but a cluster of them? Same thing with the pentatonic scale.

Or maybe it’s just a matter of Rudolph codifying already-existing forms used by jazz musicians in a new and, to me at least, more complex manner.

The late Bill Evans once described improvising as a link the musician has to the “universal overmind.” Although the majority of people tend to think of Evans in terms of his soft, modal jazz trios, he was also able to play outside jazz and did so on several albums, particularly on George Russell’s Jazz in the Space Age (1960) and his much later Living Time Orchestra (1972), an album that so infuriated Evans’ fans that they wrote him letters threatening to never buy any of his records if he made another one like it, so perhaps he was locked in to his own form of musical mysticism. Thus he and those musicians who thought as he did would probably appreciate this book. In a way, Rudolph’s theories seem to me related to Ornette Coleman’s “harmolodics,” although I can follow Coleman’s train of thought – that every beat within a bar can have its own harmony, unrelated to any other beat in the bar (which, in a sense, is also what Henry Threadgill does by thinking in terms of “one beat” while playing).

The concept of jazz composition and improvising as circular rather than a linear concepts actually began with Charles Mingus in the 1940s, although Russell came along shortly afterward. Then there was Ornette, and now Rudolph. Mingus was the only one of these not to codify his theories, but as long as he was alive and could train musicians to follow his lead, it worked—the same with Coleman, who talked harmolodics a lot but never really wrote them down. Yet Rudolph’s book even takes the concept of “Signal Rhythms,” which he relates to mantras as short licks repeated over and over, to new levels. His book includes graphs of these Signal Rhythms in such tempos as 12, 15, 18, 21 (divided both as 5-7-9 and 7-7-7), 24, 27 and 33, all of which can be rotated and some of which he relates to Ewe (West African), Mbuti (Central African) and Bemba (Central African) drumming. Here is a sample page showing his graph for Signal Rhythms in 33, divided as 9, 11 and 13:

Signal Rhythms

The only point in this book where I disagreed with Rudolph was in his promoting “Ostinatos of Circularity,” which were trademarks of John Coltrane’s playing. When I was young, and Coltrane’s My Favorite Things was a surprise hit record (yes, it really was!—in the shortened version), I was very impressed by this. I thought it a stroke of genius. Then, much later in life, I discovered that he had simply lifted these from Nicholas Slonimsky’s book of exercises, and at that point I realized that Coltrane simply relied on these as time- and space-fillers when he couldn’t think of anything else to play. So to me, at least, the use of circular chromatic figures in jazz improvising is a bit of a cop-out, the modern equivalent of older jazz musicians hammering on one note in different accents or playing a particular riff figure over and over. All of these create a hypnotic effect on the listener, but—they’re just time-fillers. But this technique is related to the way Indians play Ragas. I once attended a concert of Ragas played by Indian musicians at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music with someone very close to me. She was thrilled and found the music hypnotic. I was bored, finding it too repetitious and being stuck in the same chord for minutes on end, so obviously my tolerance for this is not as high as others’ may be.

After discussing some of this book with an acquaintance who is a very advanced jazz improviser, I’ve come to believe that Rudolph’s methods will probably work for advanced students looking for alternative methods of improvising, but not necessarily for the beginner or those of us firmly committed to Western notation. If you are an advanced student, this book is clearly for you and may open new ways for you to improvise. I’ve listened to some of Rudolph’s Go: Organic Orchestra performances on YouTube, and can clearly understand what they are doing musically (and I like it). I just can’t think the way this book suggests although his musicians clearly can.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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