Adam Rudolph: The Matrix Reloaded

The percussionist's latest project adapts melodic and rhythmic concepts from Indian raga

The Go: Organic Orchestra (photo: Adrien H. Tillman)
The Go: Organic Orchestra (photo: Adrien H. Tillman)

If you look inside the CD package of Ragmala, the Go: Organic Orchestra’s collaboration with Brooklyn Raga Massive, you’ll find a Carnatic music proverb: “Shruthir mata, Laya pitaha,” which is translated as “Melody is the Mother, Rhythm is the Father.”

That’s a concept that orchestra leader Adam Rudolph, in his role as a composer, takes to heart just as much as when he’s simply acting as a percussionist. It’s one thing to work out parts for an ensemble that includes five flutes of varying types, plus four reed players, four brass, and seven string players, but Rudolph puts as much or more effort into similarly orchestrating his battery of percussionists.

“I try to be an evolutionist in this music, to push the boundaries, to reach for new things,” he says, from his home in Maplewood, N.J. “The Western notational system isn’t really good at reflecting the concepts that I’m interested in.” And so he provides his players with parts that include not only standard notation but also matrices and cosmograms that map out specific scales or intervallic patterns.

His matrix concept derives from the “magic boxes” Viennese composer Arnold Schoenberg developed for writing tone rows, but Rudolph’s matrices don’t stick to a specific formula. “All the matrices are designed in different ways,” he says. “But they’re all boxes of intervals, and the intervallic shapes are what’s important, because certain intervals get more weight than other intervals. This relates to the concept of how, in India, they approach raga. A raga is more than a scale, but less than a predetermined melody. And so, too, with my matrices.”

Then there’s the rhythm concept, which he calls Ostinatos of Circularity. They’re ostinatos in the sense that they are repeating structures, built around specific beat patterns. “In Indian music, like in many of the additive systems of music, two plus three is five—you count it as 1-2, 1-2-3; 1-2, 1-2-3. And you take these additive units of odd and even, and can make large rhythms.” Unlike most Western music, Rudolph’s approach to rhythm doesn’t insist on a hierarchy of beats, with certain pulses stressed over others; apart from the one, all accents are equal. “It’s like the cycle references you would experience in Indian music,” he says, “where things orbit around, and then come together, like a circle.”

Although some elements of Ragmala’s structures are similar to Indian classical music, Rudolph feels that his notion of multiple, vertically layered rhythms has deeper roots in the music of the Mbuti people of Central Africa. But the groove of the Go: Organic Orchestra also draws on West African drum traditions, Persian classical music, and of course the rhythmic evolution of jazz.

Some of that undoubtedly stems from the eclectic nature of Rudolph’s musical education. Born in Chicago, he first learned hand drumming “on the streets and in the parks,” he says. In 1977, he moved to Ghana and studied ewe drumming; later, he formed the Mandingo Griot Society with Gambian kora player Foday Musa Suso. He studied tabla with Pandit Taranath Rao, an associate of Ravi Shankar. But he’s also one of only two hand percussionists (the other being Mtume) to have learned at the foot of Daniel Ray, better known as Big Black, who played congas with Dizzy Gillespie, among others.

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“The way that we play came out of a school of thinking which I would call multi-dimensional hand drums,” he says. “It’s not culture-specific—it’s really open to influences. In my case, Big Black helped me understand how bebop drumming works, which opened up a way to incorporate my years of studying tabla and batá, different folkloric traditions.”

That openness, in turn, allowed him to see connections between folkloric practices and his own ideas about how ensemble improvisation should work. “For instance, in 1977, when I lived in Ghana, the music was set up so that it automatically had an ambiguity, a tension between the parts,” he says. “And then a Master Drummer would play some language on the drum that would not only speak to the dancers, but bring out one or the other of the rhythm feels that the accompanying drummers would do.” In a sense, the Master Drummer was not just a soloist, but also a conductor.

Rudolph takes a similar approach to his role with the Go: Organic Orchestra, although instead of playing a signal rhythm as a Master Drummer might, he uses a set of hand signals to lead the ensemble through his compositions.

“Basically, I have these 10 matrices and cosmograms, and I have my 10 fingers,” he says. “And what’s beautiful about it is, I don’t always know exactly what note they’re going to play, but I know generally what they’re going to do, so I’m always reacting to the orchestration, and adding my feeling of how I’m hearing what the improviser is playing. I can respond to them in a spontaneous way with the orchestration.”

J.D. Considine

J.D. Considine has been writing about jazz and other forms of music since 1977. His work has appeared in numerous newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, Musician, Spin, Vibe, Blender, Revolver, and Guitar World. He was music critic at the Baltimore Sun for 13 years, and jazz critic at the Globe and Mail for nine. He has lived in Toronto since 2001.