Doing Music Differently

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Dynasties Fall
Part of “Dynasties Fall”
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We’ve been doing music together since 1992.

After too many years of serious piano, Mitsuko was taking lessons from the best classical vocalist in Varanasi.  With our harmonium, I was learning to sing scales.

Most everyone we knew was into music, going to concerts, singing, playing sitar, sarangi, vina, tabla, pakhawaj, bansuri, shehnai…

Some were even making instruments, carving our first flute was nothing unusual, we were just trying to copy a friend’s shakuhachi for ourselves.

But made from lighter more porous Varanasi bamboo, our instrument didn’t sound or look much like his Japanese flute, soon we started calling it our Shoki.

Wildly tuned, almost useless for Japanese, Indian, or Western music, yet we loved its warm rich lows and quivering celestial highs, its delicate whispers and skull rattling roars, the way we could twist and slide between its notes.

More interesting than the harsh sounding proper shakuhachi, more fun to play than any bansuri or metal flute we’d played before, one shoki was not enough.

Soon we’d made some so long our fingers could barely cover all their holes, some so short they fit special pockets Mitsuko sewed into our shoulder bags, by the next season we were giving them away.

Not many months later we began building kalimbas and like with our shokis even the very first turned out quite different from the coconut shell thumb piano we’d set out to copy.  While by the time we’d made Basus, our first keyboard kalimba, we’d transformed the thumb piano into a totally new instrument played with all the fingers of both hands.

We still went to concerts, Mitsuko still sang ragas, still when we played together most often it was with our pakhawaj and Indian “Givson” guitar.

But our focus was changing. Inspired by our shokis and kalimbas, we were getting serious about our own music, a music less troubled by traditional notions of tuning, less bound by rigidly counted rhythms.

Without all that imposed technical structure it was easy to lose the musical thread, but we compensated by learning to listen more carefully, learning to sense when we were headed somewhere good.

Eventually the depressing decay of Indian culture combined with out of control pollution (noise, shit, people, cars….) forced us to sadly flee our sweet life in Shiva’s city, in 1998 after briefly checking out Japan we returned to the States.

Yet how lucky we’d been to start our shared musical journey in India!

Instead of struggling and probably failing to maintain our integrity during the booms and glittering bubbles of the late twentieth century, we were living a life that got progressively simpler, more ancient.

Instead of being bombarded by recycled rock, jazz, and rap, we had the bitter-sweet privilege of hearing the precious last notes of the great dying Indian classical tradition.

And we were particularly fortunate to be living in the oldest city in India, a place so stubbornly conservative we heard more dhrupad, bhajans, and thumris than slickly produced, record sized ragas.

…. A place where the fake Bollywood devotional singing booming from the loudspeakers of ever more temples was still balanced by the soft ringing of puja bells, the chanting of humble devotees on the way to bathe in the holy river, the magic music of a street singer who taking a wrong turn a thousand years ago had accidentally wandered into our sad shallow modern world.
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Return to the Modern World

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antaram inside cornereThough we’d long been interested in a bowed string instrument, we’d never found the right one.

In India the sarangi to our ears sounded too whiny, had too many sympathetic strings, was too painful to play.  And the fretted esraj was out, if we were going to bow continuous sounds we also wanted to slide smoothly between notes.

As for western instruments, the violin’s twisted playing position to us looked like asking for trouble, while the cello couldn’t be played sitting on the floor.

It seemed to get what we wanted, we’d need to make it ourselves.

But not until 1998 after we’d moved to northern California, did we discover the thin hardwood plywood which made our Bowus Family possible.

Still in culture shock, paying our $375 rent with borrowed funds, to buy a sheet of the expensive stuff was out of the question.  Undaunted we sweet talked a carpenter friend into letting us have his scraps, and far from sure we’d end up with a playable instrument got down to work.

Stressed out, doing things we’d never done before, working up to and beyond the limits of our skill, with inadequate tools and materials, it’s downright astonishing we didn’t blow it.

Without a model or detailed drawings, at every stage there was no choice but improvise.

The sound box of 2-string Dotara ended up a cut-off pyramid because that was the biggest volume we could enclose with our scraps of 1/8” plywood.  Since we didn’t have thin wood for a frame, we gave ourselves extra glue surface by gluing strips of ¼” plywood along the inner edges of the pieces for its sides.

Not having a lathe, as they spun in a drill Mitsuko braced against our steps I used a flat file to taper the pegs.  With no special tapered bit, I shaped the holes for them with a thin round file.

While gluing the strange angles was impossible without getting creative with small clamps and rubber bands.

But it worked.

Decades later Dotara is as tight and impeccably together as the day we finished it.

A true beast of a wondrous little instrument, it still surprises us, does things we don’t expect, didn’t even know it could do.  It’s still teaching us, forcing us to work with its weird wild sounds, inviting us to ride them to another world.

We love it’s made of plywood not aged hardwood, that it’s all straight lines and angles, that it looks like a tiny bridge, that it’s geometrically elegant like the best-of-Bauhaus, that it’s post post-modern like our music.

And it tickles us, makes us suspect we’re working from a deep level, that Dotara is cousin brother to our bookcases, shelves, tables, and wardrobes, to all the fine furniture we’ve made with plywood, that it shares with them the same skin and frame design.

Recording Our First CD

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Mitsuko and I have never enjoyed showing off in front of people.

In college when she had to play for others, she seldom did her best.  As a teaching assistant in graduate school, I hated lecturing.

While in Assi where many expat students were desperate to perform, we preferred to play alone at home.

When other people were around we heard ourselves sticking to the safe stuff, playing only what was easy, and we didn’t like it.  We knew we were just pretending to get lost, and that wasn’t good enough.

Back in the west that sort of fakery made even less sense.  In the crazy materialistic insanity of the late 1990’s there was already way too much pretending, we were after the real thing, we wanted magic.

For us Performance was not an option.

So to get our music out there, in 2001 we bought entry level equipment, took a deep breath, and in our trailer recorded “huhnandhuhn”, our first CD.

Knowing absolutely nothing about what we were doing, for weeks we struggled to get down any sound at all.  Then since we didn’t have a standard repertoire to record, were feeling our way to where we’d never been before, it took months to come up with 50 minutes of decent music.

Considering this it’s amazing the CD turned out so well, if not a home run, to our ears it was at least a good solid single.  Big relieved, we started dreaming of flowers falling from the sky, of the first sales trickling in….

Remembering it now we’re astonished by our optimism.

What actually happened was we made a handful of sales, and though we mailed out dozens of CDs, the gatekeepers of the official music world all ignored us.  Played on local radio stations a few times, our music received not a single review.

Of course in a sense all those critics, djs, successful musicians, and professors were correct to reject us.  We’d sent them a crude first try with terrible sound quality.  And the stuff we’d played on our original instruments was often clunky, we’d barely begun to explore what they could do.  Yet much of the CD was bravely different, and in a world starved for real newness that should have been enough.  At least a few of these important “music lovers” should have welcomed us as loyal opposition.

Furious we doubled down on being different, put away our guitars and drums, swore to play only instruments no one else had, instruments we’d invented and made ourselves.

Fueled by anger, not expecting it would be hard enough to make us sick, we threw ourselves into the horrendously tricky job of building Bass Bowus, an 8′ long ektara.
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The fuckers were not going to stop us.

Still it was not any easy time.

The old hippy friends I’d counted on to cushion our landing in Mendocino, were either ground down by poverty or had become too good to be interested in losers like us.

Our elegant $400 trailer was damp and full of mold. Its leaky woodstove didn’t draw, we were always breathing smoke. Mitsuko’s lungs were suffering.  We weren’t getting back the strength we’d lost to sickness and poor nutrition in India.

The choice was clear, move or crash.

Building Quartus,
Recording Our Next CD

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Everything we owned behind us in U-Haul’s biggest truck, towing our noble tired $800 VW, in 2003 we arrived in Taos.

No longer refugees desperate for a place to live, cheered on by the outrageous beauty, knowing almost no one, we got there in July and hit the ground running.

Within weeks we were hiking the high mountains, soon boxes gone from our living room, bookcases full, we were building ourselves a bed.

By January I was out there in the snow hammering steel rods into keys for the quartertone kalimba of our dreams, passing them on to Mitsuko to file into shape and smooth.

Out of practice, I hadn’t hit a key for six years and the high carbon stock we’d brought from Varanasi was seriously hard.  Before the knack came back I’d over flattened and cracked so many tips we worried if from our limited supply of rods we’d get 48 keys for a full 2-octave instrument.

We ended up with 50, and after that the carpentry for Boxus Quartus went quickly.

All that remained was to tune the beast in quartertones.

Here we expected trouble.  Most kalimba keys are cut from factory made sheet steel, ours hammered flat from rods are much less uniform. No two have the same width, thickness, or shape, each sings its own weird mix of frequencies.

And these were the keys between which Mitsuko would have to hear subtle small differences.  It could have been a nightmare.

Instead tuning Boxus Quartus turned out surprisingly forgiving.  It didn’t seem to matter if its “quartertones” weren’t all exactly the same.  What counted more was how the whole instrument sounded, whether the intervals were pleasing, whether at the lengths Mitsuko put them the keys were happy, didn’t buzz, sang round full tones.

Tuning it was much easier than it’d been to make our earlier 24-key kalimbas convincingly chromatic.  Then our years of conventional music had been in the way, an interval that wasn’t right sounded wrong.

For Boxus Quartus there seemed to be no wrong.

Now we understand that’s because we weren’t really building a “quartertone” keyboard, we were giving ourselves another monster instrument, one that sounded beautiful, was fun to play, one that happened to have its roughly 2-octave range divided into 48 tiny intervals.

Sweetly irregular intervals that protected us from old habits, even skipping every other note it was impossible to play standard scales and chords.

A half inch down that was what we were after.  Burned out on everything we’d heard and studied, convinced conventional music was going nowhere, we wanted instruments which would not play it.

Now with Boxus Quartus, a keyboard, two string instruments, and our shokis, we had a proper ensemble of them.

Finally we could record playing only instruments we’d built ourselves.  Sweet Heresy, our second CD, proved this to be the way for us to go.

Guitars and drums gone, our music had grown up, become its own thing.  We sound like we know what we’re doing.  It’s automatically not grimly determined to be different.

Unfolding as sound islands separated by easy charged silences, at its best it’s lyrical, surrounds you, soaks into you, gently forces you to slow down.

Of course we were feeling our way into the unknown and sections of every piece we’d now delete, still we’re proud of Sweet Heresy.

Even in sound quality it’s a huge step forward.  Paying our $850 rent with Papasan’s money upgrading our kit didn’t feel right, instead we better used what we already had, made our old gear shine.  Though some rattling booms scream for high-pass low-pass filters, though it’s too bad we didn’t catch more of our celestial ring, the sound’s cleaner, richer, than on many studio produced CDs.

The day UPS delivered our boxes of discs, double rainbows arched across the early morning sky.

Within months the CD received two very positive reviews.  On his now dead blog, Zeno speculated if civilization survived the apocalypse, its music would be like ours.  Frank Oteri, editor of prestigious New Music Box, confessed he wanted one of our quartertone kalimbas, “wouldn’t you?”, he asked.

Big stations played the music in California and New Mexico.

We even sold a handful of CDs.

Then nothing, crickets, silence.  All the other official arbiters of good taste once more ignored us, the trickle of sales dried up, we plunged more deeply into debt, started paying the rent with cash advances against our credit card.
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A Fruitful Detour Through Translation

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Just before our finances hit bottom we discovered working together we could translate Japanese business documents into English, for the next few years that’s how we paid the bills.

We hated it, we lost our hikes, our backs hurt, our eyes burned, we had no time to read, but it gave us the computer chops to record our next CD.

If it hadn’t forced us to learn our way around every single formatting option of Word, to become skillful with nasty programs like Excel and Power Point, we’d have been terrified, frozen into immobility when we hit the unfamiliar concepts and commands of Traction 2, our multitrack sound editor.

Without butt and brain calluses from turning endless tedious documents into English, we’d have cried “enough!” long before we’d put a proper finish on Work in Progress.

There were two of us so of necessity we did translation differently.  A single person translating on his own can overlook troublesome spots, we had to wrestle each until we’d nailed it, found the intended meaning.  We had to talk to each other, make things clear, make each other understand.

One Japanese phrase at a time, Mitsuko out loud explained to me the meaning, then I’d struggle to put what she’d said into proper written English.  “Struggle” because the two languages slice the world up differently, consider different things to be important.  Many Japanese sentences don’t bother specifying subjects and tenses, don’t make “who did what when where to whom” as clear as it’s supposed to be in English.

When Mitsuko read my first try, often she was unhappy.  “No, it’s not what it means”, she’d say, then suggest some changes.  “But, that’s not English, how about this?”, I’d protest and start writing.  For a tough phrase we’d go back and forth many times before she was satisfied I’d caught the meaning and I was happy with the English.

pp55 Jpp55 E

Before long this search for meaning spread beyond translation.  In our own writing we started noticing the way we’d first written something was often not quite right, that not knowing where we’d been headed we’d just been going blah blah blah.  Soon sentences with too many clauses and conjunctions were setting off alarm bells.  Asking “what am I trying to say?” became an absolutely essential step in everything we wrote.

That this ever growing strictness about words has sharpened our writing is a lovely unexpected result of our peculiar two person method of translation.

More relevant to our music, and especially to the amazing stuff we’re playing now, is how this same concern with meaning has recently spread to the way we listen when we talk.

We’re ungodly tight.  This millennium the longest we’ve been separated is 3 hours, we like each other, our communication is unusually good.

Still we began noticing we didn’t always get it right.  One of us would say “writing” and the other would hear “riding”.  One would think the other was referring to earlier that day when they were actually talking about last week.  In the presence of ambiguity or a mumbled phoneme, “Google Complete” had stepped in, we’d heard what we’d thought had been said.

At first it startled us, then it made us chuckle, before long we were noticing most every time it happened, tracking down confusions before they could cause grief.

More magical than just listening better, more than just learning to check for errors, trying to consistently understand each other was tuning us, the wall between our minds was getting thin.

We could feel the growing closeness in our music too.  It’s always been mystery how we stay together when there’s no melody, rhythm, or key.  Well what we’re playing now is so wild technical music terms like these are ridiculously inappropriate, yet we’re more sweetly together than ever.

Not only had translation prepared us to do a better job recording, five years after our last big job, by making us magically tighter, by teaching us to listen more sensitively to each other, it’s still helping us go beyond the theoretically possible.
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Recording Work In Progress

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recording-shrine2c-newbAs we completed rough editing each piece for Work In Progress we posted an mp3 of it on our blog, wrote a few words that felt relevant.

Our first confused efforts to record, our thoughts about music and our life, it’s all up there.  How we were fast going in the opposite direction from our old friends, the insight behind the sad angry words of our songs, that’s there too.

Written with more than a little attitude, with sometimes aggressive honesty, there’s stuff we’d now say differently, but it was as true as we could make it then and it’s what we still believe.

That’s why the blog is here on this site, not a word changed, frozen exactly as first published.

Interrupted by big translation jobs, determined this time to record truly professional quality sound, with a second quartertone kalimba to assimilate, with music that cut by cut grew more magic, confident, and mature, it took 2 full years before we were satisfied.

Working for ourselves, we worked hard.  With new gear set up in “our recording shrine”, we dove into the complexities of multitracking, scrubbed our sound squeaky clean, learned to tame roaring ring and nasty hiss, to eliminate vocal pops and finger buzzes, to separately tweak tone and volume for each instrument and voice.

It was brutal, our kit though to us a wonder was far from the very best, our editing had to be off scale labor intensive, we’ll never do it that way again.

Still the $1,258 we’d spent was well worth it.  From first rough edit to final finish took us over 800 hours, that much studio time would have cost three times more than we were spending each year to live.

The new gear also saved us when our professionally made master turned out to be a piece of junk.

The award winning studio had trashed the fades at the start and end of every cut, introduced noises not in our WAV files, used default filters that stripped the ring and guts from our music.  It was an insult to our editing.

Digging deeper we soon realized with our new kit we’d already done most of what mastering claims to do.  Our music was impeccably clean, our cuts all tweaked to the same volume, our fades just the way we wanted them.

The last step, burning our music onto an audio CD, we we did with a tiny free program.  Finally in July of 2011 we sent our newly made master off to be replicated.

Work In Progress,
The Music

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Listening now to Work In Progress we’re blown away.  Is that really us?  Did we really play that?

It’s music so different it doesn’t slide easy into any existing genre.

It’s not minimalist, not conceptional, not musique concrete, not tonal, not atonal, not 12-tonal, not ambient, not electroacoustic, not soundings, not bebop, not free jazz, not ethnic, not fusion, not psychedelic, not new age, not space music, not rap…

Stealth rad, it has none of the distinguishing features of music usually called innovative.

It’s not crude, experimental, loud, discordant, atonal, harsh, screechy, saturated with sensitive angst, not music that reflects a world experienced as nasty, brutish, mechanical, and unfair.

It’s music so clean, polished, graceful, it’s difficult to even hear it as new.  Sure and confident, it sounds more like the product of a long established tradition, like the result of generations of development.

Peaceful, soothing, deeply chilled, transporting, it’s a time stopping look into eternity.

Yet we made it while consumed with anger, fried, threatened, losing friends left and right, even to us that doesn’t quite compute.

Still wherever it came from, there it is.  It’s not a musical manifesto, not a first try to be improved on in the future.  It’s damn near perfect just the way it is.

It’s the music playing on this page.

And once we finished recording it, there was nothing left.  Its job done, that particular torrent of musical creativity dried up.

We’d worked our butts off but for what?

Frank Oteri again reviewed us.  “I for one am a total fan,” he wrote, his was the only supporting voice and he made us not a single sale.

Work in Progress was brilliant but had made no difference.

It was time to give up the dream of life in Taos, to move to a cheaper less hip place where we could afford a house with decent heat, no leaks, with drinking water that wouldn’t slowly kill us.  Tired of being poor in a wealthy community, ready for a clean break, when we finally left in 2014, we were glad to have escaped.

Now 8 years later, the grimness has vanished, our memories of Taos are all golden.

Recording music so brave, so exquisite, as we got it down it astonished even us.  Building a wardrobe, a bed, three totally different big bookcases, 2 glorious quartertone kalimbas, translating near a million words into English, cooking infinite elegant meals.

Hiking through thigh deep snow, the enchanted forest, the long winding ridge to twelve thousand feet.  Just outside our window, the magpies teaching their young to fly.  In the mud of our driveway, huge as a plate, the hoofprint of an elk.

At the foot of Taos Mountain, nights brilliant with sharp stars, learning who we were, who we were not.
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Music For the 99 Percent

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The dark sharp locals who kept the town alive taught us something big about our music.

We’re talking about people who worked far too many hours, people with less time for music than they’d like, people who when they did sneak a quick listen went for Hispanic rock, Classic rock, Christian rock, Country and Western, or 50’s and 60’s Jazz.

People who worked in supermarkets, garages, banks, post offices, who grew alfalfa, cut their own firewood, ate elk they’d shot themselves.

Maybe because they were still half savage, all of them were true gentlemen and ladies.  We’d given them copies of Work In Progress confident even those who didn’t like it would find kind things to say, expecting words like “you must have worked very hard on this” or “it’s always satisfying to bring a project to completion”.

Instead they stunned us with a deluge of near universal rave reviews.

One bank teller who’d most emphatically disliked our earlier CDs, told us Work In Progress had become her hot tub music.  A sensitive woman who ran the counter at the post office, said she listened to it every day on the way to work.

The grumpy checkout lady who’d never taken us or our music seriously, beamed and uttered just one word, “awesome”.  The girl from the flower department confessed she couldn’t bear to take the CD out of her car’s player, hadn’t yet given it to her husband, our friend who drove an ice cream truck.  The dairy guy stopping stocking the bottom shelf, stood up, shook our hands, with a glowing face told us, “it’s outrageous”

An assistant supermarket manager passed on that at rifle meets before his turn to shoot his son chilled out with Work In Progress.  The guy who owned the local Radio Shack told us it had made him think about selling CDs by local artists.

Two elegant women in their late 70’s reacted as though Work In Progress had turned them on, bashfully admitted they’d found it sensual.  A dapper 80 year old guy who lived in elder housing, biked slowly and carefully around town, suddenly started treating us with respect.

None of these people were part of any demographic considered to be an audience for music that’s very different, none prided themselves on knowing a lot about music.  Yet more than half had put Work In Progress on their list of personal favorites.

Months later when we asked if they were still listening, almost all said “of course”.  It didn’t trouble them our music isn’t in any defined key or meter, they didn’t think that way.  Hungry in their guts for something different, they loved they’d never heard its like before, gave it extra points for a calm slowness that helped them unwind after work.

And once they’d listened enough to realize what we were singing, they liked it even more.  One cleaning lady told us, “You’re singing for the rest of us.”

Our tough strong friends had shown us our true audience, it’s ordinary people, it’s the 99%.
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Declaring Our Music Dead

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After Work in Progress our music dwindled away to nothing,

Playing had become something we did to produce a product.  To prepare for our next CD we told ourselves we had to practice, had to learn to make music, with our amplified sound.

But dealing with mics and cables, worrying about rustling clothing, trying not to move so the floor wouldn’t creak, listening through headphones, it all made us so self-conscious, it turned what had been play into work.

Months slipped by without touching our precious instruments.

After moving East to Pittsfield, we made one last desperate effort to record.

Yet no matter how we wiggled, however we combined our instruments, positioned our mics, morning or afternoon, everything we got down sounded busy and lame.

Finally after 4 months we realized we didn’t need to do it.  It was time to chuck this being “Musicians” with a capital “M”, to accept reality, to officially declare our music dead.

Suddenly it all fit.  Of course we couldn’t find that zone, couldn’t slide into an effortless together groove.  We were too obsessed with recording the CD that would finally make it.  Our state of mind was totally wrong for weaving magic.

We told ourselves life would go on, expanded our website to stuff not directly related to music, tried to get back into guitar.

Still it was grim.

And Now…

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One afternoon in 2020, desperately missing our music I hauled Dotara into the living room, started playing.  Immediately Mitsuko pulled a pillow over to Boxus Quartus, began to stroke its keys.  Facing away from each other, a full 8 feet apart, our unamplified sound was so soft we had to listen like we never had before.

Lost in our own worlds, me staring at a big wooden Ganesh in one corner, Mitsuko at a Shiva print leaning against a bookcase on another wall.

Altogether an improbable way to play music, it shouldn’t have worked but it did.

This new music has steadily grown, ever more magical, more radically different, more together, more confident, more varied.

Woven from sounds too complex to be called “notes”, sounds that even when unexpected somehow cause no problems, sounds that want to hold together, to fit.

With them we sing vocables, not American Indian gutturals, not conventional imitations of tabla or sitar, but sounds we’d never dare make if anyone were listening, sounds beyond strange yet comfortable, easy in our throats, sounds that enrich, give structure to what we’re playing.

Deep cool it’s far and away our most awesome ever music, music that flows and flows, that doesn’t need to rest, that is rest.

Still we may never record it.  Our new softs are too soft, our new louds too loud, our new sounds too damn complicated for our current kit.  While the sensitive gear which might do them justice, quite possibly wouldn’t work where we live.  Trains, sirens, heavy traffic, shouts, trucks parked with engines running, construction on 2 sides, 50 feet from a busy commercial corner, it’s a sea of noise.

More important than this practical stuff, 25 years of trying too hard to get our music out there almost killed it, we’re in no hurry to make the same mistake again.

What we’re playing now is open, naive, fearless.  It’s music from before the Fall, it’s what we’ve been growing towards for three decades and it’s been able to happen only because no one else is there.  If we tried to record it, in our present needy state once more we’d start imagining an audience, again we’d be afraid to make fools of ourselves, to sound clumsy.  Again we’d be too uptight to do magic.

So though we know we’re doing what seems not often to be done, playing fundamentally different music that’s peaceful and polished, for now it’s just for us.

Of course we’ll continue to sell Work In Progress.  Since nothing else out there sounds even remotely like it, it comes with no “best by” date.  “Your music is timeless” is how one worker friend put it.  Or in the words of a native American story teller, “The world needs your music”.

Meanwhile we’re simply thrilled to again be playing our instruments.

As in India, no mics, no headphones, no amplification.

Silly little children, alone together, wandering through a magic world.
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