Kraig Grady: Monument Of Diamonds

Sunday 13 December 2020

Here’s a rare and welcome chance to experience a major work by Kraig Grady, courtesy of Another Timbre. Like so many who are dedicated to exploring alternative tuning systems, Grady is a composer more often heard about than heard. In these cases, you are often left wondering the value lies more in the advancement of musical theory than in artistic statements. For some of us, at least, alternative tunings are always worth hearing at least once, if only for the opportunity of hearing something you’ve never heard before; beyond that is the opening up of new possibilities for musical expression, the reminder that there is always a different way of making art. As always, when you find music which is pleasurable and fulfilling, any underlying theory is ultimately immaterial, but it always makes me a little wary when a piece wears its theory on its sleeve, as though it were seeking to justify its existence on extraneous grounds.

Monument Of Diamonds (possibly written as MONUMENT OF DIAMONDS) was composed using a 17-tone version of the ‘meta-Slendro’ tuning system created by Erv Wilson. Based on the Slendro scales heard in a lot of South-East Asian music, the tuning takes advantage of the scales’ harmonic uniformity, where no intervals have a distinctively strong consonance in priority over others. It may inevitably sound exotic to Western ears at first, but never sounds strongly “out” or wrong. Grady exploits the lack of traditional harmonic hierarchy to create a piece that develops without the usual concurrent changes in tonal tension and release. It does still develop, but in ways that are both more intellectual and more primal.

It is often noted that music based more closely on harmonic principles than on Western equal temperament tends to move more slowly – maybe to let those novel tuning ratios sink in, but more because the sounds seem to settle into the ear better, even as the brain may rebel. Grady has picked up this correlation with Eastern art: “Someone once said that the difference between Western and Eastern art was that the West is always searching beyond its confines while the East is concerned with going deeper into what is already there.” Monument Of Diamonds picks up on that exterior immobility in a novel way. For all its harmonic intricacy, the work is experienced by the listener as a vast monad. After repeated hearings, I still get the weird sensation that even as every change in pitch and intervals are clearly registered in my consciousness, the music doesn’t change. While there is movement and rhythm within the work, the affect remains the same. What is even stranger is that such an effect on the listener usually renders all the musicians’ activity dull or pointless, killing all interest, but here it exerts a compelling fascination. It’s getting to be a cliché to call a piece meditative, but Grady has truly created a sonic object for contemplation, a passage of time to be observed. The music’s triumph comes in holding the listener’s attention in all of its usual cognitive aspects without ever imposing upon them.

It’s not ambient, either. Best to play it loud, so the opening notes are present and clear – the volume slowly swells up into an overpowering force before ebbing away again. The sound is, well, monumental. This is largely down to the musicians, and Grady’s unusual way of recording the piece. For the level of precision needed to get the harmonies right, the recording is made up from sampling and sequencing, but it’s a kind of holistic, deep sampling. Grady worked closely with the musicians – Subhraag Singh playing his own Infinitone saxophone, with Kris Tiner and Emmett Kim Narushima playing conventional trumpets and trombones respectively – as they prepared to record each pitch, “engaged in the act of playing meditations on single notes”. Towards the end, Terumi Narushima adds an electric organ to the mix. Grady has evidently left electronic manipulation to a minimum, letting the musicians’ phrasing (of single notes), duration and expression guide his sequencing. That human element and subtle colouration takes what initially sounds like purely synthesised sound and pushes it into something a little unworldly.