“The Universe is making music all the time.” – Tom Waits
Aye, and what a strange and terrible music it is: omnirhythmic, omnitonal, omniphonic, reverberating eternal through and through the inconceivable distances, burning, roaring, throbbing, whining, screaming, colliding, pounding, whistling, humming, groaning, booming, shrieking and echoing, echoing, echoing endlessly, infinite and on and on, coda, refrain ‘til the end of timeless time. Let the god be praised who made our ears so small to save us from hearing the aweful sound of Creation’s constant symphony. Such sounds were not meant for such as we, mere parasites on Gaia’s green skin. Like lice under Mozart’s wig, we may, at times, sense some sound beyond our ken and strain to understand, but we ain’t a-gonna get it, so there is little point in even trying. Then again, why the heck not?
The Big Drum In The Sky Religion assumes chaos as a starting point, as chaos is the starting point in all Creation stories, then attempts to impose some form of order, as Creators make the world. That’s the theory, at least, and generally it does kind of happen that way, but chaos has a wonderful way of spreading, especially when you make little or no effort to check it, and imposing anything on anything is incompatible with the general BDSR lifestyle. Hence, though there is, usually, some kind of vague concept or theme, it’s not rigidly adhered to.
There are two basic forms for BDSR releases: straight studio recording and a combination of studio and live. The straight studio stuff is fairly easily kept within pre-determined confines regarding tuning, mode, key &c. The ones that include live material less so. I don’t have any interest in telling people what to play or how, so I don’t. I invite people to participate based on my assumption that they will bring something to the mix and then I encourage them to bring it. Some people want a hint as to how they should proceed, a key or something. I give them as little instruction as possible. I know going into a show what I’ll be doing with the recording; I know what instrument I’m playing, how I’m tuning and what mode I’m using to fit the overall dynamic of the title I’m working on. Most of the time it works; others, the recording is terrible, but even then I usually use it, low in the mix or processed beyond recognition. Honest to gods, I start every show in tune and with all good intentions of staying in a mode, then my brain shuts off and whatever happens is what happens.
That, in a betel nut, is Shamanolodics. There is intention, but spontaneity is more important. Frets are useful. Keys make it easier to start. Musical traditions exist and can be drawn from. Reality does not happen in regular time. The spheres do not sing in fifths. God is not equally temperamental.
Within Shamanolodics, I employ a method I made up and named the Fauxdal System, outlined below.
The Modal System is based on ancient Greek music theory. There are seven modes: Aeolian, Locrian, Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian and Mixolydian. Each mode divides the octave in a different way. Ionian, for example, divides the mode thus: whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, whole step, half step, completing the octave and starting over. On a fretted instrument such as guitar or banjo, tuned to a modal tuning, DADGAD for instance, Ionian would be played using the following frets: open, 2, 4, 5, 7, 9, 11, 12, completing the octave. So far, this is standard fair. It starts to get a little off the beam when one tunes differently. Dropping the A’s in the above tuning to G’s would alter the sound, creating more of a drone effect, but would still be in the mode.
At some point, before receiving the vision of BDSR, I started using non-modal tunings, but kept the modal frets. This is Fauxdality. It’s also contrary to how it’s “supposed” to be done. A guitar tuned C#G#C#FG#C# and played using the frets determined by the intervals of Dorian mode – 2, 3, 5, 7, 8, 10, 12 – sounds weird. Some would say it sounds “wrong”, “bad” and/or “nightmarish”. Meh. The human ear is a surprisingly malleable organ and can adapt pretty quickly to anything if it’s owner isn’t determined to hold on to the arbitrary preconceived notions ground into their grey matter by music teachers, pop culture and other soul killers. It’s amazingly easy to learn other ways of hearing, seeing, thinking and experiencing if you wanna.
One time, at work, I was hit with an inspiration which knocked me off-balance. I said it out loud, “What if I recorded a full-length cd with all instruments tuned DD#GG#?” There was someone there who had enough musical knowledge to know what that meant and her response was quite amusing: a mix of shock, disgust and patronizing superiority, “Oh. My. God. That would sound horrible.” I went straight home and retuned the mandolin to DD#GG#DD#GG#. Sure enough, it sounded fucking terrible. I used that as the foundation for The High Lonesome Zounds Of The Big Drum In The Sky Religion. “Open Zounds” is the only tuning I can claim to have invented. (Open Zounds = all strings tuned to I I# V V#. The High Lonesome... is in D, but it could be any key.) All others I’ve used have been established tunings, some, such as G6, slightly modified. (Any asshole can throw together a random string of notes and call it a tuning, but A#BEA#GC# is going to be pretty hard to get on a guitar without re-stringing and it’s going to sound like shit, not in a good way. I won’t claim to have “invented a tuning” unless it’s significantly different from any established tuning, is practical and I’ve recorded with it.)
So. I show up at a gig carrying a tenor banjo which I have tuned to whatever tuning I’m using for whatever I’m working on, intending to improvise using the intervals that I’m using for whatever I’m working on. There may or may not be other tunable instrumentation at any given show. If there is, I may or may not tell the other musician(s) something about what I’m planning to do – if I’m tuned DGDGA#D and using the frets for Lydian, I might just say I’m playing “in G”, which isn’t a complete lie and will force the other(s) to either try real hard or just give up and do something else. Then, in the heat of it, I’ll almost certainly space out and completely forget whatever intention I had when I started. This is desired. Nothing I plan will ever be as good as what happens. Chaos is the starting point and chaos reigns. I also have a heavy right hand and even though I use the thinnest picks available, when I use picks, I bang and bend the strings all out of whack. How it’s tuned at the outset ain’t how it’s staying.
Improvised music is a small version of life. One shows up with a plan, communicates more or less with the other people involved and then forges ahead. Try too hard to stick with the plan and it probably won’t work. Even if it does work perfectly, it’s merely the plan. A life that only includes what I’m capable of planning isn’t one I want.
Under it all, Shamanolodics is a vehicle for spirit travel. BDSR aims for otherworldly adventures and I, for one, have and enjoy them, which is why I can’t possibly stay with a mode – sometimes, I’m not there.
See ya on the other side.
Brown Hat the Espresso Shaman
The pun is always intended.