Late in 2013 I was invited to by some ethnomusicology students to play in an original world music crossover ensemble. To me, this invitation seemed auspicious. Although I don’t think fate dictates our path, I do think that things happen for a reason. It’s not always easy, however, to tell if the path path you have chosen is authentic or self-serving. For example, I often wonder if I took up Chapman Stick because I was “supposed to,” or if it was some desperate personal gambit to forge an identity for myself after the divorce. Perhaps the meaning of my ethnomusicological studies is yet to be revealed, or maybe they were merely an unnecessary and expensive exercise in egoism. Playing with this group, however, which came to be called Ethnos, seemed to make sense of so many disparate aspects of my experience that I could not help but accept.
I was nervous, though, because when I got the call, my Chapman Stick chops were nowhere near what they were during my master's studies. I have always grown as a musician, however, by putting myself in difficult musical situations and working my way through it. This is certainly where I was when I started in this group, but I was fortunate. They were quite patient with me as I got (and continue to get) my Stick playing where I want it to be.
This was to be an all-original group, and not one tethered to the conceptual restraints of a university, which I found particularly exciting. Authenticity has never been quite as important to me as influence, and it always seems to hang in the air in the academic setting. The majority of our book currently consists of reimagined arrangements of popular music from around the world, but I have secretly been thinking about what sort of original tunes we could generate. For inspiration, I revisited an album that captured my attention a couple of years ago: Book M by The Secret Chiefs 3.
Secret Chiefs 3 is actually a collective of musicians guided by Ex-Mr. Bungle guitarist Trey Spruance. Under his direction, the Secret Chiefs 3 have multiple configurations and identities that they operate under depending on the musicians and styles involved in any particular recording. Book M is one of their more ethnically influenced recordings, rather like “Mr. Bungle goes to Persia.”
The album’s exotic impressions partially stem from its modal composition. It deftly dodges the monotony that often arises in modal music, however, by using complex, intuitive rhythmic structures alongside contemporary techno and metal styles. If this sounds erratic, it is, but the album’s allure reverberates forth from the collision of these disparate elements. It is by sheer force of will and conviction that it works, but in the final analysis, Book M coheres into a singular statement incredibly well.
While The Secret Chiefs 3 hardly fit the current instrumentation of Ethnos, I find their general compositional approach and intensity very appealing. I am currently working up some compositions using very rudimentary versions of what I see in the music of the Secret Chiefs 3. While quite a bit may be lost in the interpretation, in the end that is what I hope will make it original.