Listen to “Layer Play” from Streaming Wisdom

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When you watch flowing water, you see it is alive. Its moving waves, over millions of years, have evolved into the wavy motions of its creatures.

Similarly, when birds are flying against the sky, the intelligence of the air becomes a visible kind of music — the flocks are like chords, and their flight patterns like atmospheric chord progressions.

The cross-rhythms of African music evoke the streaming wisdom of these fluid elements in an extraordinary way. The Shona cross-rhythmic techniques that abound in this album were first shown to me by Paul Berliner, in person and through his book, Soul of the Mbira (University of California Press). West African kre-kre rhythms were shown to me by my life-partner in percussion, George Marsh. From the early 1970s I became entranced with their deep, secret metabolism, and began incorporating them into my music.

My first two albums of such music were Streaming Wisdom and In the Wind, recorded from 1979 through 1982 on a TEAC 4-track 3440 in my small studio near Sebastopol, California. This was in the early days of home access to multitrack technology, and it was hugely satisfying to have the time — the months and years needed — to work out the performing and recording techniques. Now, twenty-five years later, it’s equally satisfying to remaster and re-release the material combined as a single CD.

From the 1981 album Streaming Wisdom

Air in E-Flat introduces the interlocked-hands, 12-note cross-rhythm mbira pattern central to this album, complemented by overdubbed and interspersed episodic material. The principal pattern serves as a riturnello.

Another mbira pattern, this one with four notes (in six beats), underlies Upstream Home. The treble figures that begin at 2:12 and 3:33 were recorded at half speed, thus sounding in real time at double speed.

In Endeavoring Meander, a 12-note cross-rhythm is used in a pianistic, neo-Romantic style.

The just tuning for Twenty-One Breaths is based on the note G, and proceeds a perfect fifth up to D, another up to A, and a perfect fifth down from G to C, giving a “spine” of perfect fifths. Above each of these notes is tuned a just major third (5:4) giving E, B, F-sharp, and C-sharp; and below each is likewise tuned a just major third giving A-flat, E-flat, B-flat, and F. Twenty-One Breaths makes use of the especially sonorous triadic harmonies that result.

Layer Play features the 12-beat pan-African kre-kre cross-rhythm that floats the listener on two levels of rhythmic reality at once.

Streaming Wisdom opens with offset rhythms shown to me by Terry Riley and proceeds through episodic material to variations on its central cross-rhythmic pattern.

From the 1983 album In the Wind

Quints features a fifteen-note pattern divided by both 5 and 3, laced with quasi-orchestral interludes. The metallic sound is achieved by laying a chain necklace across the piano strings.

Waves Make Waves demonstrates with special clarity how 12-note cross-rhythms generate, by shifting accents, various levels of rhythmic organization.

In the Wind begins with the piano strings, damped by felt, played in a 7-beat pattern, then adds a double-speed dervish treble, and at 1:40 breaks into a 10-beat ostinato topped with a nod-to-Keith-Jarret solo. At 4:58, a music box effect is introduced, and then takes over the texture. It is produced by overdubbing at half-speed and plucking the strings with push-pins note by note. At the end, the ten-beat pattern returns in a whirlwind.

Turning Music uses the same rhythmic technique as Upstream Home, but with a softer feeling, the turning of the world in a falling-and-flying dream.

In Scales of Scales, the emergent rhythm is a scale, but the nonscalar substrate that generates it is not clearly revealed until the end of the piece.

The piano, a Steinway L, was prepared for certain passages using felt mutes, chain necklaces, and sheet metal screws to sound like a small keyboard orchestra. There are numerous splices.

Heart-felt thanks to Terry Riley and to George Marsh. Thanks to Hamza El Din for letting the Nile River flow through my life, and to Pandit Pran Nath for being the light in the jewel. The relationship of life and music to the streaming elements was first pointed out to me by Theodor Schwenk in his seminal book Sensitive Chaos, which contains a chapter titled Streaming Wisdom (Schocken Books © Rudolf Steiner Press). Special thanks to painter Joseph Raffael for the use of Wind on Water and Birds I.

Streaming Wisdom - W. A. Mathieu