Euphony Groove And The Prospect Of New “World” Music
by Thomas Brett
From 2000-2006 I was part of a most interesting (to us, anyways) music ensemble called Euphony Groove. Euphony, meaning “wellness of voice” and groove, “a rhythm that repeats” formed the group’s mantra: music can make us well, over and over again. Euphony Groove brought together musical traditions and sounds from Turkey, North Africa, China and Australia to create what I would describe as a hybrid, improvised, introspective, modal and sometimes even ecstatic music. We performed in all kinds of alternative performance spaces around New England including lofts, art galleries, colleges and high schools, industrial spaces, and nursing homes. We even performed live on college radio stations a few times.
The instrumental timbres of EG fit well together: I played the Chinese yang-qin hammered dulcimer, Fred played the Turkish ney flute, Todd played North African frame drums, and Matthew played the Australian natural horn, the didgeridoo. We sometimes thought about those timbres by analogy: the yang-qin as rushing water, the ney as billowing fire, the drums as solid earth, and the didge as a cyclone of turbulent air. Beyond their timbres, the instruments co-existed well volume-wise too: we could play together in a room and hear one another clearly, without amplification.
Here is Lumos, the first track from Live At The Loft (2001).
What was most exciting about Euphony Groove was its repertoire, or rather, how little “solid” repertoire it had. Most of what we did was improvise around what were, in retrospect, very loosely agreed upon structural constraints. For instance, a “piece” might consist of agreeing to play in a b-minor mode, in 4-beat meter, at a glacial tempo, for a long, long while, and then somehow metamorphose into a breakneck tempo in a relative major key. No music scores, no notes, no “head” or theme, no conductor (obviously)–just our memory of what we had agreed to do. Sometimes we pulled off our plan, but more often there emerged these wonderful moments of rupture–usually cued by a frantic glance indicating that one group member had no idea where we were or where we were going–that blew things wide open: we were improving without a net, and it felt exhilarating. Fred wrote in the liner notes to Live At The Loft:
“Perhaps the listener could guess that our music is constructed in motion. We hope that this recording suggests the social chemistry that allows that to happen. The essential idea of Euphony Groove is to juxtapose timbres and musical strategies in new combinations that seem useful in the her-and-now. In constructing these pieces we borrow freely from the musical ideas of our four respective traditional soundscapes, and combine them with new concepts that we have created specially for our collective fifth geography.”
Over the years of working within the Euphony Groove geography, some repertoire stapes did emerge: Slow Reach, Athens Kyoto, Funk (not funk as you probably know it), Tumblemeter…I realize these titles are meaningless to my blog readers, but to us they signified pretty heavily, and after a while we knew we could always revisit these musical templates with some measure of security. Having said that, however, we didn’t go back to them that much; we just pushed forward. In this regard, Euphony Groove was experimental in that we wanted to get ourselves into musical places from which there would be no clear exit.
We gave one another solo opportunities too. In every concert there would be room for each of us to make an entirely solo statement. This was a favorite part of the evening: just to listen to my band mates making extended essays on their instruments. It’s not an easy thing to do, especially if you play the frame drums or the didgeridoo. I single out these instruments because they don’t have recourse to melody like the ney and the yang-qin do, and remember that melody is a widely agreed upon way to build a musical “narrative.” But Todd and Matthew could hold an audience’s attention however long they needed to through texture, timbre, dynamics and rhythm-making.
Perhaps because of our musical interests and our instrumentation, drone figured fairly prominently in our sound. The didgeridoo, of course, is a drone machine par excellence, and I enjoyed making drones on the yang-qin through tremolo rolls. And three of us indulged our interests in overtone singing (or what Tuvans call khoomei). Who doesn’t like to overtone sing? It’s kind of the ultimate euphony or “wellness of voice” and we incorporated this singing technique into our pieces. Here is a piece called “Midnight” from The Montreal Sessions (circa 2005?). It opens with solo yang-qin, soon joined by the drone of khoomei-style singing, and finally the didgeridoo. You can listen to “Midnight” here.
A typical rehearsal schedule was to assemble the evening before our concert and talk, joke around, and generally procrastinate until late into the night, until we finally started to think about what we might do the next day. Sometimes we tried out new musical ideas, but more often we just started to play together, to establish a conversation through sound. So we talked, we played, we talked so more, we had food and drank some, I tuned (and re-tuned) my axe, we laughed, and so on. No matter how “organized” we endeavored to be, this was the method to our madness: empty out our expectations during that evening “rehearsal” as if to remind ourselves that we really had nothing “new” to say and that we were ready to face, head on, our impending concert the next day. (Butterflies in the stomach just thinking about it.) In short, we were procrastinating because we knew that our music would really most meaningfully grow out of our encounter with our audience.
Who showed up to a Euphony Groove performance? Usually there were between 15 and 90 people at our concerts. When we performed at The Loft in Brattleboro, Vermont, there were many regulars who returned again and again to hear us play; some even travelled great distances to hear us. For about 10 bucks, they got an evening of sonic uncertainty, but also little epiphanies of synchrony and euphony along the way. And our listeners were very much part of the equation: they talked to us before, during, and after the show, they bought some CDs and T-shirts, they made “song” requests (“Play Boomerang!”), they slow-danced in the aisles to pieces with 7-beat meters, they requested encores, and they asked us when we would be returning to play again.
One of my favorite things about Euphony Groove was the way in which it was deliberately limited. There were only four timbres, and we could only play in few keys. There were two reasons for this: the tuning of the yang-qin (certain keys like G, D, C major and A minor are easier to play in) and the didgeridoo (which can only play one tone at a time). We worked with our limitations by maximizing the affect we could extract from subtle musical shifts of note placement, dynamics, modulation, entrances, exits, and silence. Sometimes, the most powerful thing was hearing what might be called the presence of someone’s absence for six or seven long minutes, until suddenly–baam!–they were back in: all presence! In an age of infinite timbre available at our fingertips (as anyone who makes electronic music can attest), Euphony Groove was minimal and old-fashioned. It was simple.
This simplicity became to topic of conversation on more than one occasion when we had discussions and disagreements about whether or not to “modernize” Euphony Groove–whether to add new electronic sounds, triggers and samplers, textures and tones to spice things up. Some members wanted to race forward into the electronic age, while others were, ahem, happy with exactly where we are, thank you very much. I recall saying that we were candle makers and book binders in an age of downloadable content, and I didn’t mean that as a criticism of the group. I thought our limitations were cool precisely because they meant that we couldn’t do everything. Like any living thing, we were finite.
Playing in an ensemble like Euphony Groove–a self-directed, off the grid, improvising-heavy ensemble–shapes how one sees the broader music industry. We weren’t part of any mainstream, we weren’t signed to a label, we didn’t try to sell ourselves (or at least, weren’t very successful at it). We just made music together. And if we had tried to market ourselves as some kind of new “world” music, I doubt that would have led us far. Four white men (including two Canadians, but still) playing a motley collection of instruments in and around New England? What kind of world music is this again? Umm, that sounds pretty local to me.
And yet. I’m reminded here of some things Michael Chanan says at the end of his history of music and recording technology, Repeated Takes. Chanan talks about issues that Euphony Groove tried to address head on, describing the kinds of things that happen when different musics collide, so to speak, with one another in their recorded forms, or otherwise:
“musical cultures of every type develop new dynamics. Techniques are extended, new instrumental combinations are tried, fusions and hybrids appear and proceed to reproduce independently, in musical revenge against technological alienation.”
Is this not what Euphony Groove was participating in? An acoustic revenge against technological alienation? Yes, yes, yes! Chanan also asks what it means that the musics of different cultures come into contact with one another, and indeed, are changed by one another: “Is ‘world music’ only a commercial phenomenon, or does it represent an authentic cultural undercurrent?” Well, yes again! I think that Euphony Groove was an example of one of many authentically local cultural undercurrents just trying to make musical sense of the world’s music cultures colliding with one another.
It was a good musical and social hang, it brought us together and pushed us apart, it prompted us to do things we probably would not have done on our own, and of course, it was deep, deep fun.