Eyes half closed, a dark blue light engulfs me while shadows of abstract figures sway. I hear the primordial pulse of a drum split in half, throbbing from a distance. The low end drives thousands of hypnotic voices around and around in a cyclical form. The high, in playful dialogue with an ancient text.
The meaning of the words is foreign, but the vibration is familiar. This is my first musical memory. This is the initiation into my musical path.
Brian Shankar Adler
On December 6th, Brooklyn-based drummer, percussionist and composer Brian Shankar Adler releases Fourth Dimension, his seventh record as a leader.
Fronting a quintet featuring Matt Moran (vibraphone), Jonathan Goldberger (electric guitar), Santiago Leibson (piano, keyboards) and Rob Jost (bass), Brian draws on his spiritual upbringing in an ashram to “get a truth out” and create an album that is “coming from a deeper part of myself.”
The instinctive, introspective record has found a home on the adventurous Chant label and Brian’s video for the song “Mantra” is nominated for an Independent Music Award.
The Music and Myth caught up with Brian to talk about Fourth Dimension, his creative process and how his formative experience in an ashram influenced his outlook on music.
In Fourth Dimension, you draw on your earliest musical experiences associated with growing up in an ashram in upstate New York. Please tell me a bit about how this environment influenced your creativity and your musical trajectory.
My earliest memories were of music in that setting: sacred music, music for prayer, chants that would go all night long. When I was five years old, they gave me a drum and gave me lessons. They said, “You are going to do this!” I don’t even remember having a say in the matter. But it was a good thing in the end. (laughs)
Very soon after, I was playing for chants. People would be dancing around pits of fire and the music would go on for hours and hours. It was a pretty amazing experience. For me, that was normal. It was everyday life.
Through that, I got into other improvised music. I studied jazz in college. I came to New York and thought I would be a straight-ahead jazz musician. Quickly, the “washing machine” or that system that is the New York music scene took over. There was much more interest in the fact that I played a lot of Indian music and how that might influence jazz and improvised music than in just playing standards.
I surrendered to that. I was happy to do that. I don’t see myself as a classical Indian music player, although I studied it. I don’t see myself as just a jazz musician either. I was happy to weave these threads, as well as lot of other types of music.
I imagine that playing music in that spiritual setting, where there’s an acute reaction to the music itself and the surrounding environment, lent itself well to jazz and improvisation.
…and the importance of everything happening with great intention. Sometimes, that’s less of a priority in the jazz scene. I mean, it happens, but there are moments when it’s just about playing a lot. (laughs)
You are releasing Fourth Dimension on Chant Records? What made you choose this label?
Well, one simple aspect is that the name itself has a lot of resonance. I play a lot of gigs in the Jewish music world, quite often with of all sorts of folks. A lot of my friends have records with them.
I do have a record label. It’s called Circavision Productions. I’ve released many of my records in the past on that label. But since I’m wearing many hats and juggling many things, I wanted to shift gears and see if I can make Circavision a home for other people. I wanted to find a larger outlet and platform for my own music to reach new audiences, because I was reaching the same circles. I wanted to go beyond that.
Tell me a bit about Circavision. What is your vision for it and where would you like to take it in the future?
It’s on a slow path to finding what its identity is, in my opinion. I’ve released some friends’ records, I’ve released many of my own.
I guess the vision is to give a platform to artists that are looking to move music forward and who come from too many traditions that wouldn’t fall neatly into any one category. I’d love it to be… maybe it will be a label, in the end — it’s developing more — maybe it will be a production company. Right now, it’s a little bit of both. I’m not sure exactly which way it’s going to go, but forward-thinking music is a big thing. Also, looking beyond platforms and doing film collaborations and dance collaborations and things like that.
In your last album, Helium Music Project, you featured many different collaborators and recorded in different places. You’ve since released an EP called Binary Suite. Please tell me a bit about the creative transition from Helium Music Project to Binary Suite and then Fourth Dimension?
What happened was a sense of clarity about wanting to put something out that was coming from a deeper part of myself that I have been able to access and wanting to work with one group of musicians for a longer set of time.
Helium was many many people, scattered places for a song here, two songs there, a tour here, a tour there. For Fourth Dimension, I found some folks that were interested in this longer arc project, who played in a way that I thought would allow the music to really open up. We recorded basically four smaller records, four EPs, over the course of four or five years. First, it took me about a year and a half to write the music, then four years or so thereafter.
Fourth Dimension and Binary Suite are the combination of four EPs. The reason Binary Suite came out separately is because it’s three of the five of us [Santiago Leibson on piano, Rob Jost on bass and Brian on drums, percussion and computer]. Then, for the rest of them, it’s all of us. It felt like it held together as a body of work.
But it’s a longer process. We developed it very slowly. We played three or four gigs a year. We did a recording session each year and just stretched out the whole process to really get it to feel right.
How did you choose the musicians you wanted to work with?
Again, going back to the Helium Music Project, I feel like that may be reaching a more folky side of my writing. This is more on the New Music side, more heavily composed, more through-composed. I needed to find players that worked equally well with really reading a page down and being able to play complex passages with their own voice very accurately, but who could also depart and improvise in a way where, on a dime, we could just go anywhere.
In my opinion, there are very few people who can do both of those things really really well, without having weight on one side or the other. The record, for me, was a lot about trying to search for balance. That was part of the balance I was searching for and these guys really know that.
What were some of your creative influences for this album?
I was listening to a lot of Guillermo Klein and Milford Graves, a lot of Messiaen, a lot of indigenous music from different cultures and ecstatic music from different cultures. I was just trying to set up little structures that, to my ear, I wanted to play over. It started with that, just these little cells of, like, “Oh, this is really what I want to play!”
In addition to being a bandleader, I play in many projects. Coming home from doing many projects and being stretched in different ways… it’s a beautiful thing, but it also leaves something to be desired for what I actually wanted to say. So I tried to create structures that allowed a platform for what I wanted to say and this gave birth to a lot of the songs. It’s almost a matter of getting a truth out as opposed to just satisfying myself.
Tell me a bit about the instruments you play on the record.
There’s a lot of drum set on there. That’s an instrument I use very often. I have a lot of Indian drums. I also do a lot of found-object work and some basic instrument building. I’ve made things like key-chimes, clay instruments and metal pieces. Or I’ll walk down the street in Brooklyn and find something and give it a whack to see what it sounds like.
A lot of those sounds made it onto the album. I’m actually just finishing a follow-up record, which is solo, which is all of those sounds. Nothing sounds like a drum set or an instrument from any culture. It’s all those bizzaro, otherworldly sounds.
I’m a declared fan of sequential listening. I love records, I love looking at an album as a complete, coherent story. There seemed to be a very strong sense of what I call “narrative cohesion” in the music of Fourth Dimension. Did sequential track placement play a part in the way you envisioned the album?
It’s interesting. My brother-in-law ended up choosing the order for the record. What he chose on his own, without any consultation from me, was exactly the order in which we recorded the songs, minus where Binary Suite would have been inserted. That would have been the second EP of the four, consecutively. It goes from the first, missing Binary Suite and then the latter two in the order of how we recorded it. That was just intuitive, which is pretty interesting. (laughs) My brother-in-law is not a musician, he’s just got a huge ear. He’s a huge music lover.
There are definitely a lot of the early memories at the beginning of the record and going more towards modern memories and modern inspiration at the end. I guess that happened instinctively.
Here is a question I recently asked Shai Maestro, who was also going through a process of making his music more personal and introspective: if you were a listener hearing Fourth Dimension for the first time, how do you think you would perceive the music?
I think it would make me want to stop whatever I’m doing and kind of slow down, just to see what’s going on there. Just a calibration of sorts. Still, when I listen to it, I’m drawn to the subtle dialogues that are taking place. I hear more and more as time goes on. I don’t listen too often, but when I do, it’s like, “Oh, I don’t even remember that thing or this overtone or the subtleties that come out.”
What are some of the challenges of performing this music live?
I would say we’ve played it three times a year tops, for the last five years. Sometimes, it’s really easy. It depends on the room. In a quiet room, where we can all hear each other really well and with an audience that is very much engaged, it comes very easily and naturally. We’ve had some experiences like that and some that are bar experiences, where it does not come alive in the same way. I now know that we can just choose venues that are that thing and avoid other ones, but we had to discover that through this process as well.
We’ve got a very small tour of three days. We’re going to do a New York release on December 5th with Raga Massive, then a date up in Portland Maine at Portland Conservatory and then one date in Pennsylvania. Next year, perhaps some more. We’ve pitched it to some festivals and we’re waiting to hear back. It’s not easy to get a quintet around too far, so we’ll be picky and choosy and where we can go, we’ll go. (laughs)
What are some other projects you are involved in at the moment?
There are a couple of different things. One is an all-percussion group called Human Time Machine, where we all take turns conducting. It’s a conducted improvisational language, similar to this Argentine group, Bomba de Tiempo. We’re taking a lot of that language and a lot of Butch Morris’ language and a lot of Zorn’s language and creating our own. We play monthly in New York. We’re developing that slowly and organically as well. I’m not sure that we’ll have a record out next year, but a record is in the works.
In closing, what is your greatest wish for Fourth Dimension? What do you hope this album will achieve?
The wish has already come true. I just wanted to put out as truthful and honest a body of work as I could, with the means that I could and the amount of time to rehearse and the situation as it was, then listen to the reaction and go from there.
In a way, it’s happened or it’s happening. I’m very grateful to the way it has taken shape so far. I’ve put into it everything that I possibly could, both artistically and financially. Now it gets released into the world and I can just listen to the response.
Get your copy of Fourth Dimension here.
Featured photo credit: Erika Kapin