Rudolph on his Go: Organic Guitar Orchestra: “I want their inner voices to shine through and to challenge them in some way to reach beyond themselves.” Photo by Scott Friedlander

Some guitarists are loners. They prefer to play solo or to be their band’s only guitarist—and that’s cool. But not all guitarists think that way. Some need a partner in crime and prefer playing in a two-guitar band. Some guitarists want even more, and their bands boast three guitars. Think Lynyrd Skynyrd. And sometimes—like at celebrity jams and tributes—even more guitarists crowd the stage.

But how about 11?

Noted composer, percussionist, and world music pioneer Adam Rudolph thinks that’s okay. His Go: Organic Guitar Orchestra, an all-guitar offshoot of his innovative Go: Organic Orchestra is an ensemble comprising only guitars—11, actually. And it’s not just any guitarists. Rudolph’s ensemble features the cream of New York’s avant-garde and includes Rez Abbasi, Nels Cline, Liberty Ellman, David Gilmore, Miles Okazaki, Marvin Sewell, Damon Banks, Marco Cappelli, Jerome Harris, Joel Harrison, and Kenny Wessel.

Rudolph, a Chicago native, made his name playing percussion with musicians like trumpeter Don Cherry and saxophonist Fred Anderson. A student of world music, he traveled the globe and immersed himself in local styles and cultures. “It was more than studying,” Rudolph says about his year in Ghana in West Africa. “It was going around to a lot of different ceremonies and being around the whole life that gave root to the music. That was really what was so interesting for me.” In 1988, he began a long association with multi-instrumentalist Yusef Lateef, which lasted until Lateef’s death in 2013. Rudolph has worked with myriad other artists as well. His projects and collaborations include duets, small groups, and large ensembles with an impressive roster of A-list musicians, and span everything from free improvisation to through-composed works.

Rudolph started the first incarnation of his orchestra in 2001. “I started the Go: Organic Orchestra because of my great good fortune to be mentored by and to learn from the great masters. I learned about creative attitude and this idea of process. If you can think of your own creative process—how to go about things—you can come up with your own music. That’s what I learned from my mentors, and that is what I try to share now. Since 2000, I felt it was my turn to be sharing with as many musicians as possible.”

The Go: Organic concept employs Rudolph’s ideas about polyrhythm, rhythmic cycles, harmony, and sonic language in a large improvisatory ensemble. The orchestra exists in various line-ups and includes regular East and West Coast working groups, a string ensemble, and, starting in 2014, the all-guitar orchestra. “These 11 guitarists are really different players from each other,” he says. “They all have their own voice, their own sound, their own approach. I want their inner voices to shine through and to challenge them in some way to reach beyond themselves.” The Go: Organic Guitar Orchestra recently released Turning Towards the Light, which was recorded on the winter solstice in 2014. The ensemble toured the East Coast last fall and was featured in New York City at the Stone in late May as part of Rudolph’s weeklong residency there.

What does the Go: Organic Guitar Orchestra sound like? Probably not how you’d expect. Although the music is rhythmically complex, the lack of percussion takes off some of the edge. Imagine a more sophisticated version of Discipline-era King Crimson—simple ostinato figures, contrapuntal responses, and a mellow, bubbling vibe percolating within the polyrhythmic mush. The tonal tapestry is rich as well and often very un-guitar-like. For example, a few of the guitarists use heavy, saturated tones tempered with volume swells, which resemble violin. That unique timbre contributes to an overall ensemble sound that gives off a simultaneously traditional yet futuristic vibe.

We spoke with Rudolph about the magic of working with guitarists, his unique insights into the universal nature of music, and the raw power of overseeing a project that features over 100 effects pedals. We also talked with Go: Organic Guitar Orchestra participants Nels Cline and Damon Banks to get an insider’s look at playing in such a unique setting. (See sidebars.)

Describe the genesis of the Go: Organic Guitar Orchestra.
Well, just to give a little background about the Go: Organic Orchestra in general, I’ve always been very interested in process. I developed a process of putting the music together with the Go: Organic Orchestra that is it’s own prototype. The way the process works—the relationship between the performers, the score elements, and my own conducting technique—can be adapted to any kind of ensemble. I have two guitarists who are in my New York-based Go: Organic Orchestra, but a lot of other guitarists in the area expressed interest. I thought it would be so interesting to have an all-guitar orchestra because, first of all, guitarists can handle a lot of the rhythms I use in my music. I use a concept of rhythm I call “Ostinatos of Circularity,” and I felt they could adapt to that well because of the nature of guitar. I also felt that—with the kinds of foot pedals and processing that so many guitar players now are adept at—we could really have a huge, fascinating, and prototypical sounding orchestral palette. And thirdly, a lot of the interval material that I use in the orchestra would be interesting for guitar players to interpret both melodically and harmonically.

Once the idea came to mind it seemed inevitable. When I put the call out to the guitarists that I knew, I was really impressed that everybody responded positively and with a lot of excitement about it. As you can tell, they are all outstanding, amazing guitarists in their own right, and most of them are composers and bandleaders themselves. When we did the first concert, I wasn’t sure how it was going to work out, but I think it exceeded everybody’s expectations. So we thought, “Let’s move to the next stage,” which is to do more concerts and to make a recording.”

“I felt that—with the kinds of foot pedals and processing that so many guitar players now are adept at—we could really have a huge, fascinating, and prototypical sounding orchestral palette.”
—Adam Rudolph

What are some specifics you kept in mind when composing exclusively for guitar?
Actually, I didn’t do anything in terms of composing for the guitars. We used the exact same score materials that I use for my Go: Organic Orchestra. I have nine or 10 of what I call “Interval Matrices” and “Cosmograms.” These allow the musicians to interpret these interval matrices looking at them forwards, backwards, down, up—and find different kinds of material inside of them. The second part of the score is a page of 10 Ostinatos of Circularity, which are rhythmic and harmonic patterns that can be combined in different ways. And then there is a series of 10—I guess I can call them bass lines—that are further ostinatos. All of these elements are modular and can be combined in different ways. I cue some aspects of the material, and when I hear something coming back at me that causes me to respond, I conduct further. There is this spontaneous dialogue going on.

What is an Ostinato of Circularity? Is it like a loop—something with repeat signs on each end?
That’s right. It’s a kind of loop, and it is based upon my concept of rhythm that I call “Cyclic Verticalism.” I create what I call “Signal Rhythms.” If you are thinking horizontally, like a tala in Indian music or 2+3 in Middle Eastern music … tin tin na, din na, din na—that’s seven. 3+2+2. But I also combine what I learned in my studies of polyrhythms, combining units of 2 against units of 3. Odd and even. So, for example, some of these ostinatos of circularity are in a 21-beat cycle, which is three sevens against seven triplets.

Here’s the thing: It sounds complex, perhaps, but it is actually not complex. We over complexify how we think about music all the time. Think about it this way: The most complex chord changes that a lot of guitar players are used to playing are really only six intervals. That’s simple. Six intervals. With rhythm, you can create all kinds of complex rhythms and there is an infinite variety of rhythms based upon language and dance and mathematics that are played in all kinds of cultures around the world, but when you look at it in simple mathematical terms, everything is either a unit of even or odd: 2 or 3.

You can take that a step further in the sense that the fundamental polyrhythm in the universe is 3 against 2. If I played 3 against 2 with my hands fast enough, you would hear the overtone—the third overtone, the second harmonic, which is the fifth. And the fifth is that element that opens up the circle of fifths.

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During their 2015 East Coast tour, Adam Rudolph’s Go: Organic Guitar Orchestra formed a semi-circle around their conductor, much as they did in the studio when they recorded his compositions. The tour included this appearance at Philadelphia’s Fringe Arts on November 22. Unlike Glenn Branca’s all-guitar compositions, Rudolph’s works pivot on a softer and more diverse tonal palette.