What happens when you jam a 30-piece orchestra in a room together without any conventional notation to play from? Will you get music, or do you have a potential Lord of the Flies situation on your hands?
Those questions dissolve if composer/conductor/percussionist Adam Rudolph is present. Working from graphic scores and "cosmographs," Rudolph conducts his improvisational Go: Organic Orchestra using a system of hand signals he's invented and refined over the years. Thumbs and fingers pointed together to form an "O" means "create an ostinato." A closed fist with a thumb pointed down indicates Rudolph wants his players to sustain a low note on their instruments. There are subtle variations and degrees of wanted uncertainty built-in.
Even the best, most experienced players have to learn how Rudolph's music works in order to play with him. "Most of the musicians have been working with me since I moved back to New York City six years ago," Rudolph told the Advocate during a phone interview. "We do ongoing concert residencies… Most of the musicians have been with me for a long time, and they're all really incredible, virtuosic musicians. Many of them are bandleaders and composers in their own right."
Rudolph's latest release, Sonic Mandala, came out in mid-September on the Meta label. It's a sprawling, four-sided gatefold vinyl release (also available in digital formats and on Spotify) made up of 12 parts, aptly titled "Part One," "Part Two," and so on, all of which was composed and improvisationally conducted by Rudolph in the studio in front of his 34 musicians.
"It's a concept that's quite unique," Rudolph said. "We span a huge range of ages. The youngest player is 20, and the oldest is more than 70, from all kinds of cultural backgrounds: Morocco, Brazil. There's also gender and racial diversity, and also a diversity of musical backgrounds: musicians trained in the Western musical canon, some with jazz backgrounds, world music or ethnic or traditions. The concept is such that it can embrace and hold all these musicians and get them to express a collective wholeness."
Rudolph, 58, came up as a hand percussionist through experimental jazz channels. He counts among his mentors musical individualists like Yusef Lateef and Don Cherry. Over the years he's recorded with Sam Rivers, Herbie Hancock, Pharoah Sanders and Bill Laswell. Rudolph's scores, he said, are designed to elicit a singular, expressive focus, but also allow the greatest freedom of expression from each of the musicians. His groups don't rehearse so much as "prepare."
"I don't really call them rehearsals," Rudolph said. "That's like if you and I rehearsed this conversation… The music is created in the moment, and no two concerts are alike... We prepare: What are the elements? What are the intervallic or aesthetic concerns?"
The Go: Organic Orchestra will perform at the Wadsworth Atheneum on Oct. 11. The concert marks a collaboration between three area arts organizations: the Wadsworth, the Hartford Jazz Society and Real Art Ways, which hosts Stephen Haynes' and Joe Morris' Improvisations series every month. (At the Wadsworth, Haynes will perform on trumpet, cornet and conch shell with Rudolph's group.)
Improvising with Rudolph involves three elements, he said: deep listening (to the other players), an active imagination ("anything you can imagine to play, you can play") and sharing your ideas in a selfless, heartfelt way.
"What I do is very different than a European conductor," Rudolph said, "as much following as leading the ensemble. I might give hand signals to get things started, but they are interpreting the elements in their own way. It doesn't help me to have preconceived notions, not unlike the dialogue you and I are having. What I believe is that prototypical processes yield original art."
The immediate, visceral nature of Rudolph's music mirrors his personal philosophy. "It's a celebration of the eternal now, the moment, which is all that really exists," he said. "What we do with it is really a celebration... of the creative process itself." When I suggested some resonance with Buddhism, Rudolph took it a step further: "It's greater than religion because creativity belongs to every human being as a birthright."
The instrumentation at the Wadsworth show — eight flutes and woodwinds of various shapes and sizes, three brass players, a 10-piece string section, four percussionists, piano, acoustic and electric guitars, electric and acoustic basses, banjo, pedal steel and perhaps several other sounds still left up to chance — allows Rudolph to paint with a rich tonal palette. The score he'll conduct is made up of three pages of matrices and cosmograms: intervallic material, groups of organized sounds and rhythmic patterns, and so on. It's not as shapeless as it sounds: there are through-composed elements for solos and duos and ostinatos that lend structure to the explorations. It's a score Rudolph has conducted from in the past, but the music will be brand new.
"I once did 10 nights with the same score," Rudolph said. "The music was never the same twice. I sometimes call what I do 'decomposing.'" His concerts offer audiences the chance to hear something unique, "if they are willing to be engaged in the journey we are ready to go on."
"Nobody knows where we're going with it," Rudolph continued. "It can be a real thrill for an audience to go on a ride... One thing I can promise is that they'll hear something they've never heard before."
Go: Organic Orchestra
Oct. 11, 8 p.m., $10-$25, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, 600 Main St., Hartford, (860) 838-4100, thewadsworth.org