Solo Acoustic Guitarist | African and Contemporary | Composer and Performer

Cassette Locale After Masanobu Fukuoka (2014)

This Compact Disc is a stereo reduction of an eight channel sound installation that I made for the Venice Architecture Biennale and Fittja Open in Stockholm, commissioned by Botkyrka Konsthalle in Sweden. It is a very different project to One Night on Earth, but uses the same basic material in new, and I hope exciting, ways.

The release of this symphonic guitar album, using 6 and 10 string guitars in multiple layers, will be followed soon by a new solo album of interpretations of kora compositions by a range of composers not represented on One Night on Earth. I hope this keeps you busy in the meantime!

Yours, Derek Gripper

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“Cassette Locale” – a one off recording…a kind of aural portrait…The “cassette locale” exploits the medium of recording to add new dimension to the private, informal performance at the house of a patron. It provides a similar type of space for musicians to go deep into their knowledge and skill and cater individually for the musical tastes of the patron, unhampered by the concerns of the market.” Lucy Duran, Ngaraya: “Women and Musical Mastery in Mali” Bulletin of SOAS, 70, 3 (2007), 569-602.

Fittja

“The name Fittja comes from the Nordic word “fitet” that can be found in the Icelandic language meaning “moist field.”  Fittja is a suburb on the southern outskirts of Stockholm, Sweden, home to a community of about 7000 people with a second home in one of 161 of the world’s 193 nations. Fittja stems from an important time in Swedish architectural history: the creation of the Swedish “Million Programme,” a grand scale modernist plan to create one million homes in ten years, with a vision to prevent “fascism from ever rising in Europe again.” Fittja was inaugurated in the year 1974.” Joanna Sandell

I visited Fittja at the end of winter, as green shoots were breaking through the melting ice. My first impression as an outsider – to Fittja and to Sweden – was the struggle to adjust to a new place. What is it like to come from Santiago, Istanbul, Bamako or Johannesburg, and to find oneself making a new home in this rather stark Swedish experiment?

“The way we live, and our need for architecture is constantly in flux. This Biennale project is about examining these new borders. Working with projects where architecture and definitions of the relation between space and life can take on new meaning. The ambition is to engage with the neighbourhood of Fittja, working with invited practices and students through hands-on, actual projects that aim to establish new ideas of public space and the construction of an art institution of the future.” From the brief for the Biennial of Art and Architecture in Fittja.

I was asked to make a sound work for a new arts and architecture biennial in Fittja. I wanted to make something which the viewer could be part of and interact with, something that would change subtly as the viewer moved around the space, to echo the process of parts becoming wholes, and people becoming nations, and 161 nations becoming Fittja.

I decided to evoke the Malian practice of “cassette locale,” to transform this unique feature of the musical practice of Malian griots, and to blend it with the institution of the “sound installation.”

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Kentridge

A single video frame. Black and white. Wires protruding from a central axis, holding pieces of paper in three dimensional constellations. As the axis turns, the constellation changes and comes to rest, its three dimensionality now lost, it becomes a two dimensional collection of letters: “RETURN”

“The piece is about chaos and disintegration and regathering. It is the opposite of entropy: things gathering into forms rather than disintegrating from forms.” William Kentridge, Return Art 21 Exclusive.

For this new form of “cassette locale” recorded sound would be a creative medium, rather than a simple device to capture a musical performance. I realised that this way of working with recording would be an opportunity to mirror in sound some of South African multimedia artist William Kentridge’s visual techniques: the use and re-use of materials, the possibilities of digital recording combined with the skill of the hand, the process of irreversible addition and subtraction, and, of course, the movement of negative entropy – “disintegration and regathering” – which would echo the disintegration of societies in 161 countries of the world and their regathering in Fittja.

It took some months for a process that would mirror the poignant simplicity of Kentridge’s video mobile to come into focus. The idea that emerged was to create a recorded performance for eight guitars, beginning with the disintegration of a collection of Malian kora compositions, and a subsequent regathering into multi-layered configurations on multi-tracked guitars that would be “performed” as an eight speaker sound installation.

Kentridge’s negative entropy would occur between the voices of the work itself as well as between the speakers, which would be distributed in space like the pieces of paper in “Return,” some near, some far, some left, some right, behind, in front. The eight strands of music would bring these randomly discarded speakers together from time to time, and then disperse them again into a three-dimensional sound space. The effect would be enhanced by the changing position and perspective of the listener.

“I like the simple illusion of magic that’s also about ‘what is this chaos that we are which we somehow force into a pattern of coherence?’ There still is a kind of utopianism in chaos finding its own order.” William Kentridge, Return Art 21 Exclusive.

It slowly became evident to me that Kentridge’s utopianism, so different to the vision of Fittja, had been articulated in the natural farming treatises of revolutionary Japanese philosopher and farmer Masanobu Fukuoka, perhaps one of the great utopian thinkers of the twentieth century. Fukuoka’s philosophy was expressed in farming and reforestation experiments carried out in the years after the second world war until his death in 2008. I decided it would be interesting to see if his methods could be used to generate the sound work I had envisaged. This working process would stand in contrast to the 1970’s Fittja Utopia and act as an appeal to explore new forms of human action in fields beyond sound and music.

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Fukuoka

“Human knowledge and effort expand and grow increasingly complex and wasteful without limit. We need to halt this expansion, to converge, simplify, and reduce our knowledge and effort. This is in keeping with the laws of nature. Natural farming is more than just a revolution in agricultural techniques. It is the practical foundation of a spiritual movement, of a revolution to change the way man lives.” Masanobu Fukuoka, Natural Farming.”

It has been around fifteen years since I first visited Anthony Baker’s farm in the Cederberg. Written on a scrap of wood nailed to the roof trusses of what was then a half built cob house were three words in Afrikaans:
Niks is nodig

“Nothing is necessary.” I love the fact that Anthony even leaves out the final “nie” for what “should” be “niks is nodig nie.” Not even a second nie is necessary.

Niks is Nodig is an expression of the philosophy of Masanobu Fukuoka who I heard about for the first time from Anthony’s description: a revolutionary Japanese farmer who called his method of farming “do-nothing farming” or “natural farming.” I wrote a short history of his life some years ago:

Masanobu Fukuoka was born in Japan in 1913. His father was a farmer and when he finished school he went on to study microbiology, eventually specialising in the study of soil and plant disease. He worked for a time in this field, becoming more and more absorbed in studying the microscopic world of bacteria under a microscope, until one day he collapsed from exhaustion and was taken to hospital where he thought he would die. When he recovered he felt a change. He wandered around feeling confused and disorientated until, while wondering around the docks in the early hours of the morning, he saw a bird flying across the sky. He suddenly realised that even though human beings separate the things of the world into this and that, here and there, near and far, in actual fact there is no difference between the things that we think of as opposites. From this he understood that “mankind knows nothing at all.” He immediately returned to his laboratory and resigned from his job, resolving to live his life as a simple farmer.

Fukuoka moved into a mud hut in his father’s mandarin orange orchard. He was given over 400 trees to care for, and he lived a simple life like a hermit in the mountains. Since he had realised that nature could not benefit from the knowledge of human beings, he decided to let the trees become natural again, to grow like wild forest trees. He thought that this would free them from the grip of human knowledge. So he stopped pruning the trees, leaving them to fend for themselves. But these trees had been regularly pruned since they were little saplings, and soon the branches became tangled and the trees died. In the end about 460 trees died after being abandoned in this way.

Fukuoka’s father was furious and insisted that his son get a job and learn some discipline. It was the early days of the Second World War and Fukuoka began working for his local government’s agricultural department, using his scientific background to help farmers improve their yields and ward off pests and disease. But all the time he was thinking about a new type of farming which would follow nature, rather than using the knowledge and science to control and dominate nature.

Eventually the war came to an end and he was free to return to his father’s farm and to take up farming once again. From his experience with the orchards he knew that trees which had come to rely on pruning could not simply be left alone to fend for themselves. He began to study the shapes of trees in nature, trying to find out what the natural shapes of various fruit trees would have been had they been left to develop unimpeded from the start. He began to prune his trees into new shapes, diverging from what was commonly considered to be the ideal shapes for fruit trees. Slowly it became possible to prune less and less and eventually he could leave them to fend for themselves.

With this careful experiment Fukuoka had discovered that he could not abandon nature once it had been tampered with by man. He had discovered that he first needed to correct the imbalance brought about by human beings, and once this balance had been restored and the deformations corrected, then nature would be free to develop in the best possible way.

Fukuoka carried on this method of farming which he called “Natural Farming” and sometimes “Do-Nothing Farming” for the rest of his life. He managed to grow grains and citrus without the techniques of traditional farming, and without the chemicals and fertilizers of modern scientific agriculture. He would eventually assert that “with this kind of farming, which uses no machines, no prepared fertilizer and no chemicals, it is possible to attain a harvest equal to or greater than that of the average Japanese farm.”

“This field has not been ploughed in more than 25 years,” I explained. “Last autumn I broadcast clover and barley seed over the standing heads of rice. After harvesting the rice, I scattered the rice straw uncut back over the field. I could have sown the rice seed over these heads of barley, except that I sowed the rice seed last autumn together with the barley seed.” Everyone was dumbfounded.” Masanobu Fukuoka, The Natural Way of Farming.

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Seed

“I wish to become the sower of seed. Nothing would give me more joy than to meet others of the same mind.” Masanobu Fukuoka, The Road Back to Nature.

For the last few years I have been transcribing and learning the kora (21-string harp-lute) music of Mali on guitar. I have collections, on paper and in my fingers, of cycles which in Malian musical terminology are called Kumbengo. These are the rhythmic and harmonic accompaniments played by kora players in between bursts of melodic improvisation called Birimintingo.

To collect the seeds of what would become Cassette Locale I wrote down short extracts of these kumbengo until I had filled half of a small notebook. These seeds were no longer musical works or compositions, just a collection of disparate musical ideas. Perhaps we could think of them as similar to the pieces of paper In “Return,” which could now be spread throughout a new space to become a moving constellation, coming into and out of focus, from chaos into form, releasing new creative possibilities hidden inside the richness of one of Africa’s great musical traditions.

My musical experiment, in the spirit of Fukuoka, would be to see what would grow if these seeds from Mali were dispersed into a new creative space, a creative space where “knowledge” was present but passive, a space where knowledge would be transformed into passive memories of musical works and compositional processes.

“Cut a hole in a bag filled with seeds
of any kind and place the bag where
there is wind.”
Yoko Ono, Painting for the Wind.

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Seedball
“I have begun thinking that the natural farming experience may be of some help, however small, in revegetating the world and stabilising the food supply. Although some will call this idea outlandish, I propose that the seeds of certain plants be sown over the deserts in clay pellets to help green these barren lands…Once scattered, the seeds within the hard clay pellets will not sprout until rain has fallen and conditions are just right for germination. Nor will they be eaten by mice and birds. A year later, several of the plants will survive, giving a clue as to what is suited to the climate and the land…Anything will do, as long as we get deserts blanketed rapidly with a green cover of grass. This will bring back the rains…Deserts do not form because there is no rain; rather, rain ceases to fall because vegetation has disappeared….we have to learn how to restore the ancient forests.” Masanobu Fukuoka, The Natural Way of Farming.

One ancient technique that Fukuoka has revived is the “seedball.” A mixture of seeds encased in clay and dry compost, the seedball is the most beautiful and poetic embodiment of the essence of Fukuoka’s thinking. Fukuoka used these seedballs for dispersing rice seed on his farm, but he also suggested that they could be used to re-green arid lands. He carried out a few experiments of this kind in various places around the world and his student Panos Manikis continues to do so.

I returned to the place where I first recorded my kora arrangements, Peace of Eden Recording Studio in Knysna, to begin recording the raw materials which would be the seedballs for the final work. Working together with sound engineer Howard Butcher I would record the various kumbengos, binding them together using a variety of musical processes borrowed from contemporary composition.

So this is how it worked: Before each take I would decide on a constellation of performing conditions from a wide range of options:

We used two Royer 121 ribbon microphones placed inside a v-shaped structure made from wood on one side and plate glass on the other. We used three chairs for positioning the guitar close, near or far in relation to the microphones, and I could choose between eight different keys to play the kumbengos in by changing the position of the capo on the neck of either a six- or ten-string guitar, both built by Hermann Hauser III of Reisbach, Germany. Each take would be layered in anything from one to eight voices.

To transform a single kumbengo into a multi-voiced “seedball” I chose to concentrate on six simple musical processes.

“The distinctive thing about musical processes is that they determine all the note-to-note (sound-to-sound) details and the over all form simultaneously (Think of a round or an infinite canon)…” Steve Reich, Music as a Gradual Process.

Phasing

“On Lincoln’s birthday in 1968 I had the idea that if a number of single tones were all pulsing at the same tempo, but with gradually shifting phase relations, a great number of musical patterns would result” this “would resemble the interlocking figuration of Balinese Gamelan and the hocketing procedures of medieval music.” Steve Reich, The Phase Shifting Pulse Gate.

To imagine how phasing works think of two swings pulled back at the same time and left to swing. The speeds would differ, first only slightly, and eventually more and more. In sound this can create some very interesting textures and rhythmical relationships.

Clocks and Clouds

“The effect of these different subdivisions, especially when they occur simultaneously, is to blur the aural landscape, creating the micropolyphonic effect…” Richard Steinitz. György Ligeti: Music of the Imagination.

Georg Ligetti, whose interest in rhythm seems to have been piqued by the music of sub-Saharan Africa (one wonders what he heard), created a technique which he called “micropolyphony.” Ligeti used clusters of closely spaced pitches to create “clouds” of sound. Similarly he contrasted fast rhythms in many voices to create the impression of hundreds of clocks, or the rhythm of a colony of fast moving ants.

Shadowing

Playing melodic ideas in parallel harmonies as in Oliver Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony or Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring is a way of harmonising a single melody where the same melody is heard in two or more keys simultaneously. This was something that arose naturally out of the ability of the guitar to transpose a musical idea by simply moving the capo to another fret. It has the effect of making a single melody-of-chords rather than a melody accompanied by chords (harmony).

Permutation

By treating a single cycle as an arbitrary ordering of pitches (like the 12-tone row of serial music) and then changing this order, one could create multiple versions of a single melody which could be played one on top of the other. For example a (hypothetical) three note cycle with the notes 1-2-3 would create two more cycles: 2-3-1 and 3-1-2. These would all be recorded on three guitars as:

1-2-3-1-2-3-1-2-3-1-2-3-1-2-3-1-2-3-1-2-3-1-2-3-1-2-3~
2-3-1-2-3-1-2-3-1-2-3-1-2-3-1-2-3-1-2-3-1-2-3-1-2-3-1~
3-1-2-3-1-2-3-1-2-3-1-2-3-1-2-3-1-2-3-1-2-3-1-2-3-1-2~

Companion Cycles

This last process grew naturally out of the kora cycles themselves: One of the interesting things about kora kumbengos is that, while they are usually played one after the other, they also work beautifully one on top of another. In words it would look like this:

JARABI-JARABI-JARABI-JARABI-JARABI-JARABI-JARABI

Is cut in half and each half played as a separate voice:

JAR-JAR-JAR-JAR-JAR-JAR-JAR-JAR-JAR-JAR-JAR-JAR
ABI-ABI-ABI-ABI-ABI-ABI-ABI-ABI-ABI-ABI-ABI-ABI-ABI

Because of the fact that kora music is all composed with a seven note major scale (and the modes thereof), the result of both Permutation and Companion Cycles was a kind of “pandiatonism” (the superimposition of any of the notes of a given major scale).

Only once all the above decisions had been made (a process which would only take a few seconds) would I choose one of the kora cycle extracts from the notebook and record a seedball of around one minute in length.

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Dispersion

“The best plan…is true non-action, it is no plan at all.” p.123, Fukuoka, Natural Farming.

We recorded like this over the course of a day and a half. We did this without any thought for the end result. The temptation to compose and to think about a final result was strong, but I stuck to Fukuoka’s ideal: the best plan is no plan.

During the recording process I made sure that I used every possibility equally, so the result was diverse: solos, duos, trios, quartets, sextets, septets, octets…recorded for six- or ten-string, recorded from near or far, in unified key arrangements or multiples keys, contrasting six musical processes in varying tempos and lengths of time. I also added just under an hour of free improvisation on the ten-string guitar to harvest the sonic potential of this incredible instrument which could be used as binding material in the final work.

The next question was how to bring these disparate recorded elements together into something resembling a large scale musical work. At around midnight on the 5th of December, three hours after the passing of Nelson Mandela, I sat alone in the recording studio and began to disperse these seedballs and allow them to interact in a single work. Somehow these unconnected objects would come together, each one would link up with another one so that a single work would result from many.

This is where my own preferences became part of the working method; I could arrange constellations, combine different ideas and discard parts that I didn’t need, but I could not add anything new or alter anything already recorded.

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The live installations will be heard through eight speakers (or eight stereo pairs) dispersed at random in a large space. Visitors will be invited to walk amongst these speakers, creating diverse spacial variations of the work by altering their locations in space (the room) and time (the musical work).

“…through placing the centre everywhere, in all the people whether they’re composing or listening, and furthermore, placing the centre too in the sounds themselves. So then there is an interpenetration of unlimited centres.” John Cage

Individual instruments playing the original kumbengo seeds could be heard by moving right up to individual speakers, whilst small and large ensembles will be heard by stepping back to different locations. The effect of kutsinhira (the bounce of a single musical idea between two or more different spaces) will be heard between groups of speakers in different locations throughout. My friend Phillip Nangle describes kutsinhira as

“…what jumps out from behind a bush causing you to leap up or fall down or burst into tears because of the beauty and power of their combination.”

A special version of this installation will be created in collaboration with an architect who will design a pavilion which will function as a resonance chamber, with vibrating speakers built into the structure. This will further enhance the random dispersion of sound in performances of Cassette Locale. The building will be placed in Fittja in Stockholm, opening in September of 2014.

For the stereo version (for CD and vinyl) the eight voices move constantly, varying their depth and position within the stereo spectrum.

“Five to six years after planting, when the trees begin to bear fruit, it is a good idea to…construct terrace-like steps and a road on the orchard slope. Once these terraces have been built and the original weeds replaced, first with soft weeds such as chickweed, knotweed, and crabgrass, then with clover, the orchard begins to look like an orchard.” Masanobu Fukuoka, The Natural Way of Farming.

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Cassette Locale is the simplest possible interpretation of the ideas described in this text. Perhaps the temptation is to ask for more, to use the immensity of possibility to create more complexity. We close with one final word from Masanobu Fukuoka, altered slightly to give a new message:

“In spite of what everyone says, I get the feeling that things are moving in the direction of doing nothing. I have long maintained that (musics) today that insist on rigorous training to (improve the technique) are amistake….To recover one must lighten the heart and live easily – without strain. That, I think, is what it is all about.” Masanobu Fukuoka, The Road Back to Nature.

Thanks

Cassette Locale began with Joanna Sandell’s vision that a guitarist could create an artwork. I was skeptical at first, but I have to admit that I’ve had fun doing it. Most importantly it has opened up huge creative possibilities which will be felt in all the other areas of my work. Joanna believed in this project with an unshakable conviction, a conviction which made it possible for me to believe that it was possible and worthwhile. We’ve had an immensely entertaining time throwing ideas backwards and forwards and entertaining everything as possibility. Because of this exchange the project has grown beyond our initial expectations. I cannot thank Joanna and her staff enough at Botkyrka Konsthall for curating this project and making it all happen.

The music owes a huge debt to the genius not only of the collective culture of Mali, dispersed throughout time, but most especially to a handful of Mali’s greatest kora composers: Toumani Diabaté, Ballaké Sissoko, Sidiki Diabaté, Amadou Bansang Jobarteh and Sekou Batourou Kouyaté. Music grows from person to person, from generation to generation, and it grows within individuals. It is always changing, and in the hands of masters such as these, always growing.

I am indebted to Lucy Duran’s literally boundless knowledge of and insight into the culture and music of Mali, for her selfless sharing in emails, articles and conversations, of the fruits of so many years of research. I also owe my knowledge of the practice of Cassette Locale to Lucy’s article “Ngaraya: Woman and Musical Mastery in Mali” and to subsequent conversations about this recording form.

My thanks to William Kentridge for showing the way and for being one of the most inspiring artists working in South Africa today. Meeting this very grounded and articulate man in New York and playing a short piece (badly, with a broken fingernail after a long tour) to open his print retrospective at David Krut Projects in Chelsea remains as the absolute highlight of a very eventful year. Thanks also to David Krut for introducing me to William and inviting me to perform at his opening.

Howard Butcher can never be thanked enough for his encouragement and technical skill during the recording process. Many recording engineers would have dismissed me as a hopeless fool feeling his way towards a sonic disaster, but Howard stayed with me throughout the process, even when the way was dark (which was all of the time).

I also owe the successful completion of the initial recording of this work to my children, San, Sai, Ayo and Kaira. The five of us travelled to Knysna together, and over the three days that we spent recording and mixing and editing they looked after me very well.

I am indebted to Phillip Nangle for his segankure orchestras which have always been an inspiration, as well as for introducing me to the concept of kutsinhera.

And lastly, to Fukuoka, who has been a guiding light of sanity, humour and simplicity for the last fifteen years or so, and was in my thoughts during every part of this project.

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Additional Thanks

Simon “Fuzzy” Rattcliff Croc-e Moses Ryan Lemmer Murray Anderson Mats Hjelm Christine Nachmann Tor Lindstrand Steve Bourne Alex Bozas Michael Orchard Paolo Rossi Änna Jonsson Jen Butcher Barry Husband Matthias Roux Matthew Rice Matteo Rini Hermann Hauser Kathrin Hauser Anneli Bäckman Hanna Lindh Erik Annerborn Jen Butcher

And, most importantly, Ruth Ehrhardt.

This project has been made possible by
Botkyrka municipality: One Percent for Art: Fittja Field Commission, a collaboration between the City planning office at Botkyrka and Botkyrka konsthall.
Residence Botkyrka
Swedish Arts Council
Kulturbryggan
Microclima
Serra dei Giardini

credits

released 02 February 2014
All guitars performed and montaged by Derek Gripper
Curated by Joanna Sandell
Cover artwork by William Kentridge with compliments of the artist and David Krut Projects
Recorded, mixed and mastered by Howard Butcher
Layout by John Henriksson
6- and 10-string guitars by Hermann Hauser III
Microphones by Royer
Preamp by AEA
Reverb by Bricasti
Strings by Hannebach