Fusion That Works (part 1)

4:12 pm Arabic Music, Free Improv, Improvisation, Music, Oud

It is not unusual for musicians from different idioms to get together and play. The result, sometimes, is something fresh, human, beautiful, and creative. Most of the time, however, the result is boring, cold, superficial, and disjointed.

In my view, a series of decisions, mostly not musical, taken by each person early on, in the first seconds of the meeting or even before it, determine the outcome. The question is, how do we make fusion that works?

Before attempting to answer, I will just say that of my many attempts at fusion, the vast majority were not music I wanted to hear again. Some were fairly successful but, eh, not exactly great music. But there were a few, a really small number perhaps five or less, that were so rewarding that they kept my interest in fusion, both as a listener and as a player, alive.

What is fusion?

Fusion is combining elements from different musical idioms to create a new music that cannot be regarded as belonging to any of the original idioms, nor a natural extension of any of them. Fusion can be improvised or jointly composed by participants from the different idioms. Fusion is not a composer writing a part for a foreign instrument, then to be played by a performer that did not have say in the composition process. Fusion is not a composer taking elements from different idioms and including them in her composition (have any of those ever taken off from the ground of clich├ęs?).

In this respect, fusion is not an idiom in the same way that, say, blues, Hindustani, or Arabic music is. If a rock electric guitar player and a native Australian digiridu player create music together, the sonic result is fundamentally different from the fusion music created a Hindustani sarod player and an Arab qanun player.

In my view, it is even superficial to call the first music, rock-Aborigine fusion and the other Hindustani-Arabic fusion. Why? Because the sonic result of the fusion depends not only on the original idioms, but also on the musical vision, knowledge, and the personalities of the players. In other words, a different rock guitarist and a different Aborigine dijiridu player would produce a different sounding idiom even though the original idioms are the same.

One may argue that no two rock guitarists sound the same either, and yet we do find it useful to talk of the rock idiom as an idiom. There is merit to the argument but, in my view, that merit is limited because practice tells us that there are different sub-idioms within rock because the sound can be so different between different rock pieces. Those differences are even more stark in fusion. So much so that the sonic result doesn’t justify making sweeping combinations such as Arabic-Hindustani or Rock-Aborigine fusion.

All those philosophical points aside, the question is, how can a rock guitarist and a Hindustani sarodist make good fusion music together? What should they do in preparation for the performance, and what should they do in the performance to make deep new music that is beautiful and transcendent?

Part 2 of this post discusses the necessary elements in a successful fusion.

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