"We Are a Body of Water"

(Commissioned by Bates College - April, 2024)

I first heard a gamelan in Boston, Massachusetts while studying at New England Conservatory. I closed my eyes and the shimmering tones of metallophones reminded me of the sounds, states and forces of water. The performance made a lasting impression on me both as a percussionist, with its complex interlocking rhythms, and as a composer, with its long, cyclical forms.

Fast forward more than twenty years and I was fortunate to receive a commission from Bates College to compose a work for their gamelan ensemble. I knew right away that I wanted the piece to relate to water, but I wasn’t sure how.

Soon thereafter, I visited Iguazu, the site of one of the world’s largest waterfalls, which shares a border with Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina. I was awestruck by the scale, the force and the flooding that was taking place at this confluence of rivers. My usual thought patterns were halted and WATER was all that I could hear or think about; it was everywhere! As I stood viewing the falls from the perspective of each of the three countries, it struck me that the rivers are not separate, countries are not separate, people are not separate. Water is the single element that connects us all. At this moment, I knew that I had found my inspiration for the piece, and that it would be called: “We Are a Body of Water.”

The compositional process began with a series of informative discussions with Professor Gina Fatone, the director of the Bates College gamelan. I made recordings of the fundamental tone of each bar, gong and drum in the gamelan set (51 in total) and experimented with various techniques of sound production. I was curious about the sonic possibilities of mixing gamelan with instruments from other parts of the world (tabla and cello) and juxtaposing other scales and pitches against the gamelan’s fixed pentatonic scales. It was also important to me that the gamelan did not take a subservient role accompanying solo instruments, but rather to offer each instrument a democratic voice in creating a larger melodic statement. Inspired by my memories of Iguazu falls, I explored themes, which slowly developed into eight distinct movements and 15 minutes of music.

As the writing continued, I couldn't help but follow the global events of 2023 and found that in doing so, the themes of water took on a more complex meaning. The confluence of existential threats on humanity's horizon: climate change, border wars, tensions resulting from racism, income inequality and more, related to water as well and became intertwined in the symbolism and structure of the piece.

Ultimately, “We Are a Body of Water” stands as an eight part call to action, to shift the paradigm, come together and break humanity's destructive patterns. Though conceptually “heavy” in nature, the piece emerges from a deep sense of hope that the most beautiful, unimaginable possibilities may result if we can act together and not separately.

It has been a pleasure collaborating with the Bates College Gamelan Orchestra during the rehearsal process. I thank them for their efforts and commitment to this piece.

On The Record: Os Mutantes. Mutantes. 1969

(Published by "On the Record" - July, 2022)

Maybe it’s the sunny, warm weather or the relentless chaos of the world, but recently in my car (often occupied by myself, my wife and our 5 year old son), the most requested music has been Os Mutantes’ sophomore album, Mutantes. We love it because it is catchy, hilariously-absurd and packed with fascinating twists and turns.

It was released in 1969, the same year as Abbey Road, Brazilian Octopus, In A Silent Way, The Age of Aquarius, Space Oddity, Tommy, Liberation Music Orchestra, Hot Rats and more, and there are countless connections that weave through the pieces like cosmic threads of DNA. Was it the zeitgeist of the moment, LSD experimentation, chance, or were the Mutantes at a dinner party with Lennon, Hermeto, Zappa and the others, feasting on the totality of each other’s work? The latter would certainly be in line with the Anthropophagic Manifesto, a major influence of the Tropicália movement of the 1960’s, in Brazil to which Os Mutantes were a part of.

The record opens with “Don Quixote,” a fanfare of horns and drums, as though it were a prelude to Monty Python’s “Flying Circus” (which also debuted in 1969). Before quoting Ringo in dozens of fills, drummer Dinho Leme’s (credited as Sir Ronaldo) tom groove hints at a surdo pattern that one might hear during carnival, however it sounds nothing like a street samba. To my ear, the part also forecasts Tullio De Piscopo’s drum groove on Astor Piazzolla’s “Adiós Nonino,” which would be recorded a few years later in Argentina.

It’s about a minute into the piece, when the slightly out of tune flute, triangle and sultry voices of Rita Lee, Arnaldo Baptista and Sérgio Dias enter, that we get a glimpse of the journey we will be traveling through over the remainder of this record. Abrupt, angular transitions and tempo changes drop us into luscious worlds of where laughter, held breaths and audience cheers are spliced, against squeaky toys, theremin, autoharp, and overlapping falsetto voices, with brief fiddle afterthoughts.

As the second song, “Não Vá Se Perder por Aí” begins, I wonder “is that a goat?” and “why the false start?” This is the #1 hit on the album. The entrance of the voice sounds like a jews harp mixed with a berimbau. When the chorus comes around, I am transported to my basement practice space where my seventeen year old self would explore shuffles, afro-latin grooves (and probably other things) among friends in the shadows of a tinted green lava light. The short solos, upbeat tempo and oddly timed guitar breaks keep things moving in unexpected ways and again I am left wondering, why is the fiddle solo again so short?

With heavy hand of a doppler or phaser effects, The third song, “Dia 36” takes us partially underwater to experience a melancholic ballad with arco bass parts that could call various species of blue whales.

Without giving too much away, the rest of the album is packed with psychedelic tropical hits juxtaposed against driving rockers with a hefty dose of musique concrète that will tickle the inner ear like ASMR on steroids. Rogério Duprat’s experimental orchestrations push the line of innovation forward from where Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band left off, taking us from ribbon synth surf blues, to avant bossa, pre-punk and post-genre scenarios.

Give it a listen on your next drive to the beach and whoever is in your car will surely say (just like my wife and son do), “play that one again, daddy!”

photo by David Murray

Creative Aging + A World of Percussion

(Published by Lifetime Arts and PMAC - July, 2021)

In 2021, I partnered with the National Guild of Community Arts Education and PMAC to adapt “A World of Percussion” for a creative aging pilot in the Seacoast community of New Hampshire.

“A World of Percussion” connects language, mathematics, geography, history, culture and environment through an interactive rhythmic study of musical concepts from around the globe. Participants travel around the world (metaphorically speaking), encountering and exploring various rhythmic perspectives.

For 8 weeks, we met on Monday mornings; ten participants in a community room at PMAC with our assistant, Rex, present. I zoomed in via projector, conducting the group, despite the inherent zoom latency.

Participants entered the space with varying perspectives, not sure what to expect. One participant had several years of drumming experience, some students were eager to play, expecting a free-form drum circle. One student came simply to support a partner who was curious about drumming. Some wanted to try something brand new and others expressed fear about the unknown and a hesitation of socializing after a difficult year of covid distancing.

We began by getting to know each other, our backgrounds and expectations, then quickly jumped into the deep end by making our first percussive sounds on various drums, shakers, scrapers and auxiliary percussion instruments. We attempted to play a single boom all together (surprisingly tricky especially over zoom) before exploring techniques required to play long tones, short tones, high pitched sounds and low pitched sounds.

The format of the class was relatively simple: each day we focused on a rhythm and/or concept from a particular country or geographic region. This included rhythms coming directly from daily routines in Ghana, drones and heterophonic metal sounds inspired by Indonesian Gamelan, celebratory harvest rhythms from Guinea, vocal and body percussion from India, polyrhythmic clave from Cuba and more. To develop a unifying language, a sense of trust in the group and a sense of personal expression, we also played improvisational games and built short pieces of music inspired by that week’s topic.

Besides a general eagerness to try virtually anything, participants had many beautiful ideas that we worked into the process. For example, we were working on a challenging tongue twister-like phrase from India and one participant who had experience teaching foreign language suggested that we learn it backwards. We tried it and it was an instant success!

Throughout the week, participants emailed me and the others sharing their adventures and how they were discovering new rhythms in their daily lives. One heard a groove in the chopping of carrots, another found rhythm in an art exhibition. Several other participants mentioned that their listening and awareness were actually changing as the program developed.

Another surprise came in the penultimate class, which focused on rhythms from the United States. I had a lesson planned that would bring together New Orleans jazz rhythms, but we took a turn based on the group’s interest in connecting language (specifically poetry) and rhythm. Ultimately, each participant chose a stanza of poetry that was personal to them and we created a “beat poetry slam” over a deconstructed jazz ride cymbal pattern, reconstructed on various membranophones. It was so beautiful to hear the group shape the poems around the groove and shape the groove around the poems. Natural swells emerged and each participant was able to really express themselves. The piece became a melting pot of language and rhythm and was the perfect way to tie the whole experience together- ending the voyage around the world back where we all began.

The program concluded with a heartwarming sharing where we all met, in person, with friends, loved ones and other invited guests. We informally played through the various pieces that we had created and then shared about our experiences over the eight weeks.

Here are some of the participant’s reflections:

“I’m a very reserved (shy) person and this has been a great experience for me. I gained so much in all areas of my life.” ~Dennie

“It was such a wonderful program. There wasn’t anything suggested that we didn’t try” ~Mo

“It was a beautiful experience to share “A World of Percussion” with these participants. I’m looking forward to the next opportunity to continue building from where we left off.” ~anonymous.

A Visit with the Professor

(Featured on WMPG's Milford Graves memorial - February, 2021)

The first piece that I heard by Milford Graves was “Territorial Moods” from Stories (Tzadik, 2000) and soon after, the self titled track from Grand Unification (Tzadik, 1998). Multidimensional, untethered and charged, they represented the most beautiful solo percussion playing that I had ever heard and spoke directly to my core.

I began listening to more of Grave's works and reading about his studies with the healing arts: the heart, acupuncture, herbs, and martial arts. I heard he was attaching probes around people's bodies, recording their inner rhythms and creating new works out of these recordings- encouraging students play along with the recordings, rather than a metronome.

A fellow percussionist gave me his phone number and gave me a warning: “make sure you call him ‘Professor’” and that he had physically tossed a former student out of his window. I called the Professor and he warmly invited me to visit his home in Jamaica, Queens.

As I turned the corner onto the block, there was no doubt about which house was his. The exterior had thousands of broken mirrors and tiles positioned in abstract mosaic forms. The plants felt like they were calling out, radiating a kind of mystical energy. His wife greeted me warmly at the door and walked me down to the basement laboratory where the Professor was stationed. He looked smaller and gentler than I had imagined, nestled like a spacecraft pilot, surrounded by multiple computers, microscopes, recording devices, and ritualistic objects.

We spoke freely for several hours, topics meandering between: the honesty of playing solo drums, why one chooses to play specific instruments and sounds, music as identity, connections to afro-cuban music, love of family, stem cell research, building immunity, strength, how to “live” the music, his current interests (which he claimed at the time were money and happiness), and the importance of notating music in order to prove legitimacy. He shared some humorous anecdotes about Sunny Murray having the jitters and Cecil Taylor hiring people purely for the hang. Also, on the music of Charles Gayle, Kidd Jordan, Jiunie Booth, Kojo Roney and Ahmed Abdul Malik.

Much to my surprise we didn’t touch the drums. In fact, I don't recall seeing many drums in his lab. He did play me some electronic music that he was working on, which included samples of William Parker’s heartbeats. He also showed me some coolers filled with animal cadavers.

At the end of our meeting, he had a big smile on his face and said, "I know your energy, man."

I dedicated this piece to the Professor:

Brian Shankar Adler: Pulses in Fourth Dimension. Chant Records, 2019.

Milford Graves left his physical body on February 12, 2021. RIP Professor.

photo by Michael Winters

Future Rhythms

(Written for a panel discussion at Vermont College of Fine Arts - January, 2021)

In response to the challenges of remote music creation during the age of Covid-19 and the current hindrance of sonic latency, I predict that future rhythms (in popular, concert and experimental music forms) will become: slower, less metronomic, less quantized, more independent, more conversational and more extreme than ever before as they embrace the following:

1. Pads, Fermatas and Grand Pauses where a musical event’s duration is not related to a pulse or a number of beats, but rather very slow moving, organic gestures of long tones contrasted with thick silence.

2. Big, Fat, Sloppy Down Beats where sections change or hits happen not following a precise, sharp moment in time (like the initial attack of a metronome’s click), but rather following a wider beat or macro time (like feathers falling into one’s hand).

3. Independent Orbits where loops of varying length occur simultaneously, yet independent of each other, each other's specific pulse rate and subdivisions.

4. Conversational Etiquette where performers alternate in uninterrupted musical statements relating to a given theme(s).

Though (in many ways) these concepts accept the natural rhythmic disconnect inherent in remote music making, thereby moving against the idea of rhythmic togetherness, it is my strong recommendation that to compensate, every note and sound be performed with the utmost intention, conviction, patience and attention to dynamics, articulation and stylization.

Questions on Time?

(Written for a presentation at Vermont Jazz Center - October, 2015)

Who is time?

"Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river;

it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger;

it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire.”

~Jorge Luis Borges

What is time?

Time is the measurement of change.”


“Time is of your own making...”

~Angelus Silesius

Where is time?

“Everywhere where there is interaction between a place, a time and an expenditure of energy there is rhythm. This includes:

A) Repetition

B) Interferences of linear processes and cyclical processes

C) birth, growth, peak, decline and end.”

~Henri Lefebvre

When is time?

"Time is, time was, but time shall be no more."

~James Joyce

Why is time?

“The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once.”

~Albert Einstein

Don't have time?

"To say 'I don't have time' is to say 'I don't want to.'"

~Lao Tzu

photo by Kirsten Adler


(Written for a New York Foundation for the Arts grant - September, 2015)

Through rhythm, we connect:

      both inward - as a meditation

      and outward - as a language to bridge social gaps.

Our music is:

      a conversation

      a reflection of what is within and what is without

      a physical and sonic release from holding

      a rejection of rigidity

      a mapping of pathways through the creation, repetition and destruction of patterns

      a celebration of the present moment

      an expression of radical inclusion with one's self, communities and environment

      a way to give thanks

      our truth.

Our instrument is a spaceship:

      where do we want to go?

Our instrument is our voice:

      what do we want to say?

Together, we:

      follow the ear

      shift perspectives

      inquire about the perception of time

      honor chance processes and the emergence of natural forms

      find comfort and strength in the practice of dissonant extremes

      create language to communicate in-between.