The Underground Violinist meets Kupka's Piano

AdamCadellThis year we have the good fortune of having Adam Cadell joining Kupka's Piano as our violinist. While we are sad to say good-bye Alethea Coombe (for now...), we're thrilled to be working with Adam for the 'Il faut être' concert series at the Judith Wright Centre. KP composer Liam Flenady had a chat with Adam about his life, his music, and how he came to be in the ensemble. You can hear Adam perform as part of our March 21 concert 'The Machine and the Rank Weeds' at the Judith Wright Centre. Tickets are available now!

Liam Flenady: You've come to Kupka's Piano via a different and more complex route than other members. Can you give us a little summary of your musical activities over the past few years?

Adam Cadell: Always happy to be different and complex! For a bit of background I must say I probably continued on a similar course to most so-called "classical" musicians but I always suffered from a yearning of sorts to do something other. This desire for otherness manifested itself finally when I formed an improvisatory rock duo called The Scrapes with guitarist Ryan Potter somewhere in early 2009. The Scrapes is derived from several sources of inspiration, all of which could be called underground music.

Around about the time of forming the Scrapes I had long since been a fan of some violinists that I would now term "radical violinists". Violinists whose practice is not only informed by a desire to do something new and meaningful on their instrument, but also informed by a strong radical ideology or philosophy. Quite literally attempting to make their instruments, instruments of change! Besides the Scrapes I do my own thing whether through collaboration with other musicians or on my own attempting to radicalise violin performance practice further through improvisation, technological gadgetry and general noisiness! I have several albums of improvised violin madness out through various different outlets. I very proudly call myself a subversive and radical violinist. On top of all this I spent 2013 living in Accra, Ghana where I worked performing with local bands playing Ghanaian Highlife music, as well as being somewhat of an artist-in-residence/strings tutor with the National Symphony Orchestra of Ghana. I also collaborate frequently with musicians overseas (the wonders of the internet!) and am a member of a couple of mysterious ensembles: Brend and Secret Black... I guess true-to-character I've had somewhat of a rambling path so far.

LF: So how was your time in Ghana? What did you learn (musically or otherwise) from your stay over there?

AC: My time in Ghana was incredible. I learned a lot musically and otherwise. I don't even know where to begin! I'll try and condense it somewhat. My partner got involved with an NGO based out of Accra, and I had just finished my PhD so off we went together. Through my partner's work I met some incredible people who helped verify a lot of my long held suspicions about the state of the world and how things truly work. Exploitation and even slavery is ever-present in sub-Saharan Africa thanks to Western demands for minerals and cheap factory and agricultural labour (coffee, textiles etc). Not to mention the legacy of European colonialism is as horrifying as it is here in Australia. I'll never forget standing on a beach on the coast of Benin where millions of slaves were shipped to the Americas on French and Portugese ships. The way people live in Ghana and West Africa (we travelled around the region as much as we could) is incredibly inspiring, full of joy, colour and dancing (endless dancing!) but also sometimes truly heart-breaking. After 12 months there West Africa has really got under my skin and I think I'll always see Accra as another home... even if it drove me to the brink of absolute madness on a daily basis! To be honest I can't wait to one day go back to that part of the world.

Music is in every thing and person in Ghana. No matter how hard their life might be people will dance in the streets at any opportunity. The culture is much more communal and musicians, even extremely famous ones, are always keen to play with new people and new instruments. I was able to play the local popular music, Highlife, with some legendary musicians and learned a lot more about improvisation and different ways to approach it harmonically and rhythmically. Particularly rhythmically! Through working with the National Symphony Orchestra of Ghana I learned a lot about resilience and about how truly important making music together as a collective is. I also learned a lot about Ghanaian traditional song, rhythms and the fascinating tradition of West African "art music" that many in the West are probably completely unaware of. Through studying the Gonje I have learned how a living culture, not unlike the violin, can hold such great importance in a community as a bearer of messages and stories. Not to mention the extraordinary sound of the thing!

LF: Given all this experiences, it's perhaps not surprising that you draw upon a broad range of radical art traditions and emancipatory political theory to end your PhD with "The Manifesto of the Radical Violinist." If it's not too difficult a question to answer, what is the main point the manifesto tries to get across?

AC: I'll use a line or two from the manifesto to explain. Radical violin music is:

"music as a weapon against 'moribund capitalism', a radical subversion of imperialism"

And the Marx-inspired final declaration of the manifesto says it all really:

“Radical Underground Violinists of the world, stand up, take your instruments and your intellects and help build a culture in opposition to the powers that are degrading our disadvantaged fellow humans and making our planet uninhabitable!”

It’s a call to arms for violinists to use their instrument as a vehicle for progressive change.

LF: It seems a lot of this idea of the violin as an 'instrument for progressive change' is linked to the experimental musical tradition. What do you feel is the relationship between experimental music and more traditionally composed (i.e. written on musical score) modern music today?

AC: I think today they are hand-in-hand and so much experimental music is born of a mixture of composed and experimental approaches. I think there is less totalitarianism in the modern composer today, but then there were composers in the 16th and 17th century that not only encouraged, but expected the musicians to experiment and improvise. At the end of the day though it is hard for the composer-musician power-imbalance to be wholly erased when there is a score in the picture. The composer is still boss! However, I think since Cage composers have learned to relinquish a bit of control again and allow for genuine experimentation. I think the sort of music Kupka's Piano plays for instance is a testament to this dualism. Grisey for instance seems to invite the player not just to follow his own desire to experiment but to experiment with the textural possibilities at hand that the composer ultimately has no control over, and I think Andriesson’s Worker’s Union is another prime example. He lets the collective decide the notes.

LF: On that point, what interests you about the kind of music Kupka's Piano plays? Apart from the fact that we're pretty cool people, and that I'm quite persuasive over post-lunch beers, why did you decide to join us for 2014?

AC: Well you were very persuasive Liam, although I didn't need much persuading! I joined because I was aware of the kind of work the group plays and because I know you are all brilliant musicians. What interests me is the challenge on a selfish level, and on a wider level it's the possibilities and the beauty that is inherent in so much of the kind of music Kupka's Piano plays. Philosophically-speaking I think Kupka's Piano and I may see eye-to-eye.

LF: The theme of our concert on 21 March with Ensemble Offspring is 'The Machine and The Rank Weeds', which is the subtitle of the major work we are performing that evening: Gérard Grisey's Talea. The concert will explore the mechanic and the organic in music. How do you interpret that theme?

AC: The mechanic and the organic in music is something I've been wrangling with as an improviser for years now. I interpret this theme on two levels: the Romantic idea of a kind of Miltonian "dark satanic mills" - a kind of fear of the corrupting nature of machinery and technology over the landscape and over people. But on another level I think the machine can liberate, so in music the use of machinery in order to open up possibilities is very exciting, using the machine to enhance the organic - on a broader level we could and should use the machine to make the organic more sustainable. That's a couple of interpretations I find interesting.

LF: Interesting interpretations. Just one last question. Who are the experimental violinists from whom you draw most inspiration? Are there musicians from other traditions that you been influenced by?

AC: The holy trinity of experimental violinists for me, so to speak, is Tony Conrad, Henry Flynt, and Takehisa Kosugi. To extend it to a pantheon I would also include Jon Rose, LaDonna Smith, Leroy Jenkins, and Malcolm Goldstein. The list could be much larger though!

There are indeed many musicians from other traditions from whom I draw inspiration from, and I am often drawn to the musicians who are either extreme traditionalists or innovators and forward-thinkers blending popular music traditions with their local traditions to make something new and exciting. I’ll give a couple of distinct examples of this otherwise this list could go on forever. In the extreme traditionalist corner we have Pandit Pran Nath, and many others of the Hindustani tradition and in particular the ancient dhrupad and khyal traditions. And for an innovative blend of tradition and popular music I look mostly to West Africa. As an example I would say Ghanaian Highlife music is a huge influence for me now, with the likes of Agya Koo Nimo, Alhaji K. Frimpong, Ebo Taylor and ET Mensah permanently altering my musical DNA. Other important West African styles for me are Tuareg “guitar” music by the likes of Mdou Moctar and Senegalese Mbalax by the likes of Thione Seck. And of course Northern Ghanaian gonje music as played by my teacher Shaibu Abdulai Idrissu, which is really a mixture of both extreme traditionalism and a living, breathing popular expression.