Text by Dawoud Kringle
Once in a while, a true musical visionary emerges whose work redefines our perception of music, and how and why we make it. As a writer I am challenged to dig deep into my thesaurus to find adjectives adequate to the task of qualifying the work of a unique artist like Mark Deutsch. It is quite difficult to describe with words the astonishing psychic energy and breathtaking beauty of this music. One must experience it for oneself.
Mark Deutsch is a classically trained contrabassist and sitarist. In the late 1980s, Deutsch began exploring North Indian Hindustani classical music. His pursuits of this music, and work on sitar, inspired him to explore the mathematics of sound, particularly music’s underlying frequency structure. His sitar teacher, Ustad Imrat Khan, had told him that a westerner needed 20 years of study to properly hear the subtlety of intonation within Indian raga. He refused to accept this. So, he began to work out the mathematics of the musical intonation. He augmented this by playing recordings of Indian music in his sleep; especially recordings of the sarangi. His work revealed nonlinear mathematical patterns that exist in natural sound, the overtone series, fractals, the golden mean, and the Fibonacci series.
One night, he had a dream that he was playing sarangi on the contrabass. This was the initial inspiration that led to the design and construction of the Bazantar; an acoustic bass with additional sympathetic and drone strings. The instrument would take advantage of the nonlinear mathematical patterns found in sound. He began work on the first prototype of the Bazantar in 1993, and a finalized version was completed in October of 1997.
In May, 1999, Deutsch released his first solo CD of music played on Bazantar; titled Fool. Those who heard it, and possessed the musical sensitivity to hear the sublimity of the music, were left speechless. Here is the work of a towering intellect and visionary.
Some people may be amazed at the novelty of the Bazantar; and this is understandable. The image and sound of the instrument is not something you come across every day. But this is an incidental aftereffect. The design and creation of the Bazantar was a necessity to the accomplishment of a deeper and more sublime objective. And as with all epiphanies humans experience, we must follow the urge to realize our visions in this world. Deutsch did what he had to do, and succeeded.
And, of course, his work must continue. In April of this year (2016), Deutsch is planning the release of a CD box set titled The Picasso Tunings. I was among the privilege few who were allowed to hear pre-release tracks of this music.
Permit me to offer reviews of samples from the collection to whet your appetite.
“Afwah” begins with the most exotic chord you can imagine (obviously played on the bazantar’s sympathetic strings). A theme emerges, played pizzicato, while other-worldly sitar-like drones appear and fade like shadows and silhouettes in a sonic forest. Deutsch’ explorations draw melodies from within melodies, and contrast this with jazz-like chromatics. Occasionally, one hears something unexpected, where he uses other ways of creating sound on the bazantar.
Very low, long notes with harmonics swimming in and around the fundamental tones opens “Dotato.” About four minutes in, Deutsch takes the piece into more adventurous harmonies, and sounds take on a multi-dimensional aspect. Soon, high notes dominate, seemingly out of nowhere. Then a percussive treatment of the strings usher in a rhythmic pattern that had been hiding within the phrasing and the beat frequencies. By now, the listener is held deep within a shimmering geometric web of sound.
“Bheannaigh” starts with some impossibly low and almost inaudible notes that are suddenly shattered with a violent chord that releases a torrential flood of rising sound that shatters into near noise, and then miraculously reassembles itself before succumbing to its own entropy. A theme is played, that one realizes was hidden within the previous cacophony, and Deutsch builds this into an almost Bach-like invention, except that the counterpoints emerge mainly from the drones and from deftly executed techniques unpredictable to one with no training on the Bazantar (and as of this writing, Deutsch is the world’s only master of this instrument).
“Begnaden” begins with a percussive hammering of the bow on the strings, and becomes a series of startling harmonies that wash over the listener with the violence of a tsunami. An even more startling wave of metallic harmonies rips through the fabric of the air currents before settling into a cohesive resolution of itself. Throughout the piece, cacophony and cohesion play tug of war with each other, in heated contest of which will triumph. Deutsch takes us through this odyssey of ever changing musical landscapes, and a final wailing strangely reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix heard from a great distance before settling on a strangely baroque resolve.
There were other tracks I was allowed to preview; such as the jazzy pizzicato striding its way through “Keakaokalani,” and the somber lament of “Kubisiswa.” With these samples, it is clear that The Picasso Tunings is a work of monumental musical genius that, if recognized, would insure Deutsch’s name among the greatest musicians of our time.
It is helpful to keep in mind that on this collection, like Fool, he uses no overdubs, no effects; and no other musicians play on the recording. This is all one man, one acoustic instrument, one take. This music does not rely on flashy chops, nor uses the uniqueness of the Bazantar as a crutch. These are compositional templates that present a foil for masterful improvisation.
Listening to this music, it becomes quite obvious that Deutsch approaches music as a spiritual discipline, not merely an art form or a business. There is a sense of poetry and emotional content in this music that causes the listener to experience an authentic expansion of consciousness. Deutsch clearly makes use of the psychoactive and metaphysical / spiritual dimensions of music with a mastery few can lay claim to. It is this concept of starting the process of music making with a conscious awareness of the psycho-spiritual dimensions of music that separates the true masters from the mere technically proficient. It’s no exaggeration that Mark Deutsch is one of those rare visionaries whose work holds the potential to expand the boundaries of the music of our civilization.