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Border Garde 

Microtonalist Kraig Grady: Outside and in between

Wednesday, Dec 6 2000
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“I think artists need to draw attention to the things that are overlooked. We’re here to be an outside voice, in the same way shamans and medicine men used to be.”

Well, Kraig Grady is part Ojibwe Indian, a tribe that values dreams. Medicine man? Maybe: He has a little sweat lodge out back of his Echo Park house, and uses it. He‘s the son of a mystic. And he composes microtonal music. An outside voice? Yes.

“Goethe said that artists should always live near the borders of their country,” says Grady, “in case they have to leave.”

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Grady is happy working in this border town. Without his vocation, “I’d just be a neurotic mess or a serial killer. I‘m not suited for much else.”

So it’s a good thing Grady was exposed to Harry Partch‘s influence: It was an encounter with the Partch theater-music piece U.S. Highball that steered Grady’s volatile brain toward the microtonal path. Championed in the 1920s by the Czech Alois Haba and pursued (but never popularized) by Charles Ives and others, microtonality involves sticking more notes between the ones you find on the piano, to realize new scales and harmonies. Partch, a former California hobo, started out with his own 43-note scale, which could be played only on instruments he built himself. It was the combination of fairly simple music with stage movement that inspired Grady, who saw U.S. Highball here in 1975, a year after the composer‘s death.

“It made me completely dizzy,” says Grady, who was trying to be a piano composer at the time. Soon he was postulating his own 22-note and 32-note scales, building his own keyboards, marimbas and such, and working out performances that involved film, acting and shadow-puppet theater.

Grady’s approach to music isn‘t especially academic, though he’s studied with a number of teachers, including master of tunings Erv Wilson and LACC‘s Walter O’Connell (who also taught Minimalist pioneer La Monte Young). Drawn in by the microtones he heard in Native American chants and Indonesian gamelan orchestras, Grady found himself reproducing and thereby preserving the spirit of ancient forms such as Japanese gagaku and certain African traditions, and blending them with his own aesthetic to evolve suspended, trancy sounds. It‘s not that he can’t compose using Western scales; he just doesn‘t like them. Once asked what he thought of Beethoven, he told a friend, “It all sounds like one big Hercules trip to me.”

“I’m trying to create hypnotic states, trance states, sonic environments that people don‘t normally hear,” Grady says. He has no television, so he often relies on music for psycho-visual input. With Debussy, Grady might see Greek columns or mythological landscapes.

And with his own music? “Lots of big, green plants. Buildings -- highly ornamented architecture, like the Far East, Southeast Asia.” He’s describing the imaginary island of Anaphoria (www.anaphoria.com), “somewhere between Indonesia and Africa,” which he postulates as a metaphorical source for his music. The “natives” taught it to him; he‘s just the conduit.

In medical terms, anaphoria is an affliction that causes the eyes to look upward. Grady references Carl Jung’s theory that diseases are often the manifestations of old gods who have been rationalized away but refuse to die. As diseases go, anaphoria isn‘t a bad god to contract. If you’re forced to look up, you never know what you might see.

Kraig Grady was born in Montebello in 1952, son of Arthur Grady (formerly Arthur Gallio), who gained favor with Hollywood stars through the cosmetic face-peeling methods he‘d perfected. Grady Sr., who eventually founded his own “pre--New Age” church, also possessed other gifts that intrigued young Kraig.

“He was born with certain psychic abilities. He would sometimes know when things were going to happen to people. He knew about chemicals, without ever studying about them. He could hold them in his hand and describe their properties.”

Kraig’s parents divorced when he was 3; when he was 7, his mother, Helen, married Edward Habit, who has held a long tenure as head of the Scenic Department at ABC, where Kraig paints sets for his daily bread. Kraig grew up in the San Fernando Valley and Hollywood, eventually being kicked out of three different high schools for truancy; classes interested him less than Cream, Hendrix and Coltrane.

After thrashing through his musical studies at various colleges and realizing that he was the only one who could stage his compositions, Grady decided to perform. He lacked the formal accreditation that would confer academic legitimacy -- still does -- so the college circuit was out. He gathered his homemade instruments and took them to the clubs in turn-of-the-‘80s postpunk L.A., usually opening for bands.

“I saw the punk movement as indigenous ethnic music,” says Grady, who liked the performance art and the less rock-influenced music that was happening. “In L.A., the most punk things were the most unpunk things, like Johanna Went, or Monitor, or the Fibonaccis. It was a time when I could get away with doing what I do a lot easier.”

Fibonaccis keyboardist and longtime friend John Dentino remembers a range of Grady presentations: “The most effective have been the ones with either shadow-puppet theater or films. The films he made with Keith Barefoot, accompanied by an ensemble playing his instruments, were often beautiful and perplexing.”

Grady’s half-smile and stooping, prayerlike posture conveyed a gentle intelligence, but his intense eyes and occasional bursts of hostility made him hard to read.

Dentino would needle him about his behavior: “I used to joke, ‘You got any pot, Grady?’ One night, he finally yanked me in front of his face and yelled, ‘No, I don’t have any pot. Why do you think I‘m such a pothead? WHYYY?’”

Though Grady has settled down quite a bit personally, his gig schedule is even more erratic than it used to be. At the moment, he‘s in the middle of a long hiatus (“I hate playing around the holidays”) before a couple of May shadow-play performances at Silver Lake’s Holly Matter art gallery.

One recent date finds him at the Sound Compound, a music series in a downtown art gallery where tonight the walls are covered with photo-collages of war atrocities. Out the front door, you can smell an exposed sewer line. Toxic solvent has been spilled in the back alley.

The guitar-tuba-electronics group Equinox has improvised atmospheric noise at some length, and the audience, not aware there‘s more, starts to drift. But Grady and his ensemble have been prepared for a long time already, their instruments (mistaken by attendees for art) set up in a wide area away from the stage. So they begin.

Grady and two cohorts (no visual aids tonight) stand at his marimbas, while perennial collaborator Erin Barnes commands the pump organ -- all tuned to a Grady microtonal scale. The organ drones while the marimba players improvise sparsely, using first mallets then violin bows, around a sequence of notes Grady has scored.

The music is chimy and peaceful, but the overtones gradually build, distort, beat against each other and ring, sometimes moving around the space stereophonically. After a while, it sounds like it’s not out there at all, but actually inside your head. Most of the audience are not listening: sitting on the floor, talking loudly about relatives‘ impending visits.

Without notice, the quartet move to the Meru bars -- several large metal plates, each suspended atop a wooden column about 4 feet high, tunable by moving a stopper inside the column and named after the holy Mount Meru of Tanzania, and also after a mathematical relationship first noticed 4,000 years ago in India. Louder than the marimbas, they fill the whole gallery with massagelike reverberations.

So the conversationalists have to shut up. They even seem a little stunned. Or entranced.

The author of this story is at home writing about Kraig Grady and listening to Anaphoria: The Creation of the Worlds. His wife, an attorney, calls from work. She’s been dealing with indescribable assholes all week. She begins to vent. Then she stops. “I feel the tension flowing out of me,” she says. “What‘s that you’re listening to?”

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