In “What Grieves Frenzy Drown’d,” an album released on SCRIPTS Records in April by 27-year-old New York-based guitarist Alec Goldfarb, melodies rise out of coarse microtonal string textures like strange objects—both ancient and modern, water-smooth rocks and plastic detritus—found on a rough-hewn beach. Occasionally these melodies sound familiar, influenced by Goldfarb’s immersion in Indian classical music; more often they are strange and elusive. The album leaves a powerful impression. 

Goldfarb began playing the electric guitar and composing at age 11, adding classical guitar to his repertoire in high school. I spoke with him by video chat about microtonal melodies, the Indian classical style of music training, and the question of cultural appropriation. 

VAN: When in your musical training did you start working with intervals smaller than a half step?

Alec Goldfarb: I’ve been performing and playing Indian classical music for 10 years. The first time that occurred to me, I was in a bargain record store in high school, and in the $0.99 bin, I always found really cool shit. There was this record called “Indian Classical Music,” and it was this violinist, L. Subramaniam, and Zakir Hussain, a really famous tabla player [who does a] North-meets-South thing. Reading the liner notes on the back, which were very florid, talking about microtonality and all the crazy rhythmic stuff, I was like, “I have to find someone who can teach me this.”

Did you ever go to India to study or have you been able to do it from New York?

I’ve been to India to study. I studied with the Gundecha Brothers who were famous dhrupad singers. In New York, my primary teacher is Anupam Shobhakar. Then I also studied with some folks on the West Coast; there’s a bigger scene around the Bay Area. 

What was it like going to India to study music? There’s definitely this cliché in classical music or even Western pop music of the musician whose mind is opened by the guru-like figure. 

It’s like “The Darjeeling Limited.” I certainly don’t want to fall into that trope, but sometimes you fall into it nonetheless. It was wonderful. The biggest difference was being in that very different place and it being the next level of immersive. Back then, my studies with my teacher here in New York were incredibly immersive. We really did it old school a lot of the time: I would stay with him for a couple of weeks and morning, afternoon, night, just do it: lessons all day, every day. I already had that experience going into it, but in India, it was getting up at 4 or 5 a.m. to warm up. 

We’re used to taking lessons for an hour a week, so that sounds like a very different experience. Which style of learning do you prefer? 

I drastically prefer the other one. Part of the reason why Charlie Parker is one of the greatest musicians ever is because during his time in New York and Kansas City, what it meant to be a gigging musician was you played three or four gigs a night, every night, for your whole life. Of course he was the best. He could play everything all the time. It’s the same deal with Indian classical music. It’s so immersive. I think it’s a great lesson for what it means to take things to the next level and be really committed to the music.

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In the notes to your album, you write that you work with just intonation and whole-number ratios. How did you go from the immersive style of learning Indian classical music to a more theoretical approach? 

I tried to start from the practicalities as much as you can with something like that, not just pie in the sky. I started with things that I was practicing: “Can I sing this partial in this place?” My own personal practice with it ended up feeding into the music. It was a lot of stuff like that: these things I can already hear, this tuning on the guitar, this position of the hands on viola. 

Was your approach to microtonality influenced by the composers who came to it from the Western classical tradition—Gérard Grisey and Tristan Murail, Ben Johnston, Georg Friedrich Haas—or did it grow only out of the Indian music that you were making? 

It didn’t happen first, but that’s just as important in my music. I think spectralism was probably the first more serious interest I had on that side of the fence, Grisey, Murail, later on Haas for sure. Through him getting to [Harry] Partch and going through Genesis of a Music, that was really important. I feel like it’s hard to really get that stuff without going through Genesis of a Music.

You wrote in the introduction to the album that it has singable just intonation melodies. What makes a just intonation melody singable, but also what makes any melody singable? 

I actively tried to target melodies on the record… There are a lot of threads to the question. What makes a melody singable? That’s a very personal question.

I’m interested in a personal answer.

Something that is maybe an earworm-y, in the way that a pop melody is. I guess on the next level what makes a just intonation melody singable… Through writing this music and through my personal practice I found some pathways through that whole framework and structure that, from a melodic standpoint, just sounded really great and had some cool implications harmonically.

Maybe there’s a tension at the heart of just intonation, which is that it’s fundamentally a harmonic technology. For something to be just intonation, you have at least two pitches that are in a whole number relationship with each other, activating a characteristic sonority. On the flip side of that, if you just have single notes one after another that have this relationship, but you don’t hear them at the same time, it can start to just sound like uneven microtonal distances that don’t really activate those sonorities. 

It’s something that I think about a lot because I love melodies. There’s such great just intonation music that I love that’s just harmonies and counterpoint. But that’s not how I like to make music. Especially in a solo instrument context, where I don’t always have the benefit of other things ringing out underneath. How can I be melodic in this world? I found different answers all the time throughout the pieces.

Besides melodies, there are a lot of regular repeated rhythms in the album. Do you think that as listeners, we need those rhythms to perceive the complexity of the microtonal stuff that’s going on?

It helps me to have something to hold onto. It’s not how I think about it though. Rhythm is just really, really important for me. New music is a field where 99 percent of the music doesn’t really have [regular repeated rhythms] happening most of the time. That’s not disparaging in the slightest. It’s just not the parameter that composers end up focusing on. I love so much of that music, but in my music, it’s central. It’s one of the things I play with the most. It’s also something I think about all the time.

A lot of people have so many things they listen to, music from all different places, but then you don’t hear it in their music. I feel strongly that all the things that I’m drawing from in my listening and in my personal practice, I want to put those in the music, and rhythm is so strongly a parameter for that.

So there are composers who listen to a lot of music, but then end up writing music that has nothing to do with the stuff they listen to?

I’ve had great conversations about this with people who do that. It feels better for them to be influenced by other things, not the music they listen to. But for me, because I’m always doing so many different things—I have a jazz gig in a day; I have an Indian classical gig next week; I’m playing a Pierluigi Billone piece in a month—I need these things to connect or else I would go crazy.

An issue that has been coming up a lot over the last few years is cultural appropriation. There was a debate on composer Caroline Shaw’s use of Inuit vocal techniques, for example. Is that an issue you think about? 

Of course. I think it requires a lot of care. With Indian classical music, it’s a little different because I’m not explicitly drawing from it so much. I think it’s an important part of who I am; I’m also really embedded in it. I’ve been in that scene for 10 years and I’ve never had an issue with someone. It’s absolutely something I think about. I try to be as responsible as I can when I’m learning and studying the music of different traditions and bringing them into my music. 

I’m so interested in how [musical genres] are sometimes not so separate. So many things are at the heart of the blues that people don’t think about. There’s so much Arabic and Spanish music at the heart of the blues. A lot of it is very connected. It becomes really hard if you play any kind of music to do justice to the history of it. The histories of this music are always very messy and involve a lot of different people. I really spend a lot of time thinking about this question.

Do you have answers? 

I don’t know if there are any answers. It’s [about] trying to do it as thoughtfully and respectfully as you can. ¶

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Jeffrey Arlo Brown

... has been an editor at VAN since 2015. His work has also appeared in Slate, The Baffler, The Outline, The Calvert Journal, and Electric Lit. He lives in Berlin.