Jeremy Haladyna: “Luubchords from Demon Zero”, The Mayan Cycle (2-channel CD, scratch tracks)
Music that most people would describe as “strange” is, as you might imagine, something I regularly encounter in my day-to-day existence and, as a result, most of it is not something I personally think is all that strange. And yet “strange” is the first word that pops into my head when trying to describe The Mayan Cycle, a series of interrelated works spanning three decades by Santa Barbara-based composer Jeremy Haladyna, selections from which appear on a recent innova CD.
Part of the reason much of this music sounds so strange, perhaps, is the weird scale Haladyna uses for several of the pieces. While microtonality should be nothing new to this audience, Haladyna’s “Luubscale,” however, most definitely is. A musical analog to the Mayan calendar’s attempt at synchronizing the cycles of Earth and Venus, which converge every 104 years, the Luubscale is an octave-less 39-pitch system featuring intervals which have no correspondence to any other tuning system and that stretches across the entire range of a piano. There are clearly discernible melodies and harmonies, but ones which are completely without any recognizable context.
But the pitch content of this music is not all that’s odd about it. Complex Mayan mathematical schemes also suggest rhythmic relationships and the means to generate them. Many of the compositions feature turntable scratching, but it has nothing whatsoever to do with an attempt at hip-hop crossover. Rather, as Haladyna explains in his rather extensive CD booklet notes, it is yet another way to express the difficulty in aligning metacycles. “Live” passages and “recorded” passages contain the same basic material, but they’re never exactly in synch. In addition, the compositions featured on the current disc alternate between electronic works using this bizarre scale and compositions for acoustic instruments in unusual combinations—e.g. alto flute and celesta, multiple ocarinas, plus oboe and organ, which feels like the ominous soundtrack for an inquisition. More on that anon. The only standard instrumentation anywhere among the present selections is for Only Armadillos They Danced, scored for string quartet. But any attempt at normalcy therein is thwarted by Haladyna’s pitting the members of the quartet against a turntablist for a session of, as he aptly describes it, “scraping and scratching.”
All in all, it’s a very thoroughly conceived sonic universe. However, whether or not any of these devices are perceptible—I had no idea what this music could possibly be about before I read through the notes—is ultimately beside the point. The results are simply fascinating. And what they do convey beyond a shadow of a doubt is a total alien environment, and in so doing serve as an excellent metaphor for the deep cultural chasm that exists between our present society and the pre-Colombian world of the Mayans. Theirs is a world that, despite the pseudoscientific posturing of the 2012 doomsday proponents, we can never completely know thanks to the vicious Inquisition tactics of the missionaries and colonizers. Indeed, also thanks to those same conquistadors, what little we do know of the Mayans is at times admittedly extremely scary—a world of secret human sacrifices and ritual cannibalism. Haladyna ventures into that terrain very effectively on Puczikal Peten (“Hearts of Yucatán”), the final track on the disc and the only one which features a text—a reading of an eyewitness account from the year 1562 narrated in a deadpan matter somewhat reminiscent of The Velvet Underground’ classic recording “The Gift.”