DAVID “FUZE” FIUCZYNSKI HAS LENT
his talents to Screaming Headless Torsos, Meshell
Ndegeocello, Jack DeJohnette, and others
throughout a career that has seen him evolve
from a whammy-inflected punk-funk practitioner to a Berklee professor teaching classes in
microtonal music. A project with students led
to the release of Planet MicroJam [RareNoise].
“Microtonal” conjures serious classical composition or ethnic excursions more often than
fun, but with tunes that veer from Zappa-like
humor to late-Miles grooves, fun is exactly
what Fiuczynski and friends deliver.
What led you to microtonal music?
I was first exposed to it at the New England Conservatory of Music, through the late
Joe Maneri. My first reaction was, “This sounds
awful. It’s out of tune.” But then I heard a
really cool flute and clarinet piece by a student who used the same 72 equally tempered
note system as Joe. I didn’t get into microtonal
music myself immediately because I wanted to
work on more basic stuff, but later I came to it
through non-Western music—especially Arabic,
Turkish, Indian, Eastern European, and Chinese music. The Muslim call to prayer moved
me, and it didn’t line up on my 12 notes per
octave ruler. I needed a finer grid.
Are Eastern microtonal notes exact or are they
more approximate like traditional blues bends?
Blues artists are actually pretty precise.
They will lay it in there over and over. In the
Turkish system it is nine notes per whole tone,
54 notes per octave. That’s the theory, but in
practice, once you have it down there is room
for interpretation. On the way up you push a
little, and on the way down you pull a little.
The Arabic scale is quarter-tones, but that
is just a grid to explain it. In very crude jazz-
speak a Husseini maqam would be Dorian quarter-flat 2, quarter-
flat 6. But when interpreting a melody, maybe
that 6 is natural on the way up and a quarter-
tone flat on the way down. It is just a grid, like
a lead sheet. There is a difference between a
lead sheet and music.
On your gig with the pianist Hiromi, for example, when you are performing a tune like “Caravan,”
how do you decide which microtonal scale to use?
The first chord in “Caravan” is C7b9, which
is Mixolydian b6, b9. The Hijaz mode, common
throughout the Ottoman Empire, uses a slightly
sharp b6 and a slightly sharp b9. Depending on
the region, the interval might be smaller. The
notes sound like Eastern “blue” notes to me.
So if I am playing Hijaz against somebody on
a tempered instrument playing a C7b9 chord,
I am not doing anything very different from a
Delta blues guy bending notes against a piano
that is “in tune”—whatever that means.
In some cases I will make up a mode. “En
Secreto,” on Planet MicroJam, is not so much
microtonal as C7, D7, and E7 chords breathing
in quarter-tones instead of half-steps. To solo over that, I made up my own
scale: It is Mixolydian with a quarter-sharp 4 and a quarter-flat 6—and when in doubt, some blues.
You are not just playing microtonal scales, you
are stacking microtonal chords. How insanely difficult is that to keep in tune?
That’s why I have fret lines. Some guys use
guitars with no lines. I am not that good—I
have to look. You just play a normal chord
and then put your finger in the middle to
see what happens.
Were the keyboards on the record playing in
We are compromising by using two key-
boards, with the top one a quarter-tone
sharp. This allows 24 notes per octave. It is
a stretch for the keyboard players, because
they have to play lines using two instruments. On the other hand, it’s a good way
to slow them down.
When you are playing quarter-tones on fretless
guitar along with a violin and a fretless bass, how
important is it to match up exactly intonation-wise?
I had a microtonal tune that my students
played in fretless guitar lab. I said, “You have
to play this in tune.” Well, they didn’t play it
in tune and it sounded great. On the other
hand, sometimes if two players are not in tune
it can sound terrible. You have to start questioning what is really in tune and what isn’t.
Which gear did you use for this project?
I used my Johan Gustavsson double-neck.
The top neck is set up for 12 strings but I
only use six. I found it too hard to stay in
tune with the two sets of strings. It doesn’t
have frets—just lines—and is shorter. I was
trying to imitate a lute. I use .011 - .050 sets,
which on the neck’s 19" scale are a little bit
floppier. Also, I do Indian slides [demonstrates sliding his finger quickly up and down a
multi-step interval], and on a regular neck it
is a long way to go. It is easier to cover more
real estate on the shorter scale.
The bottom 7-string neck is fretted in the
standard scale. It employs a concept I got
from Matte Henderson: The seventh string
sits on a fixed bridge and the other six strings
are on the tremolo, so I can de-tune the low
B string to whatever I want without affecting the other strings. I also have a Camp-
bell American guitar that I modified to be
24 tones per octave. I use that for comping
on “Sun Song.”
For the most part I used a Carvin Steve Vai
Legacy amp on the clean channel, paired with
a Vox. The guitar goes through an Ernie Ball volume pedal into Seymour Duncan
Twin Tube Classic and Pickup Booster pedals,
a Boss DD-5 delay, and a Vox ToneLab EX
modeling multi-effects pedal—but my main
“effect” is the inflection with which I play
Do you incorporate microtonality in your work
with Jack DeJohnette?
That’s why I got hired. I played one
of my rubato, wannabe-Klezmer, Middle
Eastern, microtonal, fretless jazz intros
at a wedding Jack attended. Afterwards,
he came up to me and said, “That’s the
sound I have been hearing in my head for a couple of years.” In his band,
Colligan has a microtonal keyboard, and
the sax player Rudresh Mahanthappa can
definitely go there. There are times when
we are completely out of tune, Jack is jamming, and it is awesome.
There is quite a bit of humor in the music.
What is your feeling about incorporating humor
in “serious” music?
I tell my students that I am about “serious fun.” If you are serious about the music,
we will have fun. I want to challenge the
audience, but I want people scratching their
head a little and shaking their booty a lot.