Spontaneity. Now there’s a word you don’t see much used in the kind of music we all love, and yet it was the protoplasm that built Prog Rock. In fact we even have another word for it — “Proto-Prog.” Back in the late 60’s there were clubs in both England and the USA set up for these happen-ins where artists and bands were on the same page as their audiences. It was a kind of follow on from the Beat clubs of the early 60’s where poetry and avant-garde expressionism to shape mood was all part of the anti-establishment movement needing to find their place in society. It was more than any other time a symbiotic occurrence and occasion where artists feed off their gathered audience, and likewise, the audience really got into these bands who took you on an uncharted journey through performances that were made up on the spot. To quote from an old Gerry Anderson TV show, “Anything could happen.” And did. The counter-culture dug spontaneous music, especially psychedelic sounds laced with blues, jazz, folk, and any number of other musical forms which could be thrown in to create an atmosphere within shadowy, cramped , smokey club rooms late at night. This is what Prog was made from, waiting for the Beatles to give it a bit more structure and mainstream acceptance. But that would come shortly. Meanwhile the Pink Floyds and Soft Machines of this world were blasting out atmospheric improvs the likes trippin’ audiences had never seen or heard before. These were jam bands before they were jam bands, and all too soon, with the likes of King Crimson and Yes and others started structuring it, albeit retaining mind boggling time signatures and lengthy pieces filled with the latest technological sounds of the day.
So this new album, “Conversation” from The RaRas has for all intents and purposes traveled a full circle harking back to those early days making good use of all those wonderful musical forms to, for want of a better term, “just let go” and see where it took them and their audience. To be honest I really don’t have to say much more about them as an introduction because the following interview I had with Ralph recently pretty much goes into what not only this album is about but also these two fine musicians themselves. In fact Ralph deserves a writing credit for this piece as well. His responses, just as improvisational as the tracks on his new album with Ray, speaks well and lengthy for your enjoyment.
Oh, forgot to mention I have listened to this album quite a few times over the past few weeks. Three long instrumental tracks where keyboards and drums create a full room of sound from just these two artists. I even joked with Ralph that my initial hearing of “Part 1 Informance For Thought” that my first thought was “Tangerine Dream playing Brand X.” I don’t want to belabour the atmospheric and spontaneity angle too much here but will say, this album delivers both those very things exceedingly well. “Part 2 Supportion Of Assertion” is the track that works for me with this slow and ponderous almost tribal rhythms and ambience before going full blast like some jazzed up version of Pink Floyd’s “Careful With That Axe, Eugene.” The third and final track, “Part 3 Scaling The Final Resolve” takes it slightly down a notch like some intentional musical bell curve over the whole album. From what you will read these tracks are improvisational and created in the moment from these two artists feeding off of each other as they move this music along. Both drum and keyboard come in and out at different angles adding to the depth and building layers within. “Part 2 Supportion Of Assertion” is a good example of that.
“The RaRas” An interesting name for yourselves, and I can see that you’re Ralph Diekemper and your friend, Ray Wright. No need to ask how you came by that name given the first two letters of your Christian names. The main question is – how did you choose whose first two letters would show first? 😉
RALPH: We went through a very rigorous series of mental and physical contests which included Greco Roman Wrestling and a pick up sticks marathon before deciding.
Tell us a little about yourself, Ralph?
RALPH: I’ve been active musically for most of my life. I grew up in Waterloo, Ill which is twenty miles or so southeast of St Louis. Had wonderful band instructors in grade and high school and started playing with local bands when I was turned sixteen. After a short stint in junior college, I went on the road for seven-eight years playing with show bands, rock fusion-type bands, a band from South Dakota that did mostly original music, then back on the road and eventually settling down in Harrisburg Pennsylvania. I took a hiatus from regular gigging for a couple years, then jumped into the solo piano scene, singing and playing on a regular basis. This was my first foray into solo piano and as I became more comfortable with my playing and being out front and center, I moved more and more into the improvisational side of music and always writing and finding a means to record my original instrumental music.
I’ve been fortunate with the type of solo gigs I landed as I’ve always been able to perform much of my own music and improvise as I see fit. Currently I’m Pianist in Residence at the Susquehanna Art Museum in Harrisburg and also perform regularly at the Penn State University Hershey Medical Center as part of their Centerstage Arts in Health Music Series. Both venues encourage original music which is a blessing to be a part of. I’ve had or have been part of several original music groups throughout the years, and am currently with two improvisational groups, one of which is THe RaRas. Three to four times a year I still do the solo piano cover gig with vocal. It’s fun to go out and play music and sing songs I grew up though my repertoire isn’t your standard piano bar fare. And I run my own small studio at home.
And what about Ray?
RALPH: Ray took to the drums during his childhood while living in northern New Jersey, studying initially under Harry Sabonjian and following a traditional path of musical involvement through high school which included forming his first band ‘First Impression’. After a long hiatus he returned to playing in the late 1990’s initially playing in church contemporary worship bands until eventually joining local music groups playing a variety of music. He has spent much of the past two decades defining the beat for several different bands and artists, most notably holding the drum chair for the local rock group Grumpy Old Men for 15 years. He has regularly played with many other prominent area groups and regional musicians. Drumming influences include Bill Bruford, Jack deJohnette, Danny Gottlieb, Peter Erskine, Jeff Sipe, Steve Gadd…but really, most everyone. And through THe RaRas he’s found a means of playing and expressing what’s inside at the moment. We both have.
How did you first meet?
RALPH: Even though we’ve both lived in the same area for years, we did not meet until until 2011 when we were hired as side men to perform a concert at the Whitaker Center in Harrisburg PA. We hit it off as friends and discovered a common thread of musical likes and influences.
It wasn’t until 2016 that we actually got together and played as a duo, which led to a live performance at a glass blowing factory in Columbia Pennsylvania in June of that year. June… glass blowing… ovens blasting…
A hot gig indeed! We played a good hour and a half set, taking turns starting pieces from scratch. We also each took solo spots and did three covers as we both knew the songs. Hoedown by ELP, Low Spark by Traffic and Jaco by Metheny-Mays. Listening back, there’s easily enough ideas and vibes to record an album around the music we created that evening. The grooves and melody and changes are there.
And that’s what we do. Every few months or so we pick an evening, Ray brings his Roland V Drums eKit over, we plug in and play. And record.
We both have busy schedules so between different bands and work and family we don’t get together as often as we would like. And we’ve become good friends.
Is there any musical genre you align yourself with, or do you prefer to go outside those structures and see it as just some form of expressionism through creating music?
RALPH: The combination of prog, jazz and ambient are probably most prevalent, but going outside the structures is aptly stated. Even CONVERSATION seems limiting in that context. Future efforts will likely go further beyond, but also include structured material as well.
Did you both share the same musical influences? I kind of feel you either are channeling Brand X or even Frank Zappa in parts.
RALPH: Wow… cool comparisons. Everyone hears something different in the music…
Isn’t that what makes music alive?!
We have very similar tastes and influences that became apparent when we first played together. At rehearsals we’d talk about musical likes and we’d jam to whatever would come to mind. Metheny-Mays, Peter Gabriel, YES and other Prog Groups. We mentioned Ray’s influences above. Listened to a lot of Josef Zawinul and Keith Jarrett and lately Jason Lindner. Lindner is keyboardist for Donny McCaslin. They were David Bowie’s Blackstar Band and recorded his last album with him. He gets these just unreal synth vibes going under monster grooves. And Tom Brislin. Such a great musician and top shelf with gear too. I studied with Tom a couple years ago. Mostly via Skype, though in his studio a couple of times too. Not only piano and musical theory, but synth and programming in Logic Pro. Some of his programming tips makes playing in this format possible. And what a nice guy.
We speak much of improv however we don’t equate it to be jazz. I certainly do not consider myself a ‘jazz’ musician though I love jazz music and it has certainly influenced me through the years. I love that type of movement and energy but just as much as I do a chill vibe or rock anthem. Improv to me is what you are feeling in the moment and freeing yourself to just play.
So no story behind each track, although you gave each piece a title such as “Informance for Thought” which in some ways is a contradiction in terms in relation to what you were doing off-the-cuff. “Informance” suggest some type of guideline or possibly coaching on the lamb? What does the title really suggest? Do you look for signals in each other to know in what direction you want to go be it slow or fast, quieter or louder?
RALPH: Great question! It seems like a good spot to get a bit in depth with CONVERSATION and get into how it happened and the editing and post production work.
Regarding track titles, I was happy to name the tracks Part 1, 2 & 3, however Ray came up with the titles and I deferred to him. His feeling regarding the titles of the movements: While they provide some meaning and reflection about each movement, they also have an intended vagueness about them that leaves the interpretation to the listener.
CONVERSATION is not this perfect, flawlessly performed piece of music. It is however a very good live recording, mixed, remixed and mastered with a few parts added in post production. At its’ core, a dialogue between two musicians at a particular point in time.
The actual recording is over thirty-four minutes in length, with the first two or three minutes just making sounds and testing levels. Making sure we had a good signal on drums and all of my keyboards. We got into this groove set by my Rhodes and started playing. Note: I say Rhodes though it’s actually a Rhodes sample through Logic Pro. We ran direct into a Zoom LiveTrak L12. I kept everything pretty flat EQ wise and gave us each just a touch of reverb. When I started editing and mixing, I found setting track markers made sense for a couple reasons. Ease of navigation and it felt right. It felt as if there were three distinct movements. After listening several times to the raw version, we knew we had something and wanted to share this piece of music. It was time for polishing. Eight-five percent of what you hear was done in the moment. I took the L12 files and bounced them into Logic Pro for editing.
We didn’t have a definitive intro (which was needed) and wanting us make a statement, I grabbed a rimshot from the sound check and made that the first note. And made it hot. I wanted listeners to get out of their chairs and turn it down hot! Then I copied and pasted a synth line from Part 2 for that 2001 Space Odyssey kind of vibe. The rumbling low end and Rhodes were all there along with Ray’s coloring of space with his eKit going into this killer groove he created.
You asked how do we know when to change direction and dynamics? It’s just turned into one of those natural things that requires a lot of listening and paying attention to each other. For instance, when we finished Part 1, we could have let the synth pad ring out and finish but a simple riff came to me and and Ray picked up with it and laid down this ultra hip march-military like drum cadence. It was natural just to build and see what would happen. I played these low tones under the Rhodes riff and his drums and let things develop as they did.
The flutey-synth at the beginning of Part 2 was added in post. The low end synth and Rhodes set a nice vibe, but the phrase came to me in post and it fit so cool in that space.
Other notable added parts:
The acoustic piano in Part 1 and in the 6/8 vibe of Part 3.
I didn’t play any acoustic piano when we recorded and there were a couple spots I thought man… Piano! The piano sample as is my Rhodes is from Logic Pro. I used it for a brief little avant garde solo spot and to double some Rhodes vamps and chord blocking. It just worked.
In Part 3, as we build to the climax, with the groove Ray was laying down I actually said to myself, we are going to build this for quite awhile and see where it goes. This was really like composing on the fly. I knew it would sound structured and dramatic with the changes and modulations. And I wanted that. It felt like the music demanded that. Listening in post, a light piano comp came to mind as it felt like the vibe from Mannix! I kept it light but it sure helps moves the changes of the climax.
In Part 2, when we break out and the energy hits, I doubled up the Rhodes in post and doubled the synth parts. It was pretty strong in the raw version but this just fattened the vibe. Then added a synth line as the middle section of Part 2 crescendoes into the moving segment with Ray’s timbales and driving beat.
At the end of Part 2, I felt the section was finished probably a good minute before Ray did, but he was playing these monster grooves on different type of settings on his Roland so I just rode along and added low synth and ambient pads and played with a lot of reverb and delay on my SE02 in real time. After he finished with all of the swirling of sound another riff came to me and we continued on to Part 3.
Part 3 fades with the deep bell tolling. That was a matter of continuing this very low repeating pulse created and set on my Minilogue which ran under a good bit of the third movement. It was set up as this slow arpeggiated pulse and I’d change the shape and pitch throughout then bring out what I wanted with my volume pedal.
We had a good recording and over several months I mixed and panned and EQ’d and re-mixed and re-mixed and listened. Ray probably has ten different versions I shared with him on CD. I’d let it sit for a couple weeks then re-visit.
It was time for mastering.
I contacted Bobby Gentilo at Right Coast Recording in Columbia Pennsylvania and sent him stem mixes of my mixes. I had met Bobby a year or so earlier, then in 2018 he recorded a solo piano performance of mine in a session of ‘Live At Right Coast’, which is a series of music performances created by a diverse group of artists, filmed in studio. Google it as it is well worth checking out!
He took the stems and re-amped tracks, added effects and did things with sound that only someone with a great ear, knowledge, a particular set of skills and a world class studio could do. He is amazing, a great dude and really made CONVERSATION speak. This is how intense he listened. We were in playback and he was singing along with the Rhodes break in Part 3!
When the muse takes you, how do you know when and where to stop?
RALPH: Another great question and this ties in with my answer in the previous section.
It’s just something we sense. Ray calls it a synergy. I have tracks of us doing pieces that may just be two or three minutes long. We played our first show going on three years ago and ended up with enough ideas from that show to do an album. I play this way in my solo gigs and released a solo piano album twelve years ago which featured ideas and motifs that had come to me during solo piano performances.
You know, sometimes it isn’t there. We record every time we get together and while there always cool things or an idea springs forth that would be worth exploring and creating a musical piece, it is not always defined and set. CONVERSATION is one of those special things in life that just happened.
And I’m sure there’s more to come!
With CONVERSATION, after we recorded what we did, we kind of looked at each other like ‘did that just happen’? And yes, it did.
We spoke of perhaps doing another song or so, maybe adding solo pieces to lengthen the album, but in the end this just felt right.
Is this how you would both prefer to perform, or just something you just decided you wanted to try out?
RALPH: I love it this way. I’ve done cover bands and bands where I wrote a lot of original music. Great ensembles with wonderful friendships, lifelong relationships and cool music, however, there’s something about this format just energizes me.
Drums-Percussion and Piano-Keys is cool as we each have the freedom to do anything at a given time musically. It’s just fun and a rush! I’ve played with great bassists over the years, however, my approach with The RaRas is just anchor the bottom with sub frequencies and don’t worry about a lot of notes. That enables me to change keys on a whim or play unison parts at the spur of the moment. And we give each other space. We are all about letting an idea come forth and seeing where it lives. Ray and I somehow found this unison feel passage in Part Three that I could not have written any better had I tried, yet it sounds so full, alive and ‘gulp’ rehearsed though it wasn’t.
That’s the rush part of our project.
What’s next for both of you?
RALPH: Playing more together, certainly, as we need to build on what little we have done so far…there is a seemingly endless horizon out there waiting to be explored. We also plan on playing in a variety of forums…you just never know what will come of one or all of those moments.
Hopefully we’ll clear some time and perform. One of the biggest hangups is time. Having an agent or management advocating for you frees up time for the music. We’ve been looking for someone to do that. Not as easy as it sounds… The other hindrance to live shows is the physical work without a road crew. It sounds easy to say but we would need a road crew and there’s a cost factor to that. There’s just so much to do and prep for. But when we’re set up and we start our dialogue it makes everything worth it.
We’d love to do a filmed performance in front of a live audience. A small audience that will interact act with us and if they’re musically open minded perhaps sit in with us on whatever instrument they choose. That would be cool… and fun!
And, I guess we should learn CONVERSATION if we’re going to perform live!
We really want to get out in public again. Soon.
Where can your album be purchased from?
RALPH: Currently it is available at most online retailers in physical form and as a download at iTunes, Amazon, CDBaby and others.
Paul, we thank you for taking the time to speak via messaging and email and listening to CONVERSATION. It is greatly appreciated!