“If you look at what a lot of composers in the 20th century did — Bartók, Schoenberg, Webern — what I’m doing on Codebook is not particularly groundbreaking.” But Mahanthappa is drawn to his puzzle problems as a way of thinking outside the box at the same time that he delves into material that really interests him. And he’s drawn — like earlier modern composers — to creating his own self-contained systems. “Say you decide that the piece is always going to go minor third, half step, major third, in any direction. Some really amazing music can come out of that because each note carries more weight — whether to go up or down becomes much more serious than in another circumstance.”
If that makes Mahanthappa sound forbiddingly dry and theoretical, the music on Codebook belies any such conclusion — the funk of “Enhanced Performance,” the swing of “D (Dee-Dee),” the hook of that alternating third-sixth-seventh bass line on “Wait It Through,” the soaring Coltrane balladry of “My Sweetest.” If there’s any complaint, it’s that sometimes those odd meters — combined with Mahanthappa’s heavy attack — can become wearing. Too much heavy sauce, without a steady-groove breather. “D (Dee-Dee)” arrives just in time.
Now Mahanthappa has been using his Guggenheim to do more research in India. “I want to go over there and find out, ‘What is this called?’ I hear this thing all the time, I can actually do this thing, but I don’t know what it’s called, and I don’t know what the rules are. Is this wrong, is this right, why do you guys always do this and never this? I want to know some of these rules so I can know why I’m breaking them.” He’d like to use his research in compositions for saxophone, electric guitar, percussion, laptop, and electronics.
“I never claimed to be playing Indian music, but it’s a significant part of what I do, as much as Charlie Parker and John Coltrane and Duke Ellington. It’s part of expressing my Indian-American identity. I don’t claim to be speaking for this generation of Indian-Americans, but I think we’re all trying to make a statement of sorts — if nothing else: ‘We’re here, we’re part of the American cultural landscape, of what it is to be American.’ ”
RUDRESH MAHANTHAPPA QUARTET | Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 280 the Fenway, Boston | February 21 at 7 pm | 617.566.1401