Martin Scherzinger: African Math

, composer


Martin Scherzinger is a South African-born composer and media theorist, who works on and engages with the music of Africa. African Math is a recording of piano trio music that "africanizes" these western instruments (flipping the typical appropriation of indigenous instruments on its head). Piano, violin, and cello are used as conduits for material originally intended for mbira, or kalahari, or Ugandan xylophone.


# Audio Title/Composer(s) Time
Total Time 39:15

Hallucinating Accordion


Mirror Notes / Slow Noises


African musicians have long adapted European instruments (accordions, guitars, keyboards) to great musical effect. In the spirit of this tradition, we too adapt classically European instruments by treating them as if they were African instruments. Piano, Violin and Cello are made to imitate the tactile patterns found on a bow from the Kalahari, or the sticking on a Ugandan xylophone, the fractal harmonies of a Shona mbira, and so on. But instead of adding exotic timbres or percussive textures, we prefer to take another approach to the task of Africanizing sound.

By translating the overtone-rich color of the Mbira to the time-worn blandness of the modern industrial piano (a diatonic inscription device that enjoys a world monopoly), our music directs paradoxical attention to the purely formal play of the original. We encounter african music as syntax. Harmonic sequences possess riddle-like mathematical qualities; recursive forms run in reversible time. (In Madagascar, some say the future emerges in reverse).

The music on this record both embodies the African mathematics that it ventriloquizes and supplies a commentary on it. We filter and recombine typical African aspects of music, including decentralized distribution of parts, interlocking techniques, rhythms to rotate the downbeat by, non-functional harmonic motion, circular temporalities, open formal textures, symmetric and near-symmetric patterning, extremely fast tempi and slow ones. Through these techniques and more, African musical palimpsests emerge that bear uncanny resonances with dance suites of the Italian Renaissance and the music of the Viennese Biedermeier.

-Martin Scherzinger, 2015

Compositions: Martin Scherzinger
Piano: Tom Rosenkranz
Cello: Chris Gross
Violin: Jen Choi
Sound Engineering: Ryan Streber
Design: Wills Glasspiegel
Recorded at Oktaven Audio, Yonkers, NY
© 2015 Martin Scherzinger All Rights Reserved

Martin Scherzinger

Martin Scherzinger's research specializes in sound studies, music, media and politics of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, with a particular interest in the music of European modernism and after, as well as African music and transnational musical fusions. His research includes the examination of links between political economy and digital sound technologies, the poetics of copyright law in an international frame, the relation between aesthetics and censorship, the sensory limits of mass-mediated music, the mathematical geometries of musical time, and the history of sound in philosophy. This work represents an attempt to understand what we might call contemporary "modalities of listening;" that is, the economic, political, metaphysical, and technological determinants of both mediated and (what is perceived as) immediate auditory experience.




South African composer Martin Scherzinger's new album "African Math" is an especially enlightened take on the traditional music of Africa – mostly because his music recognizes that it is not African music, but instead, Western listeners, who might require the enlightening influence of a Western composer in this repertoire.

Scherzinger approaches his inspiration with a humility uncharacteristic of most Western attempts to engage with the musics of another continent. Too often, the idea seems to be that the European tradition can offer the rest of the world something their music is missing. But instead of condescending to bring Western sophistication to the music of Africa, Scherzinger uses European tools to alert European ears to the sophistication already present in the source material.

In the opening suite, Hallucinating Accordion, that might mean illuminating the complexity of an African polyrhythm by dissecting it and dividing that amongst the members of a piano trio, or conversely, by compressing those voices into the music of a single, monophonic instrument. Or through certain discreet octave doublings, dissecting the rich timbres hand built into that traditional instrument.

On the album's second half, Mirror Notes/Slow Noises, the polyrhythms remain just as complex, but here their overlapping cycles produce harmonies with more satisfyingly tonal implications – its white-key soundworld lies in a middle ground between austerity of pitch and harmonic warmth that could be the invention of a composer from the 20th-century Parisian circle of Nadia Boulanger.

Throughout the album, warmly recorded for New Focus Recordings, violinist Jennifer Choi, cellist Chris Gross and pianist Tom Rosenkranz bring a precision that makes the music's rhythmic shifts seems simple to play and understand, but nevertheless articulates them in a way that brings out just how complicated these processes really are. These scores hold up a mirror to the European tradition, one that allows it to see the traditions of Africa eye to eye – and discover that the other continent is, after all, closer than it appears.

- Daniel Stephen Johnson, Q2 Album of the Week



Certainly no one would appear to be more qualified to take on a project of this kind than Martin Scherzinger, a South African-born composer and specialist in African music. What makes his African Math so fascinating is that it flips the script, so to speak, with respect to how the playing of African-influenced music is handled. Instead of drawing upon instruments such as the mbira and kalahari for the arrangements, Scherzinger uses piano, violin, and cello in the album's two multi-part compositions but in such a way that the Western instruments are “Africanized.” It's not uncommon for African musicians to perform pieces using European instruments such as accordions, guitars, and keyboards; it's far less common for Western musicians to play a classical setting using African instruments. But a close approximation of that happens on African Math when pianist Tom Rosenkranz, cellist Chris Gross, and violinist Jen Choi bring Scherzinger's Hallucinating Accordion andMirror Notes / Slow Noises to life. The result is an engrossing fusion of Western classical and African musical forms.

Let's not forget that mathematics forms part of the title. In that regard, Scherzinger's music exemplifies many of the complex aspects of African music, among them interlocking rhythms, intricate patterning, and shifting downbeats. Being so fundamental to African music, rhythm is naturally a critical dimension of the album, instantiated in this case by plucked strings as well as polyrhythmic patterns played by piano and bowed strings. The music often swings breezily, the rollicking fourth movement of Hallucinating Accordion a case in point, and the arrangements comfortably alternate between a movement featuring a solo instrument (e.g., violin in “Hallucinating Accordion 3”) and others where all three appear.

The singing melodies and chiming harmonies of African music also are strongly accounted for in Scherzinger's compositions, nowhere more conspicuously than in the piano melodies whose insistent sparkle colours “Mirror Notes / Slow Noises 1.” In a kind of reverse mirror effect, there are moments where the compositional style suggests an integration of Western qualities into the African composition, something that occurs during the strings-only “Mirror Notes / Slow Noises 2” where the plaintive folk character feels indebted as much to American country as African folk music. Free of gimmickry and superficiality, African Math presents an authentic forty minutes of African-styled modern classical composition that for this project is realized by a piano trio, even if the material could just as legitimately have been performed by musicians playing traditional African instruments. Regardless of the instrumentation involved, the album offers a thoroughly engaging amalgam of Western and African elements.

- textura, April 28. 2015


Soundfly: Flypaper

Now that we’re on the topic of African music (a topic I can’t seem to ever get off), we can talk about South African composer, Martin Scherzinger's brilliant new song cycle, African Math (out on New Focus Recordings). Scherzinger teaches at NYU with a research interest in creatively examining and probing the socioeconomic, political, and cultural narratives traversing ethnomusicology. The music on African Math posits that the exchange between western and eastern musics in the past has largely fallen into two categories: western instruments and theory being taught to African musicians, and eastern instruments being “let in” to western orchestras and ensembles in order toorientalize and ethnically flavor the composition.

But what has been left out is the practice of adapting western instruments (in this case, the piano, violin, and cello) to the mathematics and syntax, the rhythmic and tonal patterns, and the performative, dancing practices of African traditional musics. Scherzinger explains it nicely, “piano, violin, and cello are made to imitate the tactile patterns found on a bow from the Kalahari, or the sticking on a Ugandan xylophone, the fractal harmonies of a Shona mbira, and so on.” All that aside, it’s a spellbinding listen. You’ve never heard anything like this.

-- Jeremy Young, Soundfly, 10.26.15


American Record Guide

I often get programs with ethnic instruments set against more traditionally western ensembles. When it works it’s novel and when it doesn’t the results are mostly disastrous if not insensitive. Martin Scherzinger’s program spins this situation on its head by treating traditional western instruments as other than they are. “By translating the overtone-rich color of the mbira to the time-worn blandness of the modern industrial piano our music directs a paradoxical attention to the purely formal play of the original.” The piano, cello, and violin are all treated as African instruments, but unlike other attempts at this, it is not merely rhythm that is the sole building block. Scherzinger’s liner notes are brief and densely packed with philosophical ideas, but his hope is to create a genuine new experience for the listener. The combination of syncopated rhythms and bright melodies form gripping, energetic sections that are similar to Italian Renaissance dance suites. The music is enjoyable, tonal, and infectious, but also conceptually stimulating. © Kraig Lamper, 2015 American Record Guide

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