To know just what one is getting on Roger Kellaway's The Mafu Dances, there are several things which must be explained. First is that these compositions were recorded on prepared piano. As Kellaway himself explained in 1977, “[I]t sounds rather humorous to describe something that has essentially many trips to hardware stores and antique stores within it, as well as plastic coffee can covers and all sorts of stuff. Whatever you put on the strings of a piano, changes the pattern of the sound waves … there are many possibilities.”
Secondly, this LP represents a different live session. The first was recorded at UCLA on December 9, 1977, and comprises the entirety of the first side of the LP and the first track of the second, with the remainder of the second side recorded a week prior, on December 2, at Kellaway's home studio in Thousand Oaks, California.
Third, and finally, The Mafu Cage was a “psychotic drama” starring Carol Kane and Lee Grant, directed by Karen Arthur, and was itself unavailable on home media until 2010, nicely complimenting the fact that these recordings have heretofore been unreleased in any format. It's a lot of groundwork to lay in order to listen to one album, but the more context one has before listening to The Mafu Dances, the more one understands what the composer was aiming for.
The first five tracks of The Mafu Dances are composed - although it must be said that the second track is simply Kellaway explaining The Mafu Cage and the concept of a prepared piano - and the final three are improvisations on those compositions. As the hype sticker on the LP packaging states, these compositions and improvisations “are powerful expressions of the maestro’s experimental compositional prowess sure to astonish fans of his more traditional work.”
The fidelity of the UCLA recordings is higher than the home recordings, which makes sense, as the former come from a live concert, whereas the latter were made at home, and improvised. It's intriguing to hear the difference between the two sets, because while they're both very percussive, the forthrightness of the composed pieces gives them further heft. The improvisations are slightly hesitant, as if one can hear Kellaway figuring out as to where he'd like to go next.
The melody of “Mafu Dance No. 1 - Theme” is revisited throughout the recording, and offers something onto which listeners might grab hold, especially when confronted with what seems like dissonance. This recording is definitely not for everyone, and even those who enjoy avant-garde compositions won't throw this on the turntable on a regular basis. It's impressive, but it's definitely confrontational in a way which makes for challenging listening.
Happily, even those who aren't devotees of “John Cage, Harry Partch and Milford Graves” will find fascinating listening when they allow themselves to give in to the percussive rhythm which permeates the entirety of The Mafu Dances.
THE MAFU DANCES / COMPOSER: ROGER KELLAWAY / LABEL: WYRD WAR / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW