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Blake Leyh’s latest album NEW MODERN STRINGS features ten tracks of instrumental music composed on the GRAVIKORD, a 24-string stainless-steel electric harp invented in 1986 by Bob Grawi, inspired by the African kora. The music is lush and polyrhythmic, sharing musical DNA with Minimalism and Malian kora repertoire, but filtered through a 21st Century sensibility of electronic music, rock/pop, and film soundtracks. In addition to playing Gravikord on every piece, Leyh also adds electric cello, guitar, and bass to the mix throughout. NEW MODERN STRINGS is released on Leyh’s XENOTONE label, on vinyl LP, CD, & streaming.

Vinyl & CD New Modern Strings

From the album liner notes:

© Blake Leyh MMXXIV All Rights Reserved.

I first laid eyes on a Gravikord at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City on July 1st, 2023. It was just hanging there in a glass case between a Rickenbacker Frying Pan and an Electar Zephyr amp. I was with my godson, the brilliant young trumpeter Vincent Curson Smith, and we were visiting the musical instruments collection after spending a successful few days in the studio recording with my band N to The Power. We both stood there silently in wonder until Vincent uttered:


“That is the most N to The Power instrument I have ever seen.”


He had a point. This Gravikord thing immediately inhabited a space somewhere between guitar and kalimba, sculpture and tool, folk and tech, maybe even past and future. An indigenous instrument from the Fourth World? The sign at the edge of the case said:


“The Gravikord, an electronically amplified harp-lute inspired by the African kora, was invented by

Bob Grawi in 1986. Its lightweight stainless-steel design and open lyre-shaped bridge provide

ergonomic fingering positions and stable balance points. The instrument's sound, polyrhythmic

playing technique, and string orientation link it to West African traditions.”


I contacted Mr. Grawi the following day and he agreed to build me my own Gravikord. I went a few weeks later to collect the instrument from his home workshop in rural upstate New York. The visit was tinged with a master/disciple aspect that was novel to me but not unwelcome. Bob gave me some pointers and playing techniques and a set of extra strings and wished me luck on the journey. It took most of a day to get the strings in place and tune the machine, but from the first strum it was clear this instrument resonated for me with a special spirit.


I’ve long admired West African Kora music but I’m uneasy adopting traditional cultures where I don’t belong. But the Gravikord is a Kora-once-removed, an instrument that sidesteps appropriation by phase-shifting its energy into a hybrid music that is a modern incarnation of an ancient sound. I returned to some touchstone Kora music: New Ancient Strings, the 1999 record by Toumani Diabaté and Ballaké Sissoko. I realized I could make something of my own, a late-style modern collection of music born in the imagined domain of the Gravikord: New Modern Strings.


This music is not traditional in any sense, although it carries echoes of the past. It is decidedly modern in practice and technique. It is electric, and digital, as well as plucked. There are some dub echoes, synthesizers, and granular processing. It lives comfortably alongside contemporary Minimalism, and the simple song forms share DNA with rock and pop. The diatonic tuning in G major necessarily limits the harmonic range, although I occasionally re-tune a few strings to get an extra black note. It is meant to be accessible music.


After seeing the video for the song Liquid Modernity, Bob Grawi wrote to me:


“It's a really wonderful realization and visualization of the polyrhythmic nature of the Gravikord...

Love your separated pickingof cross rhythms, and the close-ups of your playing with

the visual floating in and out of the other parts...

The wonder of the kora/gravikord has been revealed... Mission accomplished!”


It was gratifying to receive affirmation from the creator of the instrument, and humbling to think that I might have helped shed new light on Bob’s invention. Perhaps the passing of this energy from inventor to student could work as a gesture towards creating a next generation of Gravikord composers and players.


After writing over twenty film scores and releasing a dozen records, I can say that this album was in many ways the easiest thing I’ve ever done. The fastest, most straight-forward, flowing work I have made. Rather than investigating endless choices and following labyrinthine detours, this time the Gravikord itself answered all the questions, created the frame of limitations, and set me on a clear path.


We all create culture on the fly as we go, placing signposts on the trail for those who come along later. I hope you find something useful in this music, perhaps some beauty, some respite, or a moment of inspiration that might be a clue on your own journey. Thanks for listening.


~ Blake Leyh, April 2nd 2024, New York City

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