Soundtracks: June 2001

SoundTracksFor various periods of time since high school, I have found myself trying to “be” Asian, as silly as that may sound. I suppose that having grown up “above average” (to use Garrison Keillor’s words) and white in the ‘burbs, there is nothing unusual about that; many of my closest friends have been (and continue to be) of Asian heritage. During those periods when I have tried hardest to be Asian I have generally experienced the greatest growth, personally, artistically, and otherwise. Identifying with the “Other” – cultural or sexual – can be a very powerful psychological stimulus.

Of all the pieces in this month’s Soundtracks that incorporate to a greater or lesser degree references to a musical “Other,” none is so wholly representative of a single tradition as Alice Shields’ Komachi at Sekidera. Shields has been heavily involved with Indian music and dance during the past decade, but here she has set the words of a Noh play for soprano, alto flute, and koto in a style that sounds (to my semi-trained ears) thoroughly Japanese. Other composers, while retaining more of a “Western” framework, have nonetheless been overt in their courtship of the musical “Other.” Alan Hovanhess is certainly one of these composers; his short Allegro on a Pakistani Lute Tune is part of CRI’s reissue of Robert Helps’s landmark 1966 recording New Music for the Piano. Peter Garland has been a lifelong student of Native American musical traditions, and has lived in both Mexicos (the old and the New). His Dancing on Waterfor clarinet and marimbas is based on a fragment of a Mexican folk tune.

The line between “Self” and “Other,” culturally speaking, can get blurry, however, particularly in America during the last hundred years. “The total musical culture of Planet Earth is ‘coming together,'” George Crumb wrote in a 1980 essay. “Numerous recordings of non-Western music are readily available, and live performances by touring groups can be heard even in our smaller cities.” In his Music for a Summer Evening, Crumb draws in some obvious ways from the music of different cultures – Tibetan prayer stones, African thumb pianos, and a ‘guidaja del asino’ form part of the percussion – but it is harder to apply to this music the same “exotic” description that you would apply to Sidney Bechet and John Reid’s Egyptian Fantasy (which, despite the sinuous clarinet line, is nothing more than a tango, after all).

Two composers I don’t normally associate with “world music” are Libby Larsen and John Harbison. Life is full of surprises, however, and Larsen’s Marimba Concerto: After Hampton is one of them. The Hampton in question is, of course, Lionel, and in each of the three movements Larsen tries to present the marimba in a different way. The last movement takes account of the marimba’s role as percussion ensemble member in many non-Western cultures. Harbison’s San Antonio for alto sax and piano depicts a Spanish fiesta stumbled upon by a traveler on a sultry August afternoon.

Sidney Bechet isn’t the only jazz composer this month who has flirted with a world music tradition. The rhythms of Mel Graves’s music betray not only the influence of “odd time-signature jazz” but also African, Indian, and Brazilian jazz traditions. Rent Romus’s tribute to Albert Ayler includes his own Snow Ghost, written for a show dedicated to music of the Finno-Ugric tradition; Romus feels that the piece bows to Ayler’s use of “world folk music concepts.” Fred Bouchard has written that Mike Nock’s Nata Lagal reminds him of Duke Ellington’s arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s “Arab Dance.” Naturally, Tchaikovsky’s “Arab Dance” was probably much more a reflection of his own world than that of the culture he was portraying…we can look down our nose at that, but then what do you say about The Rumba Club, a group of contemporary New Yorkers – white, black, and Hispanic – turning Cole Porter’s “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye” into a bolero? They’ve taken the imperialist attitude that is implied in pieces like the “Arab Dance” and turned it upside-down, with delightful results. (I have no idea whether this was intentional on their part, and so I should add that the disc is replete with great original material, as well.) If you still like your Porter straight up, however, you can listen to the reissue of the same tune, originally recorded by Maxine Sullivan and Teddy Wilson in 1944.

Next, there is a group of pieces that were inspired in some way by non-Western texts. Without a long time to study, I found it difficult to determine whether the non-Western influence extended to the music, as well. John Alden Carpenter’s Gitanjali Songs, settings of poems drawn from a large collection by Rabindranath Tagore, feature vaguely non-Western harmonies. Alex Keller’s The four hundred boys was inspired by the multiple translations and oral re-interpretations of the ancient Mayan text the Popol Vuh. The creative result was an electronic piece in which he applied repeated “translation” and “re-interpretation” to the notes of a piano performance. William Kraft’s Songs of Flowers, Bells, and Death is a meditation on the “frustration and helplessness” that accompany war. Kraft’s texts span 2600 years and five cultures.

The division between cultural “Self” and “Other” gets fuzziest in music like Michael Jon Fink’s I Hear it in the Rain. The pace of this music, so simple as to defy any sense of progression, perhaps has its spiritual roots in non-Western thought. Peter Warren and Matt Samolis’s Bowed Metal Music, for “steel cellos” betrays a similarly non-directional (in the traditional Western sense) focus on the overtones produced by sympathetically vibrating cymbals and rods. But at the same time, I have to wonder if the Western and the non-Western have become thoroughly homogenized? This kind of music has American precedents in the work of Feldman, Cage, and others. And on a mundane level, I routinely find books on “feng shui” up by the register at Barnes and Noble…

A different way of looking at the “Other” is to cross over one of the various dividing lines within our own culture. There is the male/female divide – when the barrier between the two sexes was sturdier, it was easier to idealize “Woman,” I imagine. A monument to those days gone by is provided by The Eternal Feminine – the title an ironic allusion to Goethe’s womanly ideal – which presents the work of nine women who had the temerity to cross into a man’s world. (Libby Larsen is significantly younger than her eight colleagues, but her Love after 1950 songs certainly reference the situation!) While things on the classical front have improved, the inequity between the sexes in the jazz world is still bad; ironic – and fortunate – that this month would bring us two excellent jazz discs by women: Jane Ira Bloom’s Sometimes the Magic and Roberta Piket’s speak, memory.

Then there’s the black/white divide. Going back again to my own fruitful cross-cultural forays, I remember being introduced, while a college student, to James Baldwin’s Another Country. The book struck me with incredible force. One scene in particular has stuck in my mind, when Cass Silenski, a dissatisfied white married woman, escapes uptown in a cab to hear Harlem jazz. The arts (not just music) have provided a forum for frank racial discussion throughout the century. Lamentably, there is still a racial imbalance in “classical” music, and if you combine that with a gender imbalance – well, Lettie Beckon Alston is a rarity. (I feel a little guilty focusing so much on her background, so let me state plainly: listen to her electronic music – it’s good.) Ricky Ian Gordon isn’t the first white man to set Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes’s poetry to music (think Kurt Weill), but is he the best? You decide. Richard Davis, as part of his appropriately titled Homage to Diversity, takes a jazz approach to the Eccles Sonata, that staple of the intermediate bass player; it’s worth the disc. Mirta de la Torre Mulhare’s “musical re-telling” of Othello re-assigns racial roles in keeping with 21st-century America: Othello is an Irish-American senator running for governor; Desdemona is an Hispanic reporter; Cassio is a black district attorney. I found this diversity to be less apparent in the music itself.

Finally, there’s the gay/straight divide – again, I’m proud to say, something that has been less of an issue in the arts than it has been in the culture at large. David Del Tredici has found inspiration in his “out-ness;” Secret Music features three new song cycles. Many of the poems he has set are sexually overt, and some of them deal with the feeling of being the Other – not by choice – within one’s own culture.

There are just a few pieces this month that I can’t relate to the idea of the “Self” and the “Other.” In the “twentieth-century giant” department, we have Leonard Bernstein and William Schuman, who are represented by a re-release and a re-recording, respectively. A new disc of famous choral works conducted by Robert Shaw includes a short excerpt from Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, and Naxos has just issued a new recording of Schuman’s Violin Concerto with Philip Quint as soloist.

Visitors to the American Music Center often come in search of new repertoire for unusual combinations of instruments. Two new pieces for voice and small ensemble struck me as interesting additions to any soprano’s repertoire. Roger Vogel’s The Frog, He fly…Almost is a setting of a quirky, nonsensical text for voice and trumpet. M. William Karlins’s Song for Soprano is a chromatic rendition of a poem by William Blake for soprano, alto flute, and cello. Karlins’s Quartet for Strings, which employs a soprano in the last movement, might make a nice companion piece to Schoenberg’s seminal second quartet.

Three discs this month reference German-ness in some fashion. J.K. Randall’s two-movement piano work GAP6 is subtitled one of those 2mvmt. middleBeethoven pianosonatas in E/F/F# not G. George Rochberg’s Third String Quartet contains a more easily perceivable link to Beethoven, clearly modeled as the piece was on the older composer’s Op. 132 quartet. Finally, Darkness and Light, Volume 3, part of a series of discs recorded at the Holocaust Memorial Museum, includes pieces by Robert Stern, Tom Myron, and the German émigrés Lukas Foss and Karl Weigl. The pieces on this disc, all in someway connected to the Holocaust, should serve as a reminder of the tragic consequences of demonizing the “Other.”