The Asian Connection


Iris Brooks
Iris Brooks
Photo by Kevin Misevis, courtesy Iris Brooks

As both a musician and writer I have been drawn to Asia like a magnet for many years. It is not merely the exotic sounds of the hypnotic instruments that lure me in, but a more all-pervasive aesthetic, incorporating space and grace in the sounds and intent as well as in movement, calligraphy, flower arrangements, tea ceremonies, and landscape scrolls. I am one of many Americans who has been sucked into an East-West vortex where the music (both traditional and new) of many Asian countries, acts as sustenance as well as a resource for creating something new.

Composer/performer Skip La Plante, who is also the co-founder of Music for Homemade Instruments says: “For some of us, Asian music is about as fundamental to our lives as arithmetic. As a composer I function much as a librarian. I have a large collection of instruments and knowledge of a variety of musical traditions—specifically how these traditions organize sonic events. I can take whatever I feel like off the shelf and apply it to whatever the situation is.” And yet La Plante is rarely playing traditional music verbatim; he is more interested in creating his own pieces and instruments. While he has studied Indonesian gong-making technique, he prefers suspended refrigerator vegetable bins, which sound surprisingly gong-like.

Similarly, composer Barbara Benary—who is the artistic director of the Gamelan Son of Lion ensemble, playing new American pieces on her own homemade Indonesian gamelan instruments—speaks of becoming “bimusical” (or “multimusical”) a term she borrows from ethnomusicologist Mantle Hood. This is evidenced as she casually picks up a Chinese bowed erhu to blend in a new American work for Indonesian gamelan (percussion orchestra). Composer R.I.P. Hayman who has traveled to most Asian countries and amassed an impressive collection of recordings and instruments adds that he is still digesting musical material which “arises in surprise” in his work.

In interviewing a sampling of two dozen American musicians heavily influenced by Asian musics, similarities began to emerge. I was interested in their motivation, not just what musicians are doing, but why. Regardless of the musical traditions they have pursued, most mentioned the early recordings and concerts of classical Indian music by Ravi Shankar and/or Ali Akbar Khan as their first window into Asian music. Jai Uttal was so mesmerized by an Ali Akbar Khan concert that he immediately dropped out of college to study with the master. Several musicians mentioned the impact of Asian films, such as Pather Panchali, by Indian director Satyajit Ray (with whom Ravi Shankar often collaborated) or the work of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, and one spoke of an abundance of National Geographic magazines as an early inspiration.

Not all Americans intrigued by Asia want to play traditional music(s) or use traditional techniques. Raphael Mostel does not believe music is a universal language. “Traditional musics are many languages and many dialects. What led me to create the Tibetan Singing Bowl Ensemble: New Music for Old Instruments, was the desire to compose a new kind of music, taking basic elements which all people have in common so that the music would be equally understood (or misunderstood) everywhere in the world. Truly universal.”

References to an older generation of American composers with one foot in Asia include Henry Cowell, Colin McPhee, John Cage, and Lou Harrison. Their influence was particularly felt regarding stylistic as well as philosophical ideas with new attitudes about space and time. Percussionist Glen Velez-for whom Cage wrote a 1989 composition for tambourine – recalls a visit at Cage’s house. “He told me if you look at the sky, it is a blank canvas and he asked, looking at the pinpoints of the stars, ‘why are they there?’” But the minimalist connection was also cited with LaMonte Young, Terry Riley, Phil Corner, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass. Richard Teitelbaum—who has written music mixing Tibetan Buddhist chant with breath, brainwaves and synthesizer and another piece for Japanese Noh flute, saxophones and sampler – teaches a course at Bard College about the relationship of these composers to the Asian musics that influenced them. While George Harrison may be Ravi Shankar’s most famous student, other rockers also listened to and studied Indian music including Jimi Hendrix, Mickey Hart, and the Grateful Dead. In the jazz world John Coltrane, Don Ellis, Yusef Lateef, Miles Davis, and Charles Lloyd are important regarding a modal presentation and improvisation, a deconstruction of Indian music, and the role of meditation.

For some, the role of spirituality is expressed through music á la Asia. This may be manifest by adherence to a strict tradition—kirtan, devotional Hindu singing from North India and Japanese Buddhist shakuhachi flute repertoire in the Meian style, thought to represent the simplest form of blowing shakuhachi as a spiritual practice. American Krishna Das speaks of music as a doorway and sings as a devotional practice. “Chanting is a part of every spiritual path. It’s about adoration of the beloved; it’s all about love,” he explains. Others create an original hybrid form as Jai Uttal has done with his Pagan Love Orchestra, mixing a Western pop sensibility and colorful orchestration with devotional songs.

Some Americans master an Asian instrument such as Steve Gorn playing the Indian bansuri flute. Although he plays with Indian musicians where he is accepted on the concert stage in India, he also takes the instrument into new settings. He plays bansuri in a pop context with Paul Simon, in jazz with Jack DeJohnette, in world music with Simon Shaheen, and in new American music with Glen Velez. “My personal feeling is I am a Westerner and bring that background to my work. I want the Indian stuff to flourish in other contexts,” says Gorn.

Composer Lois V Vierk was drawn into the world of the Japanese court gagaku (literally elegant music) through an initial study of Japanese dance. The way the body moves and breathes was the initial pull for her, followed by the combination of strength and elegance in the music. “The hichiriki is so powerful – it’s the loudest instrument in the world per cubic centimeter,” volunteers Vierk, who was commissioned by the Lincoln Center Festival to write “Silversword” (1996), for gagaku orchestra. She is most interested and influenced by the slow unfolding of Japanese court music. “The nuances are not just decorative; they have meaning and that taught me a lot about phrasing,” she adds.

American instrumentalists also look to incorporate techniques from Asia. American players of gamelan music such as composer/clarinetist Daniel Goode incorporate repetitive elements, circular breathing, and drones into their own work. Vocalist Lisa Karrer says: “While rehearsing for The Pink, composer Tan Dun taught me the rudiments of Peking Opera style. As a result I sometimes employ those attack, sustain, and decay methods in my own vocal compositions. Likewise in my work with Javanese composer Tony Prabowa, my singing has been informed by his filigree-like vocal lines, which emerge from the traditional Javanese style.” For Karrer the impact is larger than technique. “By learning and playing this music my sense of psychological and physical time has changed and shifted.”

For percussionist Glen Velez performance practice is also about more than learning specific techniques. With Azerbajani music he heard what was appropriate with density and space—how much to play and when not to play in an ensemble situation. “It let me see what was successful in a traditional setting and taught me about the sound values of a culture.” Composer/performer David Simons incorporates a variety of traditional techniques such as a Balinese kotekan (interlocking melodies) and gong cycles along with North Indian concepts of tala (rhythmic cycles) and tihai (rhythmic ostinati repeated three times to end on the first beat of the cycle) in his compositions. “For at least 25 years I’ve considered the combining of music cultures (East-East, East-West, and other unholy marriages) to be a frontier worth exploring, with endless possibilities. Just one example: using Indian santur technique with chopsticks on a Chinese zither tuned to an Indonesian scale playing rhythms of the Ewe tribe from Ghana West Africa.” Simons also notes that nothing takes place in a vacuum, pointing out that Asians have been migrating to the New World for centuries and culturally intermingling.

Sub-genres of pop music are a fertile place for influences going East to West and West to East such as Bangra/hip-hop Tuvan/blues and Qawwali crossover. Nowadays Americans don’t have to study Asian instruments in order to have their sounds available. Modern-day samplers and synthesizers contain patches with sounds of biwa, koto, sitar and gamelan. And while some Americans have made journeys East to soak in the culture on a visceral level accompanied by years of disciplined practice, others are instantly accessing Asia via the Internet, CD ROM, recordings, films, and MIDI patches.

As a nation of immigrants, Americans celebrate multi-culturalism. It has become as natural to play a raga on a sitar (or guitar) as a Mozart string quartet. And why not? With an ear towards Asia, musicians and composers are blending new sounds, styles, and structures in an ever-broadening and changing American sound palette. It’s part of the process of keeping American music and culture vital.

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