Non-Western Music and Thinking Beyond Notation
A Fourth Approach to Performing Music: Excerpt #05
FRANK J. OTERI: I knew “Escalay” before the Kronos recording on Pieces of Africa from a solo performance by Hamza on an old Nonesuch Explorer recording. What I found so interesting about Pieces of Africa was that you got the inflections of the microtonal intervals in the Arabic pieces, and you captured the flavor of the Southern African choral structures in the harmonies in those pieces, and I thought this is amazing because this isn’t something you can get from notation alone. It really requires working with these musicians. And that’s exactly what’s happening in your work with Terry Riley, and no one can do that with Beethoven or Brahms. You have the whole period instrument movement saying, it isn’t really the way we thought it was, it really is this way, and the standard rep people fighting them – it’s a stalemate. We never can know.
JOAN JEANRENAUD: Right, and the thing is, and this was a big Kronos position which I totally agree with: quartets playing in Brahms’ day worked with Brahms. So really what Kronos is doing is pretty traditional when you look at it that way, it’s more traditional than people playing works of composers who are no longer alive. People worked with composers back then. And I think with Kronos, when we did the Pieces of Africa album, we felt it was exactly the same way as working with so-called Western composers coming out of that tradition. Even those people like Carter or John Cage, both of whom we worked with, you can’t write down everything. You have to work with the composer, I find, to really figure out what they intend with the music. So I think Kronos carried that over to music that was based beyond the Western tradition. So they just approached it as, well, they have it written down but what does that really mean.
FRANK J. OTERI: Now this idea of having African string quartets by people like Dumisani Maraire or Obo Addy, and all these very, very different people who normally don’t work with a bowed string sound. How were they initially approached?
JOAN JEANRENAUD: Well, you know at first that whole process started when Kevin Volans‘s wrote his quartet White Man Sleeps.
FRANK J. OTERI: That’s an amazing piece.
JOAN JEANRENAUD: That is an amazing piece. Now originally it was for harpsichords and David Harrington of Kronos had him transcribe that for string quartet. And that was kind of our entry to that kind of sensibility – what I found from that experience was that it was not like a traditional string quartet where you think of the melody on top and the bass on the bottom. It was all four parts that were equally important. You couldn’t take one of them away and have it make any sense, they all had to be there. So I think from that point, then Kronos’s interest in that music because very evident and then we talked to someone like Terry Riley who said, oh you should talk to Hamza. So then Kronos was going over to Japan where Hamza was living at the time, and we got together with Hamza. And I think all these composers were excited to have other instruments and other interpretations of their music because I do feel that people like Hamza El Din even if they’re taking a tradition, they’re not really doing it in a strict traditional way.
FRANK J. OTERI: No, in fact, many of the people you worked with… Foday Musa Suso had already collaborated with Herbie Hancock and did that amazing work in the late 70s with Adam Rudolph in the Mandingo Griot Society. I have an old Verna Gillis field recording of Foday before he was anybody recorded 30 years ago, and he was already doing things outside of Gambian sensibility, there’s a whole song about the Apollo mission. Because the Apollo mission – people just landed on the moon – and it’s wonderful listening back to that to hear to where he came from, that he was always stretching the boundaries.
JOAN JEANRENAUD: Yeah, always.
FRANK J. OTERI: Same with Dumisani who died recently…
JOAN JEANRENAUD: Yeah, that’s very sad, he wasn’t that old.