Monday, November 22, 2010

NNM Trade Winds from Tibet concert review

Yesterday I demonstrated the simultaneous colander-like aspect of my memory and ability to delight in new music. It's a good life when I can rehearse in gamelan, start learning a new piece, get an hour ahead of schedule, and still make it to a pre-concert talk. I paid attention, too, until after the concert I was rather speechless for words. I'll explain.

Network for New Music, one of my favorite chamber groups in the world, commissioned several pieces from white composers* using field recordings of sacred and folk Tibetan songs as a prompt. Last night's concert was the first in a series of Asian-focused new music from NNM this season. In the pre-concert talk, composer Andrea Clearfield, whose field recordings sparked the commission, and anthropologist Katie Blumenthal gave a brief introduction to their work in Lo Monthang, and NNM artistic director and pianist Linda Reichert facilitated. Composer Eric Moe added his perspective in creating one of the commissioned works.

As you may remember from my last post, my trigger point in Western presentations of culture from the East and global South is in the simultaneous elevation of the subject to the sublime and the demotion of its human constituents to the inaccessibly different. Too often I hear from self-proclaimed [insert your Asian or Middle Eastern]-philes signs of Orientalism, not in direct dismissal of a people's ability to construct their own narrative, but in generalizing, patronizing terms they would never apply to a Western people. And just as oppressive is the practice of "natives" -- immigrants like myself included -- in adopting this dominant stereotype of who and why we are. So of course I had to ask about these women's experience of Otherness both as rare white visitors and how their own perspectives toward Asians changed as they learned more and built relationships on numerous journeys. I was at once relieved and disappointed to hear a language of mixed results, doubt, and uncertainty -- that's also my reality -- and deliberate efforts at collaboration, power sharing, and invitation. You can read about their documentation project on Ms Blumenthal's blog.

The venue was the Ethical Society's hall at Rittenhouse Square. It was a central location and the intimate space was perfect for the nuances of the chamber program. The show appeared sold out to a predominantly older white audience and handful of poc and student types.

Tony Solitro's short piece Passages for alto flute, violin, and cello evoked a woody feel with strong rhythmic presentation. By woody I mean strenuous but simple strokes in rhythmic unison interspersed by short, lyrical passages alternating with the percussive texture. I wasn't sure about form but enjoyed the rhythmic world.

Eric Moe's Spirit Mountain delighted me with great accents, pairing combinations of flute, oboe/EH, bassoon, piano, and single percussion. A memorable pairing was onset-accents of oboe phrases by off-pitch flute notes, which sounded cool over percussion hand-drumming.

The audience loved Clearfield's Kawa Ma Gyur and Lung-Ta, both for tape and chamber ensemble. I wrote the composer an email with detailed feedback about my hearing, but in short, they were powerful pieces, complex, organically undulating in mood, and rhythmically compelling. Disclaimer: rhythmic syncopation is my fix. [Edit: apparently my notes were disorganized. In addition to Western ensemble the first piece called for a pair of dung chen, long bronze horns of indefinite or varying pitch, whose tones appeared also early on in the tape, in alternation with the chamber group.] Most memorable about the first is the way it fades out: more and more of the ensemble switch from ordinary playing techniques to clapping, the cellist first rapping the side of the instrument's body with the knuckles, then whispering rhythmically, always syncopated in patterns reminiscent of interlocking, decrescendo into nothing.

The second of her works featured last night was most complex, a through-composed interpretation of a Tibetan prayer for peace. It's scored for flute/alto, oboe/EH, clarinet, bassoon/cbsn, violin, viola, cello, and percussion. I especially appreciated the way upward-bending approaches to overlapping sustained notes among the chamber instruments were like many dung chen sounding. Later, soft homophonic strings and reeds made an accordion-like texture. My notes are disorganized, so I'll have to confirm when I can steal a peek at the score, but I believe there were two notable loud sections, one in thunderous agitation involving a conch-like instrument, a siren-like horn, and four bead drum toys played by the front row at a signal; another folksy, rambunctious, and with heavy drumming as the ensemble accelerated into chaos.

I found her use of tape especially effective, enriching the chamber ensemble's sound world but not weirding it out. With extended techniques, the composition transitioned fluently in and out of them so they fit, and when the group quieted, the tape showed through gently, now men chanting prayers, now the swells of distant dung chen in its context of drums and gongs.

After this wealth of music I was yet left yearning for more, encores even, yes, with scores to follow along. The concert lasted two hours with extra time for setup before the larger pieces, but I was eager for more music. Unfortunately an encore was not to be had, and I attempted to switch into social mode to congratulate the players and composers and remark to strangers and acquaintances how delightful it had been in a comprehensible manner. Next time I had better recognize the impossibility of this feat and go home forthwith.

A younger member of the audience asked in Q&A how off-pitches are treated in a theory of Tibetan music, whether they are systematized approaches to main pitches (as in Indian raga) or ornaments, or part of a microtonal scale. Ms Blumenthal pointed out no such formal theory exists to her knowledge. My question would be, what is the significance of that? It's not our job as Western musicians to simulate a theory or encourage these musicians to make one up to suit our intellectual habit. Then what do we need to understand about the function and history of this music to advance our awareness of the cultural practice?

*I've been promised music from Asian and Asian American composers in upcoming programs, though my response to it cannot be similarly predicted.

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