Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Sitar and the Orchestra

World music is a current fixation of classical music, with many especially younger classical musicians signing with world music/classical fusion groups. But before there was the Silk Road, and before the Kronos Quartet was performing Near- and Far- eastern inspired music, there was a (now little-known) release by Angel: Ravi Shankar's Concerto for Sitar and Orchestra.

I chose my words carefully when I said "current fixation," because the focus on world music is certainly not "recent," nor would I say it's any more prevalent now than it has been in times past. Since the late 19th century, composers have been reaching deep into their ethnic and folk traditions to lift themes, effects, rhythms, and tonal/harmonic structures. Most obviously Bartók, Kodaly, Janáček, MacDowell, Milhaud, Villa-Lobos, Khachaturian, Thomson, de Falla, and so many others, confronted ethnic and folk music, and worked it into the classical idiom (even Stravinski made a study of folk music before penning the Rite, Весна священная.) And it is a trend that continues to this day in composers like Chen Yi, Takashi Yoshimatsu, Pēteris Vasks, Erkki-Sven Tüür, and Einojuhani Rautavaara (a short selection from a long list). Some nice labels to try for this sort of thing include Nimbus, CRI, and ECM New Series. Nonesuch and Naxos probably have a few choice items as well.

The Angel LP of Shankar performing his own concerto (with none other than André Previn and the London Symphony) is indicative, I think, of a newer approach. And it's this new approach to an old idea that strikes me as characteristic of the recent movement. Shankar wrote: "The listener will not find much of the harmony, counterpoint or sound patterns he is used to, and which form the basis of Western classical music ... because they are elements which, if emphasized, can spoil or even destroy the Rāga Bhāva."

The orchestration, which isn't so much orchestration as it is orchestral accompaniment, is sparse and quite unimportant, particularly in the first movement. Following a brief introduction, establishing D major, strums of the Harp introduce the Sitar, which spends most of its time playing alone. When it is accompanied, it's either by an orchestral drone, or string plucks on either the tonic or the dominant, notes which are granted significant importance in Indian Rāgas as well as in Western music. The second movement has a longer orchestral introduction, at a moderate tempo, which surges forward when the Sitar twangs a dextrous and virtuosic second Rāga, which is really quite nice. The third movement begins with a kind of Summer-Pastoral theme that could pass for some early student works of Bax or Moeran. The Sitar strums out its entrance, and begins a kind of spinning dance, punctuated by its primary accompaniment: Bongo Drums, occasionally echoed by the orchestra or backed on the tonic by Orchestral drone. This short movement is full of rhythmic drive and lyrical Indian variations on the main Rāga. The final movement finally brings a brass instrument to the fore: the Horn sets the initial mood and key. And in this movement the Sitar has a kind of broken dialogue with the orchestra, exchanging lines: the raga deviates here and there, and in the end it's brought back, ending with a somewhat unresolved Sitar strum. The recording has been re-released on EMI, and can be found here. (Ravi Shankar, aside from being a composer, is a tremendous musician, and the CD is probably worth buying for the musicality and virtuosity of its performances).

It should come as no surprise that a composer reconciling ethnic music with the western idiom should choose to emphasize, of the two, the one that comes most naturally to him. But, the trend in the fusion of Western and World music seems now to be one in which, as in this Sitar concerto, Western idiom bows out. The liner notes calls this "West adapting to East," which strikes me as missing the point: What we have, here, is thoroughly Indian music played by Sitar, winds, and strings. Does this make it a bad piece of music? No. It's quite nice, and the orchestra does enhance the voice of the Sitar. But what it isn't is a true confrontation, it's not East meeting West as some musicians or composers might lead you to believe. And this hints at what I think is the greatest fallacy of the new approach to bringing World Music into the fold of Classical: the notion that ethnic music played on or with western instruments represents a fusion of musical ideas. And I suppose it does, insofar as playing Mozart's Turkish Rondo on electric guitar makes the Rondo "Modern Music."

I guess I just stubbornly adhere to the notion that the confrontation of ideas ought to produce something new, different, and perhaps better; not the same musical language re-instrumented. Now, you may want to read about Philip Glass' position that World Music is the new Classical. And if you're interested in Far-Eastern takes on Western music, have I got the blog for you.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Kurt Magnus Atterberg

Kurt Magnus Atterberg, born in Göteborg on December 12, 1887, is perhaps the greatest composer you've never heard of. (Yes, that ends in a preposition, because it sounds better than "of whom you've never heard.") By the time he died, he had composed five operas, nine symphonies, eight suites, five concerti, two ballets, and numerous chamber works.

Three weeks ago, I had the distinct pleasure of broadcasting nearly all of his recorded works (which is but a fraction of those he wrote). Occasionally when this or another blog puts forth a little-known modern composer, they do so with an explanation of why he's little known, and it usually reads like something along the lines of: "He was unfairly snubbed by the high-brow musical elite." Yet there is no such explanation for Atterberg: his well-constructed, tuneful music more often than not received glowing reviews; and his symphonies were programmed by what essentially amounts to the entire set of great conductors: Stokowsky, von Schillings, Nielsen, Nikish, Strauss, von Hausegger, Furtwängler, Toscanini, Beecham, Bruno Walter, and Eugene Ormandy.

So why have they disappeared? Who knows. But one can imagine that an audience attending a concert nowadays might be mesmerized by this.

That's just the exposition of the second symphony. (Granted, it's an extended one, with long arching melodies) What really separates Atterberg from those hundreds of merely good composers who write accessible music of a nationalistic nature is that he is always strict with his application of form: each theme is developed, finds itself fragmented, reversed, inverted, mashed in with the second theme, reduced to guttural howls or elevated to divine exaltation. For a long time, this second symphony, full of soaring hope, deep longing, and willful triumph, was far and away my favorite of his nine symphonies. Yet the one I find myself coming back to again and again is his ninth: the choral symphony (go figure). The theme here isn't a long melody, but a downward chromatic scale, and a leap of either a fourth or fifth, presented in the mezzo's entrance Jag Jätterna Minns ("I have the giants in mind").

The ninth symphony is very much an apocalyptic vision, taking as its subject the creation and destruction of the world, from the text of the Poetic Edda: The first war between Aesir and Vanir, the death of Balder, Odin's death, and the Ragnarok. While the music is far from atonal, there are dissonances abound as we are swept along the narrative, all the while this theme reappearing, sung by the baritone or chorus in inversion, or in reverse. By the time Rym, the world serpent, comes out from the roots of the Yggdrasil ("Rym styr un östern"), this chromatic descent and leap has transformed into this.

It's very Wagnerian: the theme that opened the narration, the creation of Midgård, becomes the theme of its destruction. It's a tremendous experience to listen to this symphony, especially with the libretto in front of you.

Now, about the performances from the cpo compact discs. Ari Rasilainen does a very fine job with the music, eliciting from the orchestras he directs the music's great power and majesty. Yet from time to time, the music seems in want of tenderness that isn't quite there in these performances, and certainly it would benefit from a more virtuosic orchestra. But, on the whole, these are very good performances, and I think very much worth exploring. It would be fantastic to see one of these symphonies performed, but until more people have made my discovery, I will content myself with these recordings.

Orgies, Features, and Atterberg: Oh My

The Atterberg orgy went well. I didn't get as much feedback as I'd have liked, but then again people often take broadcasts like that for granted. I just hope those who listened enjoyed the music as much as I did. Truly, it got better and better as it went along, and it's a darn shame that his music, especially the ninth symphony, is never performed. I was toying with the idea of putting the script of it online, that is until my hard drive crashed. No longer. Luckily everything work- and school- related has been salvaged, and I have most of my music on an external drive as well.

So what's next? I'm currently working on the Rostropovich Orgy for the spring season, drawing on those recordings accessible to us to construct a complete recording timeline, something that I don't think has been done. I've completed, finally, listings for next semester's Monday evening feature: 20th Century Britain (or rather, Early 20th-Century Britain), which ploughs through works by Sir Charles Stanford, Roger Quilter, John Ireland, Ernest Moeran, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Frank Bridge, Edward Bairstow, George Butterworth, Ivor Gurney, Granville Bantock, Rutland Boughton, Herbert Howells, Arthur Bliss, Gerald Finzi, William Walton, Edmund Rubbra, Benjamin Britten, William Alwyn, Malcolm Arnold, and Lennox Berkeley. A huge set of composers to cover in only nine one-hour sessions.

This brings me to some interesting upcoming pieces. William Alwyn's second symphony is playing next Tuesday, the 12th, at around 5:30. A few other items to point out next week are:

Martinu: Concerto for Double String Orchestra, Piano, and Timpani: Monday at around 2:45
Bartok: Divertimento for String Orchestra, Sz. 113: Wednesday at about 2:30
Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5, Op. 100: Friday at about 5:20

Hopefully I'm not the only one enjoying what's playing right now: The Glagolitic Mass of Leos Janacek. (And no, I'm not going to take the time to write in all the marks).