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Sunday, February 21, 2010

Continuum performs at Harvard

The rocking new music group from NY that goes by the name Continuum brought their contemporary music show on the road this week with not one, but two marathon concerts at Harvard's Paine Hall. The event was sponsored by the "Fromm Players at Harvard" endowment which the music department oversees, organizes, and curates on an annual basis.

The central theme this year was "Intersections." According to the detailed and elaborate program notes written by Joel Sachs (Continuum co-director, pianist, conductor, and event curator), the raison d'être for the concert was to explore the global phenomenon of cultural interaction - a process of musical fusion that began in the 19th century with Debussy's fusion of musical elements from East and West. Fusion was also a concept championed by the American experimentalist composer Henry Cowell who exhibited an "impetus toward a more all-embracing concept of 'cultural hybridizing.'"

Asserting that "intersections of culture" is a powerful force in today's music, Continuum selected 16 contemporary works for the 2010 Fromm Foundation concerts at Harvard. The two concerts featured 13 composers from all around the world. Their homelands included Mexico, Azerbaijan, Argentina, China, Cambodia, Israel, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Indonesia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. It should be noted that many of these composers at one time or another studied or resided in the America or in Western Europe.

While the number of composers is too numerous, and the scope of their work is too broad, to fairly review here, I will say that the performances by Continuum were extremely impressive. They brought an entire chamber orchestra up from NY for our entrainment. Their troupe consists of about 20 musicians and support staff. I commend Harvard for investing in what must have been a pretty expensive new music variety show.

The soloist's with Continuum that stuck out were Taiwan-born cellist Mimi Yu, clarinetist Moran Katz, violist Stephanie Griffin, and pianist/Continuum co-director Cheryl Seltzer. Cheryl had a lot on her plate, and she really played up a storm - both inside the piano and on the keyboard.

(Note that last month in this blog I reviewed a concert by Continuum in NY. The link is provided below).

Taking a 40-thousand foot view of the two Fromm Players at Harvard concerts this year, I came away with some general reactions to the notion of cultural fusion in music. Here is how I see it...

Cultural identity is not only a key aspect of the identity of a musical work, it is a necessary and unavoidable attribute of the composer's intent. On the other hand, cultural identity should not override or preempt the primary objective of the creative endeavor - that of expressing sound as organized into abstract and aesthetically pleasing patterns and ideas.

There are voluminous gray areas here, including the overlap between cultural identity, and say Nationalism. Personally, I've never cared much for Nationalistic music. It often carries with it an overtone of politics and propaganda, or least the potential to be exploited politically without the composer's explicit or implicit consent or knowledge of the fact. Aaron Copland was a wonderful composer, but how many times have we heard his music put into a context to represent the "great American way."

Often "cultural identity" clutters the musical idea, by bringing with it too many external associations. For example, I find the music of Stravinsky's late period to be much more communicative and direct than music his much more popular Russian period. I find Bartók's music to be much more interesting when he composed in a purely modern style, and avoided explicit quotes of Hungarian folk tunes.

Composers who have created something distinctive and original often forge a brand new language to work in. While their new language may have derived in some way from the folk and art music traditions of their native culture, these composers moved on beyond their provincial milieu to invent what in many instances can be regarded as a cross-cultural, universal, and holistic viewpoint. As great composers they stand as a full-fledged contributors on the international stage.

The new music scene today is fragmented, confused, and suffering from a chronic identity crisis. If there ever existed a common international musical language, it was left behind at the end of the 20th century. Perhaps there was once a time when composers from all around the world could write in a similar or common modernist style. For example, I never regarded Tōru Takemitsu as Japanese, Luciano Berio as Italian, or Elliott Carter as American. They all composed darn good contemporary music that has an identity associated with them as individual artists. It doesn't matter which country they come from, since they speak in a more or less universal musical language that apparently has world-wide universal appeal.

But fusion sells. The commercial success of "cross-over albums" is unmistakable. Combining world music and traditional classical music is a profitable enterprise, and the international acclaim of Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Project and Osvaldo Golijov's The St. Mark Passion are testaments to this fact (the later case observed by Joel Sachs in his program notes).

This phenomenon is a fact that does not go unnoticed by composers, especially by composers who are more often than not accustomed to being unnoticed. To put it crudely, by emphasising one's country of origin, a certain degree of marketing cachet can be derived. International bios are always more interesting to read than local and provincial ones.

I'm not sure that I like hearing the world's indigenous music re-tooled, re-interpreted, and performed on modern Western orchestral instruments. Such was my generalized take-way from the two "Intersections" new music concerts by Continuum.

It's not that there is a lot of interesting music and wealth of material to be derived from long-established and diverse musical cultures, it's that exploiting this music merely for self-promotion purposes bores me.

I noticed that "Intersections" concerts focused on composers who in one way or another utilized non-Western materials which derived specifically from their own specific homeland. I'm much more interested in composers who expand their personal horizons, and go beyond their own culture or place of birth. For example, Americans George Crumb, Lou Harrison, and Harry Partch were influenced by Asian music. Luciano Berio's classic "Folk Songs" take the listener on a global trek across many different non-Italian cultures - including the Appalachia mountains of North America. You don't have to be of African-American descent to play jazz. Mozart transcended his culture when he composed the Alla Turca movement of his Piano Sonata No. 11 in A major, K331.

It's my personal bias to avoid explicit cultural associations in my own music. I'm not going to whip out an accordion just because I'm of Italian-American decent. I might incorporate an accordion in a work because it's unique or interesting sounds, but the music would probably bare little if any resemblance to the popular song, "Nel blu dipinto di blu" - more commonly known as "Volare" - sung by the Italian pop singer Domenico Modugno. I prefer my music to be as abstract as possible, original, and with little or no cultural bias or baggage.

In our age we are bombarded by culture. Forging a new culture out of the old sometimes means burning bridges and destroying what has been the status quo. Phoenix rose from the ashes. Contemporary music should be able to stand on its own feet without the crutch of external forces.

In the end I think most composers would like to be thought of as a "composer" rather than as a "[fill the national or ethnic label] composer." The commonalities between composers are much more important and interesting than their national or ethnic differences.

Now here is Domenico Modugno singing "Volare" (Nel blu dipinto di blu) in 1958...