Friday, November 28, 2008

Musical memory

On Tuesday night, as I was trying to fall asleep, with the Thanksgiving holiday approaching on Thursday, I found myself having fallen victim to yet another earworm (see my posts on this phenomenon in early September):

The first and last verses of an old Thanksgiving song kept running through my mind:

Over the river, and through the woods,
To Grandmother's house we go;
The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh
through the white and drifted snow. . . .

Over the river, and through the woods,
Now Grandmother's cap I spy!
Hurrah for the fun! Is the pudding done?
Hurrah for the pumpkin pie!

I had planned throughout the week to sit down on Thanksgiving Day itself to write about the virtually universal association in human society of celebration with song. But my plans were altered by the dreadful terrorist attacks in Mumbai, with two locations--Victoria Terminus and the Taj Hotel--being places I had visited numerous times during my travels to India, spread over more than 40 years.

Only today am I able to resume my thoughts on topics musical, having been at the forefront of breaking news for 21 years as chief of VOA's Urdu Service, and habituated during that time to following hourly developments in such events, with the saturation coverage we have all experienced recently. At this point, not feeling very celebratory with all that has happened during the past three days, I will save my reflections on holiday songs until later in December, and turn briefly tonight to another subject that fascinates me: musical memory.

I think most of us have found that music in general, but more particularly individual songs or works of music, can form associations and emotions in our minds that may pass from consciousness for a period, but which may be suddenly awakened through a process of involuntary memory.

The term was coined by Marcel Proust in his great work, Remembrance of Things Past, to describe the transforming emotions he experienced upon tasting a cookie from his childhood.

I have found that I can chart the years and eras of my life, from my early childhood, by the songs and musical pieces I discovered at the time: I can capture the essence of my experiences by listening once again to the music--particularly when I am hearing that music after a long period--as in the case of the childhood holiday song, with which I began today's entry, that haunted me as I drifted off to sleep.

Perhaps this is too subjective a topic for the VOA World Music Blog, yet I am taking the chance of pursuing it in the interests of beginning to explore some of the more subtle ways in which music can influence our emotions and even our actions, and in the hope that some readers may send some of their own experiences in which involuntary musical memory can bring the past alive once again.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Gustavo Dudamel and Il Sistema--bringing troubled youth to music

I have just learned that I will be able to attend a concert next year of the Simon Bolivar National Youth Orchestra here in Washington, led by the dynamic young conductor, Gustavo Dudamel, and presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society.

This extraoridinary young man (and the equally extraordinary ensemble) had first come to my attention when, earlier in the year, CBS' 60 Minutes aired a feature on the Venezuelan musical phenomenon, called El Sistema (The System), in which over a hundred young people's ensembles have been developed in the Latin American country, not only to nurture young musicians, but also to give youngsters from economically depressed and crime-ridden neighborhoods a chance to find self-esteem and confidence, and a future through music.

The concept was developed by Jose Antonio Abreu, an economist and amateur musician who had studied piano, harpsichord, and organ to supplement his academic work at institutions which included the University of Michigan. In his description of the effects of the program, "A child's physical poverty is overcome by the spiritual richness that comes from music."

Children as young as two years are initiated into the program, learning the basics of music. Thousands of trained musicians participate in teaching their young students, who, as stated on El Sistema's Website, number 350,000 in 180 ensembles throughout the country. During the past 32 years, according to Dr. Abreu, some 800,000 children have participated in El Sistema. In the words of one instructor interviewed for the CBS program, "when they sit in one of these churches in the orchestra, they think they are in another country, on another planet, and they start changing."

El Sistema has attracted widespread media attention (listen to a BBC/WGBH program, or watch a video critique on the TV Web page of the Boston Phoenix) and has been featured in a 2006 film documentary, Tocar y Luchar (To Play and To Fight), which has won a number of awards in international film festivals.

Performances of the Simon Bolivar National Youth Orchestra, the program's flagship ensemble, have astonished audiences all over the world, under the leadership of conductor Dudamel, himself a product of El Sistema, and a prodigy who was recently appointed Musical Director of the prestigious Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra, as illustrated in yet another episode of 60 minutes; see also a video portrait of the conductor by the prestigious label Deutsche Grammophon, which has released three CDs by the SBNYO.

I look forward to the concert, which will include a performance of Igor Stravinsky's revolutionary Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring), which was probably the most influential piece of classical music to which I was exposed in my childhood. But more on that personal note later. . . .

Friday, November 7, 2008

Washington Songlines: Lo ultimo de Mexico (The Ultimate Mexico)

Last night the Washington-based Post-Classical Ensemble presented a far-ranging survey of the rich musical traditions of Mexico. This extraordinarily diverse program, set in the Shakespeare Theatre's striking Sidney Harman Hall, was moderated by Joseph Horowitz, the Artistic Director of the Ensemble, and Gregorio Luke, a prominent commentator on Mexican culture; the two last appeared together at the Library of Congress' comprehensive "Two Faces of Mexican Music" from March 11-16 earlier in the year. The evening's offerings were together a worthy embodiment of Luke's characterization of Mexico as the world's most polyglot country.

The program opened with Carlos Chavez' "Imagined Aztec Music," entitled "Xochipilli", (for the Aztec god of music and dance, among other things), with replicas of traditional Aztec percussion instruments accompanying a western percussion and wind ensemble (including a conch shell.) Throughout the performance of the piece, a slide of a statue of the deity was projected on a screen above the stage, with this and subsequent slides--apparently selected by Luke--providing throughout the evening a beautifully colorful and evocative sequence of visual images of Mexico in contrast to the near total-black of the stage and the performer's garb. The fluid conducting style--almost dance in itself--of Angel Gil-Ordonez charged the ensemble with both precision and an electric energy that prevailed through all the pieces under his inspired--and inspiring--direction.

The next three items revealed the richness of the Mexican Baroque choral style, performed ably by the Chamber Singers of Georgetown University, again led by Gil-Ordonez. Luke remarked that within a few years of the Conquest of Mexico, the churches there established a liturgical tradition that in many ways rivaled that of Europe. A sprightly Christmas villancico (an Iberian Renaissance genre) by Juan Gutierrez de Padilla (1590-1664), concluded the musical tryptych to the riveting accompaniment of cello and percussion.

Horowitz and Luke then introduced the Mexican Romantic era--noting that due to the fierce fighting that engulfed Mexico in the years following the 1910 Mexican Revolution, countless masterpieces of both the Baroque and Romantic traditions were irretrievably lost. "Vals Capricho", a spectacularly virtuosic 1901 set piece by Ricardo Castro (1864-1907), introduced the Mexican Romantic style, followed by two compositions in that style by Manual Ponce (1882-1948): Balada Mexicana (1914), and Intermezzo III: Andantino malinconico (1921.) Illustrating the Protean role played by Ponce, as Mexico's first great modern composer in straddling the Romanic and modernist traditions, Pedro Carbone (whose rendition of Castro's piece brought music literally exploding from the piano as his fingers cascaded across the keyboard) moved effortlessly into the more abstract progressions and often lambent colors of Ponce's 1932 "Sonatina"--in one section crossing his left hand effortlessly over his right in passage after passage.

In the second half of the program, Roberto Limon introduced the much gentler presence of the classic guitar, opening with portions of the canonic "Variations and Fugue on 'La Folia'"--said in its entirety to be the Bible of the guitar--composed by Ponce for the late Andres Segovia, who brought the modern classical guitar to the world's concert stage. Interestingly, though he published all 20 variations, Segovia never recorded them all. While I recognized a few of these (I was familiar with the repertoire of the classic guitar, having been with my colleague, the late Vaughan Aandahl, one of the co-founders of the Guitar Society of Colorado in the late 1950s), I was not as moved by Limon's performance here as by his sensitive interpretations of the more textured and nuanced "Three Pieces for solo guitar", written by Carlos Chavez in 1923, and which move expressively beyond the more didactic character of Ponce's variations. Again, interestingly, though composed by Chavez for the undisputed master of the classic guitar, Segovia never performed these three fine pieces.

Moving to the contemporary era, the Post-Classical Ensemble presented "Three Secular Dances" for cello and piano (1994), by Mario Lavista (born 1943), whom Luke introduced as "Mexico's greatest living composer"; the performance excelled in fulfilling Lavista's goal of "bringing new sounds from old instruments." Next was the exquisite "Serenata" by Ana Lara (born 1954). Sitting in dramatic symmetry in a semicircle with two halves--an array of winds on the right--piccolo and flute progressing inward to oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and French Horn--and strings on the left--violins to viola, cello, and bass, the ten members of the ensemble presented a breathtaking range of shimmering timbres and tonal colors in six "sonic vignettes" (to use Horowitz' words) emerging, each after the other, from a backdrop of silence.

The program concluded with the often raucous masterpiece "Homenaje a Federico Garcia Lorca" (1936), by Silvestre Revueltas (1899-1940), in an eloquent performance by the Post-Classical Ensemble, including a haunting off-stage trumpet solo in the second movement--an expression of pure pathos, and as Luke observed, the piece played at the funeral of Revueltas after his tragic death at the age of 40. Revueltas has been the composer most performed by the Ensemble since its debut in 2003, having been founded by Horowitz and Gil-Ordonez. The group has been a tireless champion of this much neglected figure, and last night's rendition, evoking (again in Horwitz' words) "the screeching clarinets and booming tubas" of the village bands in Revueltas' childhood, captured perfectly the tensions between the surging, exhilarating hopes and dark, ultimate tragedies of the Spanish Civil War, one of whose greatest martyrs was the poet to whom Revueltas dedicated this unique and important work.

The evening's memorable performance demonstrated with incontrovertible eloquence that there is much of great value and richness to be discovered in the centuries of the musics of Mexico. For me, personally, it was a splendid extension of the revelations begun in Washington with the aforementioned Chavez-Revueltas week last March, and an inspiration to take full advantage of next year's meeting in Mexico City of the Society for Ethnomusicology. I would hope that in its deliberations, its panels and papers and concerts, the Society affords adequate recognition to the myriad musical achievements of our magnificent Southern neighbor.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Flashback to Middletown: the 2008 SEM conference.

The 2008 annual conference of the Society for Ethnomusicology concluded a week ago yesterday, and after my three initial blogging entries, I decided to give myself (and you) a break from my coverage. I spent the remainder of the conference sitting in panels on a wide range of subjects and attending concerts, gathering ideas for future postings, and renewing old friendships in the field as well as making new acquaintances.

The conference included several generations of participants--from graduate students giving their first "scholarly" paper to longer-standing members of the Society whose ages run into the 80s. (One highlight of the conference for me was an extended conversation with one of my mentors, Nazir Ali Jairazbhoy, who is about to celebrate his 81st birthday--more on this amazing man in a later post.) Last year's SEM conference in Columbus, Ohio, was the first I'd attended in 19 years, and I was delighted again this year to discover new and interesting developments in the field, among the mutltitude of avenues of research being pursued in the field during the last 20 years.

I first attended an SEM conference in New Orleans in 1966, freshly returned from two years of study of sitar and Urdu in India, and I continued to be active, attending conferences and periodically presenting papers during my academic period, ending in 1986, when I joined Voice of America as Chief of the Urdu Service, and turned my attention to journalism rather than teaching and research. My last contribution was 1988, in organizing a panel on "Public Sector Ethnomusicology," and presenting in that session a paper on "World Music at VOA." My colleagues in that panel were all employed by entities other than colleges and universities, and we felt we were breaking somewhat new ground in urging that the practice of ethnomusicology be extended beyond the halls of academe into a pro-active role that could extend beyond research to presentation, and even to advocacy.

Over the years, while continuing to examine the music of various cultures, the Society had begun to put the field itself under scrutiny, along with a critical examination of the ethics and responsibilities of the ethnomusicologist's work. An interesting example of this approach was evident in a highly controversial paper with the intriguing title (including the inevitable dual phrases separated by a colon), "Being Sneaky in the Field: The Ethics of Recording Surreptitiously." The discussion following the paper was spirited, to say the least, with a general consensus emerging that the culture being studied deserves to be respected, with complete trust essential on both sides regarding the process of documentation.

Morover, the field of ethnomusicology has expanded to explore and analyze that which is literally right at one's front door--one of the most fascinating papers being presented by Bill Boyer of New York University: "Spectacle and Performance in the New York City Subway System." He analyzed three aspects of his own experience in the subway: the observation and subsequent interviews of individuals listening to music on personal devices such as the i-Pod; a brief description of a woman discussing the sounds of the subway (the clackety-clack of the wheels, or the chimes of the closing doors) with her two sons; and an encounter with a performer on the Chinese bowed string instrument, the erhu, along with a recording of another erhu.

The paper led me to reflect on my own experiences of overhearing music being listened to (on headphones that failed to mask the sound) by fellow passengers on the Washington Metro, or the various musicians (Peruvian or Chinese, for example) I had encountered at the head of Metro escalators. Finally, it brought to mind a fascinating article on subway music written earlier this year by the Washington Post's Gene Weingarten.

Weingarten, ordinarily the humor columnist on the last page of the Post's Sunday Magazine, described the experiment of violinist Josh Bell, a world-class professional musician who played his Stradivarius violin in the Metro, to study the reactions of passersby. What is most striking about the April 8, 2007 article, which won the author the Pulitzer Prize, is that the superb music being performed by a leading violinist on a priceless instrument drew only the most cursory attention from most of those who heard it. Click here for the full article, along with a brief video of this unusual scene.