Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Washington Songlines: Ginsberg and Glass' Hydrogen Jukebox at Georgetown University

On the Sunday night preceding the inauguration of President Obama--and while the pre-Inaugural concert with a roster of superstars and an audience of hundreds of thousands was taking place at the Lincoln Memorial (see the post at, Georgetown University and the Baltimore-based American Opera Theater presented the last of three performances of the Hydrogen Jukebox, with the libretto taken from the poetry of the late Allen Ginsberg, and the original music by Philip Glass.

(Complete report forthcoming.)

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Washington Songlines: SamulNori and the Korean-American community

How many entities does it take to present a concert of Korean music in the nation's capital? Despite the exponential increase in "world music" interest and awareness in the U.S. in the last couple of decades, the challenges of presenting a concert of essentially traditional "ethnic" music (as opposed to the more common "fusion" music currently performed by myriad groups) at a major American venue are considerable.

One of the pleasures of living in the Washington area is the abundance of numerous and substantial hyphenated (as in Korean-American) communities (both immigrant and native-born), particularly when it comes to cuisine. Yet for members of the mainstream music audience, access to traditional performances is not as frequent as in many European countries, where well-funded national Ministries of Culture routinely sponsor a wide range of such concerts in prestigious settings.

Last night was an extraordinary demonstration of Korean percussion music by SamulNori, led by master percussionist Kim Duk Soo, at the Smithsonian's Meyer Auditorium. The eponymous group (whose name is drawn from the primally rhythmic genre also called Samul Nori) is certainly the best known in the U.S. as proponents of this music, and it was not difficult to understand the audience's enthusiasm for this spectacularly percussive style--but more on the music itself in a later post.

The performance was preceded by the usual introduction by Michael Wilpers, who for many years has coordinated the public programming at the Freer and Sackler Galleries (the Smithsonian Institution's Asian art museums), and remarks by Paul Michael Taylor, head of the Asian Cultural History Program of the National Museum of Natural History, which co-sponsored the program, along with the Arlington-based Korean Heritage Foundation, Next came a brief speech by former Virginia Governor and Senator George Allen, who was credited in Dr. Taylor's introduction with introducing in the U.S. Senate, in 2005, a resolution for the establishment of Korean-American Day as 13 January--the day of this particular performance.

At this point, let me digress for a moment. Having attended (and assisted in the organization of) numerous concerts at the Freer and Sackler, I am always interested in the various identities manifest in members of the audience, as well as the range of dress (from jeans and sweatshirt to suit and gown and occasional regional garb), ethnicity, and the phenomenon I'll call "clustering"--in which certain individuals will tend to be the focus of unusual attention prior to the concert. As I scanned those in the lobby waiting to enter the auditorium (partly because of some confusion in the distribution of tickets), I was particularly aware of two figures, both Caucasian: one, a distinguished, scholarly gentleman of medium height with an impressive shock of greyish hair, and the other, a tall, smiling, well-coiffed and ruddy-faced man in an impressive (and probably expensive) dark suit. It was clear from the shifting groups of people surrounding them that they were not merely members of the audience.

It turned out that the scholarly figure was Dr. Taylor, who had been instrumental in assisting with the co-sponsorship of the concert through the Museum, and the other was George Allen, whose contributions on behalf of the Korean--American community have been noted above.

To return to my opening question regarding what is needed to organize such a concert: last night's program was the commendable and happy result of the combined efforts (and funding) of two wings of the Smithsonian--the Freer/Sackler galleries and the Museum of Natural History--as well as the Korean-American Foundation, with obvious support by a prominent political figure. In short, the occasion was more than a mere concert, but rather a celebration of a particular day honoring the identity of Korean-Americans, who, according to Wikipedia, are, at 1.4 million, "the fifth largest Asian American subgroup, after the Chinese American, Filipino American, Indian American, and Vietnamese American communities. The United States is home to the second largest overseas Korean community in the world after China."

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Adrift in the musical cyberseas of the New Year

Warm New Year's greetings to everyone who reads this!

I spent the past month in India in what was very much a musical environment in the countryside outside the city of Bhopal, but which was also in isolation from the Internet, with the result that I could not continue my blogging on this site as I had expected. The bad luck which besieged my travels during this period (delayed or canceled airline flights, much delayed and prolonged train travel due to fog) seems to have been transferred to my connectivity. I returned this morning to my VOA office hoping to post two previous blogs from my Macintosh laptop, only to have the machine crash shortly after my arrival.

So turning to the mail accumulated during my time away, I perused the latest calendar from the Freer and Sackler Galleries here in Washington, with whom I have enjoyed nearly twenty years of musical collaboration (including the arrangements for the inauguration of their series of concerts of classical Indian music with a performance of the late Ustad Vilayat Khan in 1987, as well as subsequent appearances by a variety of prominent artists, including, most recently, the Hindustani vocalist Subhra Guha and sarangi master Ustad Sultan Khan.)

The calendar included a listing for "Five Directions: A Korean and American Jazz Excursion", which took place in December while I was in India. Among the performers in that program I found the name of Ned Rothenberg, performing on clarinet and shakuhachi. I paused, momentarily confused, because when I was teaching at Harvard I had a student, also a clarinetist pursuing new musical avenues, named David Rothenberg, and wondered whether he had changed his stage name. But a quick check of Google took me directly to David's own Webpage, and I was reassured to find that he is continuing his activities, as before very much in the realm of environmental consciousness. I would have called him to re-establish contact, but with his telephone number inaccessible in my sulking computer, I was forced to follow his activities on the Web. Hence a full posting on him will come later. . . .

In addition to an interview with David on NPR's All Things Considered, I was pleased to find samples of his music on his MySpace page, and while I was listening to these I scrolled down casually over "Friends' Comments," only to stumble upon a message from one Lukas Ligeti--a name which caught my eye because of the surname being the same as that of the great twentieth-century composer, Gyorgy Ligeti.

Once again, upon searching for more information about Lukas Ligeti, about whom I'd heard nothing previously, I found yet another western composer who is integrally involved in non-western music--in this case, the musical traditions of Africa.

Ligeti's MySpace page includes two examples of this involvement. The first, "Ligdi", is from the 2006 debut CD, "Paspanga," by Burkina-Electric, a ground-breaking ensemble Ligeti formed with a number of musicians from Burkina Faso. The song "uses the waraba, a traditional rhythm of the Mossi people"--the quote being taken from an extensive, thoughtful paper by Ligeti on "The Burkina Electric Project and Some Thoughts About Electronic Music in Africa." The group's Web page includes one of their music videos.

”Rain Turns Red Gold”, another piece based on African music, may be heard on Ligeti's MySpace page. The track is from "Shadowglow," a 2003 CD on Finland's TUM Records in which Ligeti collaborates with guitarist Raoul Bj√∂rkenheim; a thoughtful online review on observes that the piece "has Bj√∂rkenheim on a Tri-sonic steel guitar chiming out cyclic patterns of metallic tones, born up by Ligeti’s prepared log drum and atmospheric percussion palette."

Well, so much for today's musical wanderings and serendipitous discoveries. More to come, as I ramp up for the New Year.