Sunday, March 29, 2009

The mystical musical world of Hyman Bloom, 96

It is my great good fortune to be staying in Nashua, New Hampshire, at the home of my first mentor in Indian music, the great American painter Hyman Bloom, who is today celebrating his 96th (!) birthday with friends and family. Hyman lives with his wife Stella, whom he married in 1978, in a spacious home, converted 25 years ago from a large hundred-year-old New England barn, with high ceilings, a loft entrance, and dark broad-timber floors, and now white plaster walls, many adorned with Hyman's work, from small pencil sketches to enormous canvases pulsing with turbulent colors and spiritual energy--some of the greatest achievements of Twentieth-Century American drawing and painting.

And on this rainy Sunday morning, the home is fragrant with the rich aromas of Stella's superb Greek cooking (with able assistance since yesterday from her sister-in-law Irene Caralis, and today, sister Anna Burland) for the guests who will be arriving shortly. Not that Hyman will be the seniormost among those celebrating the occasion; we are awaiting the arrival of Hyman's long-time physician and friend (and mine while I was teaching in Cambridge), the astonishingly alert Dr. Abraham Stone Freedberg, an eminent Harvard Medical School Professor Emeritus who is looking forward to his 101st birthday in May.

I first met Hyman in Boston when I was in college in the early 1960s. One of my roommates, knowing of my interest in Indian music (which I had discovered on recordings in the 1950s), introduced me to the daughter of Hyman's dealer, who arranged for me to meet the man who was eventually to continue, following my late mother's early nurture, the spiritual support for my music that I never received from my own father. I remember very clearly going to Hyman's studio on Newbury Street in Boston on numerous occasions, when we would sit, often with little or no conversation--and listen to some of the many 78 rpm recordings he had collected from India of the great masters--material which was totally unavailable at that time in the U.S.

It was with Hyman that I first heard the legendary Indian vocalist Kesarbai Kerkar--with her jewel-like improvisations in Indian ragas--and the equally legendary Ustad Bundu Khan, who had brought the magical sarangi from its role as a box-fiddle for accompaniment to vocalists to its current status as a virtuoso solo instrument par excellence. To my ears (then, and still) the voice of the sarangi was the closest instrumental equivalent to a musical cry from the human soul that I had ever heard, and Kesarbai's singing conveyed a haunting sense of the great timelessness and vast cultural expanses of India.

I knew little at the time of Hyman's enormous reputation as a painter. He was at one point considered by Jackson Pollock and William de Kooning to be the greatest American painter, and the de facto father of American Abstract Expressionism, with paintings hanging in many major American museums. As for his work itself: his studio in those days was filled with numerous canvases of various sizes stacked mysteriously against the walls, face-in; nor was there any work-in-progress on an easel with a palette of paints nearby that this Denver-born boy would have expected from having seen in his childhood Lust for Life, with Kirk Douglas' impassioned portrayal of Vincent Van Gogh. (Only much later was I able to see in his home, or in exhibitions, many of Hyman's great paintings, whose use of ecstatic and vibrant color challenges, in a very different style, that of the great Dutch master himself.) But there were exotic Indian instruments on the shelves, and when I was there the studio was filled with the voices of Indian music--that extraordinary musical universe of which I had had glimpses, also in Denver, while hearing my own early LPs of Indian classical music.

One of Hyman's early teachers, Denman Ross, had used musical scales as a model for a systematic treatment of of the painter's color palette. In the 1930s Hyman began to collect recordings of Greek, Turkish, Jewish, and Indian music, probably as a source for alternate aesthetic inspiration. I've often thought these musical explorations must have touched upon the coloristic aspects (iridescence in visual terms) of the microtonal intervals, scales, and ornaments of the oriental traditions. In the 1940s Hyman became close friends with the prolific Alan Hovhaness, one of the most widely recorded American composers (he styled himself "Scottish-Armenian", and is generally grouped among the modern musical orientalists), whose oeuvre is as controversial among the cognoscenti as it is beloved by many--including myself--in the contemporary audience for classical music. By Hyman's account they talked often, and deeply, about the meaning and mysticism of music, and the creative forces behind it.

Then in the mid-50s, Hyman met the late James A. Rubin--another Bostonian whose persona, as a businessman and extraverted bon vivant--was vastly different from that of Hyman. In ensuing years their common interest in oriental music enabled this very odd couple (the scholarly and comparatively diminutive Hyman with his deep eyes, quizzically arched eyebrows, and long charcoal beard, vs. the towering Rubin with his booming voice and PR-man bonhomie and swagger) to collaborate in the formation of the PanOrient Arts Foundation (which I'll cover in a subsequent writing).

As noted, Hyman was an active collector of oriental recordings. After a few shared meals in Boston delicatessens and Greek restaurants, the two agreed to meet to see each other's collections. Jim later would tell the story of turning up at Hyman's studio with his two LPs of Indian music (checked out from the Public Library) proudly in hand, to be confronted with Hyman's very comprehensive collection of hundreds of 78 rpm discs of usic--as well as Turkish and Indian instruments.

It was through the peripatetic Rubin, that Hyman (who hated travel as much as Rubin thrived on it) was able to expand the collection of recordings and instruments which nourished his profound love of music, and which led him into auditory realms which at once comforted and inspired him. And it was that same love that enabled Hyman to accept me--with no expressed interest whatsoever in his painting--as a frequent fellow traveller on musical paths, generously lending me his own sitar during my senior year in college.

We continued to meet, often in the company of the irrepressible Rubin, after my two years of sitar study in India (1964-66), most particularly when I returned to Harvard to teach (1974-1983). During those nine years I would lunch with Hyman almost every week, initially at the original Legal Seafoods in Inman Square in Cambridge, which with its sawdust-covered floors and boisterous atmosphere providing a welcome change from the august and often arrogant institution back along Cambridge Street.

* * * * * * *
Now, after dinner, the birthday candles heroically blown out--if not all at once (Hyman sleeps with an oxygen tube at night), and certainly not 96 in number, the last of some twenty guests have departed. The gray, cloudy New Hampshire Sunday afternoon outdoors encloses with warm comfort the now quiet, richly hued luminosity in Hyman and Stella's home, with its amazing combination of Hyman's original thin-lined sketches and large-scale colorburst oil canvases on the walls, and on adjacent shelves, in a somehow natural visual counterpoint, a seemingly endless procession of glass vases and plates and bowls of the Carnival Glass style, which Hyman has collected over the decades for their infinite range of darkling iridescent shades and shadows, to be subjects for some of his own works of still life with their mystical, motionless dances of color.

And in quiet and thankful contemplation, I celebrate the 96 years of this gentle and visionary man, and his priceless gift to me of a paternal musical blessing.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Saxophone East and West

Two recent musical discoveries prompt me today toward a brief exploration of how the saxophone has lent itself to differing interpretations by Rudresh Mahanthappa, a saxophonist raised by Indian-born parents in Boulder, Colorado and now thriving in New York jazz circles, and Andrew Morris, a British practitioner on the same instrument currently living in Bangladesh and performing there and abroad with a local group, "Arnob and Friends".

I first heard Mahanthappa in a dual concert with the South Indian saxophone master Kadri Gopalnath two or three years ago at Washington's Freer and Sackler Galleries, the oriental branches of the Smithsonian Institutution, America's national museum. I was particularly eager to hear Gopalnath, who has miraculously transformed a western instrument which customarily uses fixed pitches, primarily in jazz idioms, into a perfect vehicle for South Indian (Carnatic) classical music, which depends heavily upon microtonal glides and ornaments between notes in a musical line that is exceptionally fluid in its articulation. Examples of his distinctive performance style can be found on the "Shopping" section on his own Website, as well as on YouTube.

(As a momentary aside, a similar transformation of the essentially fixed-pitch western mandolin has been achieved by the prodigy Mandolin U. Shrinivas, whose own fluidly melodic miracles--albeit in a world music fusion style--can be heard on samples from his album "Samjanitha", as well as on various YouTube sites).

But to return to Mahanthappa: the artist was recently profiled in a superb New Yorker article by the senior jazz critic Gary Giddins, who focuses on two of the artist's albums, "Kinsmen" and "Apti", both of which he describes as being nothing short of "astonishing" (click on the links to hear samples). Giddins notes, among other things, Mahanthappa's collaboration with pianist Vijay Iyer (of whom more in a later blog), in the process of trying to define his own musical identity in a journey between elements both western and eastern, including a period of study and collaboration with the aforementioned Gopalnath.

I've not yet had the opportunity to listen to the two albums that are so perceptively reviewed by Giddins, but will have my own comments on them once I can obtain copies. In the meantime, I am happy to refer readers to two fine radio pieces: an extended and illuminating interview of Mahanthappa--including performance samples--from the marvelous NPR (National Public Radio) program "Fresh Air", hosted by Terry Gross, as well as another feature on the artist from All Things Considered, NPR's flagship evening news program. (I also hope to have shortly a link to a VOA Hindi Service interview of the artist by Rohit Kulkarni.)

And as for the television interview of Welsh saxophonist Andrew Morris by Ahsanul Haq of VOA's Bangla Service, you can see and hear it--in English--here. Morris speaks of his work with the band Arnob and Friends for the last two years. A concert video of the group at New York's Symphony Space, with Morris on saxophone, can be seen on the BrooklynVoice Website, along with a review and some of the group's lyrics. A lesser-quality video interview with Arnob, along with concert footage, is available on the WashingtonBanglaRadio Website.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

In search of the Real Ireland . . . .

Having promised yesterday to review Celtic music achievements in the Grammy Awards, I discovered today that the only winners in the folk music category have been the previously reviewed Chieftains, who over the years have received a total of six Grammies out of 18 nominations!

(The remainder of this posting has been updated, and can be seen (and heard) here.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Pre-St. Paddy's Day: Update on The Chieftains

My good friend and colleague Gary Thomas (the singing bard of VOA's newsroom) gently reminded me this morning to do something here regarding St. Patrick's Day, which comes tomorrow. I'm most happy to accede to his request, with none other than his own informative e-mail comments from last week (to which I've provided Web links) on my earlier review of The Chieftains:

"I've seen them several times, although I have a personal preference for some other groups. (You want to get your socks knocked off, rummage around for some music of the now-defunct supergroup Planxty -- kind of the Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young of Irish music. You can see them on YouTube.)

"But I would note two things of which you might want to be aware: at several points you refer to them speaking or singing 'Gaelic'. While technically correct, that's actually a rather broad term referring to languages from Brittany to Ireland. It's like saying someone is speaking European. The proper term is 'Irish' language (or Welsh or Breton or Scottish). Secondly, the identity is Celtic, and the broad term for music from these diverse areas is widely known as Celtic music."

When I thanked him for this input (points now duly noted, Gary, and corrected) in our e-mail exchange, he continued:

"I would add that the Chieftains were the first group to popularize traditional Irish instrumental music abroad. But the way was paved by the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem [mentioned in my review], who arrived in NY during the Great Folk Music Scare of the 1950s-60s wearing their Aran knit sweaters (well, they call them 'jumpers') and carting loads of traditional songs that they learned from relatives. They were a smash on the Ed Sullivan Show, singing a rousing outlaw ballad, 'Brennan on the Moor' [various versions of their song on YouTube].

Planxty arose out of the British folk scene in 1970 as a supergroup of emigrant musical standouts -- Donal Lunny, Andy Irvine, Christy Moore, and master Uilleann piper Liam O'Flynn. The first album in 1971, "Planxty," was a seminal event in Irish music."

And in reminding me of the forthcoming celebrations tomorrow, he added more of his musical erudition this morning:

"There has been a revival in 'sean-nos' ('old style' or 'old way') singing in the Irish language. It is an ornamental, haunting, a capella style of traditional singing. It was once widespread in Ireland but fell into near-extinction when the English language was forced upon the population. It was kept alive in the 'Gaeltacht', the remaining Irish-speaking areas of Ireland."

I'll continue tomorrow, on Gary's urging, with a post on past Grammy Award winners (including the Chieftains) in the Celtic music tradition. As both Gary and I spent part of our broadcasting careers covering Pakistan--he for several years as VOA's Islamabad Bureau Chief and Correspondent, and I as Urdu Service Chief for 21 years, it's a distinct pleasure to continue our association on musical lines.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Venue vs. venue: The Desi dance community in the Washington area

With several partially completed "reviews" of recent concerts still waiting in draft, I ask myself why I'm irresistably moved, on a Sunday (i.e., non-work day) morning, to blog. Well, the life of music and art never ends . . . .

Last night we attended a solo dance performance by Sujata Mohapatra, one of India's leading practitioners in the Odissi style (yes, I know this is a music blog, but bear with me--you'll see my motive soon), at the very modest auditorium of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington in Rockville, MD. The program was organized by the Mayur Dance Academy, one of many local classical Indian dance schools in the Washington, DC area.

A day or two earlier, both my wife and I received notifications, on our private musical e-mail accounts, from the magnificent Strathmore Art Center about an upcoming program in the same genre--Odissi Dance--by the Nrityagram Dance Ensemble, an entire company, as opposed to last night's soloist. The e-mails offered substantial discounts to us and our students (Shubha teaches Hindustani instrumental and vocal music to a range of students from five to 40, and I currently have one sitar student myself).

Strathmore apparently tracked down our personal music e-mail addresses from one of the several national databases listing teachers of Indian music in various cities. This move showed admirable initiative in reaching out to the community, since a quick check of the Strathmore box office online confirmed that ticket sales were already going well five days before the event.

I plan to attend the Strathmore program, to contrast the effect of venue on performance--in this case dance; but many of the same observations can relate to musical presentations as well.

As background for my entry to come later in the week, let me note now that the teaching of dance, almost exclusively to young women (predominantly Indian-Americans, but also with Bangladeshi-American and Anglo participants as well), is a staple of the local Desi community for two major reasons, with a tertiary motive not far behind.

The first motive lies in the fact that like most communities outside their homeland, South Asians strive in a number of ways to maintain as many aspects as possible of their original culture in the American setting, be it language, or artistic expression such as dance and, to a lesser extent music.

Secondly, training in dance in particular is a popular medium for young girls (usually Hindu, as is also true in India), in that such education not only enables them to learn grace, poise, and physical discipline, but adds to their desirability as a bride in what, even now, are frequently at least partially arranged marriages.

Finally, in the current highly competitive American pre-college educational environment, a significant accomplishment in Indian dance can stand as a healthy addition to the applicant's resume, in which extracurricular activities are seen to prove a prospective student as "well-rounded."

It is against this background that Indian dance performances in particular, whether in a modest community-center (or high school auditorium), or a splendid concert hall such as Strathmore, have a an interested clientele--i.e., dance students and their families and friends--that is significantly greater than that of Indian music. But more of this after the second performance.

In the meantime, those of you who understand Bangla (Bengali) can hear an interview of Silvee Jamil, a young Bangladeshi-American dance student of the Mayur Dance Academy, by Anis Ahmed of VOA's Bangla Service.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Saturday morning blues

The various concepts of the blues encompass a wide variety of human psychological and aesthetic experiences. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary describes the emotional state as "low spirits : melancholy [as in] a case of the blues". In musical terms, the blues refers to any of several rhythmic/harmonic formats used in genres roughly definable as jazz and rhythm and blues (R&B), with various regional stylistic variants: e.g., "Chicago Blues", or "Memphis Blues", or topical variants, as in "hokum [humorous or satyrical] blues."

A ghazal couplet in Urdu by my dissertation poet, Mirza Ghalib, is beautifully translated by the blues lyric "Don't start me talkin', I'll tell everythin' I know. . . . ." So this is not meant to be a discussion of the wonderful musical and lyrical richness of the blues themselves, but just a departure to share with you how I am feeling this morning after three wonderfully (and exhaustingly) busy weeks, on both the musical and digital fronts, each involving deep exploration into new territories. And now it's a pre-dawn Saturday morning, and after only four hours' restless sleep (dreams of traveling underground, avoiding the soldiers in a hostile city; lost eyeglasses; trying to avoid deep crevasses in my quest toward unknown destinations . . . . ), and awakening in a wash of guilt for the several half-drafted or even unwritten blogs troubling my soul:

Woke up this mornin', blues all around my head
Woke up this mornin', blues all around my head
Worryin' 'bout those blogs that if they ain't written, they sure thing won't be read

(missing my old Stella twelve-string guitar, with which, during my incandescent summer in Yellowstone in 1961, I used to jam most memorably late starry weekend nights with a tall, bearded forest ranger on the bass--his name hiding just the other side of a wall in the mottled mists of youthful memory)

The pre-dawn period is a wonderful time for Hindustani classical music, my metier: quiet, meditative, peaceful, sometimes tinged with sadness or remorse; perhaps the saddest raga of all being Bilaskhani Todi, said to have been created by the son (Bilas Khan) of the great dhrupad singer Miyan Tansen, one of the nine jewels of the court of the great Indian Mughal emperor Akbar (1542-1605), after Tansen's death in the 1580's. It is said that the son's performance of this raga, created by him spontaneously in his grief for the occasion, was so powerful that the head of the father's corpse was said to have moved from side to side in the uniquely Indian gesture of appreciation.

Woke up this morning, these damn blues ALL around my head
Woke up this morning, those notes buzzin' all in my head
If I don't practice some, my music it soon be dead

my sitar sits in the corner, silent in the darkness
my laptop glowing brightly on my lap
conflicted, I hold my fingers poised. . . .

And drifting through my brain, the sublime musical strands, most recently, of the Silk Road Ensemble's luminous performance at the splendid Strathmore Art Center on Wednesday.

The bear-like forest ranger's name comes, miraculously, back to me: Swearingen! Paul Swearingen!

The furnace kicks on downstairs, the radiator ticks, out of synch with the clock on the mail table. So many fine musical memories of these three weeks (the many Arabesque evenings, the Post-Classical Ensemble, The Chieftains, and Yo-Yo Ma and his amazing global retinue), and so little time to be able to try to capture in words those experiences. . . . .

And my hands and heart longing to gather up my beloved sitar

Wish me luck. Time for more espresso as I listen to the trucks groaning and cars whizzing by intermittently (governed by the traffic light nearby on the corner) on C Street NE outside, and wait for the sun to rise.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Washington Songlines: World music goes foot-tappin' and STOMPIN' with The Chieftains

[Note: This is a corrected version, as per helpful input from my VOA Colleague Gary Thomas; see "Pre-St. Paddy's Day: Update on The Chieftains".]

To change the tone a bit from my ponderous previous post:

Last night the Chieftains and assorted guests electrified the audience in the Kennedy Center Opera House with a full offering of Irish-based revels, leavened by musical allies from Scotland, Canada, Nashville, Long Island (yes, Long Island), and the Washington area itself.

This was the first Gaelic [corrected to Celtic] songfest I've attended since my college days in the early 60's, when the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem were all the rage. And after a rich (perhaps too rich in such a short time) musical movable feast centering on Arabic offerings (also at the KenCen) over the past two weeks, I was able to sit back, let my foot tap away, and enjoy--among many other aspects--the brevity of high-energy performances in rapid-fire sequence.

The core members of the Chieftains are at once consummate musicians and engaging showmen/entertainers (an interesting distinction made by my Washington-area colleague Mark Jenkins in his review of Tom Jones' recent local appearance). As commonplace and often bland as "fusion" has become in the realm of world music these days, I have to say that The Chieftains' efforts in that direction last night were dizzyingly successful.

Where to begin? Well, why not at the beginning? A light note was set when the group's founder/godfather Paddy Moloney came out on stage and began rattling off in what I thought at first was (not unusual for my ear) an impenetrable Irish accent, when suddenly he (theatrically, of course), caught himself, "realized" where he was, and slipped from Gaelic [corrected to Irish] into a mercifully midlands "English", most (but not all) of which was understandable during the rest of the evening.

A series of short and diverse pieces followed. Having heard the highland pipes before on numerous occasions, with performers blowing air into the instruments directly through a mouthpipe, I was fascinated last night to see, for the first time in my life, a live performance on the Uilleann pipes, with Paddy Moloney pumping air into the instrument with a bag under his arm. I had always found the sound of this instrument hauntingly beautiful, with its ethereal tremolo on individual notes, and liquid glides between notes (similar to the ornaments--meends--of Indian classical music). My first surprise of the evening was to see how that effect was produced, by an actual fluttering of the fingers on the chanter, or melody-pipe. At various points, Paddy would take to the tinwhistle (or pennywhistle) for equally fluid melodies in the higher octaves.

Joining Paddy as a full-time member of the group were Matt Molloy, playing a transverse wooden flute, which (from what I could tell from memories of my own flute study in my pre-teen years) has open keys, allowing the flautist to create the same microtonal slides and lambent tremolo as the Uilleann pipes; and Kevin Conneff on bodhrán (the Irish frame-drum) and vocals--the latter delivered with bell-like clarity of intonation as well as diction.

Had I not read the program notes ahead of time, I wouldn't have realized from their fiery fiddling that the two violinists were guest artists-- Jon Pilatzke from Canada, and Deanie Richardson from Nashville, also playing twice on mandolin. The first (pleasant) non-musical shock of the evening came when a gangling young man burst from the wings doing a maniacal hoedown/dervish dance to the group's music, only to be joined by the lead fiddler (of similar build--turns out they are brothers, the original dancer being Nathan Pilatzke) in an astonishing display of kick-work, hip-swivel, arm-slash, whirling-body virtuosity that is the closest I've seen to the way ol' Dionysus himself might have celebrated life had he been Gaelic/[Celtic]. And as if these two lads were not enough, at various points in the evening Long-Island born and longtime Chieftains collaborator Cara Butler brought her own distinctive footwork, and at one point, her confident full voice.

Do we have enough music yet? Not nearly. Another guest artists was Triona Marshall on the Irish harp, with a deeply moving rendition (almost time travel in itself) of a movement from the 17th century concerto by the blind harpist Turlough Carolan, often considered Ireland's national composer. Then there was high-voiced Scottish songstress Alyth McCormack, whose engaging contributions to the evening's diversity included samples of port à beul, or Scottish "mouth music" (a genre which in its syllabic playfulness I found at once delightfully similar to, yet different from, the classical Indian tarana.) And guest Nashville guitar master Jeff White's unobtrusive but strongly supportive presence concealed his chops until his own solo turns came. And not to lose sight of the other kind of bagpipes--Scottish--the second half of the program began with a rousing appearance in full regalia (including twirling puffy drumsticks) of the U.S. Coast Guard Pipe [and drum] Band.

As my wife observed, exuberance was the propelling mode of the evening. One had perhaps had enough of long, lugubrious modal meditations in recent days at the Arabesque concerts, but here each performer--again, in relatively brief but brilliant offerings--was clearly enjoying the experience, whether instrumentalist, singer, or dancer. And dancers there were throughout the evening in tasteful abundance, including an allegedly surprise appearance by eight lively local lasses from the Washington branch of the Broesler School of Irish Dance, who, while maintaining a beautifully kinetic group symmetry in their step-dancing, kept their arms dutifully at their sides, thank you very much!

As in so many of the recent concerts I've attended, the well-paced ensemble performance alternated with virtuoso solos that allowed the individual artists to demonstrate their specialties. What struck me most about the Chieftains was that while the group's bedrock Irish identity remained joyously intact (to my ears at least, though it's Scots that runs most passionately through my otherwise mongrel-blooded veins), the brief tangential shifts into adjacent idioms were utterly natural and seamless: e.g., Irish to country blues to Irish to Scots to Irish to a smashing (no? then, well, stomping) demonstration by the Pilatzke Brothers and Cara Butler of cannily choreographed seated-side-by-side-on-three-chairs Canadian? footwork.

I suddenly now remember that some years ago I did see Riverdance. But that extravaganza was so relentlessly massive and packaged that it had sunk by its own weight from my memory. The Chieftains are the real thing, at least to this old folkie/fogey--whether playing alone or in one of their globally diverse collaborations (there were several references during the evening to explorations of Mexican music . . . . )

The sponsor of this extraordinary musical offering, the Washington Performing Arts Society, deserves credit for hosting (as Paddy announced appreciatively once he had switched into English in his opening remarks) 24 programs during the last 29 years. At least I think that's what he said . . . .

* * * * * * *

Final note in response to Professor Solomon's comment on my prevous blog entry:

Blogspot unfortunately does not provide for purely audio links, and the direct posting (as opposed to linking) of video always poses risks of copyright infringement. Whenever possible, I provide links to appropriate Websites, many of which include examples of performances by the artist(s). Generally I prefer the Wikipedia entries as initial referents because of their relative straightforwardness of information and graphic presentation. But many of the artists from last night's glorious performance have their own Websites and/or MySpace pages with audio or video clips; various Websites selling CDs (i.e.,,,, etc.) include brief excerpts from tracks of the albums they sell; and YouTube features postings, authorized or otherwise, of all of these performers--for example, the Pilatzke Brothers' and Cara Butler's memorable and unique Ottowa Valley Chair Dance. After more than four decades of a Gaelic/Celtic lacuna in my listening habits, I know where I'll be spending many future insomniac hours. . . .

Sunday, March 8, 2009


As noted in my previous writing ("post" being such a hollow and clunky word), I'm fortunate to be experiencing (as opposed to just hearing), a richly wide range of musical performances in the past days in our struggling nation's capital city, while at the same time finding it difficult to try to capture these experiences adequately in words which will be (hopefully) of some interest and use to those who read them.

Having "blogged" now for a good while, and having taken different approaches over the past months (not so much consciously experimenting as simply seeking the right idiom for the moment), I find myself at a kind of crossroads, motivated on one level by the anniversary occasion of last Sunday as duly written, and reinforced, perforce, by the current time change (and the attendant loss of a previous, precious hour) today (this morning, at least) as a transitional point--and as is my wont, to find any occasion whatsoever to resolve to improve the quality of my current efforts (as well as, incidentally, of my life itself).

As I sort out my motives for writing here, I realize that the most compelling is the desire to share with as many other of my fellow beings as possible the joy of discovering musical experiences that have been meaningful and rewarding, even inspiring, for me, and that have expanded my range not only of musical, but more broadly, aesthetic perspectives in approaching the arts: music foremost, of course, but inextricably linked as it is with poetry, dance, and even the visual genres (most notably, drama and cinema) but also often related in some aspect to the static (and yet timeless) media of sculpture, painting, and drawing. And not only to share those experiences as artistic artifacts (an abstract concept, of course), but also as deeply rich and resonant emotional extensions and responses enhancing the very quality of our daily life and even sense of reality and self.

On various occasions, beginning with a weekly radio program in my senior year in college ("Baladeer", or some such title long forgotten, on WHRB in 1963-64), and as can be attested by only too numerous friends over the years who have endured my basement studio marathon and aggressively captive listening sessions, often later in the night than they might have wished), I have aspired to be not just another overcaffeinated jabbering disc-jockey, but even more an interpretive guide to the wonders that I have been fortunate enough to discover in my wanderings across the extraordinarily wide world of music.

So what should this humble VOAWorldMusic offering on these pages be? In order to take advantage of those little beasties called algorithms that drive the Internet search engines, should I bring into these World Music pages those entries that I compile regularly (but rarely more than two a week) elsewhere to celebrate the superb work in more mainstream music of my colleagues who write about the richness of musical life in America? And what should be my tone, or tones, in these pages?

The old scholar in me drives me sometimes to a kind of pedagogical approach, trying to help my readers understand the positive aspects of the music they have heard or are about to hear. Even in "reviews" (perhaps my proudest example is my review of the Post-Classical Ensemble's "Mexican Oddysey") where--in reverence for the extraordinary struggles of musicians simply to appear on stage--I tend to focus on the positive, since both performer and audience presumably had honest and admirable motives taking the time and effort to place themselves deliberatetly on either side of the stage, and my early training in literature had forewarned me to beware of crrrrrrritics, gloating over the presumed failures of others to glorify their own claimed superior expertise, while they themselves would in most cases (leaving out those accomplished musicians who serve the cause by writing as honestly as they can--as performers or composers themselves--about their colleagues) be incapable of creating themselves that which they presume to evaluate.

But even more in driving me to write than the scholar is the khidmat-gar (servant), and the aashiq (lover), and ham-dam (companion) of my beloved Urdu poetry. So many of our fellow beings have sacrificed more than most can understand to achieve the level of artistry, however modest, that is possible for them in the expression--to borrow a phrase from the Spanish (from my first LP of Flamenco music) "los alegrias y penas" (the joys and sorrows) of music as it reflects and captures in its rhythms and cries the very blood pulse and scintillating brainwaves, as well as the aching love/hope/needs/despair of our uniquely human experience.

For me such moments as this writing constitute my own (obiously insomniac) manifestation of the "dark night of the soul" of music and art. I have a myriad of questions that I will try to post on some adjunct page to this as to what drives us and our fellow creatures to bring music to every facet of our life? What would our world and our life be without music? But most of all how can we harness this, the magical and magisterial force of music, to bring more joy, resolve, comfort, inspiration, and most important, mutual understanding and harmony to our--in at least this challenging era--often troubled lives?

I will most gratefully look forward to your responses to my musings here.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Washington Songlines: East Meets West?

The last week and a half have been bursting with musical opportunities in the Washington area.

Foremost on the agenda of this writer ([still experimenting with the appropriate "voice" to use in a blog . . . . . ]) has been the extraordinary Kennedy Center festival, Arabesque, numerous performances of which I've had the good fortune to attend--enough to saturate my musical sensibilities, and to challenge to the limit (a younger writer might have said "to the max") my capabilities for written commentary, as opposed to my deadline-free interior and non-verbal aesthetic and psychological, even visceral, responses and their echoes to the music I experience--to use a more inclusive word than simply "hear".

But then on Sunday night came another in the series of important Washington-area concerts by the Post-Classical Ensemble, in the initial conception focusing on "Iberia"--i.e., Spain,--but then expanded to include, in an extension of Hispanic identity, Heitor Villa-Lobos, generally acknowledged as the preeminent Brazilian composer.

Add to the mix a concert at the Freer Gallery of music by a prominent classical (in the European sense) string quartet with additional musicians performing on traditional Chinese instruments. I had planned to attend this, but a sudden visit by a former close colleague formerly of the Indian Embassy in Washington put personal priorities ahead of musical, for this would have been a golden opportunity to observe yet another of the collaborative efforts between European mainstream and "traditional" genres that is part of contemporary world music.

And so tonight here I am, with multiple strains of music playing in recollection and documented by my extensive notes during the concerts, trying to decide on priorities.

So let me share a few of the thoughts that are currently on my mind. What has struck me most powerfully in the recent performances is the range of musical expression possible in (eastern or western) ensemble--as opposed to solo--music. My own musical idiom is Hindustani classical, in which there is usually a single melodic soloist performing in conjunction with a rhythmic practitioner (the question of "accompaniment" is being increasingly challenged in this genre with a sense of "collaboration"); thus I am accustomed to thinking in terms of an evolving solo improvisation on a complex melodic structure, adding at some point a rhythmic dimension that can become increasingly sophisticated, and which ultimately involves a second artist on one or another of the highly-developed traditional South Asian drums, either the tabla or the pakhawaj.

Yet virtually all the concerts I've attended--eastern or western--during the past two weeks have involved full ensembles, even when a single soloist is featured. Which has given me the delectable opportunity to experience a range of vocal styles, as well as of distinctive instrumental voices, with--fortuitously--an opportunity in almost every case for each member of the ensemble to have at least a brief solo.

So I'll have more thoughts in the days to come, as soon as I can sort them out meaningfully.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Prelude: A symphony of (Spanish?) timbres and textures

Earlier tonight Washington's unique and adventurous Post-Classical Ensemble presented a splendid program of music--mostly lesser heard--from a range of Spanish composers, as well as one of Villa-Lobos' Choros, No. 7. And so it was with a particular sense of fortuitous spiritual resonance that I celebrated the 45th anniversary of my ganda-bandhan with my wife, Shubha Sankaran, in the Terrace Theater at the Kennedy Center.

After I have a chance to obtain a bit of background on the works chosen from PCM's extraordinary conductor, Angel Gil-Ordonez, I will write at greater length about this fine program later--amidst my musings on various of the Arabesque offerings (see previous entry below), also at the Kennedy Center, during the past week and those two forthcoming. But for the moment, I am still in a somewhat transformed state of being, as my thoughts churn with more than fifty years of music and memories, amidst continuing echoes of the rich and varied timbres and resonances of tonight's memorable concert.

* * * * * * *

But please permit me here a personal entry on this occasion:

Of all the days in the year, 1 March holds for me the greatest and most important network of musical associations.

To begin with, it was my late mother's birthday. Born on 1 March 1901, Madelyn Cannon Stewart Silver was a child of the new twentieth century, and was always forward-looking, with broad perspectives, both aesthetic and social. Today would have been her 108th birthday--108 being a number of great sigificance and auspiciousness in Hindu and Buddhist culture. In her marvellous book, The Mystery of Numbers, my late senior colleague (with whom I taught at Harvard) Annemarie Schimmel notes, among other instances, that prayer beads are 108 in number, and that the ever amorous (in the godly sense, of course) the Hindu deity Krishna had, in addition to his beloved consort Radha, 108 gopis (cowmaidens) with whom he would engage in dance and erotic play. . . . .

My mother was always supportive of my musical interests; my late father, an inventor and an immensely practical man, once expressed his concern that I might turn into a "banjo-picking pantywaist" if (because I wanted to stay back and practice) I did not accompany my hardy male Romney cousins on a fishing trip in Utah's Wasatch Mountains, where my mother's brother and sisters had summer homes adjacent to ours. During my high school years in Denver, my home town, I was a regular performer with my late friend and mentor Vaughan Aandahl for the very substantial local Hispanic community. It was in this connection that Mother surprised me with the gift on my 18th birthday of a superb Flamenco guitar from the celebrated Spanish luthier, Jose Ramirez.

And so it was that date in 1965 that I chose for the occasion of becoming a virtual son of my wonderful sitar teacher, the late Ghulamhussain Khan, in the ganda-bandhan (thread-tying) ceremony--the most important rite of passage in the entire life of a serious practitioner of Indian classical music. My mother had died at the beginning of my sophomore year of college (1961), but her spirit has remained with me in myriad ways (not only musical) throughout my life, and I could find no better way to honor her living memory, and to seek her blessings in my forthcoming musical ventures, by choosing that day to become a lifelong disciple of my ustad (the equivalent term in Muslim culture to guru, and also a title--like pandit for Hindu musicians)--for master Muslim musicians.)