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.

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