13 April 2016

From the Archives: Pre-concert Talk, "Inspired by Exoticism"

This talk was given on August 27 2015 before the Auckland Philharmonia's "Inspired by Exotica" concert. The programme was Nielsen's Aladdin Suite, Sculthorpe's Earth Cry, Jack Body's Melodies for Orchestra, and Khachaturian's Gayane Suite. The didjeridu soloist for the Sculthorpe work was William Barton. 


“The lack of a common cause and the self-interest of many have drained us of much of our energy. A bogus national identity and its commercialization have obscured the true breadth of our culture.”

So said the late Peter Sculthorpe in describing the background to his Earth Cry of 1986.

There is a huge scope of what one could talk about tonight. We’re presented with a programme perhaps largely unfamiliar to most of us – works by a Dane, an Armenian, an Australian and a New Zealander. Bizarrely if we know any of these pieces it’s more likely to be the Dane or the Armenian than the Australian or the New Zealander.

They are quite a diverse bunch of pieces. But I think what draws them together is a desire to reveal that true breadth of culture that Sculthorpe refers to, and a desire to extend and transform our experience of the concert hall in the Western Art Music Tradition. Whether through transcription, as in the case of Jack Body, or by combining indigenous music and contemporary classical music, as Sculthorpe has done in Earth Cry, these composers are exposing us to new types of musical encounters. Where else have you seen a didjeridu dialogue with an orchestra?

More than just composers though, these men were various combinations of transcribers, arrangers, musicologists, facilitators of cultural exchange. And they were no longer “The Composer” in scare quotes. By celebrating world musics they challenged the idea that the composer is the sole author, the authority, to be worshipped and interpreted painstakingly, as if each composition were a last will and testament, to be observed to the letter. These composers are not sole authors but collaborators, participants in a dialogue with tradition and innovation. The composer here has an interpretive role as much as a generative one.

This concert is titled inspired by exotica. Flicking through an APO brochure or scrolling down the website one might be intrigued or even a tad confused about what Exotica signifies here. Wikipedia tells me: Exotica is a musical genre, named after the 1957 Martin Denny album of the same title, popular during the 1950s to mid-1960s, typically with suburban Americans who came of age during World War II. The musical colloquialism exotica means tropical ersatz, the non-native, pseudo experience of insular Oceania, Southeast Asia, Hawaii, Amazonia, the Andes and tribal Africa. Denny described the musical style as "a combination of the South Pacific and the Orient...what a lot of people imagined the islands to be like...it's pure fantasy though." While the South Seas forms the core region, exotica reflects the "musical impressions" of every place from standard travel destinations to the mythical "shangri-las" dreamt of by armchair safari-ers.

Thanks Wikipedia. Rather than impressionistic exoticism - fantastical collages of oriental effects - the works on tonight’s concert are very much tied to the qualities and traditions of particular places: Australia, Indonesia, Greece, India, Armenia. The only exception is Carl Nielsen’s Aladdin Suite, whose language is a more generalised orientalism, with titles of movements such as “Chinese Dance”, “Hindu Dance” and “Negro Dance.” The other three works though, by my reckoning, seem concerned with getting us close to the thing itself, facilitating a cultural exchange and education.

Tonight I’m going to focus my attention largely on the composers we might know least well, that is, the late Jack Body and the late Peter Sculthorpe. I think with some insight into Body’s practice and his relationship to the music of other cultures we can begin to see all the music on the programme differently. Rather than neatly summarising each musical work and what it sounds like, it’s my intention to talk around these pieces, draw some links and perhaps raise some more general points of discussion.

Body and Sculthorpe, both recently deceased, are respective icons of their home countries, at least within their chosen field of composition and perhaps within the wider arts scene too.
Jack Body was only a couple of years ago composer in Residence with this very orchestra, presenting a huge extravaganza of a performance in the form of his cabaret evening Songs and Dances of Desire, based on the life of Carmen Rupe. There he mixed Maori and Spanish folk traditions with a Chinese countertenor, drag, stage direction from the late Warwick Broadhead and a symphony orchestra. Such a striking collage was by no means uncommon in Jack’s music; as I see it every piece of Jack’s set up a kind of encounter between self and other.

Jack’s practise is a lens through which we can view this whole concert: not “Inspired by Exotica” but inspired by an engagement with aspects of global culture, and a desire to expand the concert hall outwards, to create connections across traditions. Let’s begin with a little of the work of Jack’s you’ll hear tonight, the opening of Horos Serra from Melodies for Orchestra. This is based on a Greek fiddle tune, and was one of Jack’s first transcriptions.

PLAY DISC 1 Track 1 Melodies for Orchestra mvmt 1

A few weeks ago at the NZTrio’s concert at Q Loft, featuring their latest commission by Chris Cree Brown, I met a friend of Jack’s. Actually there were dozens of friends of Jack’s at the concert; Jack knew everyone. But I mention one in particular, a friend, student and advocate of Jack’s, Shen Nalin, who is currently a professor at a major Chinese university. He mentioned as a sort of off-hand comment that his university had just purchased 60 new Steinway Grands.

But perhaps more interestingly Shen Nalin is organising a Jack Body Conference in December with performers from all over Asia, including our own NZTrio and New Zealand String Quartet. Such is the significance of Jack in that part of the world that the entire conference is dedicated to his music.

John Psathas describes Jack’s influence on Asian composers in an interview with the man himself: “The extent of this cross-fertilization was brought home to me recently when you and I were having dinner with Tan Dun. Toasts were being raised to the various ‘fathers’ and grandfathers’ of Chinese and New Zealand composition. It was an amazing moment to witness this table of world-famous composers and performers from Asia raise their glasses and toast Jack Body as the uncle of Chinese music.”

Whenever one travels abroad as a New Zealand composer, the first and usually the only name other composers mention is Jack Body. In Asia particularly he has a kind of legendary status. Through his transcriptive works and tireless energy for organising outlandish musical projects, Jack brought all sorts of people together and encouraged composers to celebrate their musical heritage and voice in individual ways. Here’s Jack again: “I have found that some contemporary Asian composers have expressed enthusiasm for my transcriptions as suggesting different perspectives on how they might relate to their own traditions. The arranging and orchestrating of folksongs is a feature of musical nationalism in many countries, particularly China, and composers are often frustrated by the clichéed conventions imposed on them by audience expectations or by the bureaucracy, and are looking for alternative approaches.”

We’ve heard the word Transcription a few times now – so perhaps it’s worth explaining what exactly we mean by that term. Composer and lecturer Dugal McKinnon describes it in an article on Jack’s practice as “the basic tool of ethnomusicologists and involves the “translation” of a field-recording of a performance into a notated form.” Jack himself described it rather more fancifully, in typical fashion: “Transcribing is like putting on a mask, taking on a disguise, and has now become an important part of my compositional practice. Transcription to me is a kind of travelling, exploring other musics and sensibilities. Modernism, which has its roots in the Renaissance, places great value on individual originality, and this is what our training as composers instils in us. And yet what does ‘being original’ mean? When I listen to a lot of the music of today I hear distinct influences, even in the most ‘original’ and ‘avant-garde’ scores. Today’s music of fashion, be it Lachenmann, Scelsi, Adès, whoever, becomes tomorrow’s stylistic cliché.”

Jack’s music foregrounds the fact that aspects of it are borrowed, reframed. His award winning CD Pulse includes two discs, one of Jack’s transcription-based compositions or arrangements, and the second of the original recorded source material from which he transcribed them. Thus he makes completely transparent that one comes from the other, but that the one can never be the other.

Here is the second movement of Melodies for Orchestra, as it will appear tonight. The recording is a performance by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Kenneth Young.

PLAY (Pulse) Melodies for Orchestra mvmt 2 DISC 1 Track 2

This was a transcription from a solo saluang, a type of flute from West Sumatra. The music is largely monophonic even in this version but I think the orchestral textures are used cleverly to capture some of the colouristic complexity of the original recording, which we will hear now. The flute solo is preceded by a short spoken introduction.

PLAY (Pulse) Singgalang DISC 2 Track 2

Despite the care and skill of the orchestration, there are some aspects of the music that can’t be captured. Rather than being a hindrance, Jack saw this as a positive aspect of his transcriptive method. In an interview with Michael Norris, he said “the transcription process, […] exposes the limitations and cultural bias of Western notation and performance practice, and the ethnocentricity of our modes of listening. I’ve found it very instructive working with students over many years, comparing their different notational interpretations of the same music.”

Considering Jack’s output as a creative artist it might be worth thinking about his transcriptions as a series of encounters: between different traditions of music, between different notational systems and performance practices, between a composer and an unfamiliar sound, between the instrument, the ear, the pen, the page, the instrument and the ear.

When you think about it, composing is one of the most indirect of creative acts: a composer hears a sound, a combination of sounds, in their mind’s ear or in their environment, and puts it on the page as best they can as a kind of blueprint. They’ve spent hundreds of hours figuring out how to best represent the sound they want to be produced in notation, and how best to achieve the sounds in the technique of performance. They give this blueprint to a performer, hoping for it to be realised in an expressive or interesting way. The performer translates the notation into sound, and the listener interprets the vibrations. It all seems so impersonal, disconnected, indirect. In a way the score on its own, unperformed, is the ultimate useless artefact. And yet, when the sound is produced, the sensuality and magic of it is unmistakeable. It’s a kind of alchemy.

Here’s Jack again, on that alchemical process of composition: “This idea that the creative act took one beyond the rational, beyond the known, the familiar, into a fantastic, sometimes dangerous territory, is something that has reappeared in several of my works over the years. The electronic piece Kryptophones (1973) was inspired by listening to a shortwave radio on a beach in Greece. Suddenly music and voices from all of Europe, Africa, the Middle East flooded in, the air was filled with a whirlwind of sound. I realised with a shock that I these sounds were around me constantly, but that, without the aid of a radio receiver, I could not hear them. But what if I could? Is this not so different from a schizophrenic condition, being able to hear voices that no-one else can hear? How could one communicate one's experience? One would be considered mentally ill, surely. And yet history is full of visionaries who heard secret voices - Joan of Arc, Jesus.... What is the difference between a prophet, a shaman, a fool, a madman?”

To me Jack’s great strength and influence was in his attunement to the short-wave radio of culture, his ability to be himself a radio receiver, a prophet even, for the musics of Asia and beyond.

Like Jack Body, Peter Sculthorpe was also drawn to Asia for inspiration, and like Jack Body, Peter Sculthorpe considered his home country a part of Asia. It’s to Australia we turn for Sculthorpe’s Earth Cry, which presents a rather intense kind of engagement with the static quality of the Australian landscape. It’s monolithic, uncompromising music – the music of old rocks and ancient traditions. Sculthorpe described his attraction to this sound world:
Early on I found I was using long-held drones in my music and later of course I realised that what I was doing was imitating the didjeridu. In mirroring the flatness of the landscape I was adding a kind of didjeridu sound to my music. For that reason when I started adding the didjeridu to my music I found I could add it to almost everything I’ve ever written.”

Earth Cry of course features the spectacular talents of didjeridu soloist William Barton. For want of a better word the work is a didjeridu concerto, although for me this doesn’t capture the sheer force of the encounter. Unlike a concerto where the soloist represents a virtuosic extreme of classical music, accompanied by a classical band, here Barton’s extreme virtuosity expresses a whole other individual tradition of music. The two forces are juxtaposed and then fused in a remarkably visceral concert experience.

I want to return for a moment to the quote I began my talk with.

“The lack of a common cause and the self-interest of many have drained us of much of our energy. A bogus national identity and its commercialization have obscured the true breadth of our culture.”

On hearing that quotation out of context though one might extrapolate it to any contemporary capitalist nation: our own, for example. With a work like Earth Cry Sculthorpe is attempting to draw our attention to our sense of place, our relationship to the land. The land that our society puts great store on dividing, selling, extracting and exploiting. Whether in fact a work of music, a collection of sound waves interpreted by the listener, can be interpreted politically, whether it can carry a message, is moot, but I would argue that perhaps that’s less important than being able to simply encounter the music, to feel the ancient vibrations of the didjeridu.

PLAY Sculthorpe Earth Cry Track 1

No comments:

Post a Comment