August 18, 2013

Classical Beat: After some false starts, composers of 'fusion' may be hitting their stride


Fusion. Done cold, it could power the world. In warm, human terms, it is a force now in infancy but one that could lead classical music in new and exciting directions.

So far, most experiments in "fusion" have been duds -- pastiche, one-sided mixtures, impressionistic tone paintings and childish juxtapositions of cliches such as the pentatonic scale, which is supposed to conjure up the aura of both Chinese and Native American music.

Combinations of the classics with popular music or jazz have not been much more successful, either taking themselves too seriously (see Dave Brubeck) or capitalizing on ancient and modern celebrity.

In some cases, this has resulted in out-and-out murder. Stravinsky, a stickler for strict adherence to the score, must still be turning in his grave at some of the recent desecrations of "The Rite of Spring."

Nevertheless, there is something important going on. One example was the recent Gamper Festival of Contemporary Music at Bowdoin College.

I didn't attend all of the concerts, but the one that featured works by Asian-American composers contained some pieces that might make the 1 percent cut of music that will last. They were a complex combination of sounds and sensibilities, without resorting to any of the techniques mentioned above.

One such composition was "Feng" ("Wind" in Mandarin) by Chen Yi, scored for flute, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon. It showed what can still be done with a woodwind quintet when unfettered by Western notions of tonality.

The first movement, which began with a haunting oboe solo and characteristic Chinese downward slurs, was a pastorale reminiscent of herders on the steppes of Mongolia.

With a driving rhythm and exchange of note patterns among the instruments, the second was more lively, with highly unusual but satisfying combinations and textures.

"Far Variations" by Turkish-American composer Kamran Ince is a traditional and highly effective set of variations on a theme, often as well-hidden as Elgar's "Enigma." The incorporation of Turkish and Balkan music is authentic without the work becoming a pastiche. There is also some American influence, where Copland and jazz make an appearance.

A composer who effectively embraces a wide range of the world's music is Derek Bermel, whose "Half and Half," a collaboration with drummer Nate Smith, was given its world premiere on Aug. 9 at the Salt Bay Chamberfest in Damariscotta.

Bermel's strongest musical influence was the French composer Olivier Messiaen (1908-92), who was able to create his own tonal world from fragments such as bird song.

(There is an absolutely marvelous video of Messiaen imitating bird songs, which are then played on the piano by his wife, pianist Yvonne Loriod, on Bermel's blog.)

What Bermel says about Messiaen's work characterizes what one hopes will lead to a renaissance of classical music:

"What can we artists learn from a composer as idiosyncratic as Messiaen, a musician whose compositional process and influences were so unorthodox? ...

"Messiaen ... joyfully followed his own instincts and inspirations; he twisted and mashed them together, molding utterly original shapes. However eclectic both the basic components and the resultant forms may have seemed to others, to him they complemented each other harmoniously.

"Perhaps from Messiaen we can learn that there is value and vitality in embracing all the worlds to which we are inextricably drawn. That finding a personal 'voice' lies less in a search for as-yet-unmapped-territory than in permitting that mysterious and joyful brew of disparate, possibly unrelated, elements which comprise the totality of that which we love to rise to the surface -- engendering, via a clear formal structure, a unique and wholly original contribution."

I'd like to hear a concerto for the Peruvian double-barreled flute, an instrument devised by a people with both a culture and a thought process fundamentally different from our own.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can reached at:


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