109. Contemporary Voices – Post-Fusion and Intercultural Explorations
From December 2015 to July 2016, I published a four-part series here at MusicCentral entitled Contemporary Voices. This series which explored several facets of new music corresponded with the final CD purchases of my Fourth Rotation. Contemporary music, which there I defined as any music composed within the last twenty-five years, has remained an emphasis of this blog ever since. This entry continues in the spirit of the original Contemporary Voices while reflecting on CD purchases I made in Cincinnati and Nashville in August and September. One aspect considers intersections of jazz and popular music since the 1980s, in other words, after the critical decade of jazz fusion that was the 1970s. A second, related aspect revolves around the Kronos Quartet and their collaborations with numerous non-Western musicians and composers, while also reflecting on other intercultural pursuits over the past few decades. Although this listening diverts from the historical progression of the Fifth Rotation which I described in my July recommendations, it still pursues my idea of expanding my own knowledge—and indeed our shared narrative of music history—beyond the Western tradition. Both of these aspects moreover explore how musicians have reached outside their set idioms, whether classical, jazz, rock, or something else entirely, to create a new language embracing of other genres and also entirely personal.
The major figures associated with the first aspect of this listening have been Herbie Hancock, Sting, Branford Marsalis, and Christian McBride. The commercial establishment has categorized three of these musicians as jazz and the other as rock or so-called “adult contemporary,” whatever that means. I think it’s more meaningful, however, to look at the collaborations and actually pay attention to the music on the albums rather than carelessly assigning fixed labels. Hancock has collaborated with all three of the others and actually helped launch the careers of Marsalis and McBride. Sting, in hiring Marsalis and McBride to play in his bands, has also brought them significant popular attention. To truly tie the circle together, Sting made a cameo (as a policeman no less) on Miles Davis’s album You’re Under Arrest (1985) and considers himself a Miles fan; Miles Davis was of course the progenitor of jazz fusion and mentored Herbie Hancock and others whose music came to define this movement in the 1970s. Furthermore, although Hancock, Marsalis, and McBride often play music readily-identified as jazz, often they do not. Hancock’s album Future Shock (1983)—where my unit begins—comes-off as a mix of funk, electronic music, and hip hop in which only its extended solos recommend it to the industry descriptor “jazz.” It is the first of several albums Hancock recorded with bassist Bill Laswell and keyboardist Michael Beinhorn of the experimental rock band Material, and it made quite an impression on me when I first listened to the full album last month. McBride’s Sci-Fi (2000) with its covers of songs by Sting, Steely Dan, and Jaco Pastorius also avoids easy categorization as jazz. Hancock was in fact recruited to play on two original pieces by McBride on this album, “Xerxes” and “Lullaby for a Ladybug.” I have not heard either Marsalis’s Buckshot LeFonque (1994) or McBride’s Philadelphia Experiment (2001) but, from reading about them, they also seem to pursue this post-fusion course.
Sting likewise in his first seven solo albums, all of which I have known since my childhood, expands from an initial jazz-rock fusion in The Dream of the Blue Turtles (1985) to a wide-ranging but typically cohesive mixture of rock, ambient, and R&B with occasional touches of non-Western music. On Brand New Day (1999), the chanting of Algerian Raï singer Cheb Mami is this non-Western element, and then on Sacred Love (2003) it is Anoushka Shankar’s playing on the Indian sitar—a plucked string instrument her father, Ravi Shankar, had made popular in the West decades ago. Furthermore on all seven albums the bands are consistently populated with jazz musicians like Marsalis, McBride, pianist Kenny Kirkland, trumpeter Chris Botti, and others as well as one-off guest appearances by notable figures in popular music like Eric Clapton, Stevie Wonder, and James Taylor. Among Sting’s first seven albums, I find The Soul Cages (1991), written in response to his father’s death, the most effective: it is essentially a song cycle, highly-unified in the musical presentation of its subject matter. The optimistic, all-embracing image of a world united is the lasting impression of these seven albums, and I personally remember this was a common theme at the new millennium—when capitalism seemed triumphant and our worst concern was the Y2K Bug. This vision came to a sudden halt, however, with the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the reignited conflict in the Middle East, growing xenophobia at home, and now the rise of neo-fascist, far-right politicians worldwide. After Sacred Love, Sting would not release another album in this vein until 2016, although his John Dowland-inspired album, Songs from the Labyrinth (2006), suggests an implicit but uncanny resemblance between this contemporary singer-songwriter and his historical model.
In Sting’s absence, Herbie Hancock became the real champion of this beyond-category approach. From 2005 to 2010, he released three albums where he partnered on most every song with a different guest musician. These are Possibilities (2005), River: The Joni Letters (2007), and The Imagine Project (2010). These last two are tributes to Joni Mitchell and John Lennon, respectively, although I have only heard the first of these, Possibilities, where the theme is merely collaboration itself. Guests on Possibilities include Sting, Carlos Santana, Stevie Wonder, and Paul Simon as well as some younger pop musicians (i.e. John Mayer and Christina Aguilera) whose contributions I didn’t much care for. The format is borrowed from Santana and his bestseller album, Supernatural (1999). Hancock and Santana are actually old friends who had collaborated previously on Santana’s The Swing of Delight (1980), and Hancock had approached Santana about borrowing this format for Possibilities before reaching-out to also include him as a guest. I have so far heard little music by Santana outside of his greatest hits, but I am particularly eager based on the descriptions I have read and personnel lists I’ve investigated. I have a feeling he could rank with these others as someone who has created a personal idiom unbounded by the expectations of rock, jazz, or also in his case Latino music.
The second aspect of my recent listening, “Intercultural Explorations,” has exposed me to several of the classic recordings by the Kronos Quartet. Kronos is a string quartet, based in San Francisco and founded by violinist David Harrington in 1973, which has released at least forty-four studio albums. Most of these feature contemporary music, and the group is insistent on not only programming but also commissioning new music. The composers they work with include established figures like Philip Glass and Terry Riley as well as lesser-known names as their recent project Fifty for the Future again demonstrates. A quick look at their discography reveals they have no intention of only performing white or male music—or, for that matter, only music for string quartet. Among the intercultural explorations of Kronos, their album Pieces of Africa (1992) features composers from throughout that continent, including Hassan Hakmoun of Morocco, Foday Musa Suso of Gambia, Obo Addy of Ghana, and Kevin Volans of South Africa. Most of the composers then join the quartet as instrumentalists on their pieces. I particularly enjoyed Suso’s Tilliboyo (Sunset) which features its composer—a griot, or oral historian—on the kora, an African instrument which is related to our guitar and banjo. Suso, by the way, has also been a frequent collaborator to Herbie Hancock and Bill Laswell. Escalay (Waterwheel) by Egyptian Hamza El Din and Wawshishijay (Our Beginning) by Obo Addy, both drummers, were also winners for me, although overall I found Pieces of Africa somewhat of a mixed bag.
I found Caravan (2000), which depicts the historic crossroads between Europe and Asia, much more successful. Highlights for me included the exciting opener Pannonia Boundless by Serbian composer Aleksandra Vrebalov; Aaj Ki Raat by Bollywood composer Rahul Dev Burman and featuring Zakir Hussain on the Indian tabla; Turkish Song with the gypsy band, Taraf de Haïdouks; Gallop of a Thousand Horses by Kurdish composer Kayhan Kalhor and featuring him on kamancha; and Ecstasy by Lebanese composer Ali Jihad Racy and featuring him on nay. Many of the compositions on Caravan were arranged by Osvaldo Golijov, a composer whose mixed Argentine and Romanian-Jewish heritage has encouraged him to find an intercultural balance of his own. I therefore also re-listened to Golijov’s La Pasión según San Marcos and The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind for klezmer clarinet and string quartet. To these I added his opera Ainadamar (2006), an intensely dramatic work which I find to be as successful an intercultural product as Nomaden by Joël Bons. It is a shame that Golijov has virtually disappeared over the last ten years since the plagiarism scandal around Sidereus. I do not know the ins-and-outs of the controversy, but I have certainly enjoyed his music and his voice is sorely lacking from the contemporary music scene. Finally it appears he has a new song cycle premiering later this month, Falling Out of Time, written for The Silk Road Ensemble. This group, established in 1998 by cellist Yo-Yo Ma, is with Kronos and Bons’s Atlas Ensemble the other main intercultural ensemble active at present, although I did not get a chance to listen to anything new by Silk Road this go-round.
I also took time to explore the music of Chinese-American composer Tan Dun, including his Ghost Opera (1994) which was written for Kronos and Wu Man who plays a Chinese plucked-string instrument called the pipa. This cinematic work melds not only the sounds of the Western string quartet with the Eastern pipa, but also vocalizations from its instrumentalists and found percussion instruments like stones, paper, metal pans, and dripping water. Other works I’ve recently listened to by Tan include his opera Marco Polo for which he won the Grawemeyer Award; Symphony 1997 Heaven Earth Mankind for cello soloist, bianzhong bells, children’s chorus, and orchestra, written for Yo-Yo Ma; and several chamber works, including an earlier string quartet, Eight Colors. One more disc completed my intercultural survey of the Kronos catalog: Five Tango Sensations (1991) by Astor Piazzolla in which this Argentine composer joins the quartet on his bandoneón. I also listened to several other discs by Kronos more squarely in the Western tradition, including their recording of George Crumb’s Black Angels, the electric quartet which first inspired Harrington to form Kronos; their famous recordings of Glass’s Second through Fifth Quartets; and their latest release, Sun Rings (2019) by Terry Riley. This composer who is known primarily for In C, the work which launched the minimalist movement, I’ve since learned, is a really interesting figure. He almost immediately turned away from the movement he spawned, and indeed two of his next works, A Rainbow in Curved Air and Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band, sound more like Miles Davis to me—I’m thinking of In A Silent Way. His Sun Rings, a composition for string quartet, chorus, and “pre-recorded spacescapes,” is Riley at his best. These spacescapes are sounds which NASA has gathered over the years and consist of percussive clicks, drones, and screeches which Riley has then integrated into his musical texture. It’s not intercultural music, but perhaps Sun Rings is some of our first intergalactic music!
Although this listening has brought me off-course from the Fifth Rotation, which was to progress to the Italian Baroque after my trip to Missouri, it has been incredibly rewarding and has given me new ideas for where my upcoming CD purchases might go. Sub-Saharan African music, here represented by Foday Musa Suso and Obo Addy, is almost totally unfamiliar to me, although in the southern United States it would evolve into the blues by the early twentieth century and later directly inspire several notable free jazz and funk musicians. The Romani music of Taraf de Haïdouks reminds me that classical composers like Franz Liszt and Béla Bartók were not drawing merely on thin air, but interpreting the vivid folk music they heard all around them. And, to return to “Post-Fusion,” I seem to have already assembled a want-list between Supernatural, River: The Joni Letters, Buckshot LeFonque, and the other albums I have written about, but which are not yet part of my collection. Next week I begin my exciting journey to Montréal and Boston. For the ambitious drive, I have assembled several equally ambitious playlists which will propel me into the Baroque and prepare me for my next round of new listening!
About Jackson. Jackson Harmeyer graduated with his Master of Music in Music History and Literature from the University of Louisville in May 2019 upon the completion of his thesis, “Liminal Aesthetics: Perspectives on Harmony and Timbre in the Music of Olivier Messiaen, Tristan Murail, and Kaija Saariaho.” He has shared this pioneering research through presentations given at the American Musicological Society South-Central Chapter’s annual meetings in Asheville, NC and Sewanee, TN and at the University of Tennessee Contemporary Music Festival in Knoxville, TN. During his studies in Louisville, he was the recipient of the Gerhard Herz Music History Scholarship and was employed at the Dwight Anderson Memorial Music Library where he did archival work for the unique Grawemeyer Collection which houses scores, recordings, and documentation for over five thousand entries by the world’s leading contemporary composers. Previously, Jackson graduated summa cum laude from the Louisiana Scholars’ College in Natchitoches, LA. Then, from 2014 to 2016, Jackson served as director of the successful chamber music series, Abendmusik Alexandria. He has remained a concert annotator and organizer, co-directing the annual Sugarmill Music Festival. The scholarly writings he has produced for this festival have even attracted the attention of the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities. Aside from his studies, he is a composer, choral singer, and award-winning nature photographer. Learn more about Jackson Harmeyer, his scholarship, and his compositions at www.JacksonHarmeyer.com.
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