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The temptations of the East

10/12/2010

Cheating with the ears

pipaThe smell of fire still clung to the air when on 22 April 1988, the day after the oldest concert hall in the Netherlands burned down, Utrecht saw another musical milestone. The musical East was welcomed for the music itself. The French dhrupad singer Yvan Trünzler, Dutch sarangi player Joep Bor and the American pakhavaj player John Boswell took their positions on the especially purchased rug at music venue RASA. Stylishly dressed in comfortable shirts and trousers manufactured from Indian cotton they sat cross-legged as they gave a concert of vocal dhrupad, a traditional form of Indian art music. While The Beatles enriched their pop music from the 1960s onwards with loose references to Indian music, this threesome had thoroughly studied the tradition. It wasn’t everybody’s cup of tea, as became apparent that very same evening in another county seat.

Donning a bright blue, amply quilted nylon windcheater, the Indian guru Sri Chinmoy clambered up on the bench behind the large pipe organ with three manuals of the Concert Hall in The Hague. Self-appointed incarnations of God and other self-enriching peacemakers were doing good business among soul and truth searching Westerners. This guru temporarily even counted the Mexican rock guitarist Devadip Carlos Santana among his followers. For the past year multi-instrumentalist Chinmoy (who played Indian flutes and stringed instruments, cello, piano and synthesiser) had been indulging in curious organ improvisations before his congregation of up to two thousand according to observers, drawn in largely by the PR campaign ran by Madal Bal, an organic supermarket specialising in ‘natural remedies’.

This superficial flirt with the East, in this particular instance stimulated by an amorphous soup of organ sounds, stands for a naïve and uncritical admiration of the exotic. From the Renaissance onwards it had been the fashion at court and among noblemen to flaunt one’s eastern trinkets. In music, Mozart successfully used the drums and bells from the military bands of the Turkish storm troops. Librettist Gilbert and composer Sullivan entertained British nightlife with their (admittedly, hilarious) Japanese inspired opera The Mikado. And why not? As long as we remember that it can be done differently as well.

The concert by the three westerners in RASA showed a sincere and profound interest in eastern music, which gained considerable importance from the seventies onwards. The concert wasn’t the first sign of this shift in interest, not in the world and not in the Netherlands but nevertheless it marked a milestone for RASA: Trünzler, Bor and Boswell were the first to perform a concert of non-western music at the Intercultural Centre that had nothing to do with immigrant workers or refugees. This was music for its own sake and moreover music not for the legs and arms but for the ears. RASA quickly established a reputation for being a platform for distinctive music, including for devotees of difficult, not easily accessible non-western music. Put plainly: world music at concert hall standards.

It might only be a coincidence that the previous evening K&W, het Gebouw voor Kunsten en Wetenschappen, (‘the Utrecht Centre for Art & Science’), the oldest public concert hall in the Netherlands, had burned down to the ground. This is where Clara Schumann, Johannes Brahms and Anton Rubinstein had once graced the stage with their performances. It seemed as if the higher powers that be had decided it was high time for a changing of the guards. In actual fact, K&W had been cautiously exploring the East. Since 1974 the building had housed a conservatory where Ton de Leeuw taught composition and theory. He was the first prominent Dutch composer to take seriously the court music of Japan, China, Indonesia and Iran. His composition Gending (1975) for Javanese gamelan in 1989 led to the formation of the eponymous gamelan ensemble in Utrecht (which, incidentally, wouldn’t perform in RASA until a few years later).

Curiosity

But even though it might appear as if audiences during the 70s were keen to experience musical adventures and unfamiliar far-off lands, the opposite is closer to the truth. In the world of pop and dance music Latin-American (mainly due to Carlos Santana) and African (Myriam Makeba) rhythms weren’t eagerly embraced because they sounded so refreshingly different but rather because they were surprisingly easy to incorporate into the already existing staple. When in 1967 Makeba climbed to the top of the charts with Pata Pata, followed in 1970 by Santana with Oyé Como Va, this was mainly because it sounded good, not because it sounded alien. Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s South-African chorals that went on to capture Paul Simon’s imagination, sounded pleasantly smooth because European missionaries had taught them the harmonies.

African and Latin dance rhythms might be more bestirring than westerners were used to at the time; the music (even though sometimes only at face value) is in comfortable three or four time, boogieing along to it not posing much of a problem. The scales are a familiar do-re-mi or are strongly related to it. When cumbia, merengue and son from South and Mid-America, and the African highlife, Congo jazz and afro beat reached Europe and North America they were readily accepted as exciting variations on what was already familiar and loved.

This was not the case for music from the East, even though their people lived in The Netherlands in numbers: Indonesians and Chinese, followed by the Turks and (from the Near East) Moroccans. Their music came within earshot but rarely found foothold on Western eardrums. Neither centuries of trading relations with Japan and mass-produced products from Taiwan, nor the Olympic Games in Korea or China had led Western audiences to their national music. However close Easterners got, the musical distance remained uncomfortably large.

Their popular music tended to be a modernised version of local folk music. Indonesian musicians came up with jaipongan and dangdut, the Japanese with enka and Okinawan-pop, the Chinese with twelve girls bands and Cantopop, and the Koreans with ponchak rock and minjung. From India came film music and (in the UK) bhangra, the Turks brought Arabesque and taverna, and the Moroccans and Algerians Chaabi and raï, to name but a few. Out of these raï was the only one to make it big in the international pop scene but this success did not translate into a noticeable Arabic or Berber influence on western rock or pop. It is a pity that of all the folk, popular and classical music in the world, only African and Latin American music managed to find a foothold with western mainstream audiences. There is so much more.

Growling, hiccupping and gliding
Saturday 12 March 1988. Vocalist Yvan Trünzler set in with a low and soft growl. In a slow tempo he introduced slight voice modulations, wonderful trills and long glissandi completely void of rhythm. Joep Bor played the sarangi, a robust string instrument with a timbre that approaches the human voice. With very little improvisation to begin with Bor echoed the vocal part with random, modest variations. Note for note, from the low to the high end of the scale, Trünzler slowly began to improvise more freely, introducing the budding melody. Drummer John Boswell waited. The scale Trünzler unfolded is a different one to what western audiences are used to – major, minor, gypsy scales, westerners don’t use many more than that – but in Indian music one can choose from many tenfold. With surprisingly heavy bangs on the pakhawaj - a barrel-shaped drum laced with double rawhide - Boswell at last joined in as the vocal embarked on a fixed melody repeated by Bor on the sarangi. A rhythm emerged, more of a cycle in actual fact, but not in three or four time; Indians like to count a little further, up to five, seven, ten or 21 for instance. You could see the connoisseurs in the audience counting, visibly nodding their heads when one of the musicians performed a small miracle.

Friday 18 March 1988. The Iranian musician Hussein Malek took his place on the stage at RASA. Malek would be playing the santur, a trapezoid-shaped, hammered zither with multiple strings. This hammered of fretted type of zither is common to Persian, Arab and Turkish music. Malek performed breathtaking improvisations and richly embellished melodies, without rhythm or in one of the many available rhythms in combinations of small groups of two and three, five, eight or eleven, or more. Two days later it was the turn of his fellow-countrymen Darius Tala’i and Darius Zarbafian. Tala’i followed a similar formula but in his own style. With his tar, a long-necked lute, he brought to life the extra spiciness Persian melodies have to thank the tonal intervals so unusual in the West for. Imagine a piano with twice the number of keys, one for every two: this makes available not only full and half tones but also three quarter ones. Musicians in the Arab world and Turkey too incorporate them in the many scales available to them in a complex and ingenious system. Zarbafian accompanied Tala’i on the dombak, a drum with an imposing bass in the shape of an hourglass. Zarbafian’s subtle rolls and playful variations on the basic rhythm lent themselves exceptionally well to solos, for which he was given ample opportunity.

Wednesday 12 October 1988. The Korei Society Koto-Ensemble from Japan performed traditional chamber music and contemporary compositions on the koto and the shakuhachi. The shakuhachi, a chunky flute made of bamboo measuring just over half a metre long, used to double up as an imposing defence weapon for the Zen monks of the Fuke clan. Instead of an embouchure this flute has a small slit on one side, making it difficult to draw sound from. This is made up for by its wide range: the shakuhachi can plop, hiccup, hiss and sing. Accompanying the koto, an oblong-shaped zither that is strummed and plucked, the shakuhachi player kept himself on a tight rein. The Korei performed traditional court music and the sounds of the elegantly meandering melodies, deep glissandi and perishing notes in five-tone scales wafted through the auditorium. These scales are comparable to the black keys on a piano and have sufficed the Chinese, Koreans and Japanese for many centuries. And, except for in Korea, practically all rhythms and cycles can be counted in multiples of four.

Saturday 31 March 1990. RASA hosted gender wayang, a type of mini-gamelan from Bali, puppeteer Dewa Ngakan Made Sayang and the Dutch duo Sinta Wullur and Henrice Vonck. Two female musicians (uncommon in Indonesia to this day) sat cross-legged with the bronze bars of their metallophones resting on bamboo pipes. They beat out the many-voiced melodies with hardwood hammers - the basic melody with the left hand and the quick diversions with the right. The sound of the darting, mellifluous patterns was so fast that not every musician could keep up and thus the patterns were divided between two musicians in separate, interlocking figures. Most gamelan instruments are tuned to scales of five or seven tones that can’t be reproduced on the piano: the pitches of gamelan instruments are unevenly divided somewhere in between the white and the black keys. Played together, the genders of Wullur and Vonck sounded even more liltingly melodious. One was tuned a little lower than the other, resulting in a hovering pitch, a natural vibrato pleasant to the Balinese ear.

Looking and listening
‘Good music always floats to the top,’ Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia, world-renowned flutist and senior lecturer in Indian music at the Conservatory in Rotterdam, knows. ‘Anyone can recognise strong, good, beautiful music, whether they be Norwegian, Chilean or Dutch. Why that is? No one knows. Wherein lies the beauty of a flower garden? Is it in the white? The green? The pink? Or is it the way it’s been laid-out? Every spectator, every listener will give you a different reason yet they will all recognise the beauty of a stunning garden or of wonderful music.’ However, this remains to be seen. Why are there so few westerners who know how to appreciate the true value of Japanese chamber music? So few who let themselves get carried away by the magic of the Indonesian gamelan? Or into the depths of the Chinese zither or the Indian flute? What is getting in the way?

An unsuspecting westerner isn’t always equipped straight away to perceive the power, quality and beauty of what he hears. And safe as it might be, not everyone wants his or her ears to stray. Claude Debussy was an exception to the rule, writing upon his visit to the 1889 World Exhibition that, ‘Javanese music is based on a type of counterpoint that makes Palestrina sound like child’s play.’ He then went even further, maintaining that, ‘And if we were to listen to the charm of their percussion without European prejudice we would have to admit that our own percussion sections sound more like primitive noises at a fairground.’ Debussy hit the nail on the head: it’s a European prejudice that gets in the way. To get rid off it, it helps to listen and to listen again, and again. Preferably at a concert, because watching concentrated musicians perform live on stage tempts the ears.

The first Asian art music that could count on considerable public interest in The Netherlands was Indonesian gamelan. As of February 1940 a gamelan ensemble played every Sunday afternoon surrounded by stately marble at the Colonial Tropical Institute in Amsterdam. The orchestra originally consisted of Indonesian quayside workers of the Netherlands Steamship Company. Dutch musicians later took their place. This Sunday afternoon tradition only came to an end a couple of years ago but the foundation for a modest but loyal and diverse gamelan-loving audience had been laid.

The initial cursory engagement with Indian art music stems from the 1960s and 70s. Beatle guitarist George Harrison’s interest in Ravi Shankar for instance especially put many people on the right track. In The Netherlands serious followers organised concerts of Indian music at venues such as Fantasio and the Mozes and Aäron Church. The concerts at the Tropen Theater in Amsterdam, first in the then great hall, later in the main auditorium, are legendary. The finest musicians from India would come to perform and often then go on tour the rest of the country. In this way the group of enthusiasts and connoisseurs of Indian art music grew substantially.

Art music from Turkey, Iran and the Arab world only began to receive more serious attention in the course of the eighties, with RASA clearly leading the way. Solidarity with immigrant communities ensured concerts of high quality.

This leaves chamber and court music from China, Korea and Japan. No colonial ties here. John Lennon’s marriage to Japanese artist Yoko Ono had no real discernable musical effect on listeners to his music. Chinese music wasn’t played in Chinese restaurants, let alone Chinese chamber or court music, and the Dutch population had only very limited contact with people from Japan or Korea. Even to this day East Asian art music is performed with some regularity in RASA and at the Tropentheater, only very sporadically at large scale festival productions, and intermittently at other venues, organised for example by Chime, a Dutch organisation specialising in Chinese music.

Western composers
The number of concerts is low because there simply isn’t the audience for what at first sound like strange melodies and unfathomable structures. But what is daunting to one is a challenge to the next. Western composers with a taste for adventure eventually did discover the refinement and beauty of Eastern art music, hearing what they hadn’t held possible and allowing it to inform their work.

John Cage was one of the first composers to turn to East Asia for inspiration. The American studied the I Tjing, the Chinese book of change, and Japanese Zen ways of making music and composition. He grasped the power of silence and wrote 4’33”, a composition in three parts for a random combination of instruments that aren’t played. His prepared piano is a percussion machine that sounds like a gamelan. He also composed music for the pipa, the Chinese lute. Silence, the piano and the pipa never sounded the same again.

Steve Reich wasn’t seduced by contemplation or silence but by the shameless repetition of patterns he had discovered in music from Africa and Indonesia. In 1973 he wrote in the New York Times, ‘… I believe that non-Western music is presently the single most important source of new ideas for Western composers and musicians.’ (‘A Composer Looks East’, New York Times, Sunday, September 2, 1973) In Seattle, in the early seventies, Reich joined the Balinese gamelan group of I Nyoman Sumandhi. He heard ‘independent repetitions of simultaneous patterns’, and this is what he started to work with. Reich is now known as one of the founders of what was then a revolutionary new movement, that of minimal music, or better put, of the repetitive music that found a worldwide following.

We return briefly to Ton de Leeuw: ‘Artists and critics often refer to tension as a key element in a work of art,’ he explained in a television documentary, ‘but I don’t want tension, I want balance.’ He found what he was looking for in Asia. In May 2001 the Derde Symfonie by Peter Schat premiered, with bespoke gamelan instruments chromatically tuned for the occasion. ‘The lengthiness of their sound appeals to me,’ Schat said in NRC Handelsblad, ‘they combine well with everything: woodwind, brass, string. I think the way of the gamelan is as with the vibraphone, in time every orchestra will have one.’ That still leaves us some way to go, but there is a new generation of composers writing music for these instruments in all kinds of combinations.

Western ensembles
On the 29 August 2009 a colourful ensemble performed the Atlas Concerto by Iranian composer Ali Authmann in the Haitink music auditorium at the Amsterdam Conservatory. The wind section consisted of ney, shakuhachi, duduk, oboe, clarinet, sho and sheng and the string section of kamancha, kemençe, viola, cello and double bass. The plucked instruments were qanun, koto, tar and setar. Drums and crotales complemented the whole. This was an ad hoc orchestra, an international troupe operating under the care of The Netherlands Atlas Ensemble. Composition student Cynthie van Eijden, whose piece Conversation with a Shakuhachi was performed that evening as well commented, ‘Finally, an instrument that can play what I’ve been wanting to compose for a long time.’

Music ensembles too have been applying themselves to music in which eastern influences play a prominent role. The Bang on a Can All Stars from New York for example set the stage alight with a Burmese pianist. The Kronos Quartet, a world-class string quartet from San Francisco included Tan Dun’s Ghost Opera on their CD. The Azerbaijani singer Alim Kasimov, his daughter Fargana and Homayun featured in their Rainbow programme.

The abovementioned Gending ensemble performs contemporary pieces for gamelan by composers from all over the world, including from Indonesia and The Netherlands. For years composer and jazz saxophonist Theo Loevendie, a pioneer in Turkish music, fronted Ziggurat, an ensemble that combines western and non-western instruments. The Axyz Ensemble from Amsterdam operates under the umbrella of Karnatic Lab, a group of professional musicians who emphasise their focus on the study of the complex structures of South Indian (carnatic) music. Only recently the Axyz Ensemble added Turkish musicians to their formation for the release of their double CD which includes surprising beautiful pieces by Turkish composers.

Pianist Guus Janssen too, like Loevendie a composer and improviser, is a musical world-citizen. In the latter half of the 1960s he travelled to China several times for the production of his opera Hiero, which featured three Chinese female singers. ‘I played my CD Landschap met een Bleekgezicht / Landscape with a Paleface at the Shanghai conservatory,’ he remembers. ‘The piece starts with an improvisation on harpsichord. This instrument has a very low, muffled sound, much like that of a lute. I played sliding scales on the embouchure of a trumpet. There’s a lot that goes on in that piece. The funny thing is that in Shanghai they mistook it for a qin, their own archaic zither. They thought I was paying respect to their tradition but I hadn’t really been thinking of that while I was playing. Of course, I knew about qin-music, it’s beautiful. When I listen to music I’m always wondering if there’s anything I can use. That had probably been the case here and was how that particular sound had crept into the musical framework.’ You can’t get a more organic integration of eastern and western music than that.

Of course not everyone is charmed by western composers and improvising musicians who draw on different cultures at their own pleasure. No matter, traditionalists can continue to enjoy the original music they evidently already discovered and nourish. On the other hand, composers like Cage, Reich, De Leeuw and Janssen, and ensembles such as Atlas, Axyz and Gending might put others on the trail of the originals as well and tempt them to go exploring with their own ears. By looking and listening. A good place to start would be in RASA, a truly remarkable cosmopolitan cultural centre, including for the most beautiful music in the world.

Originally written in Dutch (Vreemdgaan met de oren), translated into English by Astrid van Baalen.

Published in RASA 50 Years, ISBN/EAN 978-90-815914-1-6 (2010).

© Peter van Amstel - 2010