Music Masters of the Universe

Join us on a musical grand tour and discover the exotic sounds and inspirations behind some of the most colourful classical music. Ken Hunt guides you through composer, country and instrument.

‘Today I’ve been in touch with a composer from Yugoslavia, another from Korea, one from Argentina and Hamza El Din called today too’ enthuses David Harrington, the San Francisco-based member of the Kronos Quartet. ‘The possibilities are greater than ever. It’s astonishing what can be done now. You never know what you might be able to hear next.’

As the next century races to greet us, it’s easy to forget that much of the music available has only been accessible for a few decades. To have listened to authentic Indian music at the turn of the century would have meant visiting Madras or Benares or attending an exhibition such as the Franco-British Exhibition of 1908 with the Ceylon Village and Indian Area. To have studied it might have entailed reading the ‘Music in Hindustan, Siam and Java’, a chapter in Weber’s A Popular History of Music from the Earliest Times (1891). Little assisted culturally-challenged westerners to overcome their musical superiority. Witness one H Cottrell writing from Bombay in 1907 who observed of Hindu (Indian) musicians: ‘They make most awful noises.’

When East and South met West
Musicians and the musically intuitive might protest. What failed the waltz-time test might be heard by a more spritely mind as something set in seven-time. Debussy heard gamelan music at the 1889 World Exhibition in Paris. How its shimmering rhythms and multilayered cycles affected him is debatable but it presented lots of fresh possibilities. In 1956 Britten found Balinese music enchanting too. In the case of Colin McPhee (1900-61) the possibilities of the gamelan and the complex musical traditions of the then Dutch East Indies left a more sustaining legacy. His passion bore fruit in the beautiful Tabuh-Tabuhan.

Steve Reich did not dedicate himself to Balinese culture like McPhee but gamelan shimmer would be absorbed along with the sophistication of African polyrhythms to create new rhythmic backcloths. The Desert Music is a mesmerising example of Steve Reich’s syncretised musical world view.

Earlier, direct access to non-western musical sources had been denied. Gustav Holst became fired by Hindu culture to the extent that he studied Sanskrit at University College, London. Yet his Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda was India distilled from the imagination since he had no opportunity to sample it first hand. And India also inspired Holst’s first chamber opera, Savitri.

Flights of Indian fancy
Indian philosophy and culture have continued to exert influences. Sometimes this was faddish, as happened with Jimi Hendrix whose Axis: Bold As Love wove Hindu symbology into its cover artwork. Sometimes more profound, as with Jonathan Harvey (b1939) whose 1983 Nataraja si based on Shiva in His cosmic dancer aspect; or the luscious Bhakti for chamber ensemble and quadrophonic tape which takes its name from the Sanskrit for surrender as well as being India’s reforming movement equivalent to the Christian reformation. John Cage imbibed Eastern philosophy deeply, organising The Seasons around Indian cosmology and Sonatas and Interludes on the rasa (the Indian concept of nine sentiments underpinning Indian arts).

Olivier Messiaen harnessed Indian melodic and rhythmic concepts to release Oiseaux exotiques (1956) in which talas or rhythmic cycles counterpoint western melody instruments. Messiaen’s feathered flights, however, were not only natives of the Indian subcontinent. Others were high-flown from China, Sumatra, the Canary Islands and the Americas. His figurative birds migrated elsewhere. Messiaen’s Sept Haïkaï has violins mimicking the sho, Japan’s hand-cradled cylindrical pipe organ.

The swell of non-western music influences grew. Musicians are often well ahead of consumers and music buffs when it comes to appreciating and absorbing other musical genres or traditions. Henry Cowell (1897-1965), a vital force, drew on India in his Thirteenth Symphony and Madras; Indonesia in his Percussion Concerto and Nineteenth Symphony; Iran in the Persian Set and Homage to Iran and Japan in Ongaku and the koto concertos.

The quest for new inspiration
It was also Cowell who, while teaching at the New School for Social Research, persuaded the composer, author of The Sheltering Sky and ethnomusicologist Paul Bowles to supply copies of his North African field recordings. Which was how Bartók was able to work Chleuh motifs into his Concerto for Orchestra. Curiosity drove composers like Bowles and Hans Helfritz (b1902) around the world, seeking world music elements which sprang to life in their compositions and books.

Many were after new ways to inform their compositions. A spirit was abroad but not omnipresent. Alan Hovhaness (b1911) also incorporated Indian elements in his Madras Sonata while Ukiyo – Floating World looked to Buddhist philosophy. Hovhaness also wrote the sleeve notes for Ravi Shankar’s early Columbia album, Sounds of India. Other American composers, notably Philip Glass, Terry Riley and La Monte Young, have imported Indian influences into their compositions although Reich bucked this trend, quipping: ‘I had no interest in studying Indian music. My interest in Indian culture is more in Indian restaurants.’

African influences have increasingly played their part. The Nubian oudist Hamza El Din (b1929) was a founding father of western appreciation of Islamic art music. His appearance at the Newport Folk Festival led to all sorts of interesting projects, including an eventual commission for the Kronos Quartet. Its Pieces of Africa placed him in the context of African composers such as South Africa’s Kevin Volans and Morocco’s Hassan Hakmoun (b1963). Volans, like Bowles, a field recordist, is especially important for his sympathetic employment of African motifs. By contrast Robin Holloway’s Second Concerto (1979) is more impressionistic in its treatment of North Africa.

It was technology which transformed our world view – transport, communication technology and recording technology. Other cultures’ music came alive in a way that notepad and pen could never let it do. Cylinder recorders, Presto disc-recorders, Nagra tape recorders and DAT recorders have all enabled the music of other cultures or classes to be brought back, studied and enjoyed. Westerners have a tendency to overlook the fact that such a two-way exchange has been happening before our very ears for a century.

Classic CD magazine, 1996

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