Reflections as a World Music Ensemble Director

Some of you might have noticed in my homepage that I list myself as music director of the Dudley World Music Ensemble at Harvard. Well, in about a week, I’ll be leading my final concert in that role before stepping down and handing the reins to the brilliant Eric Puma. (For more details of this concert, visit the FB event page or click here.)

As this ensemble has been at the center of my musical life for the last 3 years (two of them being director), I think it’s fitting for me to write a reflection on what I’ve learned, musically and personally, in that role.

The Beginnings

My journey with the ensemble began when I stepped on campus at Harvard 3 years ago as a bright-eyed 1st year physics graduate student, straight out of four incredible years of intense music making combined with rigorous physics research at Amherst College. At Amherst, I’d mostly played classical music, although I also played in a jazz combo, took classes in jazz music (where I somehow got to experience an improvisation masterclass by Marcus Miller), and played in the contemporary worship band at the First Baptist Church of Amherst.

The group was led at that time by Leo Blondel, a French biology grad student who proudly dressed like a 1970s hippie, playing didgeridoo and percussion. Unlike the formality of the orchestra, the WME was very chill! The first song I participated in was  Lu Rusciu te lu mare (The Roar of the Sea), a folk song from Puglia, the “boot” of Italy. It’s about a doomed romance between a princess and a common soldier. You can listen to our performance in the first five minutes of the following clip:

Note how the song starts: a repeating bass line of two notes: D and C, played by yours truly. The harmony of the entire song is the same: Dm and C repeated over and over. But despite the simplicity of the musical material, the other things surrounding the song intrigued me: the foreign language, the subject matter, the lilting, hypnotic melody, and the arrangement we worked out, which ended in an a capella section where the repeated accompaniment stops (creating a sudden change in musical texture) and all of us sang the main melody in harmony. Even though it was simple, it was quite different from the typical hit Western pop song!

This became a regular feature of the songs we did as a group: no matter the difficulty or complexity of the song, we always tried to arrange it in our own way, adding our own unique taste, instead of just copying a recording straight. For example, we might add a separate free improvisation section in the middle. Or use less conventional instrumentation – tabla in an Italian folk song, or djembe in Turkish pop song, and so on.

Another one of my favorite examples was in our spring 2016, where I arranged a Sundanese folk song from my hometown of Bandung, Bubuy Bulan (To Cook the Moon) – a love song which uses metaphors of food and nature to described the beloved:

In the arrangement I tried to incorporate elements of the Sundanese gamelan degung which I played in my childhood. This is a favorite theme in my music – I previously did it in my classical compositions, such as in the Romance a la Gamelan in The Elements of Resurgence. In this arrangement, my favorite part is in 17:50, where the two singers sing the verse and chorus of the song at the same time.

Building Musical Bridges

My appointment as musical director of the ensemble came as a completely surprise to me – I was not even thinking of leading the group while I was still busy taking courses. But Leo wanted to step down, and as I was already very involved in arranging music for the group and conducting some rehearsals, I was the obvious candidate to take over. I could never have imagined myself in this position – before, my forays into jazz and improvisation had mostly been out of personal curiosity, not the center of my musical life. But here I was! I was nervous yet excited at the prospect of leading a new ensemble which had no permanent repertoire, an ever-changing roster of players and musical interests. It was an open canvas.

My training in both classical and jazz and my previous background in composition turned out to make me well-suited to coordinate the ensemble musically. Unlike a classical orchestra, where everyone is trained in a similar way, our musicians come from literally all over the world, with a diverse array of musical training and experiences – Western classical, Hindustani classical, marching band, jazz/funk/pop, folk singer-songwriters, and so on. Some people were used to improvising, others could only play music by year, yet others could only play music from notation. As someone who was able to improvise and play from notation, I often found myself acting as the “bridge” between these two paradigms. It made me appreciate the strengths of both.

To close off this section of my reflections, I’d like to share another of my favorite musical numbers from the 2016-17 season, my first year as director: Mountain Bhairavi. Here, we combined Hakka mountain singing with Hindustani classical music. Even though they’re clearly very different musical traditions, we transition out of one, into the other, and back into the first one so fluidly. First, I had the fun privilege of playing a free, soaring solo to link some of those sections – see 5:11!

Then one of my ABSOLUTE most favorite musical moments in the Dudley WME occurs at 8:20, when we transition from Radha’s sarangi solo to the earthy rhythm of the bandish, where the voices sing about the Indian festival of colors called holi. Everything is in motion. From there, the transition back into the Old Mountain Song seems so natural.

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