Reflections as a World Music Ensemble Director – Part 2

Picking up from where I left off last time, there are many more memorable events and songs from the last two years. One of my favorite moments is when I somehow got members of the Silk Road Ensemble (an ensemble founded by Yo Yo Ma which specializes in playing music from along the Silk Road and the world) to come to Dudley Hosue and give a masterclass to our world music ensemble! I’ve been a long-time fan of the group ever since I learned about them as a teenager in Indonesia, so this was an amazing opportunity! The Silk Road Ensemble was led by the amazing contemporary cellist Mike Block. We played a few pieces that we were preparing for our concert, and they taught us an amazing new tune from Ethiopia called Musicawi Silt. Here is the video of our performance of it in the workshop:

Similar to the folk songs I described in the previous post, Musicawi Silt is harmonically a very simple tune: most of the tune is in D minor, with a F – G m – A cadence at the end. However, it has a driving bass figure which is in 6/4 while the melody itself is in standard 4/4. This incongruence in meter between the accompaniment and melody makes an interesting tune to listen to but a tricky one to play! In our upcoming concert this Saturday, we are going to play our own version of the tune, partially inspired by the Silk Road version, but also featuring our own touches! In particular, we’re playing it as a medley with two klezmer tunes and a theme song from a Russian cartoon.

A Communal Anthem

The 2017 spring concert was particularly memorable for me. First of all, it was very ambitious, both musically and logistically: there were 10 songs on the program, but some of these “songs” were actually medleys of multiple songs (including a 7-song Bollywood Medley), so the total number of individual songs was closer to twenty-two! We also did the concert in the Yenching Auditorium (which seats 250 people) instead of the Dudley House Common Room. Somehow, we managed to fill up the majority of the seats!

There are so many great songs from this concert. One particular one is Pasiwali (Sunrise in the East), a folk song from the Amis people in Taiwan. We originally played this song in a workshop with Amis artist Ado Kaliting Pacidal earlier in the semester. The song was originally composed in the Second World War, and talks about the experience of young men being conscripted to fight the Japanese:

Seeing the sun in the east,
about to break into dawn
Mother, please wake me softly
Please take care of yourselves,
mother, father, brothers and sisters
Don’t worry for me anymore

After this comes the hypnotic, never-ending chorus, which consists only of the vocables “Hi ye yan, hi yo yan” over and over. Its a great communal song, and the chorus reminds me of the “na na na na” of the Beatles’ famous anthem Hey Jude.

DIY minimalism

For the first time in my time in the Ensemble, in this concert we also experimented with trance-like, minimalist music. This piece was “composed” entirely from scratch. Paying heed to the fact that many of us were physicists and other science grad students, we cheekily named it Noise to Signal.

The first section, Noise, was completely free improvisation, without any underlying harmonic guidelines, only gestures, textures, and colors we vaguely agreed upon before. Only about five of us were into this sort of thing, but you can tell that we had a lot of fun! (This section ends with Pei Ling gently scraping a microphone on the face of her tabla.)

After such a completely bonkers opening section, we thought we had to follow that with something more conventionally pleasant for the ears. In the end the second section, Signal (starting at 4:40 in the video above), was inspired by Terry Riley’s seminal minimalist work In C. In Riley’s work, players are provided with a list of musical cells (all in C major) that they are to repeat freely, slowly transitioning from one cell to the next. In our work, I wrote a new set of musical cells based on the Balinese folk song Janger. (I also learned this song from my days as a middle school gamelan player in Bandung.) Every few tens of seconds, subgroups within the ensemble rise from the background to the foreground of the musical texture in undulating waves. (This is the “signal”.) Just like most minimalist pieces, there isn’t a clear climactic arc in the piece – it ends abruptly but aptly.

Maybe Noise to Signal wasn’t the most popular song on the concert, but it certainly was one of the most interesting to practice and prepare!

Word Percussion and Tablas

Finally, another great song from the Spring 2017 concert was the closing song, Bol – Percussion Ghazal, a very dramatic and powerful number that combines three equally amazing and impactful songs. (This is also the first time that I performed on the electric bass!)

The first song was the captivating love song Benaam Khwaayishein, from which we get the “ghazal” part of the title. (A ghazal is a poetic form commonly found in the Middle East and South Asia.) This is followed by the more earthy, chant-like songs of Ghir Ghir (starting at about 3:50). Both of these first two songs were originally inspired by songs we found on the Pakistani/Indian musical program Coke Studio, which many of our members loved and contains many amazing contemporary arrangements of traditional music.

The final section (starting at 4:40) opens with Peiling and Mihir dueling with their tablas and bol, which are words that tabla players learn to voice and internalize their rhythms before actually playing it on their tabla. But here, we promote a learning tool into a powerful musical vehicle in its own right. At about 5:30 we start chanting the bol composition together, which morphs into a dynamic section featuring Ilia beatboxing over free chromatic improvisation by our wind players and me just mashing the bass. (I was just happy that I didn’t have to worry about how bass fingering was so different from cello). The section builds up into the climactic, contrapuntal ending where three different vocal sections chant the bol at three different speeds. It makes for an incredible climax that still sends shivers when I listen to it again today!

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