Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Kronos Quartet and Wu Man - Tan Dun: Ghost Opera

Most Westerners familiar with Tan Dun, China's most prominent composer, know him through his Academy Award winning score for "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", or through his works commissioned for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Fewer are likely to have heard his more personal and artistically adventurous works, which bridge Eastern and Western traditions while exploring a musical language of Tan Dun's very own. One of the most fascinating of these is Ghost Opera, which puts a (post)modernist spin on an ancient and somewhat polarizing genre - the Chinese opera.

Commissioned in 1994 for the Kronos Quartet and pipa player Wu Man, the five movement Ghost Opera is fairly short (35 minutes) but packed with challenging material that will defy any listener's expectations. Opening the first movement is the sound of water splashing in a great glass bowl, followed by a beautiful and haunting quotation of Bach's C# minor prelude from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2. Just as we're beginning to get comfortable, a shrill note in the upper register of the violin rudely interrupts the serene Bach, and the chilling voice of a monk spirit enters the act. Things move quickly now from strange to bizarre, as a variety of male and female spirit-voices shout wordless incantations over abstract and menacing string gestures. The second movement begins as a high energy dance, with driving string parts and more shouting from the spirits, but in the end winds up showcasing Wu Man's virtuosic pipa skills over a bare texture. The third movement, lacking vocalizations, blends the Bach heard previously with a Chinese folk song, "Little Cabbage", to gorgeous effect. Its sheer melodic accessibility is countered by the next movement, which is almost totally rhythmic, featuring unsteady percussion on a variety of stones and metallic cymbals, and later, percussive string strumming. As the piece mounts in intensity, the spirits return with more excited clammoring than ever, and ultimately a gong hit marks the beginning of the final movement, the most understated and "ghostly" one of them all.

Tan Dun notes:
"My whole village was crazy. We had a professional crying team available for hire at funerals and deaths...a shamanistic choir to set the mournful tone. In Hunan, where I grew up, people believed they would be rewarded after death for their sufferings. Death was the "white happiness," and musical rituals launched the spirit into the territory of the new life. Instruments were improvised: pots and pans, kitchen tools, and bells. The celebration of the remote was grounded in everyday life.

The tradition of the "ghost opera" is thousands of years old. The performer of "ghost opera" has a dialogue with his past and future life — a dialogue between past and future, spirit and nature."
As stated before, Chinese opera is a polarizing genre. Many people find it difficult to appreciate, and attendence to live performances has been on the decline since the second half of the 20th century (see the Wikipedia entry on Beijing Opera). Ghost Opera, aside from being a rumination on modern spirituality, is an attempt to rejuvenate this unusual and uniquely beautiful art form.


Thursday, April 16, 2009

Jon Hassell - Last Night The Moon Came Dropping Its Clothes In The Street

Released last February, this ECM recording from the somewhat veiled yet influential trumpet player Jon Hassell is his first for the label in more than 20 years. In the meantime he released a number of albums for other labels, steadily giving more and more definition to the style of music he describes as "Fourth World". He coined this term as early as 1980 (hear Fourth World: Possible Musics with Brian Eno from that year) to refer to music which combines jazz improvisation, futuristic electronics, atmospheric ambience, and ethnic influences.

Fans of the Norwegian free improvisation troup Supersilent will immediately draw comparisons between Hassell's airy, floating trumpet tone and that of Arve Henriksen. Besides having both recorded for ECM, and sharing a delicateness of tone and penchant for thoughtful improvisation, the two are linked further by mutual involvement with Jan Bang, who controls the electronic samples on this album. However, the atmosphere of Last Night The Moon Came... is distinct from anything Arve Henriksen has had a hand in. The opening track "Aurora", a wash of electronic textures over a minimal bass ostinato, with almost no melody, sounds closer to releases on 12k Records or Hearts in Space than any I've heard on ECM or Rune Grammofon. It's a beautiful commencement to the album, and one that gives the listener no sense at all of how many musicians are involved. Besides Hassell and Bang, we have Rick Cox and Eivind Aarset on guitars, Peter Freeman on bass and a laptop, Jamie Muhoberac on keyboards and a laptop, Kheir Eddine M Kachiche on violin, and drummers Helge Andreas Norbakken and Pete Lockett.

Despite the size of the lineup and richness of instrumentation, the music throughout this album is almost always highly subdued and sparse in texture. There are no crescendoes or sudden changes in direction anywhere, there are no choruses, the songs plod along at a mostly uniform tempo (very slow), and most of the melodic content is fairly unmemorable. These statements are not meant to detract from the quality of the album, however; only to demonstrate that it is far from a typical ECM release, and instead lives in a world of Hassell's own, dominated by meanderings through quasicomposed mires of sound. At times, like on the very short but supremely effective interlude "Clairvoyance", the result is devastatingly beautiful. On the other hand, another even shorter interlude, "Scintilla", features a lovely violin gesture but isn't given the opportunity to do much else, and its inclusion almost feels superfluous. For different reasons, one wishes both of these tracks were more fleshed out.

The meat of the album is found in the longer tracks, two of which go past the ten minute mark. The Fender Rhodes in "Abu Gil" makes the track reminiscent of Miles Davis' In A Silent Way, but with a stronger Indian influence and much more ambience. The outstanding title track is halfway between a moody Steve Roach drone and an organic chamber improv, with Hassell's overdubbed trumpet producing warm harmonies over the most minimal of beats, joined by violin flourishes and low-key electronic sound effects.

If there are any serious criticisms to make about this album, it's only that the last quarter of it begins to feel redundant. No individual track is weak in terms of musicianship, but the listener paying close attention may tire of the overall sound and mood of the album, which is for the most part dreary and listless, before it's finished. This could have been remedied by replacing the last tracks with some more dynamic and explorative ones, but that would have taken away from the purity of the whole. For providing a unique aura anywhere it's played, the album is perfect as it is. Jon Hassell's "Fourth World" vision, refined over decades, has culminated in a remarkable release, and what he does next is anybody's guess, though it's sure to be of interest.