Dallas — There was a time, back in the 1970’s, when Western classical composers added theatrical elements to their works such as projections and dance. Some visual additions were closely related, others purposely unrelated and still others left to chance as to what would happen (referred to at the time as “happenings”).
Two works by composer Xi Wang, for the latest concert from Voices of Change, drew on this multilayer history. Dallas City Performance Hall was an excellent venue, with its even and lively sound and great sightlines.
Another seminal influence of Western music that came to fruition in the 70’s was the music of Asia and other non-Western musical traditions. Composer Xi Wang brought Chinese musical traditions with her when her family emigrated from Shanghai. She revived, updated and combined these traditions, Western modernism and Asian sounds and pacing, in two stunning works at this concert.
The main event was the world premiere of Tibet Fantasia. My preview of that work is here. The first half of the program was a repeat performance of her Echo.Poem.Image, also a VOC commission, which dates from five or so years ago. My original review is here.
Xi Wang’s two pieces are in a category of their own. Both are multilayered presentations that combine different visual and aural elements. Echo.Poem.Image uses projections and lyrically slow-moving dancers, playing out a gentle love scene. It uses a few instruments and extensive percussion.
Tibet Fantasia doesn’t have dancers or projections, but adds vocalists. The lead singer, so magnificently performed by Vinnie Mahal, is almost an opera characterization. This is quite fascinating because he does not sing real words but conveys real emotions with nonsense syllables. In this, it is reminiscent of the abstract scores that Cirque de Soliel uses, which are also derived from Asian and other world music sources. The placement of groups of instruments around the hall surrounds and immerses the audience in the sounds.
Drums thunder and a gentle rain falls, thanks to rain sticks. Bells ring and bowl rims hum. The strings use many harmonics and the flute frequently bends tones. Xi Wang uses the device of a repeated note that gets ever louder and faster throughout (in both pieces). This is a unifying pattern for her work and she gives it to all of the instruments and voices at one time or another.
Two bass trombones play very low notes from two side balconies, imitating the dungchen, trombone-like horns that are so long the bells rest on the ground. On the stage, there are three ensembles. One is made up of flute, oboe and clarinet. There is a group of singers in the middle and the third is made up of a violin and cello. Large arrays of percussion instruments, including a piano, are arrayed across the back of the stage with drums also in the back of the hall.
Conductor Richard Giangiulio held everything together. His job was not as difficult as you would suspect by just listening to the music; Xi Wang notates most of her abstract piece in standard 4/4 and there is only a little aleatoric improvisation.
Echo.Poem,Image was performed by Helen Blackburn (flute), Daryl Coad (clarinet), Maria Schleuning (violin and VOC Artistic Director), Kari Kettering (cello) and Liudmila Georgievskaya (piano).
The Tibet Fantasia added vocal soloists Virginia Dupuy (mezzo-soprano) and Vinnie Mahal (male soprano). There were three additional percussions: Deborah Mashburn, Mike McNicholas and Brad Wagner. Jennifer Corning Lucio (oboe) joined the other wind players. The two groaning bass trombonists were Darren McHenry and Chris Guilfoyle. A three-member chorus chanted in the background (Arielle Collier, Sydney Kristine and Jackie Lengfelder).
The afternoon was a gleaming success. First, the lower floor of the Dallas City Performance Hall was almost three-fourths full—a great house for VOC. However, the real proof of this triumph was the standing ovation that greeted the entire concert. You can always feel whether such as ovation is sincere or offered to be polite. This was spontaneous and added an overlay of cheering.
Moment of Geek: The influence of non-western music goes back much further than the 70’s as travelers cross-pollinated the arts. The Baroque French composer, Jean-Philippe Rameau, set his opera-ballet Les Indes galantes in both Asia and South America, making an impressive effort to reflect the music of those locations. Turkish music was all the rage in Mozart’s time and a Turkish march even found its way into the tenor variation of the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
But it was the Paris Exhibition of 1889 that really turned the tide. It was here that Claude Debussy first heard the Javanese gamelan play music that was completely out of his experience. It is based on non-western scales, heavy on tuned and unturned percussion and uses cycles of patterns that are ever subdividing into faster units. Every book about music in the 20th century starts with Debussy, and his harmonic revolution derived from this chance visit to a world’s fair.
The next step in this evolution came about when Asian composers began to study composition in the Western universities and Western composers sought out Zen and other types of meditation. The influence flowed the other way as Asian music absorbed Western influences and a true fusion started to take place. Composers such as Tan Dun began to arrive in the 1980’s, the height of the avant-garde and an era of wild experimentation in the west. Dun brought with him the folk music of his rural Hunan villages, which was almost as revelatory as Debussy’s gamelan.
In the summer of 2014, Huang Ruo's amazing opera Dr. Sun Yat-sen took Santa Fe Opera by a storm with its fusion of Chinese and Western opera. The composer wrote two versions: one for only Chinese instruments and the other (what was heard in Santa Fe) for a combination. My review is here.
The influence of Asian music is now a permanent part of a composer’s palette these days. The constant repeating of phrases in minimalism, such as the works of Philip Glass, is one outgrowth. Its vacant nature was first explored by Anton Webern and its simplicity inspired Erik Satie. It might be a stretch, but it could be argued that the repeated patterns under hip-hop music come from this same lineage. Non-Western intervals and scales are now as familiar as plain major and minor.
Works like these two from Xi Wang take bits and pieces from everywhere and every time—like a Magpie’s collection of shiny treasures. She frequently places them far apart in the soundscape; they maintain their uniqueness while still being part of the whole. Quite remarkable.
As a final note, commissioning new works is the lifeline of our musical heritage going all the way back to its beginnings. Early composers were hired by the royal houses to provide entertainment at court. Freelance composers began with Mozart, but commissions from the wealthy were how he put bread on then table. Beethoven also sold subscriptions. Commissions are increasingly difficult to line up these days so all but a few composers rely on teaching privately and at the university level.
Voices of Change commissioned Tibet Fantasia, but it was made possible by a 2013 grant from TACA’s Donna Wilhelm Family New Works Fund, which has given $100,000 a year to new theater, dance and music works since this grant began in 2012. The grants will continue at least through 2017, so we’ll look forward to what future grants allow in the local music scene.