Friday, April 9, 2010

In Conversation---From Spirit Horses to Our Lady of Roses

WM Conversation with American Composer/Conductor James DeMars

James DeMars, composer/conductor of contemporary American classical music with a cultural exchange twist, also teaches composition at Arizona State University in Tempe.  His biography cites, "Composer/conductor James DeMars belongs to a generation of composers that is revealing a new integration of world music with the range, depth and stylistic variety of the classical tradition."

He is the musical descendent of musicians such as Aaron Copland, George Gershwin (symphonic work), Maurice Ravel, Claude Debussy and other classical composers that drew inspiration from traditional and folkloric music.  DeMars has produced work and recorded for Canyon Records several times.  His recordings with Canyon Records include, Spirit Horses (1991), Native Tapestry (1993), Two World Concerto (1997) and the opera Guadalupe, Our Lady of Roses (2009).

I caught up with DeMars by e-mail.  And I want to thank the composer/conductor/professor for taking time out of his busy schedule to grant me the following interview.

WME: When I was first introduced to your compositions with R. Carlos Nakai I was reminded of Spanish composers such as Manuel De Falla and Rodriguez who incorporated Spanish folkloric elements in their concertos and other work. I was reminded of French composers Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy too.

Did the works of any of those composers inspire or influence you when you composed music incorporating Native American elements, especially with the Two World Concerto?

James DeMars: Yes, very much so, for several years I listened to Debussy's La Mer as I fell asleep. I have a strong affinity for his music as well as De Falla, Granados, VillaLobos, Milhaud, Ravel, even Ginestera.

WME: Did you research how any of those composers or American composers incorporated another music genre into symphonic work?

JDM: Yes, quite a bit - a strong case for musical integration is made in Watkins book Pyramids at the Louvre in which he discusses the influence of world music on European culture in Paris at the turn of the century. My early avant-garde interests in Stockhausen shifted toward the ever more interesting sonic resources of other cultures and the musically innovative gestures of musicians outside of the Western tradition.

WME: Since you reside in an area of the country steeped in American Indian traditions and are a professor at Arizona State University, were you influenced by Native American music early on?

JDM: When I arrived in Arizona I was still performing the German avant-garde (I had been the pianist in the Zeitgeist Ensemble of Minneapolis), but I soon realized that I was so far from the East Coast that I was truly free to explore all options. By my good fortune Canyon Records producer Robert Doyle commissioned me to write a work commemorating Canyon's 35th anniversary for their premiere recording artist R. Carlos Nakai (I think it was around 1987). In preparation for the work Spirit Horses I began listening to and transcribing the early recordings by Ed Lee Natay (my first serious introduction to Native American music).

WME: You mention the limitations of the Native American flute in the liner notes of Two World Concerto. How were you able to work around these limitations in a symphonic setting?

JDM: It took me awhile to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the instrument and the necessity of incorporating independent tempos, rhythms without bar lines and avoiding pitch doublings. I also chose to not imitate Native American music and this is perhaps the most important thing. Everything that I have created with musicians from other cultures has strived to allow their music to be their own or to create something they can perform meaningfully; I write music for the orchestra in my musical language creating a sort of counterpoint of cultural expressions.

WME: In the same liner notes you also discuss Native American pow-wow drums and you mention pitch as high, medium, and low. How did you work with those pitches in context with the symphony?

JDM: For the most part the pitch memory of the singers was very good and they were able to orient their melodies to the tonal center of the orchestral music. I also sang with the Black Lodge singers; we could work around the variations in beats or phrase lengths but pitch was the biggest problem with the pow-wow singers. For example, during the recording session Algin Scabby Robe was nervous and sang a half step sharp, so I sang with him and we sang an entire verse in parallel half steps! After listening to himself sing an earlier in -tune version, Algin was able to find pitch again.

WME: How many years did you research this traditional music and what other types of music did you research in the process that would give clues to solving the puzzle (of working with traditional instruments)? For instance did you explore symphonic work involving traditional instruments of the Silk Road such as in the work of Yo Yo Ma?

JDM: From the time I was in graduate school 1970s I was looking into music of other cultures; at that time the rage was Ravi Shankar and Yehudi Menhuin. I loved it. By the time Yo-Yo Ma came along it hardly seemed groundbreaking. My interest ran to Arabic music (Faruz and others), Indian music and African music. However there were times of intense study especially for Native Drumming, by far the most difficult work. For Spirit Horses and Two Worlds Symphony (mixing Arabic music with African drums and Native American flute) and also with Two World Concerto, I was working with R. Carlos Nakai (a friend), and we worked on his part together.

For Native drumming I made several trips with Robert Doyle to find the musicians and then spent time transcribing pow-wow recordings, learning to sing along with the pow-wow songs and finally composing a pow-wow song that the Scabby Robe family (the Black Lodge Singers) took to very easily. They even invited me to sing with them at the premiere but they were scolded by members of their community and I was kept away the second time, but the third performance I was invited back!

WME: Okay, so as if Two World Concerto was not ambitious enough, along comes an even bigger project, an opera involving three worlds and three languages (Spanish, English and Indian dialect). You bring in a traditional Aztec musician, Native American flute, and opera singers trained in European classical music. Where did this project originate?

JDM: Two producers asked me to write a Requiem Mass to commemorate the Hispanic immigrant laborers that were losing their lives crossing the desert to find work in the US. I was sympathetic to their cause but since I had just written An American Requiem I felt there had to be a better project. Producer Richard Romero took me aside and informed me that he was a "Guadalupe devotee", and for the first time told me the story of Juan Diego and La Virgen de Guadalupe. I began reading and I came to realize that it was suitable for an opera. In fact it would be an ideal project because I could bring together the many cultural factions of the Americas in a celebration of Guadalupe, the Patron Saint of the Americas.

The project was foundering when Robert Doyle stepped in and said he would produce the work that would bring together R. Carlos Nakai, from the Two World projects and from the Requiem project Isola Jones and tenor Robert Breault (a real "all-star" cast).

WME: How many years of research and collaboration went into the process of producing this opera? Or is it an oratorio?

JDM: Approximately 2 years. I believe it is an opera because the message is for me primarily secular; it is a story that tells us how to solve the public disdain immigration and foreign cultures.

WME: And why the story of the Virgin of Guadalupe? Was the interest of a spiritual nature or geographical one (since there are many Mexican-Americans in the Southwest)?

JDM: It is a beautiful story with beautiful art and a multitude of meanings; it was a chance for me to work with the Hispanic community and get to know better my Southwestern home of now thirty years. My interest was primarily political but in our libretto we certainly recognize the importance of spiritual thought and the courage to act for the greater good. It highlights the critical moment when Zumarraga recognizes the spiritual good will of the Native American Cualitohuac (Juan Diego) with the simple words, "I believe you."

WME: What were the biggest musical challenges you overcame in composing Our Lady of Roses?

JDM: Getting the work performed; the music flowed very easily because it was the project that allowed me to draw on all that I had learned from the numerous intercultural collaborations as well as the traditional vocal productions with singers of the caliber of Breault and Jones. The music was a joy to write.

WME: What other works have you done, not related to Native American music? I hear strains of French Impressionist music, as well as, what I like to call American Impressionist music (George Gershwin, Aaron Copland and Grofè). Are you influenced by those composers?

JDM: Yes, I am strongly influenced by all of the composers that you mention; I support myself by teaching at Arizona State University where my specialty is writing in the styles of the classical masters. The larger works that I have written include the Violin Concerto for Boro Martinic, the Piano Concerto for Caio Pagano, a cantata on text by Alberto Rios and of course, An American Requiem. For these works I draw freely from techniques and sonorities I have learned from studying traditional classical music; for example, a recent commission for I Solisti, a string orchestra from Zagreb, Croatia was an unusual blend of Bach and Debussy and modern string techniques.

WME: What’s next for you musically speaking?

JDM: A collaboration with poet Alberto Rios for a choral work commemorating the statehood of Arizona for performance by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, a new work for R.Carlos Nakai and string orchestra (on themes from Tarot cards), songs for coloratura soprano Julia Kogan and I hope, a new opera.

You can find Professor James DeMars recordings on Canyon Records

This interview appears in my book Whole Music

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

In review--Frantic and Lyrical (Brazilian jazz)

Hamilton De Holanda Quintet
Brasilianos 2
Adventure Music

If the late American bebop legend Charlie Parker had spent time in Brazil soaking up the music of Rio and Bahia, he would have composed music a lot like Brazilian mandolin player Hamilton De Holanda. The songs on Brasilianos 2 alternate between laidback and wildly frantic and the frantic ones can downright leave a listener breathless. In fact, I can sit listening to the faster pace songs and get my heart racing without aerobic exercise. It’s like eating gourmet chocolate and losing weight.  But on the musicians' part, the music itself could not be called effortless.  These players work up a sweat.

The CD portion of the album features 12 tracks and the DVD features a concert in Paris that shows the virtuoso musicians in action. The highlight of the DVD for me is De Holanda’s solo performance of Astor Piazzolla’s Adios Nonino, probably one of the most complex and sad song ever composed. I have seen classical guitarists tackle the piece, but seeing De Holanda playing it on a mandolin can’t be described in words. Though spectacular would do the trick.

As far as, the CD portion, I prefer the slower and moodier pieces, such as TamanduĂ  (anteater) with its haunting harmonica and lilting mandolin. And the following track, Estrela Negra (black star), possesses a Brazilian guitar groove that shouts bossa nova. The mandolin gives the song an Italian feel too especially when De Holanda strums, as opposed to picking the strings. He’s the master of his instrument in the same vein that Piazzolla was the master of his bandoneon. And it’s a pleasure to hear someone play with deep feelings and masterful technique.

Ajaccio and Carolina De Carol flow at a medium tempo with plenty of curves and challenges for the musicians. The samba-jazz of Carolina De Carol certainly brings out a peppery Brazilian feel, whereas Ajaccio shares much in common with urban American jazz. And while I cannot describe all 12 tracks, I will say that each of them took a great deal of imagination and technical brilliance to compose. And beyond that the musicians play these songs with a lot of heart and soul.

While De Holanda is the obvious leader, I should mention that the other musicians in the quintet go beyond providing a musical backdrop for the mandolin. Listen to Gabriel Grossi wail on his harmonica or the tight rhythm section as well as, Daniel Santiago on guitar. This quintet must be tight to ride the hairpin turns and twists in this set of songs. So old Charlie Parker is shaking his head and perhaps wondering why he didn’t spend time at the clubs and beaches of Rio. Instead of go, Charlie go, we shout, go, Hamilton go!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

In review--Pandit Ravi Shankar Celebrates 9 Decades

Ravi Shankar's 90th Anniversary (April 7, 2010)

Ravi Shankar
Nine Decades Vol. I (1967-68)
East Meets West Music
Distributed by Harmonia Mundi

On the second track of Nine Decades, Vol. I, a reporter interviews American concert goers about the Pandit Ravi Shankar performance they witnessed. The interviews took place in 1967 and many of the responses appeared astute, especially by the third person interviewed, a man who reflected about exposure to music from other countries, leading to exposure to global art and cultures. And indeed, traditional musicians such as Ravi Shankar certainly paved the way for global cultural exchange. I doubt there is a household in the US or any European countries that has not heard of Ravi Shankar. They might not have heard his ragas, but the name has grown synonymous with classical Indian music and for some folks, the master sitarist comes up in conjunction with The Beatles, especially George Harrison.

I’m excited about East Meets West Records, spearheaded by Ravi and Anoushka Shankar. The label has archival recordings, film footage, etc and some of this will be released in this 9 volume series of hand selected ragas, interviews and other material. Volume 1 provides listeners with a 48 minute raga Pandit Ravi Shankar and Pandit Allah Rakha (tabla) performed live and outdoors near the Ganges River in 1968. Though the recording devices of that time seem primitive by today’s standards, the musicians rise beyond the occasion.

Raga Gangeshwari (morning raga), starts out slow and dreamy then rapidly increases in speed, dexterity and grace. The sitar and tabla join in oneness, separate, go their own way, and then reunite. Shankar, in 1968, a mid-career musician was already enjoying international recognition, but even had I not known what year the raga was recorded, I would still experience the bliss and exhilaration of the musicians. I felt breathless by the final notes of the raga. And while 50 minutes might seem like a long time to listen to one piece of music (unless you listen to classical music), my response was to play-it-again Sam.  I rolled out a yoga and meditation mat in honor of the raga.

Track 2 features 12 minutes of a reporter interviewing concert goers. It sounds like a mini-radio documentary with people from various walks of life discussing a new type of music that had arrived in the US, though by Indian standards, ragas go back thousands of years. Prior to the 1960s though, many Americans would not have been exposed to much global music, unless they traveled or they were immigrants that brought their music traditions with them. It’s hard for me to imagine the musical environment in the US in the 1960s. But I think including the interview segment on the recording gives off a nice nostalgic touch and also acts as a testament to Shankar’s talent as a musician and cultural bridge builder.

Track 3, a Vedic chant running just over 4 minutes, (Durga Suktam & Mahishasura Mardini Stotram), was also recorded live, this time at a temple in Allahabad, India. The 1968 recording predates the Kirtan chant craze of the new age and yoga markets in the US.  It sounds more authentic to me hailing from India and performed by actual Indian temple priests, than the new age musician du jour. It also offers a spiritual closing to the recording. Shankar also provides insightful liner notes about East Meets West Records and his decision to release his historical recordings in this format.

Happy birthday Pandit Ravi Shankar! And thank you for the peace, the music and the bliss.

Visit the East Meets West Music site and check out Ravi Shankar’s April Dates in the US.