February 28, 2013
Other Minds Merges Subcontinents
Other than the encircling ocean that is the aural arts, the musics of the North Atlantic and Hindustan would seem to have little in common. Nevertheless, in his multidecade project to bring, as he put it, “a rich variety of surprises” to Other Minds, Artistic and Executive Director Charles Amirkhanian chose to begin the first concert of the festival with music from Greenland, the Faroe Islands, and Denmark, and then to contrast it in the second half with ragas from India. The result was a genre meld-fest that left me with just what Amirkhanian had in Mind — a takeaway surprise.
Of the 12 numbers performed, only two were attributable to a composer; the rest were arrangements of traditional material, or, in the case of the ragas, improvisations on standard series of notes. The title of Accivire (2008), by Faroe composer Sunleif Rasmussen, was an acronym on its instrumentation of accordion, violin, and recorder — in other words, that of the famous trio in Denmark, Gáman, which commissioned the music and was present to perform it. Rasmussen’s 10-minute piece was strikingly orchestrated and full of contrasts, from speedy beehivey bursts, to mysteriously pointillistic and inert sections, to jiggy dances. Many of its transitions were handled by clever decelerandos.
Even more intriguing was Gáman’s premiere performance of Together or Not, by Danish octogenarian Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen. A mosaic of contrasting and distinctively original short riffs that exploited extended techniques on the instruments, the three-minute work gained heightened structural interest through periodic cell repetition.
Eight dances and folk songs, ranging from two to five minutes in length, comprised the rest of Gáman’s repertoire in the first half of the concert. There were two numbers each from the Faroes, Denmark, Sweden, and Greenland. The Two Drum Songs of the latter subcontinent were especially atmospheric. Gáman asked the audience to imagine “a lonely hunter sitting on an ice lake” while listening to it.
Through all, Gáman played admirably. Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen had a lot to do on his violin, some of it quite virtuosic. I would have liked to hear more of the same assigned to accordionist Andreas Borregaard, who did well but seemed somewhat underused in the arrangements. Bolette Roed on various recorders was a standout in both tone quality and the complete musicality of her approaches to the music.
After intermission, G.S. Sachdev steadfastly breathed the Shyam Kalyan raga to life on his bansuri flute. His was a 45-minute exploration of the series of tones and mood that the raga represented. As a novice in the appreciation of Indian classical music, I can’t comment on the quality of his rendition, but I can remark that I have been far more bored by pieces a quarter of the length. Sachdev’s purity of focus on the tones themselves shone through: Other than his fingers and lips, his body barely moved the entire time. Unlike in some of the best minimalist pieces I’ve heard, during which I’ve fallen into a refreshment-inducing trance, the Shyam Kalyan and Swapan Chaudhuri’s inventive tabla accompaniment kept me awake the entire time. The pair followed up with a less interesting, 13-minute raga, the Bahar.
The surprise is what kept me going through the Shyam Kalyan. Its tone series is characterized by a raised fourth of the scale (F-sharp in the key of C instead of F natural, for example). Such a scale is quite common in the one unplayed Scandinavian country of the first half, Norway.
So India fit in rather nicely in the geographic gap in the northern climes, and I left with a sense of completion — think “Greenlindia” — and gratitude to Other Minds for the exposure.
Jeff Dunn is a freelance critic with a B.A. in music and a Ph.D. in geologic education. A composer of piano and vocal music, he is a member of the National Association of Composers, USA, a former president of Composers, Inc., and has served on the Board of New Music Bay Area. A photomontage enthusiast, he illustrates his own reviews.
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