New Depths of Hindustani and Medieval Music in a Debut Album by Composer/Cellist Chris Votek


Microfest Records 22

Though one could cite composers like Mozart and Beethoven having imitated the exotic ethnic music of Turkey and the late nineteenth century fascination with “orientalism”, the actual study of ethnic and non-western musical traditions probably started in earnest with the folk song collecting done by Bela Bartok and Zoltan Kodaly in eastern Europe and similar work by Charles Seeger and the Lomaxes in the United States. The work of Colin McPhee then took the study of ethnic musical traditions into the academic realm. But, for this listener, it was the Yehudi Menuhin collaborations with Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakha that brought non-western musical systems to the public in a big way via the LP record. Hindustani music and dance did not even get any representation in film until Satyajit Ray’s 1958 masterpiece, “The Music Room”.

And since Hindustani music has traditions going back hundreds of years among diverse practitioners in a large geographic area, it is not surprising that there are traditions and styles that reflect such diversity and that western musicians continue to explore and learn the varieties and subtleties of practices. This album is certainly a fine example of Mr. Votek’s mastery of the vocal tradition of Gayaki-Ang which is another of the rich traditions of the vast practice of Hindustani and Carnatic musical practices. What I’m ultimately saying now is that the familiarity with those great Menuhin/Shankar recordings affords the listener but a “tip of the iceberg” perspective of the depth of the traditions and practices of Hindustani/Carnatic music. Chris Votek is a part of a new generation of artists who are breathing fresh life into these practices and incorporating them in their own compositional and performance practices. And therein lies the significance of this release.

Chris Votek with this cello. Photo Credit Hannah Arista from composer’s web site

So now, on to the music. The album begins with a work for string quintet, in this case a string quartet with a second cello. While this will necessarily invoke comparisons to the classical string quintet repertoire such as Mozart and Schubert this composition both pays homage to the classical tradition and infuses it with the composer’s take on diverse musical worlds which reach far back into musical history. He takes medieval melodies and harmonies incorporating these into a work in three distinct movements titled, “Serpents”, “Fossil Dance”, and “Migration of the Fires”. Each of the movements has its own character as the composer finds ways to work with this material.

Whether you choose to experience this as three separate pieces or, as this writer does, as a single work, this is the composer working with old western music incorporating it into a work for a String Quintet titled, “Memories of a Shadow”. It works as individual movements but, as a unified whole it represents a stage of Votek’s compositional development with this material. And while his encounters with Hindustani music is not explicit here, it is undoubtedly a part of his compositional thought as well.

The result is a gentle three movement String Quintet that could be programmed alongside Schubert’s essay in the medium. It is, of course, stylistically different from Schubert but the instrumentation is the same and it provides a contrast to Schubert’s work from 200 years earlier. Add to that the incorporation of medieval music (in Votek’s work) and you get some delightful contrasts indeed. It is a work that shows its charms more clearly with each hearing and is a substantial addition to the repertory regardless of what else shares the program.

Neelamjit Dhillon with Chris Votek. Photo credit Kat Nockels from the composer’s web site

Track 4 is dedicated to the performance of a single piece, a traditional raga played in a Hindustani vocal style called, “Gayaki-Ang”. Accompanied by tabla player Neelamjit Dhillon, Votek performs on his cello the vocal part of this raga. This evokes for this writer memories of the late Arthur Russel whose vocalizations along with his cello playing had roots, at least peripherally, in a similar sound space. This is a traditional raga, a tradition that extends back hundreds of years to a sound world that paralleled but did not interact with western music of the medieval era heard in the earlier work. Happily, the interaction begun between early western collaborators with Hindustani musicians such as Menuhin and Shankar continues here most joyfully to explore the splendorous riches of that tradition.

While this is first disc dedicated exclusively to his own work listeners will want to peruse his collaborations listed on this well organized web site. He is an artist that is poised to create some thoughtful new music. This CD can be obtained via Microfest Records as well as other outlets.

Sharon Isbin’s “Strings for Peace”


zoho ZM 202004

A quick look at Sharon Isbin’s discography makes it clear that she embraces her instrument in all of its historical, cultural, and geographical guises. From baroque classical on to contemporary classical, from jazz to folk and troubadour traditions. She has had over 80 works written for her and has collaborated with a wide range of musicians and musical styles.

For this release, Isbin has chosen to follow the route originally pioneered by Yehudi Menuhin in exploring and collaborating with South Asian musicians. Menuhin helped introduce music from other cultures (we now call it “world music”) to the western world. His recordings with Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Alla Rahka were revelatory and instructive to thousands of listeners (this writer included). Now comes another generation reaping the joy of collaboration inserting her western instrument in a context with musicians from another culture. The end result enhances both cultures.

Her collaborators span seven generations of familial musical traditions in India. Here we have master sarod player, Amjad Ali Khan and his very accomplished sons, Amaan Ali Bangash and Ayaan Ali Bangash. They are dazzlingly accompanied by tabla player Amit Kavthekar. All the music was written by Amjad Ali Khan and arranged for Sharon Isbin. And so she joins people like Menuhin and Ry Cooder in establishing a new generation of collaborative music making.

There are four compositions here lasting about 15 minutes (the second track is shorter at about 4 minutes) each based on a raga (a stale of notes) and named for that scale. Each piece is also given a more poetic title as well giving us: By the Moon-Raga Behag, Love Avalanche-Raga Mishra Bhairav, Romancing Earth-Raga Pilu, and Sacred Evening-Raga Yaman. All are world premiere recordings.

The recording was done in New York following a successful concert tour in India. It is lucid and a joy to the ears. There are doubtless multiple meanings hidden here in the kaleidoscopic world of Indian musical traditions and in the minds of the performers but the music has a joyous directness that comes from performers who have mastered their craft.

Janoska Ensemble: Revolution


 

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Deutsche Grammaphon 60257 725 9326

Not your typical Deutsche Grammaphon release, this disc is of a genre in which classical musicians toy with pop music arrangements (in this case two violins, piano, and bass) as well as a few showpieces.  Such novelties when done carelessly (evidence the plethora of string quartet arrangements of rock music) it can be tedious but with clever arrangements and energetic musicians they can be marvelously entertaining.  This disc is in the latter category.

This traverses some of the territory of the late great Yehudi Menuhin and his collaborations with the likes of Stephane Grappelli among others.  This spirit of exploring the fun side of classical music (so to say) is very much present here.  The virtuosity of the selections by Fritz Kreisler and Henryk Wieniawski  are contrasted with virtuosity of variations written and arranged by the Janoskas.  Add a cello and I’d love to hear these guys do the Schubert Trout Quintet.  They rock in their way.

Here are the track names:

The Marriage of Figaro (Mozart)

Yesterday (Lennon and McCartney)

Praeludium and Allegro in the style of G. Pugnani (Kreisler)

Hello Prince! (Roman Janoska)

Air (Bach)

Len’s Dance (Frantisek Janowska)

Melodie (Tchaikovsky)

Night and Day (Porter)

Penny Lane (Lennon and McCartney)

Variations on an Original Theme (Wieniawski)

Let it Be (Lennon and McCartney)

The ensemble consists of Ondrej Janoska, violin; Roman Janoska, violin; Frantisek Janoska, piano; and Julius Darvas, double bass.  Nothing truly “revolutionary” here except for the title but fun and entertainment certainly are.