Sunday, January 17, 2010

PA Arts Sunday - Thoughts on Writing Music as an Outsider

I. The 2010 offering by the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra's Musica Nova new work commissioning club premiered Saturday evening at the Atwood Concert Hall in Anchorage. It is a deftly orchestrated work with little original thematic content, but lots of flash. It starts out like an industrial film soundtrack and ends by trying to sum up a wanly projected visual and well-played aural feast that strives for focus, and fails.

Los Angeles composer Gregory Prechel's awkwardly titled opus,
Exposition on the Anchorage Museum (at least he didn't name it Exposition on the Anchorage Museum at Rasmussen Center) was greeted with mixed enthusiasm. Some in the audience, including this writer, stood to acknowledge Prechel's efforts and the orchestra's performance.
Anchorage Daily News Arts & Entertainment Editor, Mike Dunham, in a fairly enthusiastic review of the concert and of Prechel's new piece, cited its use of Yup'ik songwriter James Afcan's song, Ciuliamta cauyam. Upon recognizing this theme Dunham has come to love, Dunham reacted positively:

The third movement featured art by and of Native Alaskans, both contemporary work and artifacts. The music had a “lower 48 Indian” sound to my admittedly west of Denali ears. But when I heard the horns blast out “Ciuliamta” I nearly came out of my seat. I noted a few of the slides — Machetanz dramatic “Quest for Avuk,” a mask by Sam Fox, a drawing by one of Afcan’s teachers, Milo Minock — but now the music snared my full attention.

I heard a melody I recognized, but didn't realize it was Afcan's intellectual property. Apparently, Prechel used Afcan's property without bothering to tell the latter. Here's more from Dunham:

In the program notes, Prechel acknowledges that three themes in the movement are “inspired by melodies handed down from the heritage of Alaska Natives.” In a phone call after the concert, Afcan was surprised to hear about the program or the inclusion of “Ciuliamta” in it.

Prechel told me in an e-mail that he hadn't found the names of the pieces he used or the composers while doing research in Alaska.

I'm not sure whether Afcan considers Prechel's appropriation of his property as theft or as free publicity. Hopefully, the latter. Would Prechel have approached the use of Afcan's melody the same way were Afcan a Hollywood colleague? I doubt it. Would Prechel have done the same were Afcan a white Alaska composer. Probably not.

This isn't the only way the work is distinctly the product of an outsider. The "Gallup New Mexico Indian carnival" atmosphere of the quick slideshow through Native Alaskan art at the museum was appalling kitsch.

[Disclaimer - Musica Nova was created in 2003 to commission me for my Piano Concerto. Judy and I have been members for four of the six subsequent years, but aren't members this year, in protest of the way the orchestra presented a concert sponsored by Exxon three days before the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill case. We will rejoin for the 2011 commission.]

II. When it comes to white composers using Alaska Native themes in their work, I haven't done that. The closest I've come was in Fanfare & Capriccio, which has a scene in it that evokes Athabaskan fiddling. I consulted with non-Native expert on this genre, Craig Mischler, went through his transcriptions, and came up with my own melody that sought to both include elements from this wonderful stuff, and relate to the main theme of my work.

I've contemplated an opera about Edward Teller's role in Project Chariot for years. Part of my reluctance to finish it is that I feel the plot is too intrusive on what Alaska Natives accomplished in their own right in defeating that crazy scheme.

I'm getting to work with Diane Benson on a composition about Elizabeth Peratrovich for narrator and orchestra. It will inevitably involve Tlingit songs that Diane knows, sings and cherishes. We both have agreed to use no song without express permission from the family, house, clan and moiety of its creator.

Non-Native Alaska composers Craig Coray and John Luther Adams have extensively drawn from the rich musical cultures of Native Alaskans. Both have always sought to use this material with due diligence. I've met many Native Alaskans who raved about the work of both composers.

I'm deeply into composition of Hindu Kush, an orchestral work centered on Afghanistan and my feelings about the conflicts there. For the second movement, I've created melodic content that slightly evokes three women's songs from contemporary Afghan emigre culture. For the last movement, I will set a Kashmiri folk song that has existed in the public domain for generations. It is a prayer for peace.
I'm an outsider. At times, while writing the music, I feel I'm intruding. The only time I've tred this territory in the past was with The Skies are Weeping. Jewish Zionist friends and others felt it was beyond intrusive. Palestinian friends did not. Yet, it or parts of it have been produced by Jewish organizations cooperating with Palestinians abroad more than once. I'm trying to put what I've learned from my own experiences, and from observing those of others - most recently of Gregory Prechel - to use.

image - Bill Hess, who also wrote a review of Saturday's ASO concert - with sneak photographs

No comments: