Sunday, June 6, 2010

Sunday Arts - The Anchorage Civic Orchestra's Performance of Hindu Kush

On May 14th, I directed the Anchorage Civic Orchestra in the premiere of my new orchestral work, Hindu Kush, at the Sydney Laurence Theatre of the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts. The entire concert was recorded by Bob Amos, the incredibly reliable chronicler of the performance history of Anchorage over decades.

Mike Dunham reviewed the performance for the Anchorage Daily News.

I'm reposting a blog post about the work from March, in which I gave detailed program notes of the story behind each movement. The links in the article are now to the live performance recordings, which Bob has edited.

Hindu Kush's four movements each examine an aspect of the ongoing conflicts in that part of the world. Below are program descriptions of each movement, and links to the concert performance of them I've posted at my garageband web page. If you click on the title of each of the movements, you are directed to a garageband page. You can then click on the green forward arrow. A separate window opens, and you can come back to this post and read the program notes in the old window, while listening to the music.

Hindu Kush is designed to be accessible by non-professional orchestras, with fairly traditional orchestration. An English horn and a large percussion set of bells (chimes, glockenspiel and crotales) are the only notable additions to the ensemble's timbres. The work is dedicated to Tai Wai Li, the Music Director of the Anchorage Civic Orchestra.

I. Bamyan Voids: On March 2001, over a period of days, Taliban forces destroyed the two large 1,500 year-old statues of male (Salsal) and female (Shamama) aspects of the Buddha, carved into the sandstone cliffs at an edge of the Bamyan (or Bamiyan) Valley in the Bamyan Province of the Hazarajat region of central Afghanistan. Since the advent of Islam in that region, the statues had been attacked before. This time, however, the destruction was extensive.

My orchestral essay begins with the valley on a quiet, peaceful morning, The statues repose in their niches. Taliban arrive in trucks filled with explosives. They set the charges and blow the monuments. The music depicts their arrival, the rigging, the explosions, and the excitement of the Taliban in the dusty aftermath. After the men leave and the dust clears, the voids where the statues had been seem empty to some. I envision it as the completion of the mission of those whose devotion had created the monuments centuries and centuries ago.

Two recurring ideas appear in Bamyan Voids. The first is a sort of chant melody, initially played by the French Horns. The second is a variation on an ancient Buddhist hymn about impermanence. Each time the hymn returns, it is transformed somewhat. When the horn chant returns near the end of the movement, it is in A major, instead of its original A minor.

II. Women's Ghazal: The ghazal is a longstanding poetic form in many languages of central Asia. The form, probably initially exposed in pre-Islamic Arabian cultures, is in five or more couplets with the same or very similar meter. The general theme is of unrequited love. Through metaphor, this theme can be seen as carnal, or as a higher love for an idea or condition of being. Hundreds of ghazals have been set to song over the centuries.The most famous writer of ghazals and the artist who most fully realized the higher aspects of the use of metaphor in the form, was the 19th century Urdu poet, Ghalib.

In contemporary central Asian culture, one merely has to type the term "ghazals" at youtube to see examples of the continuity of this vibrant art.

Women's Ghazal is about the unrequited love many Afghan women, particularly Afghan women artists must feel, as they long for a society in which they may freely sing. It uses my own melodies inspired by three contemporary popular Afghan ghazals, sung by women singers on youtube, as its material. The movement is in five stanzas (A[aaba]B[aaba]C[aaba]B[aaba]A[aaba]), reminiscent of the structure of these poems.

III. War Dirge: The theme for War Dirge is based on the first twelve bars of the opening melody in Women's Ghazal. In this movement, it is transformed into the stark motto for a passacaglia. After the introduction of the passacaglia theme, it goes through seven reiterations, the fourth of which is a modulated, expanded version.

I wanted to write a stronger anti-war statement in this movement, and my wife was hoping I would. But the commissioning ensemble - the ACO - has members with sons or daughters currently serving in Afghanistan and Iraq, and I felt it most appropriate to condemn war on a level on which we could all find common ground.

IV. Peace Prayer: Back in the years 1970 to 1973, I often opened ethnic music segments of my daily morning program on KRAB radio in Seattle with a wordless song collected by a French ethnomusicologist in Kashmir in the 1950s. It is a simple shepherd's tune, accompanied by tablas. Each time the singer repeats his tune, it goes a bit faster. Since then I have used the theme at the conclusion of my 1972 radio work, Between the Lines, and as the subject for the final movement of my 2000 Tuba Sonata. It is a straightforward, major mode melody, a bit reminiscent of the American Shaker song, 'Tis a Gift to Be Simple.

As in the shepherd's version, my setting goes a bit faster as it spins its way forward. And, like his, the composition is totally diatonic (there are no non-scale tones played), without modulation. This peace prayer ends with the same bell sounds that opened Hindu Kush.

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