DAVIS: Notes from the Underground. You Have the Right to Remain Silent. Wayang V.
J. D. Parran (clarinet & contra-alto clarinet); Earl Howard (Kurzweil); Anthony Davis (piano); Boston Modern Orchestral Project/Gil Rose.
BMOP/sound 1036 TT: 61:14.
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Beyond swing. Unfortunately, when most people think of African-American composers, they never get beyond the jazz composers like Duke Ellington, Ornette Coleman, or Charles Mingus. Not that there's something wrong with any of those three, but they have tended to crowd out a robust line of writers who have worked along hard-core Modern and avant-garde paths, like George Walker, Roque Cordero, Olly Wilson, Amadeo Roldán, and Hale Smith.

I first heard of Anthony Davis in the Eighties through a New Yorker review by Andrew Porter of Davis's opera X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X. The name stuck because a friend of mine sang in the New York premiere. Davis has led a dual musical career -- one in free jazz and the other in the opera house and concert stage. Although one can't deny the influence of jazz in his concert music, the latter lies closer to someone like Elliott Carter than to Ornette Coleman. The music, tightly organized and usually urgent, sometimes takes from popular elements,

Dedicated to Ralph Ellison, Notes from the Underground, with its two movements "Shadow" and "Act," has several literary inspirations, including Dostoevsky and T. S. Eliot. According to Davis, the piece "riffs on Duke Ellington's seminal work Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue." The riffs, however, exist at a very abstract level; after several concentrated hearings of the Ellington, I finally caught one of the allusions. Like the Ellington, "Shadow" obsessively repeats the riff in different instrumental combinations. "Act" reminded me a bit of the opening to Bernstein's West Side Story, although Bernstein himself alludes to the hard bop of the Fifties. "Act" seems to me to proceed mainly on rhythm. Several asymmetric patterns playing against one another in their own orchestral "vertical space." It obsesses on a limited number of ideas and brings in complex canons. The piece contains a lot of drama. You can understand Davis's fondness for opera. Beyond all that, it swings.

Davis conceived You Have the Right to Remain Silent as a concerted work for clarinetist J. D. Parran, chamber ensemble, and Kurzweil synthesizer. It has four movements: "Integration," "Loss," Incarceration," and "Dance of the Other." There's an obvious political intent to the music. "Integration" begins in nervous bursts, hits a polyrhythmic groove, and ends on nervous bursts again. Periodically, the players chant "You have the right to remain silent." "Loss" is a moody slow movement with a remarkably freaky duet between the clarinet and the Kurzweil at its center. The clarinetist uses "extended" techniques (overblowing, etc.) so that at times you can't distinguish between the "natural" and the synthesized sound. This leads to a beautiful lament, followed by a big-band blues -- according to the composer, an homage to Mingus. "Incarceration" is a hard-edged scherzo, with emphasis on the percussion and brass sections. Occasionally, the players chant more from the Miranda warning: "Anything you say or do may be held against you in a court of law"; "You have the right to speak to an attorney," and so on. As the music proceeds, the chant fragments. Davis may refer to this when he speaks of a relationship between Sprechstimme and hip-hop. The brief "Dance of the Other" begins with a simple pentatonic theme and moves into polyrhythmic jazz and a kind of "phasing." Structurally it relates to rondo.
In four movements played without a break, Wayang V's inspiration comes from Javanese and Balinese theater, usually the shadow-puppet plays accompanied by the gamelan. Balinese music relies to a great deal on complex percussive rhythms, ostinatos, and shimmering chains of very fast notes. Davis evokes rather than imitates. In the first section, "Opening-Dance," the piano initiates the gamelan ideas, and the orchestra joins in. Davis refers to "layering rhythms," another way of pointing to the rhythmic independence of the various lines. The movement builds (with the inexorability of a Paul Creston finale) until it breaks down into the second movement, "Undine," a rippling piano improvisation over an orchestral shimmer, like light playing on the water. This leads to a "March," slightly oriental with pentatonic overtones, full of odd tics but determined. We encounter a transition which emphasizes the piano, marimba, vibraphone, and drums. The piano begins with Ellingtonian chords (reminds me of "Take the A Train") and the section goes on to combine the four instruments in various groups. We end on "Keçak," a form also known as the Ramayana Monkey Chant and which depicts a battle. It begins with a violin solo and becomes increasingly agitated as more of the orchestra joins in. The chaos gradually resolves around a mainly triple-time rhythmic groove. The movement's drama then focuses on the conflict between rhythmic dissolution and resolution.

Like all of BMOP's discs, this one receives a first-rate production, performances, graphics, and liner notes alike. The catalogue as a whole is distinguished. Davis's music isn't particularly easy either for performers or for listeners, but the accounts here realize the remarkable coherence of the scores. This isn't an aural swamp, but music with drive and purpose.

S.G.S. (April 2015)