DAVIS: Notes from the Underground. You Have the Right to Remain Silent.
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
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.
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
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
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)