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The Graham Ashton Brass Ensemble boldly explores new repertoire for brass from different cultures around the globe, with an incredible line up of composers and instrumentalists from different disciplines and musical spheres. A melting pot of Indian ragas, Japanese Gagaku, Argentinian tangos and ancient Celtic tradition, via American improvised and classical music, gives rise to a release of sparkling originality, where daring instrumentations are perfectly matched with sublime performances from this true ‘world’ ensemble.
“My meetings with the great Kadar Kahn and his talented wife, Bina, took place in downtown New York City at their beautiful rehearsal/yoga studio. What were supposed to be brainstorming sessions about this piece, quickly became ‘jam sessions’ where we all played for each other. Indian music is about a specifically chosen scale (or ‘rag’), and a specifically chosen time and tempo. Once these are set, it becomes totally improvised—not unlike American Jazz music with it’s own tradition and conventions. I decided the best way to incorporate brass instruments into Indian music was for the Indian musicians to be as improvised as possible, so I wrote a number of ‘events’ (18 in all) that could be cued by a conductor in response to the flow of the improvised music. This created the necessary freedom to actively contribute to the piece, and yet not be tied to a preconceived structure, allowing Kadar, Bina, Javed and Imran, to go where the music took them. We did decide on having a set ending though, which was musically cued by Bina”.
As I mentioned, apart from a couple of jazz arrangements and perhaps some aleatoric pieces, most of GABE’s repertoire is notated and structured, and so Jim’s system of inserting spontaneous brass ‘events’ dependent on the improvisation was ideal. Not only did it give us a framework, which we understood, it also provided the opportunity for other members of GABE (namely Mark and Jeff) to improvise between the ‘events’. Jim continues:
“A raga begins with a scale determined by the singer or sitarist. The scale Kadar and Bina chose was a simple B flat pentatonic scale: G, F, D, G, B flat, C with six beats per measure divided into triplets—6/8 in western terms. When the five tones of the original melody and subsequent harmonies are viewed from a twelve-tone perspective, some interesting chords and chord voicing emerge. Once each note in the scale had a number (i.e. 1,2,3,4,5, etc.), I could build chords using every other note (1, 3, 5; and/or 7, 9, etc.), the same way we construct chords from major scales. These new chords can then be plugged into conventional Western harmonic progressions and, because we’re using a non-standard scale, a fresh sounding harmonic language comes out. These are some, but not all, of the methods I used to create the ‘events’. In the opening section, there are also events that are purely textural in nature, events to reinforce the melody and even one purely aleatoric (chance) cue derived from the 12-tone method. The rhythmic section of the piece gave me the opportunity to play with repeating different length groups of notes—playing 8, eighth notes repeatedly over the 6 beats, 5 notes over the 6, 7 over the 6, etc. This creates a rhythmic counterpoint which, every so often, lines up with the underlying 6-beat pulse. I had a lot of fun putting this piece together, and it was a thrill working with Kadar and Bina. The experience was enlightening”.
It was also enlightening for us making music with composer and sho player Tamami Tono, koto player Ryuko Mizutani and shakuhachi player Ko Umezaki. GABE’s producer Steve Epstein had introduced me to Ko as they had worked together on one of Yo-Yo Ma’s ‘Silk Road’ projects. Through Ko, I was introduced to Tamami in a concert at a Japanese cultural center in downtown Manhattan. Tamami’s music was intriguing, as was the instrument she played—the sho. Unlike any instrument I had seen or heard, the sho looked like a tiny church organ built in miniature. To produce the sound, the player gently blows through for one set of notes and inhales for another, much like the harmonica. The sound Tamami made on the sho was divine and, as I drove back from Manhattan that evening, I could already hear the sonority of muted brass with the ‘reedy’ sho. I emailed Tamami the following week in Tokyo and asked if she would write something for GABE. Over the following weeks we threw different ideas around especially in regard to instrumentation. We finally settled on a trio of sho, shakuhachi and koto, with a trio of horn, trumpet and trombone to balance the softness of the Japanese instruments.
On her inspiration for Kei ‘Scenes of Spirits’, Tamami says the following:
“There is an island in the eastern edge of the Eurasian continent which, in the 13th century, Marco Polo introduced to Europe as the ‘Golden Island’. Today, the island is called Japan—a country where traditional art and nature survives as one of the worlds’s cherished cultural assets.
Kei ‘Scenes of Spirits’ is inspired by the beauty and nature of Japan. Each movement has the theme of the four seasons—‘Ka, Cho, Fuh, Getsu’ (Flowers, Birds, Winds and Moon) which are symbolic words representing how Japanese people feel and see the four seasons. You can find ‘Ka, Cho, Fuh, Getsu’ reflected in Japanese arts, paintings and poems, and in traditional books such as the “Manyoshu Tanka Collection” and “The Tale of Genji”.
I have based the composition of Kei ’Scenes of Spirits’ on traditional Gagaku methods. Gagaku being the term used for the music and culture of the ancient Japanese Court dating back to the 6th century. The tradition of ‘Kei’, lies in the combination of two aspects of nature—that which we see and feel directly, and that which is created inside the human spirit, and subsequently expressed in words, music and culture. It is both the image of nature, and the imagery nature creates, which comes and goes in our minds when in a spiritual garden. In traditional Japanese music, especially Gagaku, the ancient perception of Japanese nature is strong, and it has been a great pleasure to have this tradition bring ancient Japanese musical instruments and modern brass together, especially with such a group as the Graham Ashton Brass Ensemble”.
There are two unusual techniques Tamami requires Ann, Jim and me to use in Kei ‘Scenes of Spirits’, one is sliding up to and down from notes to imitate the portementi of the shakuhachi—the other, is the use of ‘mulitiphonics’, where the player sings one note whilst playing another to produce either tonality or dissonance. Sometimes the dissonant ‘mulitiphonics’ are so close that you can hear an extraordinary oscillation of sound determined by laws of physics when notes are in juxtaposition.
Birdsong, for brass quartet, didgeridoo, percussion and piano, does not involve such unusual techniques, but it could be described as unusual music. Inspired by a very surreal dream during the summer of 2005 it is set in Australia’s Northern Queensland, where I embark on a rather odd journey through a sub-tropical rain forest. Birdsong is my attempt to describe the journey. I won’t go into detail, but there are a couple of amusing moments including Igor Stravinsky flying! Circling high above in a majestic Technicolor animation of his ‘Firebird’—and Gustav Mahler, who trudges by with a gigantic double bass strapped to his back. Salvador Dali also makes an appearance, leaping spectacularly from side to side, all the while twitching his moustache and ringing his ‘little bell’. The sound of the bell sends hundreds of Bell Birds into a ‘tinkling’ frenzy resulting in a cacophony of sound from Lyrebirds, Magpies, Kookaburras, Cockatoos, Rozellas, the ‘Brisbane Jazzbird’ and various Parakeets.
I have endeavored to capture the reality of the birdcalls through close musical imitation of specific birdsong. The central instrument in Birdsong is the didgeridoo, the instrument of the indigenous Australians made from branches of the Jarra tree and traditionally hollowed-out by termites. I used the didgeridoo in low B and E, sometimes as an organum, and other times with the horn and trombone in slow syncopation to create a muddy texture of unsettling dissonance. In addition to all the imitated birdcalls, you will hear moments of Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’ and ‘Firebird’ together with a suggestion of Mahler’s 1st Symphony. You might also detect a sad ‘Waltzing Matilda’!
All sides endlessness by Suzanne Farrin, is a complex piece for brass trio, bodhran (Irish ‘Celtic drum’), penny whistle and bass flute. The origins of the Celtic bodhran are unknown. Some say it arrived in Ireland via the Celtic migrations from Europe as early as the 14th century, others say it really didn’t achieve notoriety until the early 1960’s when Irishman, David Fallon, made it famous as the bodhran player with the Chieftains. There is also the opinion that the bodhran has its origins in either Asia or Africa—there are certainly similarities between the Irish bodhran and the ancient frame drums of Africa, so who knows. The history of the penny whistle is better documented as there is mention of such an instrument in the King of Ireland’s Bremen Laws from the 3rd century AD. However, the oldest surviving penny whistle dates back to the 12th century.
Whatever the history, the sound of bodhran and penny whistle epitomizes the music of the ancient Celtic culture and, for me, All sides endlessness captures the spirit of this culture in a very special and contemporary way. The composer, Suzanne Farrin comments:
All sides endlessness began with a conversation in a stairwell at the Conservatory of Music, Purchase College, where Graham and I are on the faculty. Graham had heard a piece I had composed the year before for the Aileen Pipes (Irish bagpipes) and string quartet, and knew that I had been exploring instruments outside the traditional European orchestra. As our conversations regarding the piece grew, we eventually settled on a composition for brass trio with the bodhran, a type of Irish frame drum played with a small wooden stick, and the penny whistle.
Both instruments present interesting sound worlds. The bodhran is a quiet drum whose pattern of up-down strokes makes some rhythms nearly impossible to play. I met with the bodhran player, Ingrid Gordon throughout the composition process, and together, we found new playing techniques, as well as methods based on traditional Celtic music practices. The penny whistle added a new dimension to the pitched ensemble due to its fixed tuning and unconventional scale. I incorporated the bass flute in order to balance the dynamic and range of timbre.
During the process of writing the work it became important for me to find a voice for this unusual ensemble without relying too heavily on the folk traditions of the bodhran or penny whistle. To borrow from Bartók, I was not looking for just ‘new ornaments’ (to my style or something like that) but rather a new creative source from a ‘living music’.
The title All sides endlessness comes from a fragment within “Lessens” by Samuel Bequeath, whose writing has always inspired me. His words are like the sounds of abstract memories across a constantly evolving landscape”.
For most of us, ‘tango’ suggests the glamour, and elegance, of high society Buenos Aires, and yet the dance has its origins in the less-salubrious parts of the city where many immigrants from Europe and Africa gravitated at the end of the 19th century. There is debate about the origins of the musical form of ‘tango’, but it is generally thought the music was firstly influenced by the relentless rhythms of the African slaves’ drums known as ‘tan-go’; and secondly, by the popular music of the pampas which combined the rhythm of indigenous South American music with that of the early Spanish colonists. There is a theory that the name ‘tango’ could also have come from the Latin word ‘tangier’ which means ‘to touch’.
Whatever the origins of ‘tango’, thanks to brilliant composers such as Carlos Franzetti, the dance music remains as popular now as it was a hundred years ago. Carlos is one of New York’s most skillful composers and so it was a great thrill when he agreed to write a piece for GABE for this album. He writes about Brasstango:
“Notwithstanding the fact that tango, as a style of music, falls into the popular genre, many classical composers have incorporated this Argentine dance in orchestral and chamber compositions. When Graham Ashton asked me to compose a tango for GABE, my immediate concern was the use of brass instruments instead of the typical tango orchestra, comprised of bandoneon, strings and piano. Obviously, the title Brasstango was the easiest part of this composition. It was both difficult and rewarding to write this piece, which begins as a tango and departs into other Argentine musical styles as milonga and even candombe with its very rhythmic sixteenth-note patterns. My gratification came after hearing the absolute musicianship of the members of GABE, augmented by a bandoneon (yes, I needed the color of the instrument most identified with tango) and a double bass. I would say that Brasstango as performed by some of the most talented brass musicians in the world, represents a mini tour of Buenos Aires and its surroundings”.
I hope you have as much fun listening to this recording as we had making it. I would like to thank my colleagues in GABE, Ann, Jim, Mark, John and Jeff, without whose unfailing musicianship and virtuosity, the recording and performance of this repertoire would not have been possible. Thanks also to all the other incredible musicians who performed on this album: Kadar, Bina, Javed, Imran, Tamami, Ko, Ryuko, Raul, Tim, Linda, Ingrid, Marcus, Gerry and Dominic. Also to Purchase College, State University of New York, for their support for my artistic endeavors, and to Carl and Doris Kempner whose research grant helped fund this recording.
Graham Ashton © 2007