Michael Tenzer | Let Others Name You

16 12 2009

Michael Tenzer

Let Others Name You (New World Records 80697)

Genta Buana Sari and Sanggar Çudamani Gamelan Collectives; Vancouver Players (Nonet); Naoko Christ-Kato, piano; OSSIA Ensemble, David Jacobs: conductor. Recorded: Unstable Center June 19, 2003 Pengosekan, Bali; Underleaf July 9, 2006 Pengosekan, Bali; Resolution October 25, 2008 Rochester, New York; Invention and Etude February 22, 2005 Lubeck, Germany.

In June 2003, I was fortunate to be in Denpasar, Bali for the premiere of American composer Michael Tenzer’s piece Unstable Center for two gamelan samaradana orchestras. I wrote of the performance in my Report from Bali 2003.

But Unstable Center was only the first part of a triptych. Now it, along with the triptych’s second and third parts – Underleaf (from 2006) and Resolution (from 2007) – can be heard in beautifully detailed recordings on Michael Tenzer’s new CD, Let Others Name You.

Unstable Center (whose Indonesian title Puser Belah translates as “split navel”) was written as a response to the Bali bombings of October 12, 2002. It asks whether it is possible to bridge the gaps between inherently different cultures and values.

The genius of Unstable Center is that it is a programmatic work rooted in purely musical advances which serve in turn to further its programmatic ends.

The samaradana orchestra which the piece employs is a relatively new type of gamelan that was developed in the 1980s by I Wayan Berata. With seven tones instead of the usual five – most Balinese music is pentatonic in nature – it can be adapted to play a variety of Balinese music. Recently, new pieces have been composed specifically for the semaradana gamelan that propose a more structurally open, multi-pentatonic, multi-modal music.

Unstable Center takes these new concepts as a given and adds another orchestra. Somewhere in the middle of the piece (and in Underleaf and Resolution as well), complex South Indian rhythmic figures and patterns are woven into the mix.

Programmatically, Unstable Center has to do with a first-time meeting between two isolated cultures, each one represented by one of the two gamelan orchestras. In performance, the orchestras faced each other across an open air stage.

The piece begins primordially, as if at the beginning of time. Each orchestra plays in its own musical universe. One plays more quietly, the other more demonstrably loud and assertive. With gradual awareness of the other, there are points of musical conflict and cooperation. There are any number of textural twists, marvelous sudden rhythmic interjections and shifts in dynamics until, at the piece’s center, a powerful yet slightly uneasy unanimity is achieved between the two bodies. It lasts only briefly. Gradually, the heady communion comes apart, each orchestra retreating into its own parameters, then finally retiring to musical spaces that mirror the opening.

In performance, there were some subtle, yet important, visual components to the work as well. In the middle of the piece, one of the two drummers from each orchestra exchanged drums, symbolic of creating a cultural bridge between the groups. And at the work’s conclusion, each of the players of the large gongs from each orchestra abandoned their posts at the rear of the stage and walked to the front. As the large gong is more or less the anchor of any gamelan ensemble, I took the musicians leaving their instruments to indicate that while the piece was finished, the process itself was unfinished; unfinished because it is an ongoing one and must be continually, freshly re-engaged in.

This leads us to Underleaf, the title of which is taken from a Balinese children’s song which suggests that one can’t simply sweep away cultural differences. They remain where they are, “underleaf.”

For Underleaf , we again have two orchestras. One is a Balinese gamelan semardana, but the other is a jazz-infused nonet with 2 clarinets, 2 saxophones, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, and electric piano. For this piece, however, the two orchestras do not face each other; each is embedded as a complete and separate entity within the other ensemble.

Underleaf seems to be asking how two fully developed, dynamically self-contained cultural bodies can get along in close proximity.

Musically, the answer seems to be for them to each go their separate but equal ways, interacting for only an occasional gratuitous amenity. What’s interesting, however, is that Underleaf provides an additional if perhaps unintended answer to the question it poses. For as one becomes accustomed to hearing the piece, its built-in harmonic and rhythmic clashes begin to dissolve and fade. The ear begins to perceive a new musical/cultural unity. This, in a sense, is how real cultures evolve, shift, and form new wholes. People subconsciously begin to incorporate and eventually build upon new (if at times contradictory) cultural input.

Resolution, which follows, suggests even more. The piece employs a full classical orchestra and two Balinese drummers. While at first glance, the balance between the two cultural entities would seem to be unequal, we realize on reflection that each represents the essence of musical expression of the two cultures. In the west, it is the classical orchestra which carries cultural weight, whereas in Bali it is the drummers who are the leaders of the gamelan, the ones who direct and dynamically shape the music as it goes along.

Michael Tenzer describes Resolution as a “recessional,” a piece that would ordinarily be played as an audience exits a performance. As such, it both summarizes and re-capitulates what the audience has experienced, moving it out of performance time and space into real world time and space.

Building on the strength of an extensive string section, Resolution has a dreamlike, near fantasia quality to it that rises above its own inner drama to virtually hover over the first parts of the triptych. The ease of interaction between the western orchestra and the Balinese drummers suggests to us that real world problems of cultural interaction are best solved by each of us recalling the spiritual essence of who we are as human beings. While no music can solve hardcore problems of a geo-political or economic nature – most often the basis of broader cultural disputes – it can offer us, as Resolution does, the spiritual strength to confront and solve those problems.

As a recessional, Resolution suggests as well that this is an ongoing process. There can be no final resolution, only an ongoing will to resolve that must be continually refreshed and renewed in our own psyches.

Let Others Name You also contains two short solo piano pieces by Michael Tenzer, Etude and Invention (from 2004) which are rhythmic-harmonic “studies” for the final parts of the triptych. They are stunningly and passionately played by Japanese pianist Naoko Christ-Kato.

Henry Kuntz (October 2009)

More on Let Others Name You can be found on the New World Records web page by clicking here… and on Michael Tenzer’s web page here…