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Gongs and Whispers

New York
03/19/2019 -  
Susie Ibarra: Talking Gong Ciper – Growing Rhythm – Dance Steps – Paniniwala – Talking Gong
Traditional: Tay Nyunt Thann Tar – Yoe Yer Pat Ge Ta Lat
Kit Young: The Nagini Queen and Naga King of Mogok Phyllis Chen: Roots of Interior

Alex Peh (Piano), Kyaw Kyaw Naing (Saing Waing), Susie Ibarra (Percussionist), Claire Chase (Flute), Nolan Lotter, Alyson Hummer, Elana Kellerhouse, Thin Thin Hla (Hsaing Ensemble)

K. K. Niang (© Samuel A. Dog)

What a world within a cosmos within a universe was experienced on Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn last night. First, a shop of Middle Eastern spices, with international cheeses and breads at Sahadi Market, far more than we could carry. Across the street, up the steps to Yemini Cafe for chicken and rice and humous, and honeyed dessert. Then a quick jaunt down this fascinating avenue to Roulette, where we were visually startled by a meter-high gold-and-red giant horseshoe-shaped shell, its wood elaborately carved, the gold leaf shimmering in the Roulette concert hall.

That was the Southeast Asia equivalent of those over-adorned gorgeous Baroque keyboard instruments. Actually, it was the Burmese element in a most eclectic concert. And within little more than an hour, the Burmese drums–for yes, inside the saing waing, that ornate horseshoe were 20-odd drums–the evening continued with Burmese and American jazz, one of the singular flute-and-twirl-and-dance solos (complete with her own heartbeat) by Claire Chase, and a brew of music exotic, Asian, traditional, modern and a syncretic fusion of it all.

The foundation of this stew originated at the State University of New York in New Paltz, home to many of the musicians, as well as the first traditional Burmese ensembles on the East Coast. (California has its own ensembles.) But those expecting gongs, tinkles and pentatonic scales, all coming from the original Javanese gamelan were surprised from the very first notes here.

Having lived in Thailand several years, I became familiar with Thai classical music, more visually fascinating than emotionally exciting. The Talking Gong group broke all the Asian boundaries, and a few Western boundaries as well.

The ruler of the group last night was an excellent jazz pianist, Alex Peh. His piano technique for cool jazz was faultless, though his plethora of melodies, mostly composed for him, were bland, to say the least. His partnerships with the other musicians was more than engaging.

Yet in the first two works, the surprises were manifold. First, a trio. One instrument was Kyaw Kyaw Naing’s clandestine Drum Circle (secretive because we never saw those ensembles of drums behind the gold-leaf exterior). Another was a Krupa-Buddy Rich drum set played by composer Susie Obarra, who (I discovered later) is one of the more innovative creators jazz, traditional and avant-garde percussion. Third was Alex Peh on piano.

The first three minutes–which I expected to be slam-bang percussive opening–was a study in muted tones. Mr. Peh’s pentatonic meandering was echoed by Mr. Niang and–most extraordinary of all–the hushed playing of Ms. Ibarra on her drums. Here were a few–very few, very subtle–hints at jazz syncopation, though they were as secluded as Mr. Naing’s instruments.

Following that, the mask was torn off. Messrs Peh and Naing were joined by other Burmese vibe/and bell players, and the piano theme was definitely Burmese.

A. Peh, C. Chase, S. Ibarra (© Samuel A. Dog)

Or was it? Mr. Peh’s jazz improvs and riffs were echoes, improvised and varied by Mr. Naing. The usual tonal drums changed to sync measures, subtle drumming grace notes, wild piano passages imitated by the Drum Circle and vice versa. Not quite pure jazz, since Alex Peh retained at least a structure of five-tone scale. But, like Claude Debussy 140 years ago, the Asian scale became the basis for a new kind of music. It started simply enough, but became more and more startling, as the two musicians played their improv game with incredibly complex measures.

And for those who felt that gamelan music could never break out of its gongs and drums, this was a whole new experience.

The rest of the concert was equally innovative, thanks to a 19th Century Italian Ambassador to Burma who gave the king his own piano.

Who knew? And who knew that the king’s combination of piano and drum-circle and Thin Thin Hla’s music of bells and clappers, would bring such originality to a supposedly ancient musical form.

Mr. Peh’s original piano works didn’t seem to hang together, despite Ms. Ibarra’s composition showing different dancing steps from the Philippines. The Nagini Queen piano work by Kit Young–herself an esteemed linguist, pianist, composer and an iconic pedagogue in Burma and Thailand–was a prelude to a work which was extraordinary in every way.

I was not thinking of Phyllis Chan’s Roots of Interior, composed for and played by flautist Claire Chase. Ms Chase is a force of nature. Sometimes hidden in the International Contemporary Ensemble, here she not only played solo flute, with electronic sounds (and with her own heartbeat), but she danced, skipped, leaped, she became a combination of Puck, Pan and every sylph one could imagine. This beside the plethora of sounds.

And unlike solo works by Varèse and Berio, Ms. Chan’s piece reached out, danced, fluttered and became an avatar of rhythms itself.

To this listener, though, the joy was that of Susie Ibarra’s most hushed drums. She could wave a stick of scarlet threads and one almost heard the air breathing. She could take a tiny instrument of interlocked pagoda-roofes, and the oh so subdued tinkles became the sounds of a midsummer night’s dream.

That, though, was natural. After visiting the voluminous hellholes of Hong Kong and Bangkok, one is always stunned by the whispered tranquility of Burma. And while this was hardly a kosher Burmese musical celebration, the music was transformed, even as a metaphor, in a whispered reflection of soft gongs, murmured prayers and the quiet breaths of oars on breathless lakes.

Harry Rolnick



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