Sunday, September 26, 2010

Concert Review: Foday Musa Suso, Chapel Performance Space at Good Shepherd Center, 9/24/2010

Foday Musa Suso with the kora; a picture from his website.

I described the Steve Peters installation at Jack Straw as a “profoundly meditative soundspace”; this was another. Kora music is relaxing, delicate, sweet, and gently rocking. It has a way, as one audience member sated after the concert, of “being good for listening for long periods of time, and you don’t care about time.”

The kora is somewhere between a harp and a lute. That is, the 21 strings are arranged like those of a double harp (one set for each hand), but they’re attached to a long neck and large gourd resonator – giving the appearance of a giant lute (the Renaissance theorbo comes to mind). The strings are wound around the neck by means of leather thongs; the tuning (which is approximate; more intuitive than mathematical) is done by sliding these thongs up and down a millimeter or two.

This much I knew. This was, however, my first chance to hear an entire concert on this beautiful instrument (the only other time I’d heard it “live” was a short set at an open mike in California).

When I walked into the performance space, I was greeted by the quiet sounds of an old Brian Eno and John Hassell CD, vaguely African in its ambience. Random bits of audience conversation drifted by: “I met the girl he’s dating…” “I just thought I’d come by to wish you a happy birthday…” “I think that zoo is the saddest one I’ve seen; the tiger is emaciated and the birds are all losing their feathers because they’re nervous…” The stage was set with a chair, a mike, a stand for the kora, and some electronic equipment, all on a hand-woven African rug that had stripes of brown, beige and tan triangle-within-triangle patterns vaguely reminiscent of Navajo weaving.

Steve Peters introduced Mr Suso, who then came on stage with his wildly decorated kora (the back of the instrument, which faced the audience, had a bull’s-eye star within star pattern in red, white, black, yellow, and green, with Mr. Suso’s website address in bold letters spelled out around the outside: He started to play. The pattern on the instrument was much “louder” than the music, but its rhythmic patterning was quite appropriate.

Mr. Suso played ten pieces. Eight of them were his own compositions. Rather than just playing the kora “straight”, he used electronics: fuzz pedals, reverb, and loops; he also played the strings with many different plucking techniques (all with his thumbs!) and tapped on the body of the instrument (or on the “handles”) to produce a drum-like sound. Many of the compositions (both his own pieces and the traditional ones) consist mostly of repeated patterns that the performer improvises over – a thicker texture could be achieved by looping. There was no discernable difference in “style” between the traditional pieces and the new compositions (with one exception, see below…). Both were modal, and began with a melodic introduction, set up an ostinato based on some fragments of the introduction (with more, related, melodic material above) and went into an extended coda that dropped the repeated pattern but in some cases seemed almost to start up a new pattern before ending. There was a complex relationship between the repeated accompaniment and the melodic fragments above: sometimes the phrases echoed one another, sometimes they harmonized; more than once they were in a two-against-three rhythm. Some faulty electronics detracted from the first few songs (there was distortion where it wasn’t wanted) but this was fixed and the rest of the concert went smoothly.

The piece called "Spring Waterfall" was the one notable exception in “style". Here, there was no fragmented introduction, and the repeated “loop” was clearly based on minimalist arpeggios, varied in rhythm, in the manner of Philip Glass (who is a personal friend of Mr. Suso’s, and collaborator for music). This was similar to the piece “Morning Light” on Mr. Suso’s CD “The Dream Time”, but the rest of the composition was structured much like the others.

My description makes the music sound monotonous. It was not. The change-within-repetition was a strength of the music, and it made one listen closer: for nuances, for details, for minute changes in timbre and rhythm and color. In that close listening, one could escape into another world, a world where time was suspended, at least for the duration of the concert. By the end, the audience was thoroughly entranced by the gentle rhythm (if the finger-snapping scattered here and there is any indication) and the evening closed magically.

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