Sunday, October 24, 2010

Wallcussion, CCM, and the Sherványa Nocturnal Music

“It’s been a talented set so far,” said one participant as he tuned up his baritone ukulele, “Let’s see if I can rectify that.”

The occasion was the open mike at Tim Noah’s Thumbnail Theater two days ago. The musicianship level was indeed very high, for most of the evening.

At one point during the evening, a singer said she’d just written a song and it needed “some music”, by which she meant an accompaniment. She asked the audience members to play any percussion that was lying around. They did, with the djembe and the various shakers that the theater has; I had my percussion mallets with me so I joined in by drumming on the wall. “Where did you get the idea for that?” she asked me later. I’ve seen drummers and percussionists do it – particularly Moe Staiano, who will play anything as a percussion instrument.

Earlier in the evening a guitarist had played an intricately rhythmic instrumental number by a “Christian rock band from Hawaii, back in the 1970’s, and they had an incredible horn section…”

“Seawind!” I shouted, recognizing the band by his description.

“Ah – somebody knows them!” He talked about their music a little, then played. Later I talked to him a little about my recollections of hearing Seawind at college (in the early 1980’s). There were a lot of students there from Hawaii, who liked to hype “their” band by playing the music loud in the dorms with all the windows open.

“Yeah, that was a band,” he agreed. “They’ve just reissued a collection of their music. There are a lot of good musicians in the Christian music movement…”

“There are now,” I commented, “but back then there didn’t seem to be that many. Seawind was an exception.” He agreed with my opinion.

…Which reminds me of something that occurred about a year ago. The following is a posting I wrote for this blog but never posted.

About a year ago, on an impulse, I checked out a DVD of a reunion concert (more like an open mike) of artists of the original “Contemporary Christian Music” (CCM) movement from the 1960’s and early 1970’s. I used to hate this music. I considered it dull, generic, contrived, banal, boring, cloying, wishy-washy, and superficial – exactly what music of strong religious conviction should not be, and basically pop music done badly (isn’t it interesting how the best pop tunes are almost all of these things, but they never quite cross the line?). So I don’t really know why I got this DVD, but I took it home and watched/listened to it – and I was in for a surprise.

The music is, of course, very simple – but by its nature as music that can be sung along with, it has to be. The simplicity was a strength – and to my surprise, some of it was also quite intricate (such as the harmonies by The Second Chapter of Acts). So much for being dull, at least on an intellectual level. It didn’t seem to “take a stand” on what style of mainstream music it was supposed to be, either (rock, country, funk, etc.) but crossed from one to another freely – but it no longer sounded wishy-washy or generic because of this. Rather, this was an attempt to include more than one style, and even when it mixed them together the result was not “elevator music” but fusion. (And who am I to dislike mixing styles, when I don’t like to make a distinction between my experimental and “mainstream” music!?) The lyrics did sometimes contrast with the melodic material or vocal delivery (such as loud hard-rock screaming “Praise the Lord!” over fuzz-guitar bombast) but the result was more gently ironic than contrived, and if anything, it pulled the listener in to hear what was really going on here. …and as for cloying or superficial; the obvious sincerity of the performers (which could be heard in their voices) eliminated this from the start.

So what made the difference? First of all, there is a little of me in it; I admit to a certain amount of Ignatius J. Reillyism – but aren’t we all that way? Don’t we all think of our likes and attitudes as somehow above those of the “common people” (whoever they are)? Case in point: I went to a Christian college, where CCM was very popular among the students – and I used to play Messiaen very loudly on the stereo in my dorm room (with all the doors and windows open) to show the others that there was something better. (I might do the same today, but to show that them that there is something different, not something better – another concept altogether.) Once in a history class, when a professor had commented that another historian had quipped that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire, I had triumphantly stated that the same criticism could apply to CCM – neither contemporary, nor Christian, nor music. One or two members of the class cheered, two or three folded over in hysterical laughter, but most just glared or grimaced at me with obvious contempt.

My attitudes have mellowed somewhat. But even so, it wouldn’t account for the complete turnaround in how I perceived this music. It was not just my perception, but the music itself that seemed to be different.

After some puzzling, I think the answer is subtler. It is the process of the recording of the music that made it different. Those older recordings that I had considered boring, banal, and superficial, might still sound that way to me today – the songs were mass-produced as popular media, and forced into rock or soul idioms, which they were not. They sounded contrived because they were trying to be something they weren’t. They were supposed to be for the quiet or communal worship of God, not for wild parties and loud concerts where one listens to show-off guitar riffs. In short, it attemptyed to be pop – which it was not, so it never really worked out.

Back to the open mike. When it was my turn (my number came up near the end), I played a little piano tune called “A Poem” (available on my CD “PianoSphere”) and then decided to pull out the stops by actually attempting to do the Sherványa Nocturnal Music.

In my forthcoming sci-fi novel “Tond”, the Sherványa people have the custom playing shéyi sulándusei (Shay-yee soo-LAHN-doo-say), translated as “Nocturnal Music”. This does involve a plot element in the novel, but an earlier passage describes it. …We join a band of adventurers in the outdoor plaza of an inn deep in the Sherványa lands.

The innkeeper whistled at one of the Sherványa servants, and a tray was brought to the table with black ceramic mugs, which were placed before the guests. They contained a hot dark drink which Rodan recognized immediately as the source of the aroma; he took a sip but found it disappointingly bitter. The others drank enthusiastically, however (except Teyan, who seemed to think about the same as Rodan), and the innkeeper said (in nearly perfect Fyorian) that the Emb woman had brought it with her from the far south; it was a popular drink in both the Imperium and the Emb Lands. He couldn’t remember what it was called, though. “It’s called káhei, and it’s made from a certain kind of bean.” filled in Ai-Liina. “She brought the beans, I assume; you wouldn’t expect she’d carry water-jugs full of it all the way from there. After it’s made into a drink, it goes stale quickly anyway.”

“It’s good hot,” put in S’Tai, “But it’s better, I think anyway, cold, on a hot day, mixed with milk, honey, and spices. Be careful, though; it’s not intoxicating, exactly, but it can make you feel unpleasant if you drink too much.”

...At that point everyone introduced themselves (the innkeeper’s name was En) and then several conversations began at once in different languages; Rodan found it hard to concentrate on what was being said (he could barely speak anything besides Fyorian anyway); he thought about pulling out his Karjaenic dictionary and trying a few phrases, but thought better of the idea. The music was about to begin, or at least they looked like they were about to play something besides the bells, and maybe that would be interesting. He wondered if he could keep awake during it; after all, it was meant to put people to sleep; but maybe that wouldn’t be a problem in the mid afternoon. The sun was still shining brightly, though the air was chilly.

One of the musicians noticed that Rodan was watching, and he stood, and, carrying his instrument, approached their table. He set it down in front of Rodan. “Would you like to try?” he asked in Fyorian. Rodan stuttered a yes, but found the instrument baffling. At first it was just a collections of metal rods arranged in a wooden frame at random. As he studied it more carefully (the others were curious too, he noticed), he finally saw the pattern to the arrangement. The rods were arranged in four rows of eleven each, smaller to larger from right to left; but behind each bar and slightly raised, there were other bars, seemingly two to each main rod, one on each side.

The musician explained. “It’s a metal kitál.” he said. “The first row, in the front, those are the notes for the sheyándol mode, the first mode to play. The raised rods behind them are the attendant tones, we call them; play them, you’ll see what I mean. Play the main ones first.” He handed Rodan a mallet, shaped like a hammer but with a pad on the end, held by a wooden handle.

Rodan struck one of the rods on the first row; the sound was high and pure, a ringing bell-tone. He struck a few of the others, from left to right, and found that it made a scale (with some notes missing, he thought, though it was very harmonious). Then he tried one of the ‘attendant’ tones; it was a slightly flat version of one of the others.

“Try it with this one.” said the musician, pointing to one of the main rows.

Rodan struck the two of them quickly together. The result was a blending and a shimmer; a beautiful sound more like light than anything. “The main notes are the notes of the mode; the ‘attendant’ tones are eighth-tones.” explained the musician, though Rodan did not know the meaning of the term. “They are, as pitches go, very close together; therefore they make that shimmer. We call the shimmer the sound of the stars singing; even if there aren’t any stars in the night, we like to keep their light shining.” He demonstrated himself, playing a looping melody. The sounds leapt into the air and continued their sparkle. The melody continued (against the ringing of the much larger bells) and gradually it began to change in effect; the musician was introducing, very gradually at first, a note from the second row, and its ‘attendant’ tones; at first it seemed to clash, but he gradually dropped a note from the first row as well, and then moved entirely over to the second row. The entire sound of the music had shifted; it was somewhat darker yet paradoxically more harmonious, and the shimmers were more penetrating. “Avalinkáalei. The Wandering of the Moon; the second mode.” he said as he kept playing. “That’s how we change modes; the first note from the new mode is brought in as the ‘enemy tone’, but soon the other tones accept it, and it becomes a friend. If you listen closely, only one note has actually changed.” He stopped playing, then played the scales of the first two rows. He was right; only one tone was different. “Now the third mode is different yet; again, only one note changes, but now the tonic, that’s the note that sounds like where it ought to end, is in a different place...”

He demonstrated at length and expounded his knowledge of Sherványa musical theory; Rodan kept interrupting to try to play something himself, but to no avail; finally the other musicians over by the bells began to play something different, and the demonstrator took his instrument in hand and wandered back over to join them. “Well he’s a good teacher,” commented Teyan. “If he taught the others how to play, they’d wind up playing Karjaenic music or something else.” He snickered as Ai-Liina glared at him, then she guffawed.

At last Naemar changed the topic, and his aged and ageless face was grave. “Teyan, we must speak of more serious matters.”

“Indeed,” replied Teyan with a final gulp of káhei; “Like how that stuff tastes.” He paused, waiting for a laugh, but none was forthcoming...

In an appendix, I describe the music in somewhat more detail for those who care to look it up. I think in my mind it derives ultimately from Indonesian kacape music. I imagine it as a symphonic form of kacape; a gamelan that has somehow sprouted a secondary ensemble of harps and kotos.

Whatever its “original” sound, I had a working version of it around 1995 at an improvisation workshop at Mills College in Oakland, CA. (led by violinist India Cooke). I gave the rather detailed instructions about the modes and the “enemy tone”, and we played it in a concert. It worked pretty well, at least according to my recollections, though it wasn’t exactly music for sleeping because it included lots of loud saxophones, trombones, and an electric bass.

I’ve been looking for an excuse to try it again, and decided that I might as well give it a shot at the open mike. I set up the hammer dulcimer next to the by-now infamous rondolin, and gave simplified instructions (it would be pointless to take an hour to explain the entire invented music theory for something that would last seven minutes tops). We tried it. One audience member imitated the bass “bells” on the piano by repeatedly, quietly, playing low E’s (with some other improvisation later); I improvised on the dulcimer and the rondolin; and the audience members joined in by playing guitars according to my instructions. One guitarist (I think it was Tim Noah) added beautiful desending open-string strumming at key points. We actually included one mode-shift, though I didn’t bother to include the “enemy tone” idea.

It sounded wonderful. The hall was filled with the chiming, twanging sound of multiple guitars (and mandolins, and a kalimba) played quietly. The lights were low, and the sound was in fact a magical “nocturnal music”. I think I will try it again, sometime when my turn is earlier in the evening (so there are even more audience members), and I think it’s also worth giving it a shot as an entire piece (longer, with all the modes) at some future concert.

(This posting is Oct. 24, 2010; 210 days until the first performance of the complete StormSound Cycle)

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