Curt Cacioppo: Ancestral Passage

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This double disc of music by Pennsylvania-based composer and educator Curt Cacioppo delivers something different from what the titles and brief descriptions of the works performed might lead the buyer to expect. But that "something different" is interesting in itself, and indeed this release might make a good discussion topic for general college classes involving music and culture. Cacioppo studied with the great American ethnomusicologist and Navajo music specialist David McAllester, and he has worked extensively among various tribes. The two string quartets that form the heart of the program are dedicated to a Navajo spiritual leader. Yet when listeners first encounter this music, they are unlikely to perceive it as shaped by Native American musical idioms, or to guess the elaborate programs it represents. These are explained, not in print, but verbally by the composer himself, in a pair of tracks at the end of each of the two CDs. With the exception of a Navajo-language chant and some percussive uses of string instruments to suggest the footsteps of the gods in the Navajo creation story, the musical materials are those of the American neo-classicists of the middle twentieth century. The string quartet Coyoteway, depicting a Navajo healing ceremony, has eight movements representing parts of the ceremony, but its companion quartet, A Distant Voice Calling, has the classical movement types of Fantasia, Ode, Scherzo, and Finale: Rondo. Cacioppo, however, goes into considerable detail in showing the correspondences between the structures of his music and that of the Navajo story he is telling, and in general his representations of Navajo (and Hopi) culture are quite intricately worked out. The whole thing raises fascinating questions. Is it the culture of Native Americans that is being represented here, or the ways in which it lives in Cacioppo's own experiences? Indeed, The Ancestors (2000) is not a Navajo-themed work but one ruminating on the spirits of Native Americans that inhabit the composer's native Cuyahoga River valley in Ohio (starting with the name). But you wouldn't even guess that from the music and from the movement titles: Berceuse, Scherzo, Interlude, Scherzo, and Barcarolle. Coyoteway is given a lively performance by a quartet of Russians who presumably have had little exposure to Navajo music, and the performances in general, made at various times over a period of several years, are integrated and communicate a unified musical vision. Cacioppo's placement of the explanations after the music has the effect of forcing you to go back and listen to it again; his method is original and all to the good. Among releases of contemporary music, this one is an unusually good conversation starter.

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