Joanna Kurkowicz

Shirish Korde: Svara-Yantra

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Shirish Korde, born in Uganda of Indian descent and now active in the contemporary music scene around Boston, is a composer of genuinely international inspiration. He is as equipped as anyone to take on the challenge of fusing the Indian and Western classical musical languages, a challenge of immense difficulty. (If you don't believe that, try reading analyses of Western music from an Indian theoretical perspective sometime.) Given the solo orientation of Indian pieces, the concerto form might seem like a logical meeting place, but it's difficult to pull off -- the accompaniment in India's two classical systems is not harmonic in the Western sense. Ravi Shankar, in his Concerto No. 1 for sitar and orchestra, eliminated the string section from the orchestra and entrusted the rest of the ensemble with a function more percussive than harmonic. Korde's Svara-Yantra, designated as a violin concerto in three movements, instead uses string backdrops; in the first movement, Korde says, "The orchestral harmonies represent the transformation of the drone into harmonic fields." It is a bit hard to hear the theoretical concepts Korde outlines in the booklet in the music itself. "Svara," one learns, "refers to pitches or notes in Indian music theory, but in this piece it means audible sound or 'shruti.'" "Yantra" means a geometric diagram often used in meditation. How this intersects with the three-movement concerto structure (slow, fast + cadenza, faster) is not really clear, and in any case it intersects with two other structures: a North Indian sequence of tempo and mood events, and a group of varying inspirations for each of the three movements -- the first movement draws on North Indian procedures, the second on the work of the fusion-oriented South Indian violinist L. Subramaniam, and the third on music of Indian-influenced jazz guitarist John McLaughlin. What all the theory adds up to is that Korde has taken a variety of Indian and Western ideas, put them into a pot, and stirred, and the music is consistently absorbing. One fascinating aspect is that violinist Joanna Kurkowicz is given the chance to speak in her own voice in the improvised cadenza, based on thematic material from the first two movements; her performce in general is exciting, and she enters fully into the experimental spirit of Korde's composition. The disc is rounded out by Korde's Cranes Dancing, perhaps his best-known composition to date and one based not on Indian ideas but on Japanese shakuhachi music -- another texture that poses challenges in transfer to the violin, with lively results here. This is intriguing music that respects the difficulties of cross-cultural communication and is recommended to anyone interested in the problems.

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