Some of my most satisfying work in recent years has been the reviewing of new music CDs for Fanfare magazine. Every six months, I'm including a review of a disc which has really excited me. And because Fanfare has a roughly 4 month cycle from assignment to publication, you may even be seeing this before it comes out. I'd like to add that I've found Fanfare to be an usually good source of information on new music, independent of my role in it. The critics have a great deal of freedom to develop their thoughts at leisure, so often a review can become an essay which touches on a wider range of issues.

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BONS Nomaden— Jen-Guihen Queyras (vc), Ed Spanjaard cond., Atlas Ensemble — BIS 2073 (61:35)

         This work won the 2019 Grawemeyer Award, which is often called the “Nobel Prize of music”, and of course that is a great accomplishment. But prizes don’t necessarily equate with ultimate quality. In this case, however, the selection committee made an excellent choice---even if history doesn’t ultimate judge this work of the highest quality, it is of great historical importance.


Joël Bons (b.1952) is a Dutch composer, thoroughly trained in the Western modernist tradition, who has over the years moved increasingly into what he calls “intercultural” composition. He is the founder and director of the group featured here, the Atlas Ensemblem whose mission is to explore the interaction of different musical traditions, and forge an emerging global practice between them. Nomaden (2015-16) makes a compelling statement for the validity of this practice, indeed its necessity.


As the title suggests, the piece is a vast journey through a wide range of sounds and styles. It’s in 38 movements and features a cello soloist with 18 players. The chamber orchestra is organized by the nature of the instruments’ sound production: wi˜ds, percussion, plucked strings, and bowed strings. Within each of those groups there’s a mix of Western and non-Western instruments. One of the most notable examples is in the bowed strings—along with the cello soloist and violin, viola, doublebass, there is the Chinese erhu, the Iranian kamancha, the Turkish kemençe, and the Indian sarangi. There are times when these “translate” one into another, with delicious shifts of timbre. At others, they play together as a new form of string ensemble (or quartet, where in one section the erhu takes the role of the first violin).


Structurally, the piece is made up of three recurrent elements, which braid throughout. “Passages” are short sections that mix the colors of instruments, often on a single tone. “Nomaden” uses a leitmotif that is explored in different contexts, and often features the cello (who serves as a sort of coordinator musical M.C. throughout). And finally, there are larger pieces that feature specific instruments in more extended structures, and that may reference particular traditions and styles of play. One of the catchiest to my ear is the “Azartet”, which evokes Azerbaijani dance. Several have a distinctly jazzy sound, inflected by world music, that reminds me somewhat of the Post-In C works of Terry Riley, especially for the Kronos Quartet.


This sort of thing is of course not unprecedented. Throughout the 20th century, composers have explored and evoked cultures other than their own native one—thing Colin McPhee in Bali, Milhaud in Harlem. But efforts on this broad a scale of blending are rather new. Certainly the Kronos has explored this territory with a series of concept albums. But the one above all that comes to mind is Yo-Yo Ma’s now-venerable Silk Road Ensemble, which explores the mixing of traditions from Europe through Central to East Asia. Bon’s essay covers similar territory, but with a difference. The SRE is a presenter of works, many commissioned, that target specific blends and interactions of traditions, and it’s largely player-driven in its presentation. Nomaden in Bon’s view seems to be trying to make a more single, comprehensively “global” statement (though for the record, Latin American—except for the “Salsa” movement, which I found the least convincing--Native American, and African music aren’t in its mix).


This is a piece by a composer who is trying to use a wider swath of the world’s music as his palette. Of course some may charge this is “appropriation”, but in response I can’t help but feel that Bons has done deep study of these varied traditions, and treats them with respect. The piece also has built into its structure plenty of passages where the players are allowed to improvise within their original practice. And these sound quite seamless in their integration into the whole. Finally, if you watch any online videos of performance, you’ll notice that all the musicians seem to be having enormous fun with one another, which is one of the surest signs of things done right.


In the end, I’ve found the piece genuinely delightful, in the best sense of the term. It has great ambition and a lightness of touch, a rare combination. It is a landmark along the road to a new form of concert music. It will be on my next Want List. Robert Carl