Unruly Music Saturday

Khaen compositions blend Asia with the West

By - Apr 18th, 2011 04:00 am
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The traditional Khaen is found in Thailand and other Asian nations. Wikicommons photo

Christopher Adler introduced a reconstruction of royal court music from 19th century Thailand at the third Unruly Music concert Saturday evening (April 16). “I hope this is unruly enough for you,” he quipped. He performed traditional music, his own compositions and works others have written for him in a concert making the case for a unique instrument – the khaen (pronounced can). The evening was not “unruly,” the khaen invites harmonies, rhythms and restrained motifs that are pleasant to the ear and offer novel variety to the curious.

Imagine a fixed reed bamboo instrument capable of a single note. Organize a cluster of 16 of them around a wind-chest and manipulate holes on the pipes to open one or a combination. The resulting sound takes advantage of the resonance of adjacent pipes. Samples of the sound suggest an instrument of great beauty not paralleled in Western instruments. The instrument is a forerunner to the harmonica and accordian. The performer can create sound both by breathing in or blowing out. Breath effects and tonguings are possible in order to create articulations. Adler has written a guide to the instrument’s capabilities for collaborating composers.

Another detailed description of the khaen may be found here.

The traditional works on the program featured drone tones underneath rapid, repeating rhythmic chords in forms of Asian dance.  Although the three traditional works were different, they shared a repetitive rhythmic phrasing – music with a distinct Asian tone and beat. Short chord-based motifs with little development cycled over a sustained drone note. Tempos built slowly through the works but dynamic variations became a part of the rhythm.

Adler has written extensively about his musical directionThe act of composing is an engagement with hybridity. Every composer must mediate between the diverse influences, intentions, theories, and emotions impinging upon the compositional moment. …(Some compositions) inhabit different hybrid realms between multiple categories of music. … The intentional cross-cultural hybrid takes on an increasing significance in Euro-American contemporary music in this postmodern era of rapidly globalizing artistic, culture and commodity flows, where many composers are exposed to musicians, artists, recordings and ethnomusicological documentation of musics from the most distant corners of the world.

Adler’s own composition – Epilogue for a Dark Day (written after 9/11) introduced an emotional, contemplative character fit for the minor key designed into the instrument. The work featured a large lower pitched khaen about 6 feet in length. Simple rising and falling phrases ended in short full volume complex chords. (Like an harmonica, several simultaneous notes create a tone rich in harmonics but containing clashing sounds as well.) Adler introduced variations on the short motif – a syncopated variation followed by a more decorated one. The work ended with a series of contrasting inhaled and exhaled chords evolving into a four step pattern with long held notes that created a somber mood as the dynamic increased and fell, tones rising to a quiet conclusion.

Christopher Adler playing the Khaen

Christopher Adler playing the Khaen. Photo courtesy of the composer.

Angel Music (2007) by Sidney Marquesz Boquiren represents a next step toward blending Eastern and Western traditions. A rapid circular motif repeated at lengh is intrupted by an abrupt complex chord. The cyclic motif emerged again a step above the first. The mix of long serial segments with brief transitions continued many times, increasing tension and pace with each set. At a faster pace, the motif created occilating overtones. The pace shifted to a series of sustained chords similar to those that had provided the breaks in earlier sequences. A tender, slow recall of the circular theme preceded a repeat of  initial sequences to end the work. I found this work to be a well-structured satisfying piece.

David Loeb’s Emerging from the Deep Mist (2011 – premiered Saturday) took advantage of the other worldly timbres within the sound. From a quiet start, added chords built harmonies on top of one another. Simple falling melodies emerged from a bed of  sustained chords. A series of rising phrases rapidly varied dynamics from soft to full volume. The rising and falling motifs increased the pulsating character of the image-filled work.

Loeb also contributed a work that addresses a limitation of the instrument. The Maltese Plaza in a Fog (2010) was written for a trio of khaens sized for different pitches. Adler played a treble-voiced khaen accompanying a recording of the other two. This allowed a broader spectrum of sound within a composition. Sustained drone notes (sometimes held open with putty to allow the fingers to be elsewhere) served as a base for melodies above and below the pitch. Brief chords introduced decending phrases, stepping down with each repeat. A middle segment featured a faster four note motif. The work closed with a slow four note motif layered over a much faster riff. The broader range permitted pleasant harmonic densities employing octaves, using less complex chords.

UW-Whitewater composer Jeff Herriott composed patterns in wide space (2011) featuring electronically processed elements of recorded khaen sounds to accompany the live khaen. Sounds were stretched, repitched and slightly modulated to provide a time-warped environment within which Adler could improvise using phrases more limited by the harmonic pallette and breathing requirements of a live performance. Supporting processed drone sounds filled the stage with a broader presence. The tempo of the composition was slowed, although Adler could riff within this environment at a faster pace. Herriott restrained the processed sound, extending the capacities of the khaen but respecting the traditional use of the instrument.

UW-Milwaukee composer Christopher Burns explored the “unruly” side of the khaen’s sound with Triangulation (2008). Sustained notes were bruskly interrupted by loud complex chords. Adler used tongue and breathing techniques to introduce raspy or vibrating tones. As the pace of the work increased, densities increased. The rapid shifts and increased density introduced an oscillation not apparent in other works.

In Christopher Adler’s virtuoso hands, the evening made the case for the versatility of an instrument with charms that transcend its limitations. The khaen is likely to continue to be a fertile challenge for contemporary composition.

The overtones produced by chord selections of the khaen offer a rich pallette for a solo instrument, but like the accordion and harmonica resist blending within an orchestra of instruments. Adler, however, has composed and performed chamber music for the instrument.

The series of four Unruly Music concerts this week was previewed here.  Also reviewed Thursday’s Yarn/Wire percussion quartet and Friday’s music/theater mix created by David Bithell.

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