Evan Ziporyn‘s new recording, Big Grenadilla /Mumbai, manages to be futuristic while playing with tradition, exotic without being artificial. Ziporyn himself, a clarinetist, composer, and core member of Bang on a Can All-Stars, is clearly used to living in several simultaneous musical worlds, and has found a way to fuse them without compromising their essences. Rooted in Romanticism (both pieces are something like concertos, while Mumbai is also a semi-programmatic reaction to the eponymous city’s 2008 bombings), but thick with Hindustani classical music, avant-garde jazz, extended techniques, and minimalist melodies, the two works demonstrate Ziporyn’s unique approach to composing with the sound and energy of improvisation. Joining him in his endeavor are the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, conducted by Gil Rose, for both pieces, and tabla virtuoso Sandeep Das for Mumbai.
Big Grenadilla opens with Ziporyn intoning a low, resonant prayer. Overtones unfold and reach mournfully outward, alone at first, then joined by a cautious orchestra. Composers who are primarily instrumentalists usually have some trace of their instrument’s character in their orchestral work, and Ziporyn, with his love of rich, blended overtones and multiphonic sound-masses, is no different. The word “grenadilla”, according to Ziporyn’s liner notes, refers to the wood of the clarinet itself, and makes one think of the sweet, trembling voice that issues from it. In the early bars, the clarinet and ensemble join and separate like blobs of sonic mercury, often indistinguishable from each other. The second section, a driving riff reminiscent of John Adams, is alluded to briefly a few times before finally roaring in. Big Grenadilla builds slowly, to a glorious climax that sounds like Gershwin scoring a Bollywood-produced spaghetti western.
Ziporyn seems to associate rhythm with stability in his writing: in both Big Grenadilla and Mumbai, the emotional spectrum is vast, but the real chaos and uncertainty happens in free time, while the development and resolution tends to ride atop driving rhythms. Ziporyn’s gorgeous bass clarinet ostensibly leads the piece, but it’s not really a concerto in the classic sense. The lead instrument isn’t the protagonist (in contrast to the tabla’s central role in Mumbai). The experience is more like listening to a story told by several friends at a bar: one person, usually with the most charisma and dramatic flair, tells you most of the story, because it sounds more natural coming from them. But others take over when necessary. Maybe they do better impressions. Maybe they knew part of it before anyone else, and now they have a slice of the tale all their own. The point is that the storyteller who speaks more often is not necessarily the leader. One also thinks of great jazz records where you cannot tell whose album it is just by listening, so egalitarian is the performance.
Ziporyn mentions in his liner notes that his “21st-century dread” plays a role in his composing, and it sounds like dread lies at the center of Big Grenadilla‘s narrative arc. It moves from bright hopefulness to frightened pessimism, yet turns it’s mood in the final minutes and ends on something like nervous optimism.
Mumbai, however, is practically defined by dread. Divided into three sections, “Before”, “During”, and “After”, with Das as the main instrument instead of Ziporyn, it feels like a short story, and more like a concerto than Big Grenadilla. Given specific parts but allowed to interpret, emphasize and embellish at his desire, Das weaves the improvised virtuosity of classical tabla into Ziporyn’s sparse, eerie orchestrations with sharp precision. Part 1 (“Before”) bustles and bubbles in gentle homage to its namesake, with Das strolling through streets built by quivering strings, exuding sly confidence. He displaces the rhythm at times, and occasionally the orchestra wanders into strange territory… but just for a moment, though, never too long…yet something seems amiss, perhaps, in an abstract way. Nothing you’d really notice unless you were paying attention, but maddeningly ominous once realized.
Part 2 (“During”), opens with Das in a dizzying panic, bursting with percussive flurries evoking jittery dread. A doom-laden, martial rhythm sounds in the distance. Plowing through the orchestra’s slow pulse with quick, demented patterns, Das strikes a manic balance with the incessantly plodding march. The piece feels like you’re following Das as he scrambles across town, smoke and noise growing thicker while his composure slowly breaks down. You can practically hear him wondering if he knows anyone who’s been hurt, wondering how bad it must have been to get the whole city fraught with fear and tension. His virtuosic embellishments come more frequently in this part, but disrupt the pulse in a brilliant, yet profoundly unsettling manner.
Part 3 (“After”), emotionally wrenching while ambiguous, formless, yet dynamic, allows Das to wander through shifting tempos submerged in churning orchestral clouds. A loose, supple theme of hope and light appears throughout, but each statement is always met with Das’ spastic bursts, or sudden, manic shifts in the strings towards charred wastelands of harmony. Our protagonist runs around in a frenzy, trying to understand what’s happening, while he fights to keep his sanity. By the end… well, there’s hope, certainly, but also fear and pain.
Ziporyn is balancing a lot here: both European and Hindustani classical musics, modern avant-garde art music, minimalism, free improvisation… but you’d never know it unless you specifically stop to over-analyze. It was on the fifth or sixth listen where I started trying to grasp all the components of Ziporyn’s sound and style, and it is wonderfully impossible, like trying to see all the atoms in a hurricane. He takes what he loves, from old traditions to modern experiments, and finds ways to comfortably squeeze them together, fitting improvisation into through-composed orchestral works, or making two traditions with essentially opposing rules and structures sound as uniform and natural as a folk song. Ziporyn has written a gorgeous and thoughtful elegy for the victims of the Mumbai bombings, and in doing so has also produced one of the finest works of his career.
Evan Ziporyn, Sandeep Das, Boston Modern Orchestra Project (Gil Rose, cond.), Big Grenadilla/Mumbai (Cantaloupe Music, 2012) | Buy on Amazon.com
Evan Burke is a bassist and composer living in Brooklyn.