Magellan’s Playlist: On Tour in China purports to create a volume of music representing the “sense of geographic unity” that Ferdinando Magellan “gave the world” during the explorer’s Renaissance wanderings. Performers Matthew Anderson and Dusty Woodruff of The Athens Guitar Duo, writing in the liner notes, state that the album’s title “evokes the exotic and adventurous nature of its repertoire.” However, several of the pieces performed here are often less redolent of non-Western musical cultures than they are examples of exoticism, in which historically “foreign” musical motifs are used by composers to create works that fetishize the “other” rather than represent the music of their native places. In addition, the glorification of Magellan as a global unifier is highly problematic; his crew was entirely European, and his travels resulted in the plundering of numerous indigenous cultures. It is also worth mentioning that the album contains few works by composers from the places Magellan actually visited; in light of the composers represented (all of whom, I might add, are men), the concept and title seem to be rather arbitrary.
One of the few exceptions to this exoticization begins the album. Turkish composer Fazil Say’s 1970 “Princess of Lykia” is a lovely, accessible work that incorporates indigenous folk music materials with Western classical forms and shaping. The title refers to Lycia, a southern Anatolian region from which music is said to have originated. Say incorporates the Locrian mode, one of the several traditional modes of Turkish folk music, into the work, and asks for the re-tuning of the guitars’ E strings to E-flat, creating an unfamiliar soundscape for most audiences. Composed as part of a ballet, “Princess of Lykia” is a dramatic work, with both performers engaging in constant rhythmic and melodic dialogues. The voices in this recording are clear, and while there could be more dynamic contrast throughout, the more tender melodic passages and driving rhythms are treated equally and with precision.
The second work on the album is more problematic. John Duarte’s Greek Suite, Op. 39 is an attempt to capture “the character of [Greece’s] people [as] encapsulated in its folk music.” Although the music is likely to please audiences, its reliance on typical exoticisms such as syncopations, rolled arpeggios, use of modal constructions, and chromaticism places it firmly in the realm of the Western view of the exotic. The five movements of the Suite sound much alike and have similar compositional approaches in which such motifs are freely developed between the two guitars, sometimes using imitation or variation. The motifs are so generic that this could be a piece designed to musically represent any non-Western place, and their developments are equally universal in terms of Western art music. As in the Say piece, however, Anderson and Woodruff present a skilled performance.
Lowell Liebermann’s Nocturne-Fantasy is a texturally and melodically rich work that highlights the capabilities of the two guitarists beautifully. Liebermann uses both traditional tonality and polytonality to create brief atmospheres that evoke different musical traditions across time and place without exoticism. At nearly thirteen minutes, this is the longest work on the recording and easily the artistic epitome as well. One section flows into the next, new melodic and harmonic gestures arise and are expanded, and timbres shift and merge, all to a mesmerizing effect. This is not to say that the work is without drama: conflicting tonalities and tonal centers pull and push in different directions, and the voices may be in discord as they work towards resolution, but the resolution is ever present. Anderson and Woodruff perform the piece beautifully, using a wide spectrum of colors and touch. Again, dynamic contrast could be bigger, but for the most part, this is an elegant recording of an elegant piece. Why it is on this album, or what it has to do with global circumnavigation, is anyone’s guess, but it’s worth it to buy the recording just for this piece if you’re a Lieberman or guitar fan.
The following track, Jean Françaix’s Divertissement, is less successful. Although the liner notes discuss the humor of the four short movements of the work, the performance lacks the necessary lightness and wit that the composer demands for three of the movements. Even in the remaining movement, “Élégie,” Anderson and Woodruff seem committed to the concept of sorrow as the overarching emotion, whereas grace, etherealness, and better connections between the voices of the work would have provided it with the élan Françaix’s pieces deserve. Its relation to the global is also tenuous: Françaix does evoke two older forms in the suite, the madrigal and rondeau, but how these tie into Magellan’s world or perspective is puzzling.
Ren Guang’s work Silver Clouds Chasing the Moon, arranged for the performers by Cody Brookshire, is difficult to evaluate. According to the liner notes, Brookshire substantially transformed the original piece, adding in extended harmonies and what he calls “Spanish flare.” It is unfortunate that the arrangement should take on such a large role: it is impossible to know the original piece and evaluate it on its own. As a collaboration, though, the more noticeable jazz and pop elements can be attributed to Brookshire, who also seems to have added many of the generic “Chinese” elements, such as pentatonicism. Even timbral aspects mimic “Asian” string sounds. There is no content provided with the album about Ren Guong’s own musical voice or compositional practices, and there appears to be no scholarship about him. As presented here, the piece relies heavily on exoticism of several cultures; it lacks a solid identity or ethos of its own.
French composer Roland Dyens’s Comme des grands is the penultimate piece on the album. Consisting of three short, atmospheric sketches, the work is harmonically and melodically simple and repetitive, using folk materials and improvisatory-style gestures frequently. Light and pleasant, the piece is performed well here, but has little substance and, like so many other pieces on the album, seemingly no connection to the album’s concept except perhaps for the fact that Magellan’s crew included Frenchmen.
Finally, Magellan’s Playlist ends with Andrew York’s “Evening Dance.” This is a charming, quiet piece, full of dance rhythms and homages to lute repertoire in terms of melodic line and accompaniment. Aside from a few turns that suggest Spanish dance music, it too has no obvious associations with the playlist idea, but it is a lovely work with which to bring the recording to a close. Anderson and Woodruff turn in an adequate performance, but it—like the Françaix—could have used a little more sparkle.
Magellan’s Playlist, as a concept, is, like Magellan’s trip itself, rather a failure. However, the solid performances recorded here, particularly for the Lieberman, are to be valued. Aficionados of guitar music or guitar duo will appreciate many of the other works as well.