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From The Indus to The Tagus

New York
Tisch Center for the Arts
04/05/2001 -  
Flamenco Tradicional
Carlos Surinach: Flamenco Cyclothymia; Ritmo Jondo
Manuel De Falla: El Amor Brujo

Esperanza Fernandez (cantaora)
Musicians from Andalusia
Perspectives Ensemble

Somehow the polite rules frowning upon racism in America do not seem to apply to the Gypsies. Terms like “gypped” are excepted without a second thought. Popular song and story portray Gypsies as outlaws and their lifestyle a decided threat to middle class society. The term Gypsy itself is often used as a pejorative. Since the Romany blood flows through my own veins, I have a particular closeness to this entire subject, although I must admit to sometimes questioning my critical objectivity. The prejudice flows in both directions. Perhaps the closest parallel that I can make is to that section of the counterculture of the 1960’s, of which I am a proud alumnus, which called itself “freaks”. The appellation was employed as a badge of honor, a statement that the trappings and bonds of civilization did not apply to the individual members of a freer people. In opera the racism runs deeply as well, as witnessed by the continual type-casting of black women in Gypsy roles (and, perhaps even more sinister, the portrayal of Gypsy women as desirable objets d’amour such as Esmeralda or Carmen).

Musically, the Gypsies were always treated as exotics, the Rondo alla Zingarese a device used by such diverse composers as Brahms and Sarasate. In Spain, the term faraon (chief) reveals the Iberian assumption that the race originated in Egypt and their rhythms fit into the aesthetic which encompasses the Moorish period as the genesis of the art form known as “Spanish music” (come to think of it, Eboli is often played by a black woman as well). A comparison of the less than flattering term for an outsider in both the Yiddish (goy) and Romani (gadjo-pronounced “goy-o”) languages reveals a close kinship between these two outcast cultures, the diaspora equally applicable to both. Much music exists from the peninsula which contains a least a kernel of true Gypsy sonority. For example, coupling the open harmonies of the Near East with the sounds of the percussion instruments of the Basques, remarkably similar in timbre and structure to those of the Gypsies, was the inspiration for many of the works of Ravel (for our purposes in this discussion a Spanish and even possibly Jewish composer), especially the song cycles and the remarkable violinistic showpiece Tzigane. For the first of two evenings devoted to a presentation of the music of the Gypsies, the 92nd St. Y concentrated on the influence of this self-contained and largely misunderstood group on the larger musical culture of Spain.

Although Victor Borge maintained that the greatest of all of the Spanish composers was L. Beethoven, a case can certainly be made for that honor being bestowed upon Manuel De Falla (I would personally vote for Albeniz). Strictly speaking, flamenco is not Gypsy in origin at all, the bulk of the melodies coming back from Flanders (hence the name) with the soldiers of Charles V, but De Falla was under the illusion common at the time that this fiery music was the creation of the Romany peoples. Some of the rhythms are indeed North African and were most probably transported by Gitanos (those Gypsies who took the southern route into Spain via Morocco) on their long journey from India to Iberia. Certainly they helped to popularize the guitar, whose roots may be traced all the way back to ancient Vedic culture. In any event, De Falla’s tale of the Gypsy girl, El Amor Brujo, which took up the entire second half of the program (and a very large percentage of the total time of the concert), is infected with at least a hint of the primal strains of this sensual dance.

The oft-revised piece is a combination of spoken word, song, dance and instrumental numbers. The fifteen member Perspectives Ensemble performed without a conductor and this led to some blurred musical lines, one premature entrance very awkward and the total effect out of balance. It was impossible to hear Ms. Fernandez when she attempted to sing above the ensemble and the entire production had a rather under- rehearsed feel to it. Although some of the individual playing was stunning (the group is made up of first chair players from the Met Orchestra, St. Luke’s, Orpheus and the American Symphony), there was little sense of a shape as a whole, rather more a pastiche of styles and sonorities. Additionally, the sanitized De Falla music was a far cry from its folk origins and this very fact was exposed by this compendium of traditional music and “art music” on the same program. Surely there is an intellectual point to be made, but the liveliness and fire of the Andalusian performers was strikingly preferable to the anemia of their “classical” colleagues.

Faring better were the compositions of Carlos Surinach, who captures the atavistic dance rhythms much more accurately than the more compromising De Falla. These flamenco beats are extremely complex and Surinach adapts them to an instrumental format which lends itself naturally to the world of modern interpretive dance. The reading of Flamenco Cyclothymia by Erica Kiesewetter and John Musto was powerfully virtuosic and the other composition was notable for the inclusion of Gypsy palmista hand clapping as a driving rhythmic force. But the real joy and exhilaration of the evening was the traditional music, the combination of declamation, songs in quarter tones, guitars used as percussion instruments and ingeniously complex hand clapping and foot stomping. In one of these numbers, the complexity of three sets of hands, each performing in a different rhythm, three pairs of feet each keeping a different beat, two guitars each accenting differing syncopations, and a voice in the stratosphere of microtonality was mind boggling. I have never heard any music in the classical tradition before Henry Cowell which even comes close to this level of layered metrical time.

A modest proposal for future events (one of which is next week): program the classical pieces in the first half of the evening and let the traditional music carry the day in the second. The crowd was much more aroused by the “pure” product than its adaptation to the world of the sophisticate. It is an old show business axiom to always leave them wanting more and a boffo ending of flamenco polyrhythms would have been a lot more exciting as a conclusion and would have left us all energized rather than deflated. The transparent artifices of El Amor Brujo were quite a letdown after our exposure to the real thing.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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