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Michael Tenzer: Let Others Name You

Release Date: 09/08/2009 
Label:  New World Records   Catalog #: 80697   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Michael Tenzer
Performer:  Naoko Christ-katoColin MacDonaldRod MurrayFrançois Houle,   ... 
Conductor:  David Jacobs
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Sanggar Cudamani GroupGenta Buana SariSanggar Çudamani,   ... 
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

TENZER Unstable Center (Puser Belah). 1 Invention and Etude. 2 Underleaf (Buk Katah). 3 Resolution (Tabuh Gari) 4 David Jacobs, cond; Genta Buana Sari and Sanggar Çudamani collectives; 1 Naoko Christ-Kato (pn); 2 Sanggar Çudamani collective and Vancouver Read more musicians; 3 OSSIA Ens; 4 Wayan Sudirana and Michael Tenzer (Balinese drums) 4 NEW WORLD 80697 (64:45)

I remember Michael Tenzer as a fellow classmate from my first college composition course. He was quick, vocal, incredibly musical. And he’s turned out to be perhaps the pre-eminent composer/ethnomusicologist of his generation. He’s one of the most renowned scholars of Balinese gamelan (the Indonesian percussion orchestra, in case there’s anyone left who doesn’t know about it.). What distinguishes Tenzer above all is his creative engagement with the field. I hear through the grapevine that some ethnomusicologists regard his field work suspiciously, which, if true, is a great shame, because Tenzer strikes me as a grand and original spirit, rather like that of his aesthetic ancestor Colin McPhee, the first Western composer to make meaningful music out of his encounter with gamelan in the 1930s.

The stunner of this collection is the first, Unstable Center (2003 ) , for two gamelans. This shows off Tenzer’s chops in both directions. The piece feels like it emerges directly from its tradition, yet it goes in directions that could only occur from an encounter with the West. But unlike McPhee, who replicated the sound of gamelan with Western instruments, and largely respected the authentic traditional gamelan’s sound and practices, Tenzer writes music that stretches and blends practices. He will take the ostinato technique of the tradition and apply it to patterns of notes that could only come out of modernism (disjunct or dissonant). Harmonies can be far more ambiguous than usually dictated by the standard modes. Rhythms will be more syncopated and jazzy (though I must hasten to add that gamelan rhythmic structure and techniques are incredibly complex and sophisticated in their own right). Juxtapositions of sections also involve extreme contrasts, seemingly more than is the case in even the fiery drama of Balinese music.

While I’m someone who knows the difference between pelog and slendro , I can’t begin to claim that these impressions are based on a deep or even sound understanding of how Tenzer redirects the basic practice of Balinese music. I can only use my ear and listening knowledge, admittedly spotty. But the music does sound truly different from everything I’ve encountered before of gamelan, and seems to be the result of this conscious decision to pursue creative cross-fertilization.

The next work is Invention and Etude (2004), a solo piano work. Both movements are supposed to be rhythmic experiments Tenzer undertook towards the writing of larger pieces, in this case referring more to South Indian music. They each begin with a slightly clunky, even naive sound. Virgil Thomson comes to mind. But they each gradually develop into something richer and wilder. The latter especially, after an almost comically simple start, develops into a tornado texture that’s quite unlike anything I remember hearing. While I admit Naoko Christ-Kato’s touch is a little severe for my taste, it seems to be what the composer wants.

The other two works, Underleaf (Buk Katah) (2006) and Resolution (Tabuh Gari) (2007) complete a trilogy of major pieces the composer has undertaken, blending his creative work and research. The former adds a nonet of wind instruments to a gamelan, with a fascinating result of a sort of “extended harmony.” Each ensemble sounds different in light of the other’s intonation, and it’s a pleasing and funky sound. This is also a more jazzy piece (literally) in its sound, and I was also reminded of the wacky gestures and transformations of traditional licks by Frank Zappa. The same goes for the second, which uses two Balinese drummers as the leaders of traditional chamber orchestra. While I enjoy the musical imagination and freshness of both, they also each feel a little too long for me.

But I do think this is something remarkable. Tenzer is quite fearless, and his risks pay off most of the time with a music that’s original and yet rooted in a non-Western practice. His Balinese musicians (whom the notes say learned the music by rote) are fantastic in their precision and expression. And they seem to love playing the composer’s music. On a recent trip to East Asia, a composer there remarked to me that where the most interesting music was now emerging was Southeast Asia (specifically Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia) because musicians there were open and curious about Western practice but not overly awed by it. This work is an example of a Western composer intersecting with that attitude, and I can’t wait to hear what’s emerging from the other end as well.

This may well end up on my next Want List.

FANFARE: Robert Carl
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Works on This Recording

Unstable Center by Michael Tenzer
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Sanggar Cudamani Group,  Genta Buana Sari,  Sanggar Çudamani
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 2003 
Length: 19 Minutes 23 Secs. 
Invention and Etude by Michael Tenzer
Performer:  Naoko Christ-kato (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 2004 
Length: 10 Minutes 34 Secs. 
Underleaf by Michael Tenzer
Performer:  Colin MacDonald (Saxophone), Rod Murray (Trombone), François Houle (Clarinet),
Rachel Lowry (Trumpet), Corey Hamm (Electric Piano), A.K. Coope (Clarinet),
François Levesque (Trombone), Malcom Aiken (Trumpet), Kristan Kuntz (Saxophone)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Vancouver Players,  Sanggar Çudamani
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 2006 
Length: 21 Minutes 29 Secs. 
Notes: Audio Mixer: Francois Houle. 
Resolution by Michael Tenzer
Performer:  Michael Tenzer (Drums), I Wayan Sudirana (Drums)
Conductor:  David Jacobs
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Ossia,  Ossia Ensemble
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 2007 
Length: 13 Minutes 15 Secs. 
Notes: Audio Mixer: David Simpson. 

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