Listen to “O Eee-Eye-Oh” from This Marriage
Hamza El Din, voice, tar
Joan Jeanrenaud, cello
Shira Kammen, violin
George Marsh, percussion
Devi Mathieu, voice
Terry Riley, piano
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On Playing Duets with Friends
Rumi speaks of union with the divine — the Beloved — as a marriage. The title duet of this album offers images that remind us of such unions: honey dissolving in milk, women laughing together for days on end, the leaves and fruit of a date tree, a pale moon in a light blue sky. Musical duets can be like fine marriages in high art, replete with intimacy, ongoing trust, passionate joining, the cool trick of hearing the sound of another emanating from yourself, the being in another, but via the music. Athletes, actors, strangers, and all varieties of ensemble musicians know this; all compassionate and empathetic people know this — it’s a special form of the primordial connection. The special-ness of this album consists in friendships long and deep. The current of love running through these friendships is absolutely personal yet universal in the same moment. It can be playful as kids horsing around in the den, or being secretly dangerous together in the woods. Maybe I’d tousle my friend’s red hair, or dare my big sister to jump over a ditch; maybe forty years of passing in and out of each other’s lives opens out into this chord, this string’s down bow, the sudden rightness of this gong stroke, or a melted life of thankfulness in one of Devi’s long melismatic glides.
Hamza El Din
The moment I was introduced to Hamza I recognized his true royalty. Through his person he carries a naturally anointed presence that he transforms into music for the benefit of the planet. There is no particular way he does this (although he surely works as hard as any musical devotee), he just is it, and when he makes music, his music is it. I met Hamza in 1971, and for years, although he was a trusted mentor and friend, there was a certain distance, as with commoner and prince. Although he’s never not been my guide, we did gradually grow into one another like long-married couples who weave their sentences together, and a few years ago, after having listened to each other’s music for a quarter-century, we began cautiously and a little shyly to play together. I made a little chamber arrangement of his composition, A Wish; we wrote a piece together, Conversation, for ourselves. Last year we finally agreed to be brave and improvise together from scratch. As a text, Hamza chose Unrequited (2), part of a poem about a rejected lover’s longing by Ahmed Rami, an early twentieth-century Egyptian poet. For Of the Riverbank (11), he chose a slow rhythmic cycle in four beats played on the tar, a round frame drum.
I first met Joan at a rehearsal of a piece I wrote for the Kronos Quartet just after she’d joined them in 1979. Though we didn’t work closely together until she’d left the Kronos, in 1999, for twenty years I’d been falling into the well of her playing whenever I had the chance. Hamza brought us together three years ago for recording and performing, and we began a series of improvisation and composition projects together. Gradually I witnessed her leaving the life of the consummate quartet cellist and entering a new career as a creative, independent soloist.
Joan’s cello sound has become, for me, a kind of musical heaven-world, and being with her in person is remarkably like listening to her music: warm, bright, sharply present, and accompanied always by the feeling of being nourished. The two pieces we play here braid together passages of improvisation and composition. Lobelia (6) is named for the deep purple of the flower. Just One More Waltz (10) features spirited improvisational trades among the longing, Frenchy harmonies.
Shira is another musician whom I recognized immediately as a playing partner. I first heard her in Ensemble Alcatraz, and later in Project Ars Nova (both groups late and lamented). Her discipline, early music, was different from what I knew at the time, but I felt a great affinity for the spirit of her playing, and was blown away by the in-tune-ness, rivaled in my experience only by the best raga singing. Subsequently Devi became immersed in early music and, along with Shira, drew me along as a student and peripheral performer.
In 1996 we founded Ephemeros, a group dedicated to early music and contemporary music drawn from medieval sensibilities. Soon Shira and I began improvising together at concerts, either freely or with a few simple limits. Ain’t Baroque (4) is a game where we try to stay with a motif until it must change. In Eee-Eye-O (13), the lone trio on this album, Devi sings long tones while Shira and I weave about her. The agreement for Slow Eyes (9) was, “Let’s play something real slow.” The ostinato of Blue Salon (12) was my idea and Shira’s spontaneous response; I subsequently added a composed piano part.
When I was 26 (in 1964), I walked into a Near North Chicago club featuring a jazz trio, zeroed in immediately on the drummer, and the hair on the back of my neck for the first and only time in my life raised up. After the set I said to drummer, “You are my musical twin, let’s play together.” We began the next day and have continued until this one. Musical reciprocity has never been sweeter, or deeper, or more swift than with brother George. We’ve developed a special way of communicating our momentary needs or states via games (limiting or guiding instructions) that one of us suggests to the other.
After 40 years of rehearsing, concertizing, and recording, playing with George can carry me to a state of oracular dumbfoundedness: I’ll look down at my hands and wonder whose they are, where I am, what is happening. The music becomes a translucent series of calls and responses streaming from a single source. After a piece, I often have little or no memory of what’s been played, and the playback of the recording is (usually) a pleasant surprise. These three duets are from a 1999 recording session. In Knocking from Within (3), George keeps suggesting time divisions that we fall in and out of. The Opener (7) is a free piece: mere play. Lullaby of Gongs (15) relies on a favorite African cross rhythm in tonalities suggested by the gong array.
Devi auditioned for a choir I directed, got the part, we became friends, then partners, then man and wife. But it wasn’t until I’d known her for a few years that I realized it would be a lifetime of good work to write songs for her sweet and lustrous voice, and perform them often. So far there have been eight cycles of songs including texts by Rumi (in Coleman Barks’ extraordinarily musical translations) and Hildegard von Bingen; and a compendium of California flora.
In Long Tones Ago (5), I follow Devi’s lead as she captures tones from the ether. This Marriage (18) is our favorite song to do together: in the moment of performance, the boundary between life-love and art-love shimmers, then evaporates.
Terry came into my sights slowly, first as the perpetrator of In C, then as a minimalist composer, as a disciple of Pandit Pran Nath, a guru-bai, a mentor, and a big brother. As with a big brother, our jousting is serious and trusting; he never fails to illuminate me, and I think he’s a walking saint. The best thing about his music, in a large pasture of best things, is the way it keeps changing and integrating with its own history. He uses always the structures of the minimalism he is credited with founding, but he has gone far beyond anything that could be called minimalism into a nameless category of constant uncovering.
One morning after an overnight stay of the Rileys at the Mathieus, (Terry and wife Anne in the guestroom, twenty-year-old son Gyan in the music studio up the hill), Terry and I decided to wake the slumbering Gyan with a little surreptitious piano duet. Softly at first, as if to emerge from Gyan’s early-light dreams, we played on the Steinway, interlocking our hands so: Terry’s left, then my left, then Terry’s right, then my right, with much switching and frond-like waving about. Gyan woke up smiling, and Terry and I thought to play some concerts of such music, and record some duets. Such interlocking of hands produced Moonshine Oracle (1) and Felt Up (8) — named for the cloth used to damp the strings. For Scherzoid (14), Terry plays inside the piano with percussion mallets. In Guru-ji’s Procession (17), I pluck the strings, and Terry plays the damped piano; later I overdubbed an undamped keyboard part.
The Russet-backed Thrushes Who Live by the Creek
In the early 80s, Devi and I began to notice, around early April, the arrival of a silvery sound along the creek bordering our land. It was birdsong unlike any we’d ever heard: ascending, striated spirals, rapid and increasingly complex until they slip beyond human hearing, sending a supersonic ripple through the inner ear. I suspected the songs had tonal content, but in real-time I couldn’t be sure — they were too fast and too high. In 1986, I asked my longtime friend and sound engineer Joe Hoffmann to help me record some choice examples. When we slowed the tapes down to one-quarter speed (four times longer and two octaves lower), not only were my suspicions confirmed, I was astonished to hear birdsong of such raga-like organization and musicality. The beginning of the song, outlining the overtones of the bird’s anatomy, sounds nearly like a North Indian flute, rising and falling in swoops. Then, in an amazing moment, the bird’s syrinx splits, and the dizzying ascent is completed in a flourish of parallel sixths. To make Slow Motion Thrush (16), I chose about a dozen calls from various birds, spliced a sequence together, transcribed it all into music notation (replete with a cow playing tuba) and added my piano part. Devi and I have now had over twenty seasons of deep listening to the little community of thrushes that arrives each spring; we even think we can recognize certain virtuosi from the year before. The thrushes’ songs, subtly changing over the years, are a silver thread woven through our lives, and have become a sonic bond with the place we live.