Philip Glass & Foday Musa Suso
Philip Glass is one of the true creative artists of our time. This was made abundantly clear Saturday evening to a nearly sold out crowd at Carmel’s Sunset Center when he presented a concert with legendary Gambian musician Foday Musa Suso. The concert was the culminating event of the two day Days and Nights Festival that Glass started last year in the Big Sur, Carmel, Carmel Valley “non-metropolitan” area. I was delighted to see that all ages were represented, from children and teens all the way up to the traditional seasoned concert goers.
The concert consisted of music that was composed for a production of Jean Genet’s play “The Screens” in 1989. This was the beginning of the collaboration between Glass and Suso that has now lasted decades. The play is set in revolutionary Algeria, which allowed Glass and Suso to incorporate both French and African musical influences, sometimes in harmony and sometimes in collision, mirroring the political tension of the time. The music for the play is a group of 13 pieces with such evocative titles as “Cloud Walk,” “Shadow Dance” and “Warda’s Whorehouse.”
The basic harmonic structure of the bulk of these vignettes is quite simple, often with just two or three chords. The progressions are repeated continuously throughout each piece, with melodic and rhythmic elaborations in an improvisatory style. Although the overall structures might seem haphazard to the casual listener, there is in reality a fairly complex roadmap underlying everything. There is a strong resonance between these pieces and those for Indonesian Gamelan in that every so often the repetitive figures with their stream of consciousness, rambling feel are interrupted by some notable variation of the texture. In “Spring Waterfall” this change took the form of a very distinctive upward scale in the bass of the piano. The approach of subtle variation over a complex structure is also reminiscent of Indian ragas, which were an early influence on Glass as he earned money while in college by transcribing sitar music into western notation.
The whole event had the feel of a house concert. Glass was dressed quite informally, with his trademark open collar shirt and comfortable pants. In contrast, Suso was dressed to the nines in a sumptuous purple gown that nevertheless seemed to be quite natural. Glass played an amplified piano while Suso played three different west African stringed instruments. The predominant one is called the Kora, which is basically a 21 string harp that has strings coming across a bridge rather than going directly into a soundboard. This bridge sits on a large gourd, which acts as the resonant chamber. It is played mostly with the thumbs and sometimes the forefingers. This is the instrument of choice of the Gambian “griot,” who is essentially a musician/oral historian of the Mandingo people of western Africa. It has a lovely, glasslike (forgive the pun) sound not unlike the Paraguayan harp. Indeed, Suso used many of the same percussive effects that can be heard in the ouevre of that South American instrument.
Suso also played a smaller instrument that looked much like the Kora called the Goni, an instrument from Burkina Faso. It has only 6 strings and a very fuzzy sound. Suso used it from time to time to record a bass loop on the fly that would then underscore the live performance. It was featured on a selection written for the Athens Olympics in 2004 called “Orion.” This piece had a very different affect from the “Screen” selections, with a much broader harmonic palate that bordered on a “blues” feel. Perhaps the most unusual sounds of the evening came from the “nyanyeri,” a single string African violin with a bow that curved into a half circle. It also had a gourd for a sounding chamber, and had the raspy sound of many simple ethnic bowed string instruments. At times it sounded a bit like someone was rubbing a balloon, and at others it had the nasal twang of Bulgarian bagpipes or the famous female choruses. It made a nice change of pace from the otherwise dreamlike, alpha wave inducing sounds of the rest of the concert. In fact, the exaggerated scratchiness at the end of “Satou” solicited laughter from the audience.
Humor played a large part during the concert. Glass was very amusing in his forays to the microphone, with such quips as “Did we play that?” and “We are on the same page when we play, but we are not on the same page when we are not playing!” He claimed that he remembered very little about the play itself, and as he read over the names of the pieces he would make comments as if he was experiencing the titles for the first time. He waxed eloquent about “Night on the Balcony,” and then noted that he did not remember the balcony in question or what might have been happening there, but that it was really a lovely sentiment.
The performers graciously played an encore, and the audience left Sunset Center all abuzz, reliving the wonderful experiences of the concert.