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November 28, 2000

Music Review

(Music of) Joseph Waters. Arabesque; When the Clouds So Boldly Painted On the Sky; Sulphur-Crested Cockatoos; Drum Ride; Quiet Music - Early Morning; The Garden of Kali; The Populist Manifesto. Various artists including Susan DeWitt Smith, Liz Falconer, Ron Blessinger, Phil Hansen, Jeffrey Payne. (North Pacific Music 009) 2000.

It's fitting that composer Joseph Waters closes his new CD with a musical setting of Lawrence Ferlinghetti's epic rant "The Populist Manifesto." The Beat poet's call to arms for a popular poetry urges that there's "no time now for the artist to hide above, beyond, behind the scenes -- refining himself out of existence."

Waters takes the above mantra to heart. Though his "serious music" c.v. is in order -- he studied under Jacob Druckman and Dominick Argento -- he's not content to write music for the allegedly educated elite.

"My purpose as a composer in society," asserts the Yale doctorate, "is to interpret feelings, dreams, thoughts that are current and to channel them in some way so that other people can reflect on them. If you're going to do that you have to do it with a language people can understand."

To Waters, that language has an electronic element. Despite Edgar Varese's 1920's assertion that electronic elements would dominate all future music, that's still a shocking conviction to hold in the classical music realm. Perhaps it's because such experimentation has a history rife with stade intellectualism with very few melodic successes (one thinks of Messiaen's experiments as the latter). What made those few successes accessible was that they were electro-acoustic mergers, proving that the electronic cart shouldn't lead the musical horse but should be just another ride in the compositional stable.

Lend an ear to Waters’ "When the Clouds So Boldly Painted On The Sky" to hear how it is done. The music opens with a hurdy-gurdy mix of scurrying computer generated voices that swirl to a stormy halt as a plaintive koto -- or 13-stringed Japanese harp -- takes over. As the banjo-like koto picks its way on its meditative march, the voices return zipping in and out during the ten-minute work like a kind of mischievous Exorcist-style madness. When the koto chimes its final notes, there is a moment of tonal resolution and apparent victory for the quiet side. Yet in scurries the electronic scramble for a final bit of mischief.

Call it a meditation on the clash between East and West, tradition and technology or a more personal statement on keeping to one's path in a helter-skelter world -- whatever you call it, it's a working marriage between the two taboo genres. The piece, composed in 1997, has garnered praise worldwide and some 20-plus performances so far from Argentina to China.

Other pieces reference sources as dizzyingly varied as Mozart, jazz, Tangerine Dream, Prokofiev, Beat poetry, the paintings of Bosch and Australian Aboriginal song. Yet none of it sounds gratuitously tossed in for cleverness sake. "Sulphur-Crested Cockatoos" combines wind sextet with vocal quartet in a choral translation of a Yolngu aboriginal text; the string trio "Quiet Music-Early Morning" shifts from elegy to reverie like dawn's light through a bedroom window; ‘Drum Ride ‘ is a raucous push-me-pull-you between piano and electronics; and "The Populist Manifesto" sounds like something Schoenberg and Weill might have come up with if staggering around San Francisco's North Beach on a lost weekend.

Such culture clashing is all part of the fun, and though the resultant hybrid may scare some and confuse others, it does so only in concept. Once the guards come down and one listens open-mindedly to this expert marriage between traditional chamber music and computer-generated soundscapes, the overweighing sensuality and emotional freshness of Waters’ creative appetite comes through. Water's kitchen sink amalgam of influences results in music that is edgily playful and always accessible.

"My goal," says the forty-something Waters, "is to create a contemporary music that has a place and that has a dialogue with the culture that surrounds it." He feels that dialogue has been forfeited by the "rarified and strange" serialism of musical academia and blames such music for the alienation of classical music audiences.

"I think that's changing and really it has to change," he concludes. "If I'm really going to be honest about who I am as a composer -- and you need to be if you're going to say anything -- I had to admit that I really like the energy of electronic popular music."

If this disc is the result of such a confession, we're the luckier for it.

-- Bill Smith


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