Amelia Cuni: John Cage’s 18 Microtonal Ragas

Amelia Cuni:
John Cage’s 18 Microtonal Ragas

"Her performance is so amazing that I would like to believe that Signora Cuni is a reincarnated pandita from a bygone age." Kamalakar Sontakke, Nehru Centre (Mumbai)

Los Angeles premiere

Dhrupad vocalist Amelia Cuni forges an uncanny blend of traditions with this original interpretation of John Cage’s 18 Microtonal Ragas: Solo 58, a cycle of 18-scale patterns from the collection Song Books (1970). An Italian-German performer and composer trained in both European experimental music and the classical Hindustani art of dhrupad, Cuni contextualizes Cage’s use of melodic modulations and rhythmic cycles within one of the oldest and most refined idioms of Indian performance practice. The resulting ragas also include movement, gesture and theatrical incident to give the music a distinctive scenic dimension. Cuni is accompanied by drone composer Werner Durand and percussionists Ray Kaczynski and Federico Sanesi.

CD Liner notes from Amelia Cuni's Solo for Voice 58: 18 Microtonal Ragas

Indian Art Music has, throughout all of the 20th century, remained largely untouched by all attempts at cross-cultural dialogue. Of course, many Western musicians from almost all styles of Western music were deeply interested by Indian music, and they profusely collaborated with Indian musicians —but in listening to these projects, many of them honourable and well-intentioned, it is noticeable that in almost all of them only the Western musicians attempt to change their musical habits, the Indians playing exactly the way they always do, perhaps even a little less intensely. I cannot help but feeling that, left to themselves, those same Indian musicians would have remained blissfully unconcerned about any music other than their own. Perhaps the fact that Indian classical music as we know it was codified only in the early 20th century, perhaps the need from colonial times to maintain a classical tradition comparable to that of the West, perhaps a genuine belief in the inherent superiority of their own music—all of these may have led Indian art musicians to isolate themselves not only from the world of musics around them, but also from all concepts that embrace cultural change, such as “new music” or “experimental music”. There is no “new music” in today’s India—and hardly any Indian musician is aware of what has happened in Western art music after, say, Debussy.

Not even the fact that Indian music has become a global phenomenon, with concert series, university programmes and an almost commercial music industry in the West has been able to change this—if anything, it has tended to reinforce the “classicality” of Indian music: those “foreigners” studying Indian art music were more often concerned about “getting it right”, of being accepted into the fold of the traditional Indian music community, of preventing “contamination” of this precious tradition by their own music than they were about imparting their own background in Western aesthetical debate and musical technique to their Indian gurus and co-students. This kind of intercultural “omertà” from both sides has, paradoxically, resulted in a strong art music culture: Indeed, India is the only remaining “other” art music system that still is dominant at home, and is flourishing abroad independently from “cultural ambassadorism” and emigré circles. Moreover, India has not adopted the global western music aesthetic as have most other Asian societies.

When I see the work and ambitions of Westerners trying to make a name for themselves in Indian Art Music, I often tell myself that in a way they repeat the 19th-century Americans’ attitude towards European Art Music. In both cases, authenticity seems even more important than creativity, and—except for isolated composers like Scott Joplin—the ultimate goal is to emulate the mother culture perfectly. America’s experimental music came into its own with the likes of Henry Cowell, Charles Ives, Harry Partch, Conlon Nancarrow and John Cage—and it thus seems fitting that one of Cage’s many offhand ideas became the kernel for one of the first projects that truly embark India’s rich art music traditions on a journey that will lead them away from the musical territory they have explored for so long.

Amelia Cuni’s reading of the microtonal ragas from his “Songbooks” is a bold move in every respect: re-contextualizing one of Cage’s many abstractions by taking the word “raga” to stand for an Indian approach to vocal sound and music will irk the many for whom Cage is the epitome of non-semantic, non-intentional, “clean” music. And to de-construct the vocal gestures, the melodic materials, the techniques of dhrupad and to re-frame them within a non-traditional idea of form and presentation will be equally disconcerting to even the most broadminded of Indian music aficionados. As with every bold interdisciplinary move, suspicions of shallowness will inevitably be aired. But emotional and aesthetic depth, after all, is something one can only experience if one makes oneself familiar with a language: all hybrid art, appearing essentially a-semantic at first, will acquire this depth only through our own involvement. We need to ask ourselves how exactly do the many conceptual, poetic, musical languages that make up this project interact to create its new way of speaking? A way of speaking that is neither garrulous nor tongue-tied, but clear and concise. As philosopher Michel Serres recently noted we still do not have conceptual toolboxes for the analysis of aesthetic mixtures—but a project like the Cagean Ragas may well need one.

It is a music that would be impossible to make without the tradition of dhrupad, but equally impossible to imagine without the conceptual and cultural challenges of Cage’s score. And the score alone would have never done it either: It needed someone of Amelia Cuni’s mixed background in both worlds to read it in a way that still is a kind of “interpretation” in the Western music sense, but also an intentional intercultural (and productive) misunderstanding. It is in this aspect that Tradition and Newness meet in this piece: Tradition always is a reading of the contemporary as the old—living traditions do not care about the past, they care about now. Inversely, the concept of newness always hinges on a reading of the contemporary as a new offshoot from an old tree: the Western perspective is obsessed with the past—how else to know what is bold and new.

Amelia Cuni’s approach is bold and new, but that is not why it deserves to be listened to: when I first heard the premiere of the Solo 58 at the Maerzmusik festival in Berlin in 2006, I felt the stirrings of an unknown kind of Indian music, a music that does not any more belong to India, just as Cowell’s music did not any more belong to Europe. Although it uses all kinds of devices, ideas and atmospheres, in short: chromosomes from Indian music, Amelia Cuni’s interpretation of Cage creates something profoundly different, an infant that still has to learn how to walk, and yet is promising, enlightening and fascinating enough to have found support, nourishment—and love. I experienced a music that evoked so many things I remembered and delighted in from Indian music, that melted in my mouth with never-before-tasted “rasas” I could relish—and yet at the same time forced me to listen in a Western attitude, making sense of the different roles of the players in a chamber music way, trying to analyze the complex and original relationships of drone to tune (one of the many decisive contributions of Amelia’s artistic partner Werner Durand to this project), attempting to follow texts in Italian, English, French and German—texts I could actually understand, not yet another medieval Brajbhasha or Sanskrit poem.

Is this new or experimental music? I do not know, and the question seems irrelevant. It is new, yes, if one wants to know if anybody has made such a type of music before. It is not experimental if one associates with experimental music a certain abstract, couldn’t-care-less-for-your-feelings approach. For Amelia Cuni, in following Cage’s instructions and intentions in a faithful, yet unexpected manner, achieves one thing that is truly rare in all kinds of experimental music: her straightforward and yet truly sensual music makes you suddenly care about all the ideas, time and biographical material she nourished this project with. It is definitely not a let’s-see-what-happens-if project—but rather a genuine and diligent attempt at re-constructing in sound the real world Amelia Cuni lives in, a world composed of Indian and Western music, of experimental and traditional sounds, of music theory and of her own poetry, of many years between many languages and cultures. She has, in more than one sense, composed her own musical home—and we all are warmly invited to live in it and be her welcome guests.

Sandeep Bhagwati, Pointe Claire, Québec, Jan 10, 2006
Bhagwati is a western trained composer who has lived and worked in India and Europe, and currently holds a Canada Research Chair at Concordia University Montreal.

Funded in part by the Istituto Italiano di Cultura (IIC).

Associated Images: 

THU 11/8
8:30 pm

G - General Audience

M - REDCAT Members

ST - Students

CA - CalArts Students/Faculty/Staff