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Michael Tenzer - Let Others Name You

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Artist: Michael Tenzer

Album: Let Others Name You

Label: New World

Review date: Dec. 8, 2009

Reconciliation is a theme that rings throughout Let Others Name You (as ethnomusicologist Ellen Koskoff points out in the liner notes). This is a nice way to put things, both conceptually and musically – it sums up both the successes and shortcomings of Tenzer’s intercultural compositional style that combines Balinese gamelan, Western and South Indian classical music. Considering that each of these styles already involves distinct and complex systems of theory, not to mention large numbers of instrument groups, it seems quite a feat to throw them together coherently.

Çudamani, the gamelan ensemble on this recording, is made of a group of young men from all over the island of Bali who live and work together as a semi-professional unit. Çudamani performs on Semarandana instruments, developed by the Balinese composer I Wayan Berata in the 1980s. This particular type of gamelan employs a tuning system that contains more notes than traditional Balinese gamelan ensembles. Still a pretty rare form of tuning, this system allows the group to play more contemporary works, and it also makes it possible to perform traditional gamelan pieces originally written for different ensembles, including angklung, semar pegulingan, and gong kebyar. Semarandana also makes it easier to switch between traditional and contemporary repertoire. Working with this ensemble made it possible for Tenzer to write music for gamelan with more harmonic options for modes associated with Western and Indian classical music.

The first piece, “Unstable Center,” written for double gamelan, was written in response to the 2002 bombings, which killed 202 people in Kuta, a beach town in Bali. Beginning eerily and out of time, gradually growing in tenseness, the two gamelan groups scored in “Unstable Center “symbolize the “two separate and equal entities,” whose conflicts rise and fall throughout the piece. But even without knowing the history of this piece, the dynamic tensions that take place in the interplay between the two ensembles are gripping throughout. Over the course of the piece, Tenzer employs the full range of this impressive double gamelan, from the haunting low metal to the brash and forceful exchanges of the drums. In spite of the title and dissonant subject matter, it’s the piece on the album that most successfully reconciles Tenzer’s chosen musical traditions.

In comparison, the experiments in the remaining three pieces feel less convincing. The combination of gamelan and Western instruments on music by Maurice Ravel and Colin McPhee, Steve Reich, Terry Riley and Evan Ziporyn weren’t nearly as exciting. Also, despite the great energy, the performance by the student-run new-music ensemble that performed on the Western instruments isn’t always quite up to par with the demands of Tenzer’s difficult polyphonic and interlocking textures.

Still, it seems like there are few composers who are as fluent in disparate musical styles as Michael Tenzer, and his experiments are bold ones that are rooted in multiple traditions. Tenzer’s music doesn’t hide the privilege of his well-traveled musical studies, or his access to resources that most musicians without his North American academic position would ever experience. But, to his credit, he doesn’t steer away from the pitfalls and limitations of attempting to reconcile such different cultures.

By Miki Kaneda

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