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Wednesday, 5 November 2003

World Music Assignment

Listen to "composed world music CD" and report back

Celeste Hutchins


World Music Paper


         For my World Music listening, I chose La Koro Sutro by Lou Harrison.  I picked this piece because I thought it was obviously an example of "composed world music" and because I'm quite fond of it.  Now that I'm examining it more critically, however, I'm not as certain that it is an example of world music. 

         La Koro Sutro is composed for 100 voice chorus, harp, organ and the "American Gamelan."  The American Gamelan is not actually a gamelan, but rather a metalphone percussion instrument built out of old oxygen tanks and other scrap metal by Bill Colvig.  It has its name only because it sounds like a gamelan, but otherwise has little connection to the real thing.  This may be problematic if this piece is to be classified as world music, since the instrumentation is domestic.

         The language of the piece and the text is very definitely international.  It is an Esperanto (La Internacia Lingvo) translation of the Buddhist text, the Heart Sutra. The CD helpfully comes with the words in Esperanto and a side-by-side English translation.  It was also premiered to an international audience.  The notes with the CD explain, "La Koro Sutro was first performed for an international gathering of Esperantists in San Francisco on August 11, 1972."  The Harrison biography notes that this performance took place shortly after a Universala Kongreso in Portland, Oregon.  While certainly not every piece of Esperanta music ever written is automatically world music, this one, because of the nature of the translation, should be counted as a world music text.

         The sound of the piece also sounds like world music.  The tuning is very obviously not 12-toned equally tempered.  This is especially evident in the American Gamelan sections.  The other percussion also has a "world music" feel to it.  The singing also sounds somewhat non-western.  It is reminiscent of some chant music, especially when it has longish melismas on a single vowel.  This may be because Harrison studied and found inspiration from early music.  It may also be an imitation of a singing style found along the Pacific Rim.  Based on the sounds alone, I would certainly consider this piece to be world music.

         The packaging of the CD, however, does not convey world music.  The cover graphic pictures some grass and a large anthropomorphized flower with a goatee.  It is smiling at an insect that also has a goatee and three hearts float between them.  Eight notes in various orientations dot the background.  It says, in large text La Koro Sutro on the right hand side.  Around the edges are names of people involved in the project.  Also on the same disk are Varied Trio, performed by the Abel, Steinberg, Winant Trio and Suite for Violin and American Gamelan, featuring David Abel on violin.  The disk is published by New Albion Records.

         All of the performers, packaging, Pacific Rim aesthetics and even the record label are so very California San Francisco Bay Area, that they make me homesick.  Of course, while I lived in California, I did not think of this as purely California music, I thought of it as world music.  Lou Harrison was known not only as a California composer, but more so as a world music composer.  I did not think of his music and especially this piece, as indigenous, but looking at it now, it very obviously was.

         In conclusion, while this CD is very obviously a California phenomenon, I still would count it as an example of composed world music.  The international Esperanto community is eager to embrace it - the best Esperanto vocal work ever written - as coming from Esperantio, and the music synthesizes so many ideas and cultures that I would count it as a world phenomenon.

         (Esperantio is the name of a fictional Esperanto homeland.  It is essentially international in nature.)

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