Saturday, February 26, 2011

Drama, Poetry and Song in Two Nights

This will have to be a quick record of what I have seen and heard this week. It's moving weekend! We relocate tomorrow, to our new apartment on the Upper West Side. I am very excited about the change, but all these experiences, planned an age ago, distracted me from the most important event of my life.

Tennessee Williams would have turned 100 on March 26. On Thursday I went with TH to the Baryshnikov Arts Center to watch the Wooster Group's production of Vieux Carre. I did not enjoy the group's use of multimedia, probably because I was missing too many of their references to the 70's. The play itself has wonderfully lyrical passages, but on the whole seems to me self-indulgent and sentimental. With better directing and acting, the stereotypical Williams characters (the sensitive upper class woman, the thuggish boyfriend, the tortured artist) could have exhibited flashes of humanity, but they were mechanical and inert, amongst all the stage machinery, with the exception of Kate Valk who played both Jane Sparks and Mrs. Wire.

Last night, another anniversary event, this one celebrating 60 years of the National Book Award, the National Book Foundation organized a poetry reading at the interesting venue of The Center for Book Arts. It was lovely to wander round the hand-presses. Six poets read, including Stephen Burt, Tony Hoagland, James Longenbach, and Susan Stewart. Hoagland sounded as observant, witty, moving, and bitter in person as he does on the page. He read exactly as I imagined he would read. Susan Stewart, whose translation of Italian poet Alda Merini I enjoyed so much, read a beautiful lyric that compares the darkness outside her window to a piece of cloth.

After the reading, I made my way to Zankel Hall to hear, with LW, the Algerian singer Nassima. She performed an Arab Andalusian Suite in the Sika Mode (key of E), with Hend Zouari on the qanun (zither), Mokrane Adlani on violin and viola, Amar Chaoui on percussion, the charismatic Rabah Kahlfa on the derbouka (goblet-shaped drum), tar, and def (frame drums), and the scintillating Mohamed Abdennour on the oud (unfretted lute), guitar, and guimbri (pear-shaped lute).

The suite begins with Arab Sufi music, continues with music of the Sahara, and ends with Blues from the Casbah of Algiers. The Maghreb Medley was a huge crowd-pleaser, with songs from Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. Nassima was not a flashy performer. Rather, her ease with her repertoire shows off, more gently, her mastery.

The concert program traces Arab Andalusian music to the early ninth century when Muslim composer-musician Ziryab, moved from Baghdad to Cordoba, and directed all musical activities at the emir's court. After the fall of Granada in 1492, the Arab musical culture was transported to the Maghreb, where it continues in the form of three traditions known as ala in Morocco, san'a in Algerica and malouf in Tunisia.

The program's explanation of the san'a was excerpted and edited from liner notes to Andalusian Music of Algiers on the Institut du monde arabe / Harmonia Mundi label, written by Dr. Leo J. Plencker, and translated by Delia Morris:

The central concept of the san'a is the nuba, the vocal and instrumental suite that consists of five sections. Each section contains at least one melody composed in a specific rhythmic mode. There are 12 nubas named according to the maqam (mode) in which each is composed. Thus nuba sika is a suite composed in maqam sika, which is similar to the Phrygian mode of early European music. The five sections of the classical nuba are called, respectively, m'saddar, b'tahi, darj, insiraf, and khlas. The first three sections are performed in a gentle binary rhythm, while the last two are in ternary rhythm with a gradually increasing tempo. The m'saddar is often preceded by a short instrumental prelude called a touchia played by all the musicians in a 4/4 or 2/4 rhythm. This is followed by another instrumental piece known as a kursi and then the m'saddar itself, which is sung in a slow solemn tempo that offers the singer a multitude of possibilities for ornamentation. The next vocal section, b'thai, is preceded by another kursi.

In a contemporary nuba performance, the singer often inserts a vocal improvisation with no fixed rhythm, known as ishtikhar, that gives him a chance to demonstrate his vocal skill and ability to improvise. The next section, the darj, is sung in a distinctly faster tempo, the latter being in a dance-like 3/4 or 6/8 rhythm that gathers speed until coming to a climax. The section ends with a non-measured vocal and instrumental phrase.

Text/ Poetry

...The poetic forms used are the muwashshahat and the zajal. Both are strophic forms and usually are five-line verses in an ab/ab/ab/cd/cd rhyming scheme. In the muwashshahat, the last two lines of each verse end with the same rhyme, whereas the other three lines change rhyme from one verse to another. In the zajal, the last line of each verse is a refrain. Sometimes an introduction or a prelude known as a matla precedes the muwashshahat or the zajal. It is always rhythmically constructed in the same way as the two lines that finish the verse. Thus: cd/cd//ab/ab/ab/cd/cd//ef/ef/ef/cd/cd//etc.

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