I've never been one for sustained doses of light, ethereal music that floats around sounding pretty, but in the end has little or no substance. You know what I mean, its the kind of stuff you'll hear wafting out of stores that seem to mostly sell candles or offer some sort of spiritual renewal in exchange for a large investment of capital. Like the ideas being sold in those stores, the music is usually a co-opted, watered down version of some other culture's ideas being passed off as something original. Aside from the way it maltreats music, the other major crime it perpetrates is the manner in which it abuses perfectly good instruments, creating the impression they are somehow only good for creating this schlock.
Two of the instruments that have suffered the most at the hands of this industry have been the harp and the flute. Whether the concert variety of either instrument, or one of the many traditional types unique to various cultures around the world, they have been reduced to only pale imitations of their true capabilities. With their long association with angelic hosts, harps probably have it worse than flutes, but with the "discovery" of the Native American cedar flute in recent years, both have become the instruments of choice for the vacuous and vacant.
Needless to say I was less then thrilled when I received a CD of harp and flute music in the mail, and under most circumstances I would have simply ignored the disc and gone about my business. However, a quick scan of both the press release accompanying the disc, and the disc itself, made it clear harpist Tomoko Sugawara was cut from an entirely different bolt of cloth than the perpetrators of the crimes described above, and her forthcoming disc, Along The Silk Road, being released on March 11, 2010 on the Motema label, offered the promise of something different and exciting.
First of all there was the instrument she was playing on the disc, a type of harp which was first known to be played in 1900BC in Mesopotamia. The kugo, or angular harp, is not only one of the earliest examples of a plucked string instrument, it was also one of the more enduring ones as it was in use up until 1700AD in some Islamic countries. Even more fascinating is the fact it was in common usage along the length of the Silk Road — the historic trading route that connected the Far East with the Near East and could be found in China, Korea, and Japan as well as Egypt and Muslim-occupied Spain. However the advent of the frame harp, the instrument most of us visualize when we think of a harp, in Europe around 800AD marked the beginning of the end for the kugo, and it had passed out of use in the Far East by 1100AD and gradually vanished entirely.
The kugo Sugawara plays was created from plans she and music archaeologist Bo Lawrengren developed based on a harp of its type pictured on a reliquary box painted in the 6th or 7th century BC. The 13 pieces on her CD are a cross-section of the various cultures where the angular harp was used, thus offering listeners a musical tour of the ancient world stretching from Spain to China. However, instead of merely trying to recreate the music of those times, many of the pieces are by contemporary composers from the countries where the instrument once held sway. These are balanced by pieces from its original heyday, dating back as far as the Tang Dynasty in China and 13th century Spain and Iran. While "The Waves Of Kokonor" and "Wang Zhaojun" have been transcribed and adapted from the original to better suit the range of Sugawara's harp, "Qawl" by Quth al-Dinal-Shirazi (1236-1311) of Iran is taken from the original's vocal part, which, along with the title's percussion line, is all of the song that has survived. Sugawara is accompanied by percussionist Ozan Aksoy on this track playing the bendir, with each of them adding improvised elements to flesh out the piece.
The booklet that accompanies the CD offers detailed notes on each piece of music, including the modern composers' explanation of how they tried to accommodate an instrument none of them had ever heard or seen played. While their talk of scales and tunings will be lost on any but those who are musicians, what is clear is that this is brand new territory for all of them. However, listening to the pieces one can't help thinking they've done an amazing job as the first thing you notice are the amazing variety of sounds and textures the instrument is capable of producing. Sugawara creates music with her kugo I would have never associated with a harp in the past. Her duets with alto flutist Robert Dick, "Shakugo I, II, and II" by Robert Lombardo, avoid all the usual cliches one has come to expect from this type of pairing, with the composer taking full advantage of both instrument's capabilities. While there are moments which can be described as ethereal within them, they are anchored by earthier elements that utilize the lower range of both their scales.
While a flute and harp duet is pretty much what one would expect from this type of disc, harp and percussion are not what most would call a likely pairing. However, three of the selections on this disc, the previously mentioned "Qawl" from Persia (Iran) and "Cantiga de Santa Maria, No. 249" and "No. 213" composed by King Alfonso X of Spain (12221-84), show the kugo's versatility with Sugawara pairing with Aksoy on bendir and darabukka to great effect. There's nothing soft or fragile about this harp's playing, especially on the very robust Spanish tunes. In spite of their sacred sounding names they contain elements remarkably similar to those found in more contemporary secular dance music like tangos and flamenco. (It came as no surprise to learn that Alfonso's court was heavily influenced by his Moorish neighbours who ruled the South of Spain and he had both Islamic and Jewish courtiers at his court.) Sugawara's phrasing in these tunes in particular sound far more like a lute, or even a guitar, than what one would normally expect from a harp, and offer a perfect counterpoint to the lively rhythms being played by Aksoy.
Along The Silk Road might feature a type of harp as its solo instrument, but this is not harp as we've come to expect it to be played based on recent examples. Everybody involved with this project, from the composers to the performers, have gone out of their way to allow Sugawara's instrument's capabilities to be explored to its fullest, thus creating a disc of music both diverse and exciting. This might be an ancient instrument that has not been heard or seen in performance for hundreds of years, but it sounds far more vital and alive than any harp recording I've heard in years.