Changing one's hearing
Recently I was party to a discussion about how one's hearing can change when exposed to indigenous music. I had never really thought about this before, but on reflection realise that it is indeed so. This set me thinking about how my hearing has changed radically during my life as a musician and I would have to say that there were two very important changes over the course of the years.
The first was during my first year at the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory. I was no stranger to contemporary music and regarding Soviet contemporary music was well acquainted with the music of Alfred Schnittke. I was not prepared, however, for the barrage of new Soviet repertoire that I would be subjected to day in and day out as my Professor, Gennady Rozhdestvensky, opened his season of concerts. Each concert would introduce two of Haydn's late symphonies as well as two new works by Soviet composers. As an integral part of our training under Rozhdestvensky meant attending every rehearsal without fail, as well as his concerts, I had, to put it mildly, an earful of Soviet contemporary music. Moreover, when one of the pianists of our conducting class presented her latest piano concerto to Gennady Nikolaevich, he liked it so much that he included it in the season. Now there was no avoiding all this new Soviet repertoire in the classroom either! To be honest I was shell-shocked and breathed a sigh of relief when the year was over and we studied Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Stravinsky and Schnittke.
It was only the following summer when I attended a contemporary music festival that I realised I had absolutely no issues with the most difficult of contemporary music and indeed enjoyed listening to even the most outlandish new works. This would not have been the case had it not been for that first season of Gennady Rozhdestvensky. As a result, from the very early years of Ensemble XXI's existence, I conducted many a world premiere of contemporary music.
The second time that my hearing changed was in a quite different situation. I was in the Far East of Russia on Sakhalin when I was invited to the annual spring festival of the indigenous Nivkh people. I was thrilled to experience their music first hand, as I have always had a great interest in traditional music and in ancient cultures. My father had introduced me at an early age to the extraordinary work of Sean O'Riada who dedicated his life to collecting Irish traditional music before it was too late and my New Zealand mother had gone to school alongside the indigenous Maori people (unlike Australia where the aboriginals were terribly discriminated against, Maori children were integrated into the New Zealand school system). Moreover when I studied at the Liszt Academy in Budapest it was mandatory for every student to study folk music. This was fortuitous as the Professor of Folk Music was László Vikár, who had studied with both Bartók and Kodály.
It was therefore with great excitement that I travelled to the north of Sakhalin island to meet the Nivkh people. The experience was overwhelming and the music sung by the Elders, inspirational. On return to Yuzhno Sakhalinsk, I was taken to meet the Matriarch of the Nivkhs, Ulita who was in her late 90's and was blind and bedridden. It was extremely touching to experience the warmth with which she greeted me and her willingness to allow me to record her singing. I was not to know it then but when Ulita agreed to let me record her singing, she sang a song that not even scholars dedicated to the music of the Nivkhs, had ever heard before.
On the flight through 9 time zones back to Moscow, I listened to my recording of Ulita and to another recording given to me by other Nivkh singers. I was enchanted and moved by the music and knew then that something had to be done to further record and preserve this music for posterity.
Thus Polar Voices was born. The first work of Polar Voices was carried out with field trips to the Nivkhs on Sakhalin. We also decided to hold our Pacific Rim Music Festival in the Nivkh territory and commissioned a composer to write a composition based on Nivkh themes. The composition began with a Nivkh singer, Tyotya Lida, one of the older generation, singing a Nivkh melody, which was then taken up by the Ensemble XXI musicians. The Nivkh singer remained in the midst of the musicians, her body swaying at the highly contagious rhythms as emotion passed over her face as she recognised the Nivkh songs running through the work. How, I wondered, will the Nivkhs audience react? The excitement was palpable as the piece continued and themes were recognised by the Nivkhs. Not only themes, but also the rhythms and the original instruments themselves that go back to Neolithic times. In place of the ‘tyatya chxach’, a log, engraved with bear heads on either side, which is beaten as their main percussion instrument, the musicians of Ensemble XXI knocked on the wood of their instruments.
Certainly the hearing of Nivkhs was changed that night as they heard their own traditional music played on string instruments and brought into a new piece of 21st century music.
Back, however, to the change in my own hearing. Next, Polar Voices carried out field trips to even more distant areas in the Russian Arctic-to Kamchatka and Chukotka, which concentrated in particular on the music of the Chukchi and Koryak indigenous peoples. Unlike the Nivkh music I found their music extremely challenging, both melodically and rhythmically. Fundamentally, I could not easily identify either aspect of this music. Gradually though, over the months of editing the field diaries and listening back to the recordings and films made, I now have no idea what the problem was.
I am sure that these two changes in my hearing will not be the last and that I will be challenged again!