Thursday, March 03, 2005

Breathing Songs From A Turning Sky

Janice Giteck: Breathing Songs From A Turning Sky/Thunder, Like A White Bear Dancing/"Callin' Home Coyote" Posted by Hello

Tonight I start off Women's History Month at HurdAudio with ears turned toward three compositions by Janice Giteck found on the Mode 014 CD from 1988.

"Breathing Songs From A Turning Sky: Ten Meditations" (1980; revised 1984) - scored for flute, clarinet, bassoon, piano, cello and two percussionists.

These are ten movements inspired by "The Sefirot As A Wheel of Light," a Kabala poem by Naftali Bacharach. Each is an exquisite, independent sonic texture oriented around a pair of pentatonic scales for each movement (with the exception of the seventh meditation, which is silent for 39 seconds).

This is an attractive work. The pentatonic harmonies, at times combined with cyclical rhythmic patterns, are evocative of various Asian traditional musics. The musical gestures in each movement fits the unspoken text that this work is structured upon in some deeply expressive ways. Overall, there's a nice balance between the instruments with each having roughly equal time as a focal point.

"Thunder, Like A White Bear Dancing: A Performance Ritual" (1977) - scored for soprano voice, flute, 3 chanting voices, piano and percussion.

This work is a loose interpretation of Ojibwa initiation rituals into the Medicine Society. The instrumental parts and voices are structured with shifting "roles" over the course of the interpretive ritual.

Structured as three distinct sonic "pictographs" suggested by the text, "Thunder, Like A White Bear Dancing" takes on a larger formal shape as it transitions between contrasting textures. Early on the instrumental parts swirl in intricate, pan-tonal colors that coexist with the text. Then they transition toward supportive roles and eventually succumb to the chant of "A spirit, a spirit, you who sit there, who sit there" and vanish altogether leaving the final lines of text delivered without accompaniment.

Like many text pieces I have a hard time with this piece. While it is exceptionally well crafted and thoughtfully composed I can't escape an uneasy feeling about co-opting a religious ritual without first forming indigenous roots to the living culture that it rightfully belongs to. My ears never quite overcome my aversion to text with this one. I can appreciate the drive to create a ritual performance as a work of chamber music and much of the great sonic texture that makes up the sound of this piece. But as a ritual I'm left craving something more physical to emerge from the experience.

"Callin' Home Coyote - A Burlesque" (1978) - scored for tenor voice, steel drums and contrabass.

Playfully drawn from a text by Louis MacAdams this theatrical work artfully draws upon the trickster Coyote character from native American folklore. The unusual instrumentation and range of vocal delivery techniques underscore the odd juxtaposition of humor and wisdom drawn from a singular character.

On first listening I completely resisted this work. The sound of the human voice and text is something I constantly struggle with. Once I settled beyond the stress of the words and all the concrete baggage they bring I discovered that this is an amazing piece of music. Now it is one of my favorite works. It's filled with some great moments that add up to a compelling whole. The sing-song delivery of "aya, aya, aya, aya" over the steel drum part really sticks with me and builds the image of hearing the trickster coyote speaking with a genuine voice.

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