Amelia Cuni and Werner Durand – ‘already awake in the night’

18/05/2011

Amelia Cuni & Werner Durand

Already awake in the night

LP @ 33 RPM [ 42 min ]

Track listing :

A1. Already awake in the night

B1. Wavering twilight

B2. Morning surge

250 copies, hand numbered

So much excellent music has been made by contemporary artists who respect and follow time honoured traditions. Like it or not, we are all  products of what has gone before us. Even artists who firmly ensconce themselves in the avant garde idiom, a form which literally forbids backward glances, will acknowledge that there is a solid tradition to be drawn upon: the free experimentation, the unconventional performances, the outrages, the puns, the breaking of boundaries and so on.

Amelia Cuni and Werner Durand have produced an album of music strongly influenced by their respective research and practice into specific forms of Indian classical music married to elements of new electronic music creation.

This vinyl release on ini.itu, a very welcome addition to my growing vinyl collection, is an investigation of non-Western idioms, a reconfiguration of ancient forms within the context of new European music – and it works beautifully.

Durand is an improviser in the minimalist tradition. Cuni has studied dhrupad with eminent masters of the tradition. Dhrupad is reputedly the oldest Indian singing tradition. With roots in the Vedas, dhrupad focuses primarily on the depth and richness of the human voice. David Trasoff has trained with various sarod masters. From their collective catalogue of work it is clear that these artists take their music very seriously.

I have an ambivalent attitude to Western explorations of Eastern forms, born of my own forays into improvisation informed by raga. Sometimes the simplicity of a generalised ‘spiritual’ approach to modal improvisation in a manner similar to raga can work very well, particularly where the preparation of the performers is considered carefully, respect shown for the traditions, and so on. Some very beautiful simple music has been made with guitar, tanpura, flute, harmonium, sruti box. Crossing a fine line, the music can begin to resemble a New Age healing experience, which is fine if you need that kind of healing, but we’re probably talking less about music in these instances. Raga goes so much deeper – in the right hands and ears it becomes music as spirit, carrying all the power of deep introspection, spiritual tradition, prayer, meditation and respect. It invokes God’s blessing – I can’t imagine many hardcore atheists really appreciating raga. It won’t just make you weep – it will melt your heart and possess your soul.

Some investigations into Eastern forms haven’t always worked, to my ears at least. I never quite got the point of John McLaughlin’s modal flights with the likes of  Zakir Hussain and Hariprasad Chaurasia on his Mahavishnu and Shakti projects, apart from perhaps appreciating the displays of virtuosity. I much preferred listening closer to the sources and it’s in this respect that Durand and Cuni make their impact.

To the music now, Ready Awake in the Night stands out as the strongest piece on the album. The concept is simple but very clever – take a 12th century Latin Cistercian hymn and set it within the context of raga. In a similar way Western choral composers have taken sacred Eastern texts and set them for chorus. This of course taps into strong connections between Eastern and Western contemplative spiritual traditions – the times of day and night of the ragas finding correspondences with the ‘hours’ of western monasticism, Vespers for example. Meditations on these have of course inspired countless choral works of great beauty. Furthermore we have John Tavener whose sacred choral music often explored the simplicity of a modal line with background drone and who maintained that the drone, or ground, represented the Divine presence.

An in-depth discussion about the modes themselves would take months. What I would point out is that the skill of a seasoned raga player in negotiating these modes and their subtle inflections, according to the ‘rules of the game’, allows the music to go beyond a simple linear drone plus melodic line, a figure on a ground, which is what we often find in freer improvisational contexts. The music here is more circular or spiral in its evolution. I was particularly impressed by the attention given to the electronic drone: just enough surface detail to let you know it’s an electronic creation, yet unobtrusive enough to sit perfectly with the voice. In addition to the timbral qualities, the phase shifted sine waves are tuned to the specific tones of the raga. Then we have Amelia Cuni’s voice which, as with all good raga, is the closest you’ll get to dancing with Krisna in a forest by Vrndavan. I can’t even begin to describe where such music and its spiritual tradition might lead you.

This music is too ‘serious’ to be a mere flavour or a blob of film music. There is no trivialising of the idiom, yet we can sense clearly that the artists are involved very much in their own creation.

The two tracks on side B sound to me as if they tip over into a more contemporary European context, occasionally (but only just) losing the balance that Ready Awake in the Night had established.  For example the electronic processing is more evident in the drone. In Wavering Twilight the pervasive drone overpowers the beautifully played sarod at times, wavering dangerously into the ambient synth lane, though that might be the result of my listening habits and the comparisons I tend to make in the field of new electronic music. The vocal extemporisation on Morning Surge is excellent, bordering on the sort of abstraction that the Dagar Brothers create when they work up a head of steam.

Small criticisms these, and certainly easy to set aside given the overall strength of the album’s appeal. I was impressed and inspired by the direction the musicians have followed in candidly marrying their musicality with the Eastern influence, a beautiful and generous attempt to make something new and lasting.

A speculation – it must be difficult for Indian based musicians trained in raga, a seriously conventional and traditional form, to make radical changes to the music – Westerners are somewhat privileged in this respect. Here, Amelia Cuni and Werner Durand have expertly negotiated the fine line between respect for tradition and the desire to stamp their own artistry on the music.

This album is one of the finest of its kind and I pay homage to the artists’ research, dedication, craftsmanship and vision.

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