Anthony Davis is, in my opinion, one of America’s greatest and most unique composers. His music comes at you from a number of different, intriguing and artistically important perspectives. As a jazz pianist, himself, Davis often brings a sense of the improvised and the most progressive jazz harmonies and momentum to his work. There are not only direct references to some jazz greats, such as Duke Ellington, in his music; such as the captivating Notes from the Underground, but a sense of jazz orientation in a number of his works.
This opening work is, indeed, pretty interesting to listen to. There is certainly a beat; almost a disjointed swing, to the forward motion and the wind writing is clearly jazz inspired. The work is more intriguing than that, though. Notes from the Underground is in two parts. The first, Shadow, sets up the rest of the work with the use of percussion and rhythmic cells that resurface in the second half, Act. That section has some truly complex groups of asymmetrical pulses; twenty-seven beats, twenty-five beats and so forth. The work as a whole is inspired by some essays by the mid-twentieth century novelist Ralph Ellison. There is an “urban” feel to the whole work but it is quite attractive and really fun to follow the direction.
I first became familiar with Anthony Davis music with his early operas, written in a jazz idiom and on twentieth-century historical moments that remain controversial; such as the life and death of Malcolm X, in his opera X and the Patty Hearst abduction in Tania. Davis has written a lot of music that seems to reflect contemporary culture and, in particular, its more difficult to “face head on” aspects. Such is the case with his You Have the Right to Remain Silent, for clarinet, Kurzweil processor and chamber ensemble.
This is a dark, bluesy, evocative work where the clarinet is portrayed as a sort of solitary figure out of context to the chamber ensemble that plays – often literally – against it. The ensemble gives the soloist (and the audience?) the famous words of the Miranda warning at several spoken moments. The work exists in four movements and I found it very compelling; provocative on one level but musically extremely satisfying even without the context and thematic elements.
Davis’ Wayang V is, in some ways, quite a different deal. This work, for piano and ensemble, is based on Balinese gamelan music. A “wayang” is the Javanese term for the small scale puppet dramas that are played out as part of religious teaching and celebration as well as for tourist entertainment. This work, in four movements, uses some piano improvisation to introduce themes in the orchestra that are evocative of traditional Balinese and Javanese music without veering into direct quote. Davis’ characteristic style is present throughout and the set of pieces that he labeled the Wayang(s) I-V were used as core material to his opera Under the Double Moon.
I have played some of Anthony Davis’ music and the most recent work I had the pleasure to hear live was his stirring Amistad. I have always found Davis’ music to be music that speaks to a variety of recipients; it addresses the African-American twentieth-century (and beyond) historical experience, it pays homage to a number of world cultures and it appeals directly to jazz aficionados.
Davis has been a professor at the University of California, San Diego for many years. I suspect that – because his music is so unique and so cross stylistic – many classical listeners may not even be familiar with it. These works make for a great introduction to his music and I imagine that most would find them very interesting and appealing. Gil Rose and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project once again prove why they are one of the country’s leading contemporary music ensembles. The performances are outstanding and the recording is wonderful.