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Joël Bons: Nomaden
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In the words of composer Joël Bons, ''Nomaden is like a journey during which the protagonist cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras 'meets' musicians from different traditions and enters into dialogue with them. It is not a cello concerto as such, but rather a concertante work for cello and soloists from other cultures.'' With a playing time of roughly an hour, Nomaden ('Nomads') is made up of 38 brief sections, most of which run into each other without any pause. Two types of musical material run like a thread through the work: the 'Nomad-music' which return eight times but always presented each time in a different light, and the so called 'Passages': static episodes on one or two tones (or a chord) that explore the various instrumental timbres. These lead into the various 'main' episodes featuring encounters between the cello and the instruments from other cultures. Bons composed the work for Queyras and the Atlas Ensemble a group he himself founded in 2002, made up of 18 eminent musicians from China, Japan, Central Asia, the Middle East and Europe. From the Japanese shakuhachi and Chinese erhu to the Armenian duduk and the Persian setar, the scoring offers an untold number of combinations and an unheard spectrum of timbres. Nomaden was premièred by these performers in 2016, under the baton of Ed Spanjaard, and has been awarded the prestigious 2019 Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition.
- Package Dimensions : 5.35 x 4.96 x 0.16 inches; 2.12 Ounces
- Manufacturer : Bis
- Original Release Date : 2019
- Date First Available : January 26, 2019
- Label : Bis
- ASIN : B07MCDY1KT
- Number of discs : 1
Best Sellers Rank:
#288,088 in CDs & Vinyl (See Top 100 in CDs & Vinyl)
- #38,485 in Classical (CDs & Vinyl)
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This work won the 2019 Grawemeyer Award, which is often called the “Nobel Prize of music,” and of course that is a great accomplishment. But prizes don’t necessarily equate with ultimate quality. In this case, however, the selection committee made an excellent choice—even if history doesn’t ultimately judge this work of the highest quality, it is of great historical importance.
Joël Bons (b. 1952) is a Dutch composer, thoroughly trained in the Western Modernist tradition, who has over the years moved increasingly into what he calls “intercultural” composition. He is the founder and director of the group featured here, the Atlas Ensemble, whose mission is to explore the interaction of different musical traditions, and forge an emerging global practice between them. Nomaden (2015–16) makes a compelling statement for the validity of this practice, indeed its necessity.
As the title suggests, the piece is a vast journey through a wide range of sounds and styles. It’s in 38 movements and features a cello soloist with 18 players. The chamber orchestra is organized by the nature of the instruments’ sound production: winds, percussion, plucked strings, and bowed strings. Within each of those groups there’s a mix of Western and non-Western instruments. One of the most notable examples is in the bowed strings—along with the cello soloist and violin, viola, double bass, there is the Chinese erhu, the Iranian kamancha, the Turkish kemençe, and the Indian sarangi. There are times when these “translate” one into another, with delicious shifts of timbre. At others, they play together as a new form of string ensemble (or quartet, where in one section the erhu takes the role of the first violin).
Structurally, the piece is made up of three recurrent elements, which braid throughout. “Passages” are short sections that mix the colors of instruments, often on a single tone. “Nomaden” uses a leitmotif that is explored in different contexts, and often features the cello (who serves as a sort of coordinator musical M.C. throughout). And finally, there are larger pieces that feature specific instruments in more extended structures, and that may reference particular traditions and styles of play. One of the catchiest to my ear is the “Azartet,” which evokes Azerbaijani dance. Several have a distinctly jazzy sound, inflected by world music, that reminds me somewhat of the post-In C works of Terry Riley, especially for the Kronos Quartet.
This sort of thing is of course not unprecedented. Throughout the 20th century, composers have explored and evoked cultures other than their own native one—think Colin McPhee in Bali, Milhaud in Harlem. But efforts on this broad a scale of blending are rather new. Certainly the Kronos has explored this territory with a series of concept albums. But the one above all that comes to mind is Yo-Yo Ma’s now-venerable Silk Road Ensemble, which explores the mixing of traditions from Europe through Central to East Asia. Bon’s essay covers similar territory, but with a difference. The SRE is a presenter of works, many commissioned, that target specific blends and interactions of traditions, and it’s largely player-driven in its presentation. Nomaden in Bons’s view seems to be trying to make a more single, comprehensively “global” statement (though for the record, Latin American—except for the “Salsa” movement, which I found the least convincing—Native American, and African music aren’t in its mix).
This is a piece by a composer who is trying to use a wider swath of the world’s music as his palette. Of course some may charge this is “appropriation,” but in response I can’t help but feel that Bons has done deep study of these varied traditions, and treats them with respect. The piece also has built into its structure plenty of passages where the players are allowed to improvise within their original practice. And these sound quite seamless in their integration into the whole. Finally, if you watch any online videos of performance, you’ll notice that all the musicians seem to be having enormous fun with one another, which is one of the surest signs of things done right.
In the end, I’ve found the piece genuinely delightful, in the best sense of the term. It has great ambition and a lightness of touch, a rare combination. It is a landmark along the road to a new form of concert music. It will be on my next Want List.
I like how Nomaden charmed me out of my deep disinterest when unwrapping the CD cellophane. Ugh, I went as the brittle, dissonant chord opened the disc. I really wasn’t in the mood for atonal, globe-trotting, diverse musical naval-gazing. But from the moment the cello creeps in, so high that it sounds like a musical saw, I was won over. Nomaden has earned its composer, Joël Bons, the 2019 Grawemeyer Award, which has been previously given to such recent titans as Tan Dun, Pierre Boulez, Kaija Saariaho, Unsuk Chin, and Louis Andriessen. Given such previous clout, it is hardly surprising that the likes of BIS were happy to give this cello concerto a recording.
Except that Bons doesn’t want it to be seen as a cello concerto. It is “a richly varied mosaic in 38 movements for cello and large intercultural ensemble.” The Atlas Ensemble, which seemed to be formed for this recording, is an 18-strong collective of musicians from China, Central Asia, Japan, the Middle East, and Europe playing on native instruments as diverse and culturally alien as the shakuhachi and erhu. The cello is the over-riding link, “shaking hands” throughout these continents in music that, while episodic in its 38 shorts spurts, feels all of a piece. It is not all ethereal, slowly rising passages of atonality or the basic episodes relishing the timbre of each instrument. There is the syncopated, jazzy urgency of “Erhungi” as well as the mournful, plangent “Duduk.” Nomaden is so much more than a battery of effects and potentially insufferable Let’s-Teach-the-World-To-Sing group musical hugging. It is an exploration of musical textures, a playful mash-up of conflicting disciplines and cultures that breathes and hangs together as the cello rise and falls throughout, right up to its whispered epilogue.
Without a score, who knows how accurate the playing is. It is certainly engaged and expressive, a virtuoso show-piece for cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras, who is superb. I would love to know more about how such an eclectic mix of, presumably, different musical traditions worked and played together, but Ed Spanjaard maintains a coherent arc with the Atlas Ensemble. As you can tell, this won’t be for everyone, but I fail to see how anyone could remain unmoved. BIS’s sound is typically superb, well balanced and full-bodied on my standard CD player and no doubt even better separated on a dedicated SACD system, which I hardly ever have access to. Booklet notes have extensive and much needed information on the various instruments from all over the world. An ethereal, mind bending pleasure.