Two World Concerto

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            Deeply creative artists by nature must evolve with their constantly changing experiences.  They begin in one place, creating art that reflects their place, and almost inevitably move on as their artistic vision encounters new and stimulating influences.   This is certainly reflected in the music of James DeMars, professor of music composition at Arizona State University in Tempe.  He holds a doctorate in composition from the University of Minnesota, where he—rather typically for those times for young academically-trained “classical” composers—was immersed in the severe and challenging music post-World War II European composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen.  As DeMars matured he became fascinated with so-called “world music,” or that of non-European musical traditions. Finding inspiration in such disparate music cultures as those of Africa, Arabia, and Native America, he has a distinct gift for blending them with the traditional sounds and vessels of Western classical tradition. 

            The phenomenon is not new, of course, with the first burst of interest making its appearance at the great Exhibition Universelle of 1889 in Paris, where Debussy encountered the music of the Javanese gamelan ensemble.  Building upon an already burgeoning interest during the nineteenth-century in “orientalism” and the presumed “exotic,” European art was never the same.   Composers in the twentieth century intensified and somewhat normalized the interest, and now cultural blends in concert music are as common as those in the other fine and decorative arts.  The compositions of James DeMars are exemplary, for he clearly has a gift for drawing upon widely contrasting musical traditions, and weaving them together into coherent works of art.

            His works have been performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, among others, and at the National Cathedral and the Kennedy Center in Washington.  Their diversity includes not only conventional works such as violin and piano concertos, but also orchestral works that include African drum ensembles, pow-wow singers, and of course, the Native-American cedar flute.  The latter, featured in his Two World Concerto, was written in collaboration with the distinguished performer on that instrument, R. Carlos Nakai.

            Nakai—of Navajo-Ute descent--is the foremost master of the instrument.  Originally educated as a classical trumpeter and in music theory, he took up the traditional cedar wood flute after receiving one as a gift.  More than three decades later he is a distinguished virtuoso, having recorded over fifty albums and performed frequent concerts in Europe and Japan, as well as in this country.

            The integration of the cedar flute—an instrument whose scales and intonation are unique—with the Western orientation of the instruments of the symphony orchestra can be a formidable challenge for both soloist and composer.  The roughly pentatonic tuning of the traditional Navajo instruments is specific to any given instrument.  But, Nakai and DeMars trounce the difficulties and the result is a felicitous blending of musical cultures.  The haunting sound of the flute is a perfect partner for DeMars’ luscious string textures and restrained, evocative woodwinds.  DeMars’ skill at writing for the orchestra from time to time even evokes electronic synthesized sounds—fitting into the whole seamlessly.

            “Two worlds” is intended to not only evoke two cultural worlds, but also the two metaphysical worlds of Native American thought:  the conscious world and the spiritual world. The traditional three movements of the concerto are entitled:  “Spirit call:  Paint for us the times to come . . .” “Lake that speaks: This trembling of beings and things . . .” and “Crow Smoke:  Shaping worlds as fire burns . . . .”  According to the composer, if coyotes or birds come to mind, that is fine.  There are moments when the soloist may choose to play closely with the orchestra, and other times when he may improvise freely—even including a song of his own.

            Those new to this composition are in for in for a spiritual, musical, and sonic treat.  Nakai’s skill and musicianship, combined with DeMars sensitive conjuring up of a perfect complement—from a Western orchestra, no less—produce something special.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2017 William E. Runyan