JUAN TIZOL / DUKE ELLINGTON: CARAVAN
The Orient has always exercised a special fascination on European artists – one has only to think of Goethe's »West-östlicher Diwan« and Mozart's »Entführung aus dem Serail«, of Karl May's popular adventure stories and the opulent and sensuous scenes of harem life by French painters. Most of these, however, remained rooted in cliches, and only used the harem motif as a background and a justification for depicting juicy scenes. By the same token, »Caravan«, composed in 1936 by legendary big band leader Duke Ellington and his Puerto Rican trumpeter Juan Tizol, is as far removed from authentic Arab music as a Saudi caravan is from the New York Cotton Club. The song nonetheless went on to become one of the most successful jazz standards, no doubt partly because the tune is so reminiscent of a camel swaying through the desert.
This is an article from the Elbphilharmonie Magazine (issue 01/2020), which is published three times per year.
FAZIL SAY: BLACK EARTH
Pianist and composer Fazıl Say (b. 1970) could be the perfect cultural ambassador for Turkey: everywhere he appears, he delights audiences with his dedication. But there is a fly in the ointment: he is at odds with his country. He dared to mock a muezzin for rattling off the call to prayer too quickly, which brought him a court sentence for blasphemy. He turns up his nose at the Arab pop music that is widespread in Turkey. He has complained that his homeland »misuses religion for political ambitions«, and expressed support for the anti-Erdogan demonstrations in Istanbul's Gezi Park. Fazıl Say is convinced that it's possible to honour traditions and still live in the here and now, as shown by his piano piece »Black Earth«, which he always plays as an encore. It is dedicated to the famous ballad singer Aşık Veysel, whose bağlama lute Say imitates with muted piano strings.
Elbphilharmonie Magazine | Orient
LED ZEPPELIN: KASHMIR
A riff that sounds as if it was chiselled in stone, a stoic, marching beat and, overlaying these, ecstatic shaman singing and intricate oriental solos – with his 1975 song »Kashmir«, Led Zeppelin produced one of the most unusual rock hits of all time. At a running time of more than eight minutes, it was also one of the longest: a song as monumental as the Himalayas. It derives its special atmosphere not only from the simultaneous triple and quadruple time, but also from the use of scales that seem to hail from the Far East, which Jimmy Page and Robert Plant had picked up on their travels through India a few years earlier. All in all, it's of only marginal importance that none of the long-haired members of the band ever set foot in Kashmir on the border between India and China: Plant wrote the song lyrics in the Moroccan desert.
»A song as monumental as the Himalayas«
ALEXANDER BORODIN: A SKETCH OF THE CENTRAL ASIAN STEPPE
In 1862, five amateur composers joined forces in St Petersburg under the deliberately self-ironic name »The Mighty Handful« with the aim of promoting new Russian music. Among them were the naval officer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, the forestry service official Modest Mussorgsky (who was drunk most of the time) and the chemist Alexander Borodin. They found inspiration in Orthodox church music, in heroic medieval sagas, or in the vast Russian empire and its peoples. In his symphonic poem, Borodin depicts in music the passing of a Mongol caravan escorted by Russian troops. Borodin often took quite a while to complete a score as (to quote Rimsky-Korsakov) »he was constantly jumping up and running into his laboratory to make sure nothing had boiled over or got burnt«.
DSCHINGHIS KHAN: DSCHINGHIS KHAN
»Hu, ha, Dsching-Dsching-Dschingis Khan / He Reiter, ho Reiter, he Reiter, immer weiter / Dsching-Dsching-Dschingis Khan / Lasst noch Wodka holen, oh ho ho ho / Denn wir sind Mongolen, ha ha ha ha!« It goes without saying that a group that sings lines like this has a good chance of winning the Eurovision Song Contest. Germany's pop khan Ralph Siegel thought so too, a producer and songwriter whose work is about as subtle as a Mongol prince on a military campaign. So he sent a band of Wild East stereotypes to the 1979 contest, a group that looked like Village People with fur hats. They only reached fourth place, it's true, but the song was No. 1 in the German charts for weeks, and Dschingis Khan went on to land another hit with »Moskau« (»Werft die Gläser an die Wand / ha ha ha ha ha, hey«). The latter song was reanimated as the German team's theme tune for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia: the outcome of that competition is well known.
TAN DUN: MARCO POLO
In 1271, Marco Polo set out from Venice to travel to Asia. His description of the 24-year journey to the magnificent palace of Kublai Khan, the veracity of which remains a subject of controversy, became a source of inspiration for countless other explorers, merchants, scholars and artists. But in the end it was a Chinese composer who turned the story into an opera in 1996: Tan Dun, known among other works for composing the soundtrack to the film »Tiger and Dragon«. His film score makes use of several tricks: he cleverly combines European art music with elements of the Peking opera and its stylised falsetto singing. And he sees the famous explorer's journey not only as geographical, but also as a spiritual one. Thus his opera features two principal roles named Marco and Polo, representing the active and the contemplative side of the character respectively, who finds his way to inner unity at the end. Another way of getting back home.
PHILIP GLASS: STRING QUARTET NO. 3 »MISHIMA«
Yukio Mishima, probably the most important Japanese writer of the 20th century, was a man full of contradictions. The slim-built intellectual did bodybuilding, toyed with homosexuality, occupied the army headquarters in 1970 with a right-wing task force that he founded himself, with the aim of forcing the reinstatement of the Emperor, and ended his own life with a ritual Samurai suicide. Philip Glass contributed the soundtrack to director Paul Schrader's film of Mishima's life. The trance-like minimal music can be seen as a reflection of Far Eastern philosophy – but also established itself in the Western concert repertoire as a string quartet.
Text: Clemens Matuschek, last updated: 9 Apr 2020