Big Sky Music from Tibet

by delarue

Consider the concept of “big sky music:” vast open spaces inspiring a sense of wonder and possibility but also possibly foreboding, not to mention the feeling of being a very small part of what could be an overwhelmingly larger picture. Like the American plains, Tibet also has big sky music, which is mostly what chanteuse Yungchen Lhamo and pianist Anton Batagov play on their most recent album Tayatha. The instrumentation is simply voice and piano throughout a series of long, expansive, hypnotic pieces – the shortest a tad over seven minutes, the longest clocking in at over sixteen. While sometimes building on folk themes, the music is original, and there’s obviously some improvisation going on. Much of the album also turns out to be a rigorously successful attempt by Batagov to refrain from lapsing into European scales, the result being hypnotic to the extreme as he jams out a single chord, or sticks tightly to a pentatonic Asian scale – and manages to maintain a level of interest or suspense despite the absence of western-style chord changes.

The first track, Good Times Will Come builds off a catchy lefthand piano hook, like a Rachmaninoff prelude – it’s more European nocturne than Tibetan trance music. Lhamo varies her voice from high and minutely ornamented to low and suspenseful with a hint of throat-singing. Medicine Buddha is more mantra-like with hints of a country dance; the contrast between Lhamo’s soaring crescendo and Bagatov’s steadiness is cool. Flying Dakini works that same methodical/emotive dichotomy, followed by the aptly petulant, nine-minute Ungrateful Child.

Your Kindness, the most epic number here, carries a series of dynamic shifts through a long one-chord jam up to an anthemic swell, and then back and forth. White Palace, the closest thing to a straight-up rock song here, artfully blends neoromanticism and Asian piano tonalities underneath Lhamo’s intricately ornamented, microtonal inflections. The final track, My Mother’s Words begins with a looser feel than the rest of the album but comes together forcefully, with an almost music-box counterpoint between Lhamo’s vocals and Batagov’s upper-register pointillisms. Is this folk music? Sort of. Indie classical? Maybe. New age? Not really – it’s too interesting, although it will probably appeal to that crowd as well as fans of the more contemplative side of Asian and Indian music.