New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

The London Philharmonic Orchestra Tackle Ravi Shankar’s Groundbreaking Opera

Among the innumerable paradigm shifts Ravi Shankar introduced to the Indian raga tradition, one lesser-known achievement is his opera Sukanya. It’s a love story from ancient Indian mythology; the composer dedicated it to his wife, also named Sukanya. There’s a lavish live recording by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by David Murphy streaming at Spotify that you should hear if Indian sounds are your thing. Not only does Murphy have the inside track with this, having collaborated with Shankar as the work was being composed, but he also took on the task of completing it from  the composer’s notes after we lost the visionary sitarist in 2012.

This is Indian music with western harmonies rather than an attempt to bring in melodic influences from outside the raga canon. The orchestration is terse and imaginative, with echo effects and lots of jaunty counterpoint in the more energetic moments. Shankar uses the entirety of the ensemble, although not usually all at once, from drifting strings, to punchy low brass, to brooding woodwinds, along with sitar, sarangi, tabla, and shehnai oboe. Shankar was defined by his epic sensibility, and although this is sometimes nothing short of that, it’s also far from florid.

The lyrics are in English. Baritone Michel De Souza sings with passion and stern intensity, nimbly negotiating the vocals’ sometimes tricky carnatically-inspired ornamentation. Likewise, tenor Keel Watson brings a steely focus and seriousness to his role. In the title role, soprano Susanna Hurrell  takes a bel canto approach to the material rather than emulating a more melismatic, legato traditional Indian vocal style.

The shehnai typically serves as herald here, often with a foreboding, microtonal edge. Lingering nocturnal foreshowing builds to occasional bluster and bubbly, precise pageantry in the opera’s all-instrumental seventh interlude. The bit immediately afterward where the whole orchestra emulate the way a sitar is typically tuned onstage is priceless. Fans of the Brooklyn Raga Massive and the Navatman ensembles, who are pushing the envelope as imaginatively as Shankar did, will appreciate this orchestra’s sense of adventure and embrace of his alternately bright and hypnotic themes here.

Surreal Eclecticism From Nicolas Jacquot

One of the most entertainingly strange albums to come over the transom here in the past several months is Nicolas Jacquot’s Ordered Ordinaries, streaming at Bandcamp. There’s ambient music, and spoken word, and a pervasive surrealism on a rare level, a step beyond anything seen here in ages. An ability to speak Hungarian and French is a big plus if you want to understand this – to the extent that it can be understood.

Introduced by keening, whistling violin harmonics, the first track is a synthesized woman’s voice reading an Aristotle-inspired excerpt from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell concerning a poet and an angel – in French, in the archaic passé simple tense. Beyond the flamboyant, mushroomy imagery, it’s a reminder how little we actually encounter in the original language. Seriously: did you read the Iliad in Greek, or The Trial in Czech?

The album’s second track, Pomp For the Devil has a catchy yet hypnotic dichotomy between growly shards of guitar and looming, orchestral electronics: imagine if Eno had produced the first Velvets album.

There’s a similar, loopy contrast in the brief voicescape Good Morning. The album’s best and most epic track is the skeletal, distantly disquieting Basil of Salern, Hervé Boghossian ‘s gritty guitar chordlets bristling with cheap amp distortion over a staggered percussion loop.

Track five, Viki is a brooding Hungarian spoken-word piece by poet Rita Görözdi. pondering a possible journey of no return over a dissociative synth pastiche. She reprises the story at the end of the album in a condensed version for French speakers

The album’s most epic piece is the almost eighteen-minute diptych Happy Christmas, opening with a Grey Angel’s Death Song guitar-and-loops instrumental and then morphing into a desolately drifting spacescape.