Monday, May 16, 2011

Ethan Sperry interview- part two

Today we continue the interview of Ethan Sperry, Director of Choral Activities at Portland State University and newly appointed Artistic Director of the Oregon Repertory Singers. Here Ethan talks about his interest in world music and his very active role in bringing it to the U.S. choral world via his series at earthsongs.

PC: You've become known for your brilliant folk music series at earthsongs. Can you describe how that series came about? And can you talk about your interest both in Haitian music and in Indian music- including Bollywood?

ES: I’ve been interested in Indian music and culture for a long time, then I started working at Miami University and there was an inspirational Indian musician named Srinivas Krishnan. Srini is an engineer from Chennai, India who had come to get his masters in Engineering at Miami in the 1980’s and then stayed in the area to work for Proctor and Gamble. In addition to his scientific skills, he is a phenomenal tabla player, vocalist, and entrepreneur.

When I arrived at Miami in 2000, I heard his Global Rhythms ensemble, which at that time was three flutes, a trombone, a cello, a keyboard, and two percussionists (all Miami students) playing an Indian raga while he accompanied on the tabla. Srini doesn’t read Western music notation, so had taught the students the raga melody by ear. The performance was hair-raising and I was inspired by the idea of performing the music of India on Western instruments. I asked Srini if he had ever involved voices in the ensemble, and he said he had always wanted to, but no one had been interested.

We started planning, and the next Fall the Miami University Collegiate Chorale joined Global Rhythms for four songs: a spiritual, a Romanian piece by Pascanu, a Cirque du Soleil piece, and a Tarana by Ravi Shankar which was my first arrangement of an Indian piece. The arrangement was scored for unison choir and over a dozen instruments. The Collegiate Chorale has performed in the Global Rhythms concert at Miami every Fall since 2001.

The summer after that I got a grant from Miami to travel to Mumbai (Bombay) and Chennai for three weeks to study Indian music. After some study of Indian music theory (mostly Carnatic) and attending a lot of concerts, including many children’s concerts, which really helped me grasp how the theory was put into practice, I decided to try a purely choral arrangement. However, India has no choral tradition and no large ensemble tradition. The music is all improvised and large groups don’t improvise well.

So, I decided to fuse two ideas together. I got my start as an arranger singing a cappella in college. In this style we give all the instrumental parts to the voices and use the voice to try and imitate their sounds. I decided to try this same idea on an Indian raga. I chose the raga Ramkali because it strays so far from Western scales. I decided to improvise on the raga as if I were singing the piece and write down my best ideas. Then I did the same thing for the vocal parts, trying to use syllables that would make them sound like the Indian percussion and drone instruments that usually accompany a singer.

Ramkali was premiered by the Miami University Men’s Glee Club at the 2004 ACDA Central Division Conference and several people, including Paul Rardin (who was at Michigan at the time) asked for manuscript copies after that performance. Paul brought the piece to Ron Jeffers at earthsongs and he asked to publish it and to begin a series in this style which I named Global Rhythms in honor of Srini and my collaboration.

Ron also asked me to produce an SATB version of Ramkali, but I resisted – I really think it’s a male chorus piece and many pieces that are reworked from TTBB to SATB (most notably Franz Biebl’s Ave Maria) suffer from being altered. I suggested that I write another raga in a similar style for SATB chorus and he liked that idea, so I wrote Desh in 2005. I don’t write these pieces quickly, but the series now includes Jai Bhavani (SA - 2007), Dwijavanthi (SATB - 2008), Pallanda (TTBB or SSAA -2009), and Mantra (SATB - 2011).


In 2003 I was listening to the Putamayo World Music Hour on NPR and I heard this incredible piece of Haitian music called Peze Café being performed by a choir with drums. I used Putamayo’s website to order the CD and found out that it was a Swedish choir called Amanda that had been singing. The booklet gave me enough information to use google and eventually order the sheet music for the piece from a Swedish website. I also ordered every other piece I could Sten Kallman who had arranged that piece. The sheet music used Western music notation but there were very few performance notes and what notes there were were in Swedish. I got some friends to help translate the notes, and used the CD as a performance guide, and on we went. My students immediately fell in love with his arrangements and a few years later I invited him to come work with us for a week and perform two of his arrangements with us at the 2010 ACDA Central Division Conference in Cincinnati. He also agreed to let me re-publish some of his arrangements as part of my series with earthsongs, this time with much more extensive performance notes that are all in English.


While I was in India in 2002 I also became infatuated with Bollywood music. And I had some good luck. Friends of Srini’s introduced me to a number of film composers including A. R. Rahman whose music is truly exceptional. From 2002-2006 I produced about a dozen arrangements of Rahman songs for choir and a very large Global Rhythms ensemble. He came to the US in 2006 and performed them with us in Detroit, Dayton, and at the Hollywood Bowl on my 35th birthday which still stands as one of the highlights of my musical life. Rahman also invited me to conduct some of his music at The Filmfare Awards (the Indian Oscars) in 2008 – another highlight.

Over time I was able to produce a few arrangements of his songs for choir and percussion, and Ron agreed to publish these on my series as well. Of these, I am most proud of Zikr. Rahman converted from Hinduism to Islam in his twenties (A. R. stands for Allah Rakha or servant of Allah), and despite having written almost 1000 songs, Zikr is his only statement of faith in music. The media gives a lot of air time to a relatively small group of Muslims who are terrorists, and almost no attention to the millions of Muslims (138 million in India alone) who are not. I hope this song will help some people understand that there’s much more to Islam that Al Qaeda.

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