Combining the musical traditions of different cultures is a risky endeavor. By merging different kinds of music, it is almost guaranteed that certain aspects of each style will be omitted in order to befit the piece as a whole. Therefore, it is often difficult to gauge whether or not a musical “fusion” has been successful, and such a claim is always in the eye of the beholder. Philip Glass’s Orion, for instance, is a unique piece that incorporates music of many different cultures in a distinctly classical milieu. Unfortunately, the piece falls short of achieving multicultural fusion, and instead, only manages to represent a slew of culturally diverse instruments.
“Musical fusion” can be described as the blending of two or more musical traditions or genres in a single piece of music. In successful scenarios, these different styles complement each other, resulting in a piece that is both elegant and aesthetically pleasing. Every region of the globe has its own unique, proprietary styles and traditions, making cross-cultural fusion extremely difficult to coordinate. A piece that incorporates a Tuvan throat singer, a sitar, and a French horn, for instance, would seem awkward to almost anybody. It takes a skilled and open-minded composer to conceptualize such a blend of traditions.
In Orion, Glass attempts to bring together the traditions of seven different countries from all corners of the globe: Australia, China, Canada, Gambia, Brazil, India, and Greece. He wrote the piece for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, which explains his desire to promote pan-culturalism and global unity. As Glass himself explained, “Orion, the largest constellation in the night sky, can be seen at all times of year, from both hemispheres… And so the star-studded skies, seen from every corner of our planet, inspired [me] to present a multicultural, international, musical composition” (http://www.greekworks.com). Glass hoped to demonstrate the harmony in which all human beings coexist, while simultaneously preserving the uniqueness of every civilization’s musical heritage. To a certain extent, Glass does what he sets out to do. The Australia movement features the Aboriginal didgeridoo, which keeps a constant drone below the rest of the ensemble. Similarly, China features the pipa (stringed lute), while Canada illustrates the indigenous country-folk style of music with the Celtic fiddle. The Gambia movement features a Mandingo griot, while Brazil features some indigenous percussion instruments and various bells. India is portrayed by its most famous national instrument, the sitar. The piece comes to a momentous end with Greece, which employs a somewhat haunting folk song, rewritten by Glass. There are three brief interludes that connect some of the movements, allowing for further collaboration between the various instruments. In the first interlude, for example, the pipa playfully interacts with the didgeridoo in an improvised vignette.
Ultimately, however, Orion’s shortcomings outnumber its accomplishments. Instead of creating music that is fresh and original, Glass relies on his signature style of articulated arpeggios throughout most of the piece. In fact, the indigenous instruments are mostly auxiliary in the grand scheme of Orion. In the first movement, Glass does not blend American and Australian musical traditions; instead, he uses the didgeridoo as a singular representation of Australian music in an otherwise classical piece. Instead of merging musical traditions with each other, Glass tries to unite them with techniques that are largely derived from his repertoire of compositions. Even the interludes are pointless – they are brief experiments in which two completely different instruments are juxtaposed without any overarching structures or themes. In this sense, any true cross-cultural dialogues are overshadowed by the overemphasized dissimilarities between the instruments. Therefore, the didgeridoo, the pipa, and the sitar are reduced to mere puppets in a grandiose, somewhat pretentious, cross-cultural hodgepodge of global sounds.Tags: album, baroque, best classical music, cd, classical, classical music, classical music cds, classical music composer, classical music Mozart, classical music online, classical piano music, composers, concert, General, instrument, met opera, metropolitan opera, music, musical fusion, opera, opera house, opera singers, orion, philip glass, piano, ravi shankar, Recordings, reviews, World Music