Steve Lacy: THE CRY
Although THE CRY furthers the fascination soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy has previously established with setting the work of women writers to music, it also breaks significant new ground in it’s bold, uncompromising feminist political slant. In that single respect, THE CRY could well prove to be as controversial as it is compelling.
For this recording, Lacy has selected the work of Taslima Nasrin, a former anaesthesiologist from Bangladesh. Over the past decade Nasrin has authored a number of essays, poems, and stories that harshly assail the treatment of women in traditional Islamic culture. The radically blunt challenge that Nasrin’s texts pronounce against the predominantly Muslim society of Bangladesh has inevitably resulted in severe consequences for her personally. Nasrin’s works were banned as blasphemous and heretical. Death warrants and large monetary bounties have been issued for her execution. A two-year prison sentence under the indictment of “public expression of outrageous religious sentiments” was imposed in 1994, which culminated in her fleeing Bangladesh for Sweden, to subsequent worldwide notoriety and seclusion for purpose of safety.
Lacy discovered Nasrin via translations of her texts published in The New Yorker. While he found her words absorbing, it wasn’t until a face to face meeting with Nasrin in 1996 (when both artists were invited to Berlin by the German government’s arts foundation for a year’s residency) that he was moved to compose a full scale work, using her texts as a lyrical base.
The result, of course, is THE CRY, which provides a narrative framework to “comprise an autobiography of transformation” (from the liner notes by Bill Shoemaker) in the form of a 13 song cycle (documented on 2 cds). Lacy himself describes THE CRY as “the story of many women...not just about women in Bangladesh but women everywhere...the subjugation of women in society, and to their own bodies, and to men in particular and in general.”
To help realize this ambitious theme, Lacy chose an ensemble that included as many women as possible. His selection of instrumentation is unusual, a septet comprised of soprano sax, bass clarinet, harpsichord, accordion, acoustic bass, percussion, and woman’s voice. Although the liner notes state that Lacy found a timbral relationship between the words and harpsichord and accordion, it could also be suggested that the use of these instruments serve as tonal analogues to the sitar and harmonium (both of which are used extensively in music from the Indian subcontinent).
While difficult to categorize, Lacy vaguely describes THE CRY as a “jam opera”. In the opinion of this reviewer, AAJ readers who are familiar with the works of composer/saxophonist/bassoonist Lindsay Cooper will find many similarities (both musically and philosophically) between her recordings and THE CRY. Lacy’s score flawlessly combines song and improvisation, with a strong reliance on dance rhythms (waltz, rumba, tango, etc.) to provide momentum as well as textual emphasis (“It’s the dance aspect of the songs that makes the music swing” – Steve Lacy).
It is to Lacy’s credit that the recording successfully manages to capture the confrontational mood of the texts whilst maintaining a musically challenging and atmospherically charged environment without resorting to unnecessarily confrontational or foreboding elements. What could have been ponderous and overbearing is instead nimble and yet, aggressive.
Special commendation must be made for vocalist Irene Aebi who admirably meets the daunting challenge of transforming Nasrin’s text into true song. The words insist upon special and careful interpretation as various characters and moods emerge. Aebi’s performance ably adapts to the demands as severe emotional extremes are traversed, alternating from pure terror to raw passion and sensuality. In this respect, Aebi authenticates the premise behind THE CRY, infusing it with her own emotions while singing for all women.
As an addendum, it must be pointed out that THE CRY was realized with specific visual aspects for live performance, aspects that naturally cannot be translated by a purely audio medium (although the photos include with the 28 page booklet do help). One of these are the performers vests, which are adorned with fragments of the texts. The other is the haunting backdrop scenery featured on the front and rear covers of the insert booklet. These show simple paintings of a close-up of a woman’s eyes, in one instance gazing into the distance, in the other, looking directly into your own, but in both, conveying a weariness and sorrow that cannot be expressed in words or music. Perhaps this artwork serves as the best summary of what to anticipate from THE CRY.
Steve Lacy (music, soprano sax); Irene Aebi (voice); Tina Wrase (soprano and sopranino saxophones, bass clarinet); Petia Kaufman (harpsichord); Cathrin Pfeifer (accordion); Jean-Jacques Avenel (acoustic bass); Daniel ‘Topo’ Gioia (percussion); Wanda Savy (scenery and lighting); Pia Myrvold (dress)
NOTE: For more information, the interested reader is invited to refer to “My Conversation with Steve Lacy” by Fred Jung, AAJ April 1999)