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Glass @ 80: Philip Glass & Foday Musa Suso with Jeffrey Zeigler and Asher Delerme

Peter Jurew By

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Philip Glass
National Sawdust
Brooklyn, NY
March 12, 2017

On their own, National Sawdust and World Music Institute are two smartly run non-profit cultural organizations that produce wonderful programming for smart, loyal audiences. Together, the two can be dynamic co-conspirators in the effort to stage the kind of riveting, genre-bending artistic expression that can transcend borders and begin to salve the collective wounds inflicted by our sorry times. Such was the case in December when National Sawdust and World Music Institute joined forces to co-present a wonderful Steve Reich birth-year celebration. And such was the case again March 12 with "Glass @ 80," a deeply moving evening of talk and music to honor Philip Glass' eighty productive years on the planet.

The event was originally billed as a concert performance by Glass and Foday Musa Suso, the great Gambian kora master and vocalist, featuring cellist Jeffrey Zeigler and percussionist Asher Delerme—and so it was. Then, to the delight of many, a special "opening act" was added—an informal conversation between Glass and his friend and fellow Tibet House board member, Robert Thurman, the noted Asia and Buddhist scholar. As might be expected of a chat between two highly evolved people who have been friends for many years, the conversation was rambling and informative, entertaining and enlightening all at once.

And then came the music—and what music. One musical theme of the evening was The Screens, Jean Genet's last and greatest stage work, first performed in Paris in 1966 and re-staged in 1989, directed by JoAnne Akalaitis with music composed collaboratively by Philip Glass and Foday Musa Suso. The evening also featured a generous selection of Suso's magical original music, to the great delight of kora fans and lovers of music from West Africa.

Background on The Screens: the play is set in the early 1960's in Algeria during the revolutionary struggle for independence from France, combining themes of colonial exploitation and national and racial identity. Akalaitis had originally asked Suso to work on the score in collaboration with a Western composer; Glass, her former husband, heard of the project and volunteered himself. He and Suso had known each other for some time, having traveled together in Africa in the mid-1980's as preparation for recording Glass' score for the film Powaqqatsi. That experience led to their close collaboration on The Screens, where the idea of combining Western and African musical traditions emerged from the themes within the play. Glass and Suso recorded the music and released Music From The Screens in 1992.

For anyone unfamiliar with Foday Musa Suso, this great master has been based in Chicago since 1977 but is originally from eastern Gambia in West Africa. He grew up a member of the Mandinka ethnic group, coming from a long line of griots, the oral historians and musicians of the Mandingo people who live in several West African nations and act as a living library of history, entertainment, and wisdom while playing and singing their songs. He is a direct descendent of the griot who invented the kora, the twenty-one stringed harp at the core of Mandingo music and the instrument with which Foday Musa Suso has become renowned worldwide.

Playing an electrified kora throughout the evening, on the opening composition, "The Mad Cadis Court," he had the instrument sounding like a cascade of diamonds shimmering down on Glass' repeating piano phrases and Zeigler's gliding cello. "Shadow Dance" was sung by Suso in the Mandingo language, lyrics loosely translating as, "if you have a chicken heart just stay home." Suso's rich tenor was sweetly supported by Zeigler's high cello. Another Suso original, "Rosegarden," featured kora and vocals sung in Mandingo. "Night On The Balcony" returned to Music From The Screens, a lovely, intense piano piece supported by Delerme's percussion.

One of the evening's many highlights came next: "Orion" is a work originally created for the 2004 Athens Olympiad by Glass in collaboration with Foday Musa Suso and others, including Ravi Shankar. The aim of the dynamic piece is to remind how the earths' various cultures share an awe and appreciation of the stars. Maintaining the extra- terrestrial theme, next came "Orbit," a piece written by Glass for solo cello and played brilliantly by Jeffrey Zeigler. "Spring Water Fall" began with Delerme's percussion sounding like a waterfall, into which the piano and kora dove deep with hypnotic repeating phrases—the cello singing brightly over the flowing sound-river. "The Orchard" followed, another magnificent piece from The Screens, this one featuring Zeigler's cello. A duet for kora and percussion came next on "Kenyalon," sparkling musical joy cascading from Suso's thumbs on fast kora runs.

"Cloud Walk," another Foday Musa Suso composition, brought back the full ensemble, led by Suso on vocals sung in English. Aptly named, the piece is comprised of gentle piano, floating cello, the grounding of a steady beat, and build in melodic beauty and intensity. Suso's "Voice Of Octaves" featured Foday and Asher Delerme on a pulsing, driving composition, with the percussionist getting in a short, exciting, punchy solo on floor tom as tension built and built. Suso used a chorus effect on his electrified kora to take the music to mesmerizing heights. With a reprise of "The Mad Cadis Court," the performance—by turns delightful, enchanting and overwhelming—concluded, the audience standing in appreciation for the music that had just been performed.
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