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November Music 2015

Henning Bolte By

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November Music
s'Hertogenbosch
November 5-8, 2015

November Music is a yearly festival held in the medieval town of s'-Hertogenbosch in the southeast part of The Netherlands. s'-Hertogenbosch (also called Den Bosch) is the hometown of well-known Dutch painter Jheronimus Bosch (1450-1516). The festival is a festival of contemporary music, new music in the broadest sense: in addition to the core of contemporary composers' music, there is room for neighboring branches, such as experimental pop, sound art/sound installations, as well as jazz and free improvised music. This music is presented during five days in the first week of November. Concerts are spread throughout the city, with the transformed old rusk and cookie factory of Verkade at the center. The festival went along with the factory's transformation in 1993. It opened with a new opera of Dutch-Greek composer Calliope Tsoupaki "Mariken in de Tuin der Lusten (Mariken in the Garden of Earthly Delights)" based on the medieval miracle play "Mariken van Nieumeghen," and finished with a show of Finish hyper accordionist Kimmo Pohjonen who teamed up with famous Dutch all female Ragazze String Quartet for this occasion.

November Music has a special focus on young up-and-coming composers (this year: Florian Magnus Maier and Wilbert Bulsink), as well as arrived composers. There was a day with works of German composer Helmut Lachenmann, attended by the composer himself. Works of Kaija Saariaho, Arvo Pärt, Veljo Tormis, Claude Vivier and Dutch composer Jan van der Putte were performed by the Asko|Schönberg Ensemble and Nederlands Kammerkoor, under Estonian conductor Tonu Kaljuste. November Music zooms in on jazz and improvised music on Friday and Saturday, and offers its music route (kunstmuziekroute) on Sunday. This article focuses mainly on the jazz-related parts of this year's program, with a few side steps.

Near East

Oriental or Near Eastern Music is a regular at November Music. This edition presented three concerts in that vein. Two by American musicians of Mesopotamian origin and one by a Dutch high profile mixed ensemble of jazz musicians, musicians of contemporary composed music joined by a string player (kemenche) from Istanbul.

Amir El Saffar

Amir ElSaffar, American born musician of Iraqi origin, plays trumpet and the santoor, a traditional Mesopotanian hammered dulcimer played with soft or hard mallets. Together with Khaled El Hafez, a traditional oriental vocalist, and Belgian Tana String Quartet, a contemporary classical Western ensemble with much crossover expertise, El Saffar performed a newly composed piece in traditional vocabulary based on the mysticism of Ibn Arabi's 13th century poem "Turjuman Al-Ashwaaq." It was a beautiful performance and a good introduction to the later performance with his 'modern' Two Rivers ensemble. Strings are quite common accompanying instruments in oriental music. Here the string quartet had a more central role. The strings of Tana, however, did not fully adapt to Eastern modal music, but operated at the intersection of oriental modalism with its quartertones and Western tempered music, which induced a productive subtle tension and friction.

Later, in the evening, Amir El Saffar performed with his complete Two Rivers Ensemble. The name of the ensemble refers to the two great Mesopotamian rivers, Euphrates and Tigris, as well as the 'in-fluences,' the influx of oriental music and jazz. Its music has been released by the prestigious American PI Recording label (amongst others Henry Threadgill, Steve Coleman). The ensemble showed a line-up of four string instruments, double bass, buzuq, ûd, santoor and two woodwind instruments (trumpet and saxophone), Eastern percussion and drums. This kind of pairing can already be found in the Hard Bop era (think of Ahmed Abdul-Malik, the bassist of Thelonius Monk, Yusef Lateef, and many more), was continued during the free jazz era and found new approaches and forms in the 80s and 90s of the last century (think of CoDoNa, Keith Jarrett, Nana Simopoulos, Rabih Abou-Khalil, Jon Hassell, and many more).

Maybe it was the combination of the trumpet and Iraqi reference that drew extra attention and added extra nuance. Apparently it was perceived and received as an uncommon thing, triggering extra quality and sensation. The group indeed produced a massive, loud, and sometimes ponderous sound of its own, a sound that clearly delighted and ravished the audience. Maybe it was this massiveness with clarion blasts and screaming horns—from time to time it overwhelmed and buried ûd and/or buzuq—that appealed to the audience. It was counter-balanced when El Saffar switched to the santoor with its more delicate sound and its reference to the Al-Ashwaaq piece. Both elements together ensured that the performance was well received.

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