The idea of crafting a classical/jazz opera from an ancient Egyptian funerary papyrus would probably be too much for most ordinary mortals to contemplate. But this kind of thing isn't at all unexpected for Dave Soldier, whose dedication to unusual and surprising projects has defined his long avocation in music. (His primary calling is as a professor of neurology at Columbia, where he is known as Dave Sulzer.) He first studied composition with Roscoe Mitchell as an undergraduate, and eventually launched a series of ventures which have included: assembling improvising orchestras made up solely of elephants; a string quartet fusing classical music with rhythm & blues and punk rock; and field recordings from around the world, including mountain villages in Guatemala and Thailand. Anyone who expresses equal admiration for Henry Threadgill, Haydn and Guided by Voices is going to be willing to try just about anything. And for listeners in a similarly adventurous spirit, this particular record has plenty to offer.
The text for Soldier's opera, "Amduat" (literally: "Book of What is in the Netherworld") is widely found in the tombs of many ancient Egyptian rulers. It describes the daily descent of the sun god to the underworld, the ensuing struggle with the forces of chaos, and the god's eventual rebirth at dawn. The journey is divided into twelve one-hour segments, with the eighth hour consisting of the god's travel by boat with the help of an underworldly choir, with several encounters with other deities along the way. Soldier consulted UC Berkeley Egyptologist Rita Lucarelli for assistance with the project, and the story itself is fascinating, providing rich material for operatic treatment. Soldier also explains in the liner notes that Amduat is actually a "sound score," meaning that while the music isn't notated, there are "specific sounds" detailed in the text which offer clues for how the music should be performed. Even so, it's definitely fair to say that this is really Soldier's composition, with the papyrus itself a source of subject matter and inspiration.
And as for the music: well, one would expect it to be rather strange and unsettling, as any journey to the world below should undoubtedly be. But that doesn't prevent it from being both stimulating and musically engaging. The opera's opening, "Mistress Prayer," is in the form of an aria (sung powerfully by mezzo-soprano Sahoko Sato Timpone). But once a brief rhythmic detour into a New Orleans second-line section emerges, one quickly gets a glimpse of how aggressively Soldier is going to be juxtaposing diverse musical traditions throughout the recording. Strings and horns are both essential to this task, so that many of the segments sound like jazz-influenced chamber music, albeit with a healthy portion of Soldier's electronics (including recordings of numerous animals; cats understandably are featured prominently), and enough interesting percussion to add variety throughout.
Of the many terrific musicians featured on the record, the outsized presence from the jazz world is without question Marshall Allen, who is assigned the role of the sun god himself: Sun Ra. Who else could do the part justice, after all, but the fabled sideman of the original Jazz Egyptologist himself, Sonny Blount? Now in his early nineties, Allen continues to amaze with his cosmically-inspired alto playing, and his contributions throughout the opera support the music's navigation between the spheres of classical and jazz. "Ra Dances with Rams" is exemplary in this regard: one of the highlights of the program, it is a riveting piece, with frenetic strings complementing Allen's squeals and the rest of the horns in a furious, delightful romp. Special mention must also be made of Rebecca Cherry, whose violin on "Netherworld Cavern" and "Tomb of the Gods" adds just the right measure of intrigue and ethereal beauty, and experimental guitarist Nick Millevoi, who brings the necessary otherworldly edge to the ferocious "Knives at War," along with valuable texture to help establish the mood on a number of other pieces on the record.
The Eighth Hour of Amduat offers what is in essence a sound collage of diverse musical modes, themes, and stylistic approaches, making for listening that is both challenging and rewarding. It won't be to everyone's liking, to be sure: jazz fans less willing to push the envelope of the music into other traditions will probably blanch at some of Soldier's more audacious choices. But for those willing to meet him halfway, their effort will be repaid handsomely.
Mistress Prayer; Satisfying Her Lord & Mysterious Caverns; Tower’s
Prayer; Netherworld Cavern; Tomb Of The Gods Cavern; Baracolle;
Knives At War; Mourning And She Who Annihilates The Ignorant
Caverns; Ra Calls The Rams; Envelopes Her Images & Uniting Darkness
Caverns; Removing Her Ba-Souls Cavern; Ra Dances With Rams; Great
Of Torches Cavern; Dawn March.
Dave Soldier: composer, water bowls, electronics; Sahoko Sato
Timpone: mezzosoprano vocals; Marshall Allen: alto saxophone,
electronic valve instrument (EVI); Rebecca Cherry, Akhmed Manedov,
Juana Pinilla Paez: violin; Olivia Gusmano: viola; Carolina Diazgronados:
cello; Dani Bash: harp; Dan Blacksberg: trombone; Nick Millevoi: guitar;
Michael Winograd: clarinet; Enrique Rivera-Matos: tuba; Anthony di
Bartolo, Thomas Kolakowski: percussion; Chace Simmonds-Frith,
Natasha Thweatt, Sophie Laruelle, Xioming Tian, Eugene Sirotkine, Alicia
Waller, Melinda Learnard: choir; Rita Lucarelli: translator.
All About Jazz has been a pillar of jazz since 1995, championing it as an art form and, more importantly, supporting the musicians who create it. Our enduring commitment has made "AAJ" one of the most culturally important websites of its kind, read by hundreds of thousands of fans, musicians and industry figures every month.
WE NEED YOUR HELP
To expand our coverage even further and develop new means to foster jazz discovery and connectivity we need your help. You can become a sustaining member for a modest $20 and in return, we'll immediately hide those pesky ads plus provide access to future articles for a full year. This winning combination will vastly improve your AAJ experience and allow us to vigorously build on the pioneering work we first started in 1995. So enjoy an ad-free AAJ experience and help us remain a positive beacon for jazz by making a donation today.