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Finding a New Aural Aesthetic in Asia

From left: Historical Performance musicians Jude Ziliak, Jeremy Rhizor, Paul Dwyer, Kyle Miller, and Dan McCarthy rehearse in Myanmar wearing longyis (traditional Burmese attire).

 (Photo by Benjamin Sosland)

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For the third year, Historical Performance’s student ensemble, Juilliard415, collaborated with Yale’s Schola Cantorum to present a Baroque masterwork, this year Bach’s B-Minor Mass. In addition to April performances in New York City, New Haven, and Norfolk, Va., the combined ensembles took the show to Asia in June. Violinist Jeremy Rhizor wrote about the Japan, Singapore, and Myanmar legs of the trip. 

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Often it is said that music is a universal language. Juilliard 415, the primary performing ensemble of the Historical Performance program, teamed up with Yale’s Schola Cantorum and conductor Maasaki Suzuki to test that premise during our American and Asian tours.  

The B-Minor Mass is considered a monument of Western art music, and from the outset it felt like it would be revealing to perform it in both East and West, and, indeed, differences abounded. It appeared that Japanese audiences were more accustomed to the classical-music concert experience than those in the U.S., Singapore, or Myanmar. In Japan, audiences lined up hours before the concert time to get tickets and applauded for an impressive length of time when we were done. 

Their enthusiasm was made possible in part by the venues in which we played. Their sizes were proportionate to the size of our ensemble and appropriate for the experience of the music, and each hall was a beautiful welcoming space. In contrast, the hall in Singapore, though also filled with a largely enthusiastic audience, was a bit too large to communicate the music with the same type of immersive intensity. The concert in Singapore was our final performance of the Mass on the tour, however, so we were particularly passionate about the performance. 

The last part of the tour, to Myanmar, was added to the agenda later than the other countries, and it was quite a contrast to the rest of the tour. We didn’t play the Bach Mass there, and only a small group remained for that part of the trip: five instrumentalists from Juilliard, nine vocalists from Yale, and administrators from both.

But it was soon clear that Myanmar would be different in other ways as well. A few days before our arrival, we were informed that the concert venue changed, but the circumstances were unclear and baffling to us. And when we arrived at the airport, we were told there was a problem with our paperwork and made to sign waivers stating we wouldn’t hold the airline responsible if we were denied visas upon arrival. 

We flew over Myanmar full of questions, observing the golden domes of pagodas and large areas of undeveloped land through the airplane window. When we landed, we waited for our visas to be issued. After too much time passed with nothing to do, the vocalists conducted an impromptu rehearsal of the Bach cantata we were scheduled to perform (Christ lag in Todesbanden). We must have made an impression on the airport officials and our fellow travelers, but whether it was because of the wonderful singing or because we had the right paperwork after all, we were able to enter the country successfully and begin a unique adventure. 

The Burmese people are beautiful and the architecture is striking, but it was the sounds we heard that prompted some of the most moving and powerful experiences of the tour. The singing we heard at St. Mary’s, the Catholic cathedral where we played our concert, and Gitameit Music Center, the music school that organized our concert, was clear, intense, and remarkably in tune.

On our first day in Myanmar, we experienced the wonders of the famous Shwedagon Pagoda, which, with the dozens of prayer houses around it, is decorated with gold. We were also privileged to hear the powerful singing of the women who volunteer to sweep the grounds each day. I expected to see more gold when we visited Swe Taw Myat Pagoda, and I wasn’t disappointed, but what I hadn’t been prepared for was what I heard. As we entered the building, the clear voices of chanting women mixed with birdsong. The voices of the women and birds created an immersive, contemplative, and uplifting atmosphere like I have never experienced. It was an aural aesthetic that is uniquely their own. 

During another part of our journey, our tour guide told us that there is widespread interest in Korean popular culture in Myanmar. That interest seems to be prompting a cultural shift. The dramatic consequences of the meeting of two worlds were evident around us. Clothing choices, the use of electronics, and social habits all appeared to be transitioning.

I realized that Myanmar’s encounter with other cultures is causing the country to change, and this thought prompted me to consider our musical mission in the country. No change is purely good or evil, but because change can have profound and lasting consequences it can be worthwhile to evaluate one’s potential impact.

Some people on our trip viewed the Myanmar portion as a musical outreach mission to the people of a poor land with a tragic recent history. After any type of tragedy, a hopeful message is certainly welcome, and in some respects, we had something good to offer: music that has rich meaning for our culture and that represents something good about our cultural identity.

But we have to realize that different audiences are going to identify with what we have to offer in different ways. During our tour, it was the Japanese audiences, even more so than the American audiences we played for, who seemed to most clearly understand the language of Bach’s music. The audience we had in Myanmar, though clearly engaged and appreciative, had a different approach to what we did. I sensed that the formalized concert experience was foreign to them.

After our performance in Myanmar, a local TV station interviewed my classmate Jude Ziliak and asked him why he participated in this ceremony. The question caught him off guard as it would have me. The word ceremony suggested that our performance was based on an obvious and direct intention or purpose. The question challenged us to rethink our expectations. We realized that our concerts could not exist independent of a venue, and our venues could not exist independent of a cultural context.

In some respects, Western art music can communicate with any person and every culture. However, to be effective and positive communicators, we must be conscious that at the same time as we communicate through harmony, rhythm, and musical gesture, we also present aspects of our Western identity. If we want to communicate effectively and sensitively, we must be conscious of our cultural baggage and find creative ways to communicate the ideas we intend through our medium. Because even music can require translation.

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