Each generation of composers develops its own oppressive dogma; today, it’s the tyranny of infinite possibility. Freed of conventions or expectations, each creator sits down to that most appalling of artistic conditions: the blank page. Many composers deal with the anxiety of freedom by relying on recombinant cultural clichés, mixing up musical postcards from assorted continents, reordering them with naïve delight. The technique is hardly new, as this fall’s flood of Bernstein and regular supplies of Mahler and Stravinsky remind us. But shuffling global styles has become the comfortable default, the 21st-century version of noodling in C major.
Douglas J. Cuomo’s new chamber opera, Arjuna’s Dilemma, applies that mix-and-match approach to an episode from the Bhagavad Gita. The result, unveiled at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last week, is a pile of half-realized good ideas. The god Krishna takes many forms, and Cuomo multiplies his voice into a farrago of manifestations: Indian singing by the marvelous Humayun Khan, a five-woman choir, the screechy falsetto and silent writhing of performance artist John Kelly, the muscular filigree of Bob Franceschini’s tenor sax, and the eloquent drumming of tabla player Badal Roy. Each gets a crack at persuading the hesitant Arjuna to go into battle, and each is separately compelling, but the stilted sequence of solos has the feel of a cross-cultural variety show.
Cuomo has a talent for tapping the expressive powers of performers from around the world and drawing creative energy from their collaborations—a facility that serves him well in his career as a TV composer (he wrote the fizzy salsa theme for Sex and the City). It’s a technique he shares with his fellow composer Osvaldo Golijov; the cellist Yo-Yo Ma; and the enlightened pop music executive Miles Copeland, who hosted last week’s PBS special Dissonance and Harmony: Arabic Music Goes West. Prodded by a Defense Department program to stimulate some pro-American sentiment in the Arab world, Copeland rounded up musicians from Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Lebanon, and brought them to Los Angeles to spend time marinating in the city’s multicultural musical stew.
The results were fascinatingly uneven. Gustavo Santaolalla, the Argentine composer of Brokeback Mountain, took out his guitar and slipped effortlessly into sync with the Jordanian pianist and accordionist Tareq Al Nassar. On the other hand, an attempt to fuse Lebanese and Mexican hip-hop simply fizzled. The lessons of that experience are profound but unclear: Navigating today’s migratory music world means developing management skills sophisticated enough to see that while different musical traditions might not fit naturally together, some individual temperaments do.
Copeland’s gathering was a one-shot deal, but Cuomo belongs to a loose fellowship of like-minded New York musicians that includes the cellist Maya Beiser, who turns each recital into a full-immersion semi-autobiographical multicultural experience. A couple of weeks ago at Zankel Hall, she inaugurated her latest program, “Provenance,” which derives from the mixture of Arab, Jewish, and classical European music that she heard growing up in Israel and has bound together with a glue of moody digital sounds. Beiser recruited several Israelis (Simon Shaheen, Raz Mesinai, and Tamar Muskal), an Egyptian (Hamza El Din), an Armenian (Djivan Gasparian), an Iranian (Kayhan Kalhor), and a couple of Americans (Cuomo and Evan Ziporyn) to compose scores that pulsate with wistful spirituality. Gasparian wrote the beautiful “Memories,” in which the cello keens quietly against a low digital drone, gradually gathering force for a beautiful, full-throated lament. Cuomo, the perfect hybridizer, contributed “Only Breath,” a ten-minute meditative soliloquy for cello and electronics that begins with a recorded recitation of poetry by Rumi in the original Persian, with an accompaniment of heavy breathing. Soon, a low-end cello rumble evolves into a slow, declamatory solo, while electronic echoes of Beyser’s playing pile up in digital counterpoint, like one person praying in the company of her alter egos.
“Provenance” is the highbrow version of Copeland’s PBS show, a sensitive but troubling fusion of Middle Eastern sounds. The drama of “Dissonance and Harmony” comes from the jangle of assorted personalities airlifted to L.A.; Beiser’s program forms a composite portrait of her. But both have the same paradoxical aspiration: to elide differences by juxtaposing them, to distill the excitement of cultural variety into a universal—or at least pan-Semitic—sameness.