World music. “Music without boundaries.” Or the dreaded phrase, “cross-over.”
Critics, composers, publicists and everyone else in the music world roll their eyes when it comes to describing how to blend musical styles.
For Shirish Korde, it’s someone else’s problem.
“For me the larger dialogue would have to do with the exoticism of African styles, or something like that,” the composer says. “The other dialogue is usually between white people. I doesn’t occur when a person is used to speaking many languages.”
Korde was born in Uganda to Indian parents. He spent his youth in East Africa, and came to the United States in 1965. He studied jazz and composition in Boston, ethnomusicology at Brown University, and is now music department chair at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester.
His music incorporates styles—many styles. There are significant concertos, for violin, guitar and cello. Song cycles on texts by Neruda, Tagore and Angelou. Ambitious vocal stagings that are part theater, part opera—like his “Phoolan Devi: The Bandit Queen,” premiered in 2010 by Boston Musica Viva.
It’s not unusual for Korde music’s to include wind section, strings, tabla and sitar. It’s all his voice—not some dilettantish borrowing from foreign sources. “It has to do with being multilingual,” he says. “I speak Hindu, and I’m more fluent in English. My training is in western music, but I’ve also studied Asian musics. I try not just to borrow other cultures.”
Improvisation—or the lack of improvisatory training in classical musicians—is a concern for Korde. “More and more musicians are capable of it, but not all,” he says. “A group like Brooklyn Rider—those guys are informed from playing with Iranian musicians and others.”
Korde’s relationship with cellist Jan Müller-Szeraws is an example of how improvisation is permeating western music.
“Jan is an interesting player,” Korde says. “He’s a wonderful musician, and he understands the nuances. He can make it sound improvised, but he doesn’t improvise himself.
“I don’t think we are that far from incorporating improvisation into all music conservatory training,” he says. “We have musicians coming from the east and west now. It’s still hard though; for so many players I have to write out improvised solo parts.”
Korde composes prolifically, and has developed an elevated perspective regarding the process of world premieres—he’s had plenty, so he should know. A recent success with “Lalit,” his cello concert for Müller-Szeraws that the Richmond Symphony premiered this February, was just one in a range of experiences he’s had with orchestras.
“If they agree that you can bring your own soloist, then you’re much better off,” he says. “Like in Richmond. I wrote a piece for violin and tabla that was premiered in New Zealand. The violinist came from here, but they said they had a tabla player. But he had never played with an orchestra, and didn’t read music. That didn’t go well.
“I want to be like Duke Ellington. Or Berio and Cathy Berberian. Boulez and the Intercontemporain musicians,” he says. “My heroes are the composers that know their players well.”