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John Harbison

Publisher: AMP

The Nine Rasas (2016)
Associated Music Publishers Inc
Works for 2-6 Players
Year Composed
20 Minutes
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Programme Note
John Harbison The Nine Rasas (2016)
Composer note:
I was reading about the court of Ibrahim Adil Shah II, in the Indian kingdom of Bihapur, near the end of the seventeenth century.

Ibrahim was a poet, lute player-singer, scholar, chess master, and patron of the arts. He invited many artists and craftsmen to join his court, where he led them in a quest to develop a theory of aesthetics which would reconcile ancient Greek theories of the humors of the body with the Sanskrit concept of the Nine Rasas. (Ibrahim wished to cross the Muslim divide between Shia and Sunni in exploring his own religious ideas, and became devoted to Hinduism, adopting for himself the Sanskrit title Jagatguru — World Teacher.)

The Nine Rasas and their application to the arts, especially music, became the theme of Ibrahim's reign. I discerned from further reading that the music performed in that court (often danced as well) was received very physically, often aided by trance, drugs, hallucination. It interested me especially that the Rasas were conceived as flavors, essences; and seem not to have been described, as in their inevitable appearance within our modern self-help movements, as moods, and emotions.

In my quest to write music of diverse musical characters, and as part of a continuing wayward interest in Hindu culture, I knew even before studying the concept of the Nine Rasas that I would write a piece with that title. I approach such a piece with no intention of a touristic borrowing from the musical speech of that culture, but rather with the pleasure of seizing a musical opportunity. In doing so I am aware of the tradition of long study toward the mastery of these "states" and the countering of them with their opposites or complements, nothing of which I claim to have undertaken, beyond the mirroring of such a practice in the sequences of my movements.

Deep into his dreamy pleasurable contemplation of aesthetic harmonies, lax about practical affairs of government, Ibrahim's sultanate was overrun by his tough rival Malik Ambar, his city burned, his libraries shredded.

It is amazing we still have some remains. The opportunity to write this piece came from Eran Egozy, my friend and now colleague at Music and Theatre Arts MIT, whose clarinet playing I have long admired, most recently as principal in the splendid Emmanuel Music Performance of my opera, The Great Gatsby, and whose early musical development I once had opportunity to harry and encourage. The three performers in the first performance: Eran, Noriko Herndon, and Yukiko Ueno, all longtime musical companions, have been happily in mind throughout work on The Nine Rasas.

— John Harbison

Part One:
I. Attraction/Desire (Tempo giusto)
II. Play/Mirth (Giocoso)
Part Two:
III. Fury/Obsession (Con fuoco)
IV. Regret/Remorse (Mesto)
Part Three:
V. Terror/Foreboding (Minaciosamente)
VI. Disgust/Self-Pity (Esagerato, manierato)
Part Four:
VII. Courage/Confidence (Risoluto)
VIII. Wonder/Amazement (Con anima)
Part Five:
IX. Tranquility/Repose (Comodo, lento)

  • Ensemble
    Radius Ensemble
    Radius Ensemble:
… the rasas emerged pretty clearly, from Egozy’s clarinet gamboling over the syncopations of his wife’s jazzy piano in “Play/Mirth” to Futagami’s soulful viola in “Regret/Remorse.” Bright piano chords marked the arrival of “Wonder/Amazement,” and then a four-note falling figure gave “Tranquility/Repose” the feeling of a journey’s end.
Jeffrey Gantz, Boston Globe,09/05/2016
Harbison’s writing throughout is, stylistically, of a decidedly Western variety and it relates, with a sort of general directness, to each specific theme. Thus, the clarinet and viola exchange playful, seductive figures in “Attraction/Desire”; gradually they join in a unison melody before splintering again. Echoes of jazz mark the whimsical second movement, “Play/Mirth.” Strict contrapuntal figures climaxing in piano clusters characterize “Fury/Obsession” while tremulous melodies predominate in “Terror/Foreboding” and mocking exaggeration scores “Disgust/Self-Pity.” And so on. The closing movement offers a songful clarinet melody at first accompanied by the viola playing harmonics; the roles are then switched and the Rasas end in a state of meditative suspense.

It’s a striking, at times haunting, overall emotionally direct piece and this first performance, played by the Egozy’s (clarinetist Eran and pianist Yukiko) and violist Noriko Futagami, ably captured its delicate energy. Futagami, in particular, navigated Harbison’s demanding viola writing with color and verve, though the whole trio was remarkable for the rhythmic precision and tonal richness of its playing. While the music’s theatrical elements should develop a harder edge over time — the more ominous affects might have, overall, glowered a bit more — Nine Rasas left a strong impression.
Jonathan Blumhofer,,09/05/2016
The harmonic idiom throughout the nine movements ranged between strongly tonal dissonance and dense chromaticism, but tonal harmony predominated, though always complex. The most lucid texture appeared in the final “Tranquility / Repose,” a calm G major that might well have been a tribute to Copland; one heard a cantilena of low clarinet with viola harmonics, and a repeated D bass that supported a concluding 6-4 chord—a lovely sound, and no other word for it.
Mark DeVoto, Boston Musical Intelligencer,08/05/2016
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