UCLA students have the world at their fingertips ““ or perhaps it’s more like they have the world at their ears.
Over the next few weeks, the Spring Festival of World Music and Jazz will once again flood the halls of the Schoenberg Music Building with the intoxicating sounds of the exotic, the comforting sounds of tradition, and every conceivable sound in between.
As the mind-numbing trauma of midterms fades away, students have the opportunity to recover and relax, thanks to the ethnomusicology department’s auditory passport to something fancy.
The eight-concert series kicks off tonight with performances by the Music of India Ensemble and the Music of the Balkans Ensemble, where these two groups will present the products of their months-long laboring for musical perfection.
Tonight’s performance of classical music from northern India will spotlight the students’ mastery of the fluidly echoing tabla drum and the resonantly wailing sitar.
“For an audience, (the music) is very fitting because, one way, it’s a very deep, spiritual form. They feel something within themselves,” said Abhiman Kaushal, co-director of the Music of India Ensemble, while on his way to a department meeting to hammer out last-minute details regarding the concert.
“At the same time, they also get the entertainment part of it because they also watch what a performer can do with their fingers. It’s all improvised on the spot,” he added.
In contrast to some of the other styles of music which will be presented in the concert series, Indian music is one of the older traditions taught by the ethnomusicology department. It blossomed at a time when written music was not an option and the test of true musicians was not how they could read music, but how well they could remember their art and innovate new sounds. Now, through skill and diligence, the music continues to be performed traditionally.
“We don’t play with music written down in front of us,” Kaushal said. “It’s all memorized. It’s an older tradition. So we don’t have any music stands in front of us. For an hour and 20 minutes, what everybody is playing is all memorized and on-the-spot.”
Joining the Indian ensemble in the night’s repertoire is the Music of the Balkans Ensemble, headed by married duo Ivan Varimezov and Tzvetanka Varimezova. He is the leader of the Bulgarian instrumental band while she heads the traditionally all-female chorus.
“You have the beautiful mix of East and West,” said ethnomusicology student Katharina Day, a choral singer in the Balkan ensemble. “Bulgaria was occupied for the longest time by the Turks so you have these Turkish, Middle Eastern modes and scales with the more Western classical arrangements with harmonies and different chords. It’s just an amazing thing to listen to.”
Day’s remarks about the choir had to come short and fast. The choir’s last rehearsal before the show was fraught with tension, anxiety and excitement as Varimezova, the co-director of the Balkans ensemble, sang and clapped out beats for her company of singers.
Varimezova, a skilled conductor and choral leader since her days in Bulgaria, has been teaching at UCLA since 2001. Through experience, she knows full well how nervous performers can get before show time.
“I had to push them,” Varimezova said, taking a brief respite from practice before fluttering off to yet another rehearsal. “You have to trust me. If I believe in your job, in what you’re doing right now, of course! We can do it. I have to encourage them. And we did it. And we’re so happy.”
The music being performed by the Balkan ensemble can be split into two main categories, said Timothy Rice, associate dean of academic affairs and a performer in the band.
“The women have a very beautiful way of producing their voices in a very unusual way, and they sing very attractive songs which are simultaneously familiar but a little bit exotic,” Rice said.
“Then the instrumental ensemble uses electric guitar and electric bass and a drum set so it sounds very modern, actually. So what we’re effectively performing is a kind of modern version of music of Bulgaria which has all these traditional elements in it, but over time has been modernized so that young people and others in Bulgaria can still appreciate the music. It doesn’t sound really old-fashioned.”
When deciding whether a night of Indian and Bulgarian music is for you, one should consider the make-up of the Spring Festival. Nearly every ensemble scheduled to perform this year is comprised almost entirely of students, with a stray professor or community volunteer peppering the stage to help out.
“In almost every ensemble, they take beginners and they teach them what they need to know within a year. Students who’ve never played a particular kind of music are up on stage playing,” Rice said. “For many students, that’s really fun. I had one student tell me one time when they were in the Balkan music ensemble that they hadn’t been in a concert since they were in the fifth grade. I think it’s a really nice creative outlet. It’s one way the ethnomusicology department reaches out to the rest of the campus.”
The tradition of the Spring Festival is one that goes back to the ’60s, and it is one that continues to be preserved ““ although this year, it is being preserved with a little something extra. This year, the school’s various jazz ensembles will be performing as well, closing the festival as the last two concerts in the series.
“We’ve never billed them as part of the festival, which is unfortunate because they are a very integral part of our department,” said Jacqueline Cogdell DjeDje, chair of the ethnomusicology department. This decision to make jazz a part of the festival is one that, according to DjeDje, makes the concert series “more inclusive rather than making it seem as if jazz is there, world music over there. I think we’re all one.”
In the end, it doesn’t really matter if you’re an aficionado of the sitar or a connoisseur of the gaida (a Bulgarian bag pipe), if you know everything there is to know about the music of the Balkans or your only knowledge of Indian music stems from a vague familiarity with Bollywood.
“In the world today where everything is just so electronic and just somewhat popular-oriented … you hear this and it gives you another feeling for what’s happening in other parts of the world,” DjeDje said.