Griot – musician and story-teller – Suso comes from a family that can trace its own origins back at least a thousand years, and Suso’s chosen instrument is the kora, “a 21 string harp/lute … invented by Suso’s ancestral grandfather, Jali Madi Waleen Suso 376 years ago.” Suso’s ancient-history-instrument, located close to him on his lap, like an extension of him, displayed Suso’s website address on its round, colorful big belly.
Beginning in the 1980s, Glass and Suso collaborated on several projects. Genet’s difficult, demanding, essentially un-actable and relentlessly fracturing play, The Screens, elicited from Glass and Suso unexpectedly warm and affirming music. The setting for Genet’s play – the wretchedness of the French Algerian War – calls for music that is both European and African, but to imagine Glass’ contribution as “the European one” and Suso’s as its African opposite is to misunderstand the creative relationship.
Though the “plot” of Genet’s play was about degradation and destruction, the Glass-Suso collaboration represented partnership, not opposites strapped together in some awkward harness. Glass and Suso elicited from each other the best and most welcoming of each other’s musical traditions and inheritances: they found the sounds that could be coupled up for dancing and story-telling. In spite of The Screens’ excremental, foetid nihilism – the real subject of the play – the Glass-Suso score celebrates the possibility of genuine creativity and the assumption that beginnings will continue to reveal themselves, pushing themselves up indomitably from within the bloodied soil of colonial enmeshment.
Individual songs, sometimes accompanied by some Suso’s Mandingo soul-old singing — half friendly observations, half weary, heavy memories – were individual moments of immersion in mood or drama, ambience or narrative. Some pieces – a total of eleven – were a quartet of piano (Glass), kora, percussion and cello; others were duets or even solos (though even solos almost always had some accompanying percussion, functioning alternately as shimmering halo and rustling petticoat).
Glass spoke a bit before each piece, occasionally just to announce its title. The program began with Mad Caidi’s Court, a rich quartet in which each instrument showed off all the others, a happy quintessence of international musical cultural fusions. In many pieces, the center held around Suso: he made his kora sparkle and sing, swing and scintillate, always maintaining a voice-like, organic earthiness. Suso’s solo, Rosegarden, for instance, was at once lyrical and earthy, an especially clear example of griot music as a very particular sound that connects closely and seamlessly to the transcendently universal.
Some pieces were specifically evocative. Orion, written for the 2004 Olympics in Greece, turned an athletes’ pre-competition march into an irrepressible desire to look up to the skies. Orbit, an elegant, intelligent and sensuous solo cello piece was beautifully played by Zeigler: without any sentimental anthropomorphizing, he made his cello compellingly voice-like in this piece as he also did in the later Orchard.
Spring Water Fall, described by Glass with endearing charm as “another ensemble piece,” described a spring rain so accurately that overlapping, interconnecting individual trajectories of rain drops could be experienced from up-sky origins all the way down to the identity dissolution of landing and arrival. The quartet of musicians were as much a unity of multiple parts as rain. Cloud Walk, a leisurely, waltzy haiku of nature description, was wise and sweet, pensive and graceful.
The last piece of the evening was, as Glass presented it, a “reprise” of the very first, Mad Caidi’s Court. Because we had traveled through ten different songs – ten different subjects, emphases, pre-occupations, purposes, voices and explorations – since the first Mad Caidi’s Court, the reprise was wonderful: it was like an invitation to celebrate what we’d experienced together, to be aware of ourselves as a 90-minute-long community created by music, by the intentionality of making and receiving.
Happy Birthday, Mr. Glass … happy for us!
Glass @ 80: Philip Glass & Foday Musa Suso (March 12, 2017)
World Music Institute and National Sawdust co-production
2016-17 World Music Institute Collaborations Series
National Sawdust, 80 North 6th Street, in Brooklyn
Running time: 90 minutes without an intermission