28 May 2018

Music: a transcendent form of communication

From Upbeat, 1:00 pm on 28 May 2018

We’re always hearing the superficial comment that Music is an international language, which can cross divides between cultures, countries and identities.

But Wellington composer Lucien Johnson has set out to show that music is more of a transcendent form of communication.

Lucien Johnson

Lucien Johnson Photo: supplied

The jazz saxophonist has recently completed his Doctor of Musical Arts in composition at the New Zealand School of Music.

His research examines Ethio-Jazz and explores the ways in which music can travel and be adopted by musicians in search of their own sense of identity and individuality.

Ethio-jazz was a style that grew out of the cross fertilisation of western funk and jazz with traditional Ethiopian music.

It was created by jazz artist Mulatu Astatke, who travelled a lot as a young man and fused the music styles he came across with his homeland’s sound.

He used traditional Ethiopian instruments like the Krar – five or six stringed bowl shaped instrument – tuned to a pentatonic scale.

“They have slightly unusual tunings and their unusual formulations of scales … sound quite different to our western ears,” Lucien says.

A boy playing a Krar

A boy playing a Krar Photo: wikicommons

Lucien’s interest in Ethio-Jazz began in the early 2000s when he stumbled across the Ethiopian sax player Getatchew Mekuria and was struck by his tonality and approach.

That got Lucien thinking about composition and what it takes to be a modern composer. This music, he says, held a “secret key” to answering that question.

“I don’t think we can ignore the rest of the world in composition,” he says. “It’s our duty to open our ears up and find out about as many kinds of music as possible.”

Traveling and living abroad in places like India, Haiti, Africa, Japan, China and South America helped Lucien understand that it’s about more than just replication.

“The idea of just making replicas of other cultures’ music is problematic,” he says. “I wanted to use the information I had researched and let my imagination deal with it.”

He also drew inspiration from New Zealand composers Jack Body and John Psathas, who both gained inspiration from different cultures.

“For me it’s a logical thing to do … it’s a living in the 21st century thing to do,” Lucien says.