Andrea Clearfield's ambitiously sprawling Tse Go La can be discussed on many levels, and it should be. It's the latest fruit of the composer's musical field trips to Tibet and by far the most substantial: a fantastic amalgam of cross-cultural influences.
But the first thing to say about Tse Go La is that it is, for all of its exoticism, a beautifully constructed and deeply satisfying work of art.
The Mendelssohn Club concert sandwiched Clearfield's piece between music that seemed disparate but actually shed an interesting light on her creative process. The main event was preceded by audience participation Buddhist chanting, led by the venerable Losang Samten. Then, a group of Tibetan dancers and singers in native garb (from the Tibetan Society of Philadelphia) performed.
Although the Tibetans went on about half again as long as needed, and although some of the canned music sounded oddly like the Asian pop you sometimes hear piped in at Vietnamese restaurants, it all served to put the listeners in a context to appreciate the Tibetan elements in Clearfield's music.
Last living court singer
In her previous trips to Tibet— specifically to the historic capital, Lo Monthang— Clearfield and the anthropologist and ethnomusicologist Katey Blumenthal engaged in vital field work, including recording the last living royal court singer, Tashi Tsering. They also accumulated a cache of native instruments, mostly in the percussion family but also including conch shells and "singing bowls."
Tse Go La integrates all of this into a six-section design, with Tsering's original melodies incorporated into the score. Recordings made in Tibet are played along with the live musicians. Buddhist chanting serves as the spiritual underpinning of the larger conception of the piece.
This whole effect is achieved with remarkable lucidity, a virtue that would have been difficult to appreciate without the excellent work of conductor Alan Harler, leading an enormous ensemble of Mendelssohn Club singers and the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia.
And yet, ultimately Clearfield's Eurocentric training is at the core of Tse Go La. If this quality wasn't immediately apparent as the spectacle of the performance took place, hearing Gabriel Fauré's much loved Requiem, after an intermission, made the connection clear.
Although the specific institutional basis for Tse Go La is obviously different from the Roman Catholic mass used by Fauré, both works are in a tradition of religiously oriented, life-cycle infused musical works, including liturgical music that includes not only Requiems, but all varieties of the Mass, and even such semi-operatic works as the Bach Passions.
Fauré's Requiem omits the Dies Irae, which plays such a prominent part in other great versions of the Mass— notably Verdi's, in which it's designed to invoke the terror of the apocalypse. Fauré, ironically in this context, envisions an almost Buddhist view of spirituality, emphasizing the journeys of life rather than the destinations. The ethereal long-lined polyphony of his music seems to be echoed in Clearfield's work.
Another Gallic connection can be found in Clearfield's music as well: French composers, it could be argued, have been at the forefront of appreciating and incorporating Asian music, beginning with Debussy in the late 19th Century, and continuing with the gamelan-infused works of Messiaen.
Clearfield's new work is rich enough to invoke all kinds of associations, but it's finally a powerful sum of all of its delightful parts. One thing for sure: The complexity and allure of Tse Go La cries out for more performances.