Payton MacDonald: Works for Tabla and Percussion
Atma Classique

The idea of marrying ancient tabla drumming traditions to classical music conventions isn't the easiest of sells but American composer and percussionist Payton MacDonald, who issued 2004's Super Marimba and plays in the new music ensemble Alarm Will Sound, makes a compelling case for the concept. MacDonald's passion for the instrument runs deep: he's studied tabla with Bob Becker (NEXUS co-founder and, since 1973, an integral member of Steve Reich's groups) and with his guru Pandit Sharda Sahai, and in 2004 received a grant from the American Institute of Indian Studies for further study in India. The seed for this project was sown when the teen-age MacDonald discovered, at his local Idaho public library, recordings of classical Hindustani music by artists like Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan; the recording further advanced toward fruition when Montreal musician Shawn Mativetsky (also a Pandit Sharda Sahai disciple), seeking new music for tabla, contacted MacDonald. Since the time of that initial overture, MacDonald has composed seven pieces for Mativetsky.

Admittedly, the Western classical connection largely stems from the deployment of titles like Concerto for tabla and percussion quartet no. 1; departing from standard three-movement concerto form, the album's pieces are all single-movement solo tabla settings or pairings between tabla and percussion quartet. Having said that, the tabla and quartet do adopt roles analogous to those of a soloist and orchestra in a standard concerto setting. During the three concerti, which adhere to the format of a classical Benares-style tabla solo, the percussionists drop out at times, granting Mativetsky a full spotlight, while, at others, join in to lend support and add colour; his playing is variously heard against a sparkling wonderland of chimes, bells, cymbals, and vibes, and that he brings a virtuosic command of his instrument to the material hardly surprises. In the first concerto, the solo tabla alternates with ensemble sections; in the second, all five musicians participate in an extended coda, while the third focuses on a theme-and-variation approach. Though the three solo settings (Alap, Jor, Jhala) may sound improvised, remarkably, they're entirely through-composed.

The target audience for tabla works is presumably small but probably passionate, so Indian music aficionados hungry for new and imaginative music should definitely seek it out; mention should be made too of MacDonald's liner notes which provide an enlightening overview of tabla repertoire conventions and allow one to gain a significantly greater appreciation for the recorded material.

August 2007