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July/August 1999

Steve Lacy +6
The Cry
Soul Note

This "jam opera", to use Lacy's term, is one of the most demanding undertakings of a risk-strewn career. It is based on the haunting, harrowing poetry of exiled Bangladesh poet, Taslima Nasrin, who, like Salman Rushdie, lives under threats of death issued by Moslem fundamentalists offended by her "blasphemous" writings. Lacy and Nasrin were both artists in residence for a year in Berlin at the behest of the German government, whose elaborate (and very necessary) security measures made Nasrin a virtual house prisoner. Lacy was moved to formulate a piece involving Nasrin's texts, Irene Aebi's vocals, and music by a unique sextet featuring Tina Wrase, soprano, sopranino, and bass clarinet, Petia Kaufman, harpsichord, Cathrin Pfeifer, accordion, Jean-Jacques Avenael, bass, and Daniel Gioia, percussion. The initial performance also featured Nasrin's recitals of her poems in the original Bengali, her presence necessitating bulletproof glass shields and other logistical problems, but we are told she suffered stagefright (who wouldn't). If Nasrin isn't present for the CD version, her uncompromising feminist vision is.

Musically, The Cry evokes the Brecht-Weill of The Three Penny Opera in various ways. The political nature of the texts is comparable, though it should be noted that Nasrin's poems have to do with male/female oppression on a direct personal level that isn't concerned with the politics of economics. Aebi's vocals are dramatic and declamatory, much like the "Three Penny" singers, and the music often has a similar feeling of wounded folksong. It takes several tracks to move far from the basic motif, and in this and other ways Lacy creates a constricted feeling in keeping with the themes of the texts. But within narrowly defined parameters, the group achieves a great deal; the ensemble sound is brilliant and kaleidoscopic, and every track leaves room for instrumental exposition that gives everyone a chance to shine, and it need hardly be said that these are all excellent players.

This was not conceived as comfortable music and it isn't. But it succeeds in everything it sets out to do, and looking at some of life's disagreeable truths is part of that. The Cry is an impressive accomplishment by all concerned.

Originally published in July/August 1999
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