Crossing borders through music

The CrossSound music festival brings together an unusual mix of music from opposite sides of the globe

Posted: Thursday, August 31, 2000

The soloist glides her bow across the two silk strings of her erhu, drawing the music of China from across the sea. Behind her, a violinist echoes the motion. A mandolin joins in. Then from center stage, a delicate woman plucks notes like Japanese haiku from a 13-stringed koto.

This is truly world music, on a Southeast stage.

CrossSound 2000 brings together musicians and sounds from across the water, both the Inside Passage and the sea. There will be two Juneau performances of CrossSound music festival, at 7 p.m. Saturday at Northern Light United Church, and another performance a week later featuring different music and musicians at 7 p.m. Sept. 10 at Chapel by the Lake. This year organizers are including performances in Sitka also.

It's the second year for the festival, which commissions new musical compositions for unusual combinations of musicians.

"Normally you don't bring an accordion player from Italy, an erhu player from China and a composer from Germany and put them together," composer Martin Brody said.

Though the instruments and even the scales differ, the sounds blend together. When the music stops, the spoken languages are more difficult to blend. CrossSound producer Stefan Hakenberger lapses into German to count out measures. His wife, co-producer and fellow musician Jocelyn Clark, translates jokes and instructions into Chinese for Liu Jing and Japanese for Ishigure Masayo.

CrossSound is an exciting endeavor, partly because it is so different, said Roger Schmidt, who is coordinating the Sitka musicians.

"We're playing music that has been written by a Chinese women, who I'm sure has a very unique perspective, we're playing music by a Dutch composer, and we're going to be playing music with a koto player and an opera singer," Schmidt said.


Eastern strings: Liu Jing of Nanjing, China, plays the erhu, a two-string Chinese fiddle.


Schmidt will play his trombone in a duet with a Japanese koto player.

"The koto to me is a very natural-sounding instrument. It involves a lot of sounds of nature to me, rain, wind," Schmidt said. "As I practice it, I'm trying to make my trombone sound extremely peaceful sounding, extremely calm and very resonant and again to try to get as much into the organic sound. I'm trying to make it like one of those horns you might hear up in the mountains."

CrossSound is the first child of Jocelyn Clark and Stefan Hakenberg. Growing up in Juneau, Clark played the piano, clarinet and oboe with school groups and the Juneau Symphony. Then she spent time in Asia and learned to play the koto, a 13-stringed instrument that originated in Seventh century Japan where it was played by blind street musicians.

"By playing that, it sort of shut me out of being able to play with anybody here," said Clark, who performed solo for a while and regularly plays with ensembles in New York. But she wanted music she could play with the musicians she knew in Southeast, and she knew they wanted new music too.

Even players of more standard Western instruments sometimes can't find enough other players for standard musical ensembles in Southeast.

"There's a lot of good musicians here, but the groups that they can form aren't groups that exist in the genre of classic music," Clark said. "The idea is to write for them and then to bring in some people from out of town to make it more exciting."

The composers and musicians all come together for a week to work on the pieces before the performances, Schmidt said.

"It's a rare and wonderful opportunity when you can actually work with the composer that wrote the music for you," Schmidt said.

That also gives the composer a chance to revise the music after hearing how it actually sounds on the unusual instruments.

"The combination of non-Western instruments with Western, locals with foreigners, is challenging," said Brody, who described his piece as starting mechanical and developing into a more atmospheric, jazz-inflected sound.

"In Boston I don't know anyone who plays the euphonium, so it's not like I had a friend to call and say 'How does this work?'," he said.

Now that Brody's in Juneau, euphonium player Nathan Bastuscheck pointed out a few notes in the score that are difficult to achieve on the euphonium.

"I'm sure we'll make some little adjustments," Brody said.

The pieces Brody wrote for this year's and last year's festival are building up a repertoire of music for Southeast musicians. Next, Clark and Hakenberg want to put together a Southeast tour, taking the music to Ketchikan, Haines, Skagway, and other Southeast communities.

Though the composers and guest artists come from all over the world, CrossSound is still firmly rooted in Southeast Alaska. Schmidt said the surrounding wilderness influences the musicians and music, giving it a completely different sound than if the festival were held in New York City.

"When I play the trombone, I do think of mountains and I do think of the sea a lot," Schmidt said. "It would be hard for a musician not to be affected by the scenery."

In producing the festival, Clark discovered it is unique.

"It's not even the kind of thing you'd find in Seattle and New York," she said.

Unfortunately, it's also not the kind of thing that is easy to find funding for. Most grants are designed for standard instrumentations and Clark and Hakenberg have gone into debt to bring the $40,000 CrossSound together a second year.

"Everyone's working for way under market price, and everybody's doing it because they're really excited about the idea and want to come to Alaska," said Clark, who hopes it will become an annual event. "One of the composers told us he was doing it for a fifth his normal fee."

Tickets are $12 for adults and $10 for students and seniors.

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