Out of Africa for solo guitar (2008)
I. Call at Sunrise
II. Morning Dance
IV. Evening Dance
V. Cradle Song
Duration: ca. 21'
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First Performance: Alan Thomas, National Portrait Gallery, London 2008
Alan Thomas: A World of Music (forthcoming)
Denis Azabagic: Out of Africa and Around the World (Cedille Records)
"If I know a song of Africa, of the Giraffe, and
the African new moon lying on her back, of the ploughs in the fields, and the
sweaty faces of the coffee-pickers, does Africa know a song of me?"
Blixen, Out of Africa]
It was in this spirit of Karen Blixen's classic book (and subsequent beautifully
realised film) that I wanted to use the title "Out of Africa" for
this suite for solo guitar. I'm a big fan of many of the different strands
of African music-making, but was afraid of copying or appropriating African
music in a sort of ethno-tourist way. This is not African music, but rather
music which is inspired by my distilled memories of particular African styles
of singing, for example, or the use of additive rhythms, irregular metric
groupings and pentatonic or pandiatonic scales. I also try to pay homage to
two great plucked-string instruments of the African continent: the kora (in
mvt. 2) and the oud (mvt. 3). Needless to say, these pieces barely scratch
the surface of the musical traditions and languages of Africa, but they do
attempt to bring at least a bit of this rich heritage under the guitarist's
The suite consists of five different movements, which are played in two
different groups without pause (movements 1-2 and movements 3-5). To give
the different pieces a sense of unity and direction, I decided to programmatically
chart the course of a day, from sunrise to sleep. The music's "day"
begins with a "Call at Sunrise", a melody presented in canon which
gradually develops into a vibrant ostinato and vocalic melody.
The second movement, "Morning Dance", is again built on an ostinato
bass line, and has an exuberance and feel typical of South African popular
music. By using cross-string scalar patterns (in which notes ring over each
other in what guitarists call campanella), I tried to evoke the sound
of the kora. Though this instrument comes from a different part of Africa,
the cross-breeding of different musical traditions is precisely what I was
aiming for in this piece.
The heat of mid-day is depicted in "Zenith", which draws on North
African/Arabic music in its central and final sections. Particularly in the
middle section, the sound of the oud (arguably the guitar's great-great grandfather)
is evoked, including microtonal inflections facilitated by de-tuning the guitar's
third string. The final section builds to a climax via an exploration of the
guitar as a percussion instrument. A transition then leads to the fourth movement,
"Evening Dance", which in turn transforms at its end into the final
movement, "Cradle Song". This gentle lullaby brings the day to a
serene close, drawing on musical material from the first movement to create
a cyclical return to the next morning.
"The standout work of the night was "Out of Africa", a charming suite by Atlanta-born composer Alan Thomas. Inspired by the book by Karen Blixen and its film version, the five-movement work displayed a wide range of winning personalities.
It began with an easy, free-flowing section that recalled the American finger-picking style of Leo Kottke. This was followed by an amazing re-examination of how a guitar can be played because it called for Azabagic to beat out a percussion line on the body of his guitar while playing a melody with just his left hand on the fret board. It was stunning stuff to see and hear. And the piece became even more interesting from there." [Fort Worth Star-Telegram]
Thomas' "Out of Africa" suite was perhaps the highlight of the entire evening.
Inspired by Karen von Blixen's best-seller, Thomas has used different strands
of African music to paint a picture of rolling meadows, wide veldts and a pace
of life untouched by time. Azabagic recreated that magic in 'Call at Sunrise',
where he developed the canon into a beautiful vocal melody. Morning Dance was
a robust affair, with cross-rhythms and drumming. Evening Dance has an upbeat,
earworm melody that stays with you, long after. Cradle Song is a tender, simple
yet beautiful melody that gently drifted away into the cosmos." ["The Hindu"
"Perhaps the most directly appealing work on the program came next, a set of five character pieces titled "Out of Africa", by American composer Alan Thomas (b. 1967) – “Call at Sunrise,” “Morning Dance,” “Zenith,” “Evening Dance,” “Cradle Song.” The opening "Call" makes use of very diatonic/folkish harmonies with plagal emphases recalling recent American pop; the "Dance" is more jazzy with irregular meters; "Zenith" goes farther afield, with the guitar detuned so that it recalled, in the monophonic writing, the idiom of the oud and North Africa. The “Cradle Song” boasts an exceptional subtle conclusion – the melody comes to its end, the accompanying figure continues to repeat, until it is so quiet that it can no longer be heard. Beautifully and movingly done." [The Classical Voice of North Carolina journal]
"Alan Thomas's "Out of Africa" was utterly transfixing." [Theatre Jones]