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Jessika Kenney & Friends: Byways to Transporting Music 

Jessika Kenney & Friends: Byways to Transporting Music 

: Photo by Photo by Sarah Barrick.

Ways to make a killing playing “world music” are well trodden. Whack together two styles and add a high-profile Westerner in the mix; that’s not what Kenney and Kang do.

By Peter Monaghan

Ways to make a killing playing “world music” are well trodden, these days. Whack together one style with another, ideally with a high-profile Westerner in the mix, and off you go (to recording studios in New York or Paris, to which the “world” readily commercially retracts).

Well, Jessika Kenney and Eyvind Kang don’t take those roads. Their responses to the musical traditions of far-flung regions and cultures are informed not only by what they hear, but most powerfully by what resonates within.

It would be hard to think of two Seattle-based performers who have more persistently and inspiringly responded in that way. Kang’s early recordings, bursting with inspiration from jazz, classical music, and much else, were as convincingly idiosyncratic, and certainly as genre obliterating, as anything produced in American music of the late 20th century. In recent years, he has advanced his vision into nuanced, subtle, almost esoteric realms.

In a disciplined, spiritual quest, witnessed in sublime albums and performances, his companion has frequently been Jessika Kenney, a vocalist of haunting timbral hues who has undertaken an extensive study of Persian, Indonesian, and other musical traditions.

Their performance at Cornish College of the Arts on April 7th will exhibit some of the riveting reaches of their art. Kenney has been studying singing for Javanese gamelan since 1996. The music for the concert is inspired by a 19th century Javanese retelling of the meeting of the great 12th-century Persian poet and mystic Jelaluddin Rumi and the mysterious sage Shams of Tabriz.

Those sources might suggest recondite, academic results, but that is far, far removed from what audience members hear when Kenney and Kang perform. Their investigations, training, and experimentation have resulted in music of great immediacy. It is as captivating and accessible to a Western audience as, say, early music of the Western tradition: chants, ear-opening timbres, and rollicking secular dance music.

Since 2004, Kenney has studied Persian music traditions with Ostad Hossein Omoumi, a renowned musician and pedagogue who originally trained in architecture, but opted for the music that he had performed since his childhood. His acclaimed playing of the traditional Iranian reed flute, the ney, has taken him to many countries. Now a professor of Persian performing arts at the University of California, Irvine, he went from the Iranian national conservatory in Tehran to teaching positions at the Sorbonne, UCLA, and the University of Washington. Kenney began to perform and then tour with his ensemble in 2007.

Simultaneously, she studied with many teachers in Indonesia and the U.S. including Nyi Supadmi for sindhenan (traditional singing of Javanese gamelan music) and Euis Komariah for Sundanese tembang, a style of classical vocal music from highland west Java in which free verse is sung to the accompaniment of kacapi (zither), suling (bamboo flute) and rebab (fiddle).

That has led her to such works as her Atria, a suite that incorporates poetry of Rumi; Attār, the Persian Sufi poet and thinker of the late 12th century; and Ibn Arabi, another but slightly later Sufi philosopher. Set for voice, viola, and gamelan, it uses traditional Persian and Javanese modal systems, but combines them.

In that vein, Kenney will perform pieces in traditional and experimental forms in her Cornish College concert, including duets with Eyvind Kang and group material with a small gadhon style ensemble whose members play such instruments as the gender, a tube resonator tapped with mallets to produce arresting, transporting contrapuntal lines, and the suling bamboo flute. Anne Stebinger from New York’s Gamelan Kusuma Laras will join the concert, as well as Brian Robertson from Portland’s Venerable Showers of Beauty Gamelan and Hamin Honari, a Vancouver-based percussionist who performs primarily in classical Persian and Baluchi (northwest Iranian) musical contexts.

Kang, although sometimes viewed as primarily a violist, is in fact a true multi-instrumentalist. He will likely perform on viola and rebab, a Turkish bowed fiddle that may have originated in Sumeria in the fourth millennium BC, and that spread via Islamic migration and trade routes through North Africa, the Middle East, the Far East, and parts of Europe.

Such are Kenney and Kang’s tools for creating a distinctive sequence of traditional pieces and others that innovate with combinations of forms. Their riveting December 2012 CD on Ideologic Organ label, The Face of the Earth, gives a sense of how their combinations of instrumentation emerge in collaborative compositions, and the way that Kenney’s voice takes listeners to unanticipated realms.

Kang’s musical biography is by now familiar to many listeners in the Seattle region. Since his studies at Cornish in the early 1990s, he has released a series of albums of music utterly his own. The latest of them is The Narrow Garden, an album recorded in Barcelona with more than 30 musicians, released last year. He has collaborated with John Zorn, the Sun City Girls, Beck (on his 2000 tour of Japan), Michael Bisio, Wayne Horvitz’s 4 + 1 Ensemble, Sunn O))), and Animal Collective (on their 2005 release, Feels ­– “mindblowing,” was their response to him.) Beyond all that, his contributions have been diverse and numerous (Laura Viers, The Decemberists, Mr. Bungle, Secret Chiefs 3…).

The internationally best-known of his collaborations has been with guitarist Bill Frisell—with his Quartet, 858 Quartet, and other settings. With those, Kang has traveled far and wide, to great acclaim.

Kenney’s vision draws from studies that began with “improvised music that was spiritual and rigorous at the same time,” as she puts it. While studying jazz vocals at Cornish, she performed experimental music, some of it with friends who were interested in gamelan and its tuning elements. In that Javanese vein, she trained with Jarrad Powell and performed with his pieces with Seattle-based Gamelan Pacifica.

To advance the foundations of her schooling in Javanese music, Kenney traveled to Indonesia. She lived and trained with a professional singer whom she accompanied to performances. That whetted Kenney’s appetite, and she has often returned to Java to study with master singers and other musicians. Outcomes have included recent engagements with the Berkeley-based ensemble of renowned Javanese musician and eleventh-generation dhalang (puppetmaster), Ki Midiyanto.

She and Kang have been working together for the last few years, playing many instruments and electronics to accompany her singing. Kang has performed on sitar, Persian sitar, rebab, and Korean instruments, as well as viola.
Says Kenney: “Basically we just like to be in the learning mode, with whatever…” Of her Cornish concert, she adds: “I’m really excited to have him there, to be able to use some of the compositional structure we’ve been developing together.”


Peter Monaghan writes frequently about creative improvised music and the arts for a number of publications.

Jessika Kenney and Friends perform at Cornish College of the Arts’ PONCHO Concert Hall on Sunday, April 7th at 7:00 pm. Tickets: $20 general; $15 seniors; $10 students and Cornish alumni.

IMAGE: Jessika Kenney; photo by Sarah Barrick.


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