adapted from THE NEW YORK TIMES
Arts & Leisure feature

Sunday June 11, 2000, by Kyle Gann

The music of Raphael Mostel has always evoked the subtle and continuous sounds of nature: nocturnal insects, the wind, the distant howling of wolves, the music of the spheres, cosmic dramas. Now Mr. Mostel has graduated to elephants. Specifically, the resourceful King Babar from the series of Babar children’s books initiated in 1930 by Jean de Brunhoff. Mostel, it happens is the composer and director of a new kind of digital video opera, albeit with live performers but no singers, The Travels of Babar.

Raphael Mostel, one of New York’s most original composers, no musical transformation could seem more extreme. Over the last decade and a half, he has been known in New York as the leader and composer of the Tibetan Singing Bowl Ensemble, a group that draws streams of overtones from the rubbed edges of Tibetan metal bolws. His music has always been attractive and accessible; he has consistently been voted a favorite by listeners of the radio station WNYC in New York. But it is still austere, meditative, texturally strange stuff, a kind of lunar music worlds away from any popular, classical or even Asian tradition.

Now, in what looks like the 21st century’s answer to Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, Mostel is awash in major scales, arpeggios canons and fugues. His Travels of Babar is inspired by the second and most popular of the de Brunhoff Babar books, published in 1932.

Mostel’s involvement with Babar began with a letter in 1991 from the Toshiba/EMI recording company in Japan, asking whether he would provide background music on an emergency basis for a recording of the book. Despite the urgency, the recording appeared only in 1994. Although the original commission made no allowance for live-performance rights, he began the long task of making this happen, and turning "Babar" into a kind of digitized opera. And now at long last, the recording is being released in English too.

Meanwhile, Laurent de Brunhoff entered the picture. The son of the original author, he took over writing the Babar books after Jean de Brunhoff died of tuberculosis in 1937. There are now more than 30 "Babar" books in print, with yet another to appear this fall. With the help of Mr. de Brunhoff, now 74, Mr. Mostel performed versions of his work with the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra in California and at the Tilles Center in Brookville, N.Y. But the New York City prermiere this week is the first to have all the elements in place as the composer intended.

For many composers, writing an opera on a popular children's book might represent a financial ploy or an attempt to climb out of the new-music ghetto and reach a mass audience, at the price of lowering one's standards. Mr. Mostel doesn't see it that way.

Babar ,” he says, offers an opportunity to do what he has always done, but on a more basic level. “I’ve always been concerned with how people listen,” he said recently in his Manhattan apartment. "My first encounter with Tibetan singing bowls, in 1983, made me realize that I had unconsciously screened out a whole area of sounds and that I needed to reverse that process. That's what led me to form the Tibetan Singing Bowl Ensemble: New Music for Old Instrumentssm.

What he learned to listen to were the really distant overtones. "Most of the time we're focused on the midrange part of the sound spectrum," he said. "And we also focus on the regular sense of tuning, disgregarding the irrational overtones that are really there."

Yet what he found, performing with his Ensemble, was that as much as he was trying to sensitize listeners, the job was getting harder over the years. “I realized my music for the Tibetan Singing Bowl Ensemble was opening up people’s ears but that the level of education and experience of music was becoming less and less fine. And so I jumped at this opportunity, realizing Babar would be a wonderful way to explore the basic vocabulary of concert-music.”

Thus the subtitle, An Adventure in Scales. Scales run through many of the work’s 46 episodes because, Mostel says, the Babar art works in primary colors and he was challenged to limit his compositional palette similarly using only the rudiments of music.

“There’s so much you can do with just simple material,” he said. “Beethoven did an incredible set of variations on that dumb Diabelli waltz. It makes the connection with the audience very direct that you can understand what the musical materials are. And because you understand the materials, you can follow how they’re transformed. The materials I’m using are basic, but the musical effects are quite complex.”

For all the unconventionality of his usual aesthetic, Mostel is a highly cultured musician, capable of sitting down and playing a passage from almost any Beethoven sonata to illustrate a point. And listeners will hear more of his conventional musicality in Babar: fugues, marches, quotations from Bach, heavenly textures of arpeggios.

The story suggested many musical effects: trombone glissandos when Babar’s army puts the invading rhino army to rout, and the obligatory celesta playing when Babar’s wife, Celeste, speaks. Beyond that, the episodes go through a miniaturized history of classical music, from Baroque fugues to Minimalism and strange instrumental effects.

As Babar and Celeste rise into the air in their honeymoon balloon, for example, C major scales float upward at different tempos. Several themes are based on the circle of fifths: C-G-D-A-E and so on, which the final victory sequence follows through all 12 keys. A mad scene for the cello uses extended techniques and a 12-tone fugue accompanies an attack of cannibals. (Viennese cannibals, apparently.) But most of the music is charmingly melodic.

All this makes The Travels of Babar a wonderful educational program, but Mostel shies away from the word. “When people hear the word “educational,” they run for the hills,” he said. Still, since composing it he has dealt with a lot of music-education people and come to recognize two different theories of music education.

“There’s the reductive, where rote repetition is required to have learning, which almost all programs emulate,” he said. “And my viewpoint, the opposite, is first you have to have the intuitive experience in which understanding happens instantly, the live experience and joy of the moment of the music. If you have that, then you can go the reductive route, but it’s difficult to go the other way. I created this work so everyone could have that instant joy.”

In Mostel’s one-of-a-kind live performance version of this work, the eight instrumentalists, spotlighted as their solos arise, accompany digitized video images taken from the book and projected on a screen. The presence of longtime Broadway and film veterans Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson, besides adding to the theatrical appeal of Babar, also lends an interesting historical twist. Both performed in the famous 1961 production of Eugene Ionesco's play Rhinoceros along with Mr. Mostel's uncle Zero Mostel., who for his efforts won a Tony Award and landed on the covers of Newsweek and TIme. Mr. Wallach played the only character in Ionesco's play who didn't turn into a rhinoceros, so Mr. Mostel told him that in doing Babar, he would finally get to play a rhinoceros. The last performance on June 19, will be in the original French and narrated by Laurent de Brunhoff.

The composer clearly feels that with this work he has succeeded in aims that he has cherished for his avant-garde music all along. “I’d be very happy for people to contrast this to what Disney does with Fantasia, Mostel said. “It’s a sacred mission for a composer to help people understand why people listen to music.”

copyright © 2000 by Kyle Gann. Reprinted with permission

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