by Shannon Sea
When people think of Alice Coltrane, they often remember her as a celebrated jazz composer and musician. She, indeed, was a virtuoso on the piano and harp. She replaced McCoy Tyner as John Coltrane’s pianist, and later developed her own sound that infused improvisational jazz with harp and spirituality.
People also remember Coltrane for her devotional music, which comprised ambient synth soundscapes, harp, vocals, organ, and Hindu chants. Yet, many overlook Coltrane’s avant-garde classical pieces, which incorporate strings, harp, synthesizers, and Messiaen-like extended techniques. Furthermore, little is regarded about Coltrane’s re-interpretation of Stravinsky’s Firebird and Rite of Spring. She said she was inspired to rework those pieces after Stravinsky spoke to her in a dream.
(Art/Image by Victoria Topping)
I would like to bring your attention to Radhe-Shyam, one of my favorite classical pieces by Coltrane. Radhe-Shyam begins with strings playing a dissonant chord. Coltrane then swiftly enters with her electro-acoustic harp, and immediately the music draws you into another realm -- into a spiritual hyper reality. A lush counter-melody ensues as the strings gradually shift from one dissonant chord to another, and Coltrane dances with her harp. Coltrane’s melody is modal, and evades a tonic center, which gives the listener an other-worldly feeling.
In Radhe-Shyam, Coltrane uses silence perfectly, as she creates space for her ethereal harp solo. The strings re-enter in stark contrast, and then break out into Messiaen-like bird calls. The piece then ends without explanation or apology.
Radhe-Shyam has haunted me since the first time I heard it. There was something so distinct about every part of it, especially the string orchestration. As I inquired more about Coltrane’s composition techniques, I learned that she defied the traditional balance of string ensembles in order to create her own sound. For instance, on Radhe-Shyam, the string section consisted of three violins and one viola.
Coltrane is one of my favorite composers, and her music is authentic, spiritual, and intellectually sophisticated. I hope you will discover more of her string compositions on her albums
Transcendence and Eternity.
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