William Hamilton Bird: The Oriental Miscellany
Given the slight, four-movement sonata that rounds off this fascinating disc, the music of William Hamilton Bird wouldn’t ordinarily merit much attention. But the 30 short keyboard works that precede it are something different: a rare chance to explore the transnational dissemination of music from East to West. Transcribed – the term must be used very loosely – for harpsichord and guitar in the late 18th century, Bird’s Oriental Miscellany isn’t so much a catalogue of music in India during the era of East India Company rule as it is a testament to the powerful forces of assimilation, distortion and translation that governed the Western appropriation of Eastern art and culture.
Harpsichordist Jane Chapman has taken liberties with the original source, and for the most part they are welcome ones. In some cases, she has included extracts from another source, a collection of airs, which overlaps in places with Bird’s, by the contemporaneous harpsichordist Sophia Plowden. She also takes full advantage of the sonic effects and exotic possibilities of the restored 1772 Jacob Kirckman harpsichord she has chosen for the recording. The range of colours and textures is dazzling, and at times wonderfully suggestive of the Indian sitar. She is free with repetitions and ornamentation, and occasionally adapts the simple bass-line for greater dramatic effect.
Listeners, however, should be careful to consult the original score (available online at the IMSLP/Petrucci Music Library) to discover where Chapman’s delicious improvised additions begin and end, because they are some of the most appealing moments on the recording. Otherwise, the casual listener will be misled into believing that Bird’s ear for modal and harmonic colour, and his sensitivity to the more rhythmically dynamic and flexible Indian line, was far greater than it was. Bird’s adaptations have occasional moments that suggest he was alert to something intractably ‘other’ in the music – unresolved phrase endings, chromatic surprises – but most of what sounds genuinely ‘Indian’ here is attributable to Chapman’s smart framing of the originals.
Bird’s style is typical of the galant era, harmonically simple-minded, insouciant and musically appealing, with many of the airs followed by variations calling for fluent fingerwork. In his introduction to the original publication, Bird makes clear that he sought out in Indian music regularity, especially familiar rhythmic patterns, and he self-consciously avoided Indian styles that didn’t oblige. He wanted music that earned its welcome in a European social setting.
Chapman takes that mandate to heart, and even her more adventurous additions to Bird’s score can be justified as invigorating showmanship. The playing is smart, clean, refined and inventive. If one is looking primarily for musical authenticity, she provides it in this sense: the recording captures the European delight in exotica, especially its liberating power on musical fancy.