Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Kayhan Kalhor and Brooklyn Rider: a partial review

Earlier this month, Kayhan Kalhor, master of the Persian kamancheh (spike fiddle), performed with Brooklyn Rider, an adventurous and groundbreaking string quartet, at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.

The kamancheh is a member of the class of musical string instruments known as spike fiddles, in that they are played with a bow, but held upright with the instrument resting on a spike that extends to the ground. Varieties of the spike fiddle, more commonly known in some variant of the word rebab, are found from North Africa all across the Middle East and Asia to Indonesia; the instrument also occurs in greatly altered form as the rebec in medieval European music.

As such, the kamancheh shares a number of similarities in sound, timbre, and technique to the instruments of the western string quartet: the violin, the viola, and the cello. Thus it was logical, in the era of world music, for Kalhor to collaborate with Brooklyn Rider, one of the more adventurous contemporary string quartet ensembles, which is "is devoted both to the interpretation of existing quartet literature and to the creation of new works."

I am familiar with various performances by Kalhor, both as a soloist performing traditional Iranian classical music, and as a member of such "fusion" groups as Ghazal (where he plays with sitarist Shujaat Husain Khan and tabla master Swapan Chaudhuri) and the Silk Route Ensemble, under the direction of cellist Yo-Yo Ma. I had not previously heard of Brooklyn Rider, but I was delighted to discover them in this exciting performance, where they were assisted by percussionist Mathias Kunzli on a range of instruments.

What was unconventional from the very beginning or the performance was the fact that only the cellist, Eric Jacobsen, was seated on a chair (as was the percussionist), while both Colin Jacobsen and Jonathan Gandelsman, the violinists, were standing, as was violist Nicholas Cords. Cords in particular had an almost balletic quality to his movements on stage, often poised with only the toe of one foot touching the floor, and using his body as a fluid extension of his musical performance. Kalhor complemented the appearance by sitting on his heels on a raised platform covered by an oriental rug, a couple of bolsters and pillows placed behind him for decoration.

The program began with a traditional Persian theme, "Ascending Bird', arranged by Colin Jacobsen and another Silk Road Ensemble colleague, Siamak Aghaei, and based on a field recording Aghaei had made of an instrument whose voice, according to program notes by Cords, "was unlike anything we had ever heard before. Our ears were held to attention by the sound of an incredibly potent and piercing instrument, which we were late told was made out of the fused bones of a bird and measured little more than two inches in length". The piece is distinctly modal, though with some harmonic effects. It begins with a piercing solo (violin?) against a haunting drone background, and no pulse, that swelled against a shifting full-spectrum drone with the texture enriched by the deeper voices of the viola and cello embellished, after some time, with a shimmering (with rapid bowing) high-voiced effect from the violins. At a later point the piece shifts, almost slumps, with multiple voices, into a forté (loud) section seething with blurred yet rich atonality that dramatically resolves, with a definitive downward slide, to the original, fundamental bass tone of the mode. Against this drone, and after some three minutes of rhythmless melody, the piece assumes a swift galloping pace with percussion accompaniment, and alternating between two contiguous "chords", with various ostinato (repetitive) passages played by different combinations of the strings. After an almost feverish exchange of motifs, the piece concludes with a rhythmic flourish somewhat reminiscent of the tihais of Indian music. The response of the audience was instantaneous, with many rising to their feet, and sustained applause.

The second piece was a series of ten brief musical vignettes by the composer Komitas Vartapet (1869-1935), based on Armenian folksongs. Since unlike the other items in the program, this suite is by a composer outside the Kalhor/Brooklyn Rider ensemble, I'll not elaborate, beyond noting that, curiously, the piece entitled "It's Spring" had a decidedly dirge-like and dark quality, whereas the subsequent "It's Cloudy" was distinctly cheery and upbeat.

The first half concluded with "Beloved, do not let me be discouraged", again composed by Colin Jacobsen, and inspired by his collaboration with the great Azerbaijani singer Alim Qasimov, whom he had encountered through his participation in the Silk Road Ensemble. Like the preceding "Ascending Bird", this piece begins with a meditative, rhythmless, and modal string solo (reminiscent of the alap of Indian music, or the taqsim of Arabic traditions), this time by Kalhor on the kamancheh, against a soft drone (with occasional brief contrapuntal flourishes) from the viola. Some two and a half minutes in, the viola and cello reprise the melody, then move into dialogue with the kamancheh, with the violins providing the drone. The kemancheh and violins then move into the upper octave for their meditations.

After some six minutes, the piece assumes a fast 3-3-2 rhythm, with accompaniment from the percussion, including a cajón (Spanish box drum), and a belt of Indian ghungrus (ankle bells) strapped to the ankle of the drummer. With this section, though the primary modality remains, a soul-stirring song of sorts emerges over a series of chord changes. After this motif is well established, the kamancheh enters with a lyrical, almost sobbing passage soaring in the higher octave (reminiscent of Qasimov's high singing--we'd heard him at the Silk Road Ensemble earlier in the year at Strathmore Hall) over the string ostinato below. The basic theme then returns in various string combinations with even more intensity and timbral richness, from the delicate to the vigorous, and with periodic sharp percussive attacks from the strings and drums, and some sudden, startling plunging slides on the violins. After an ecstatic climax, the music fades gently away with another kamancheh solo becoming softer and softer into silence.

The audience reaction to this piece was even greater than that to the first, with virtually everyone lunging to their feet, and loud, sustained applause and cheers.

Given the extent of my writing so far, I'll conclude with a few observations on what I'd heard up to this point:

The audience was typical of that for new music--a blend of older and younger, eastern and western, arrayed in a variety of generally informal dress, and showing an infectious enthusiasm that clearly revealed their appreciation of the musical explorations and risks undertaken by the ensemble as both composers and performers.

The quartet too was refreshingly informal--only the seated cellist (as I recall) wore a suit, and Colin Jacobsen wore a kind of iridescent Indian tunic. Like the seminal Kronos Quartet, founded in 1973, Brooklyn Rider champions new music, as was evident by the fact that four of the evening's five pieces were composed by members of the ensemble. Also like the Kronos, Brooklyn Rider has extended their own repertoire into other musical systems--in this program, the Persian and Azerbaijani in three of the five pieces, with an excursion into the Armenian idiom, as already noted, in the fourth. The use of a percussionist (of whom more in a later post), also enlarged the scope of their performance.

Also like the Kronos, Brooklyn Rider amplifies all its instruments through contact microphones, which permit the performers to add a range of effects to their playing, and to extend the realm of musical dynamics toward that of rock music. To my traditional ear, the amplified violin or viola or cello sounds somewhat unnatural, with the delicacy of the instruments' original timbre being lost; on the other hand, the electric instrument has a kind of sinuous insistence that achieves its own ends--though I would love to hear an "unplugged" performance (without the contact mikes) of the pieces presented. Given that two extraordinary Carnatic (South Indian) classical violinists, L. Subramaniam and L. Shankar (brothers, incidentally) have also chosen to electrify their violins, the process must compensate the performer with new opportunities to expand the effects and range of the instrument.

The two original compositions presented so far were, to my ear, very successful collaborations in the realm of world music, for which I would cite several reasons:

First, the members of the group have had extensive experience in performing and sharing musical ideas with musicians from other traditions, in this case, as members of the Protean (multiform, shape-changing) Silk Road Ensemble, which no doubt served as a crucible for refining the members' awareness of both theoretical musical ideas and actual instrumental characteristics.

Second, despite the differences in Persian and western scales and intonation, the blending of the kamancheh with the western strings makes sense, in that all four instruments are fretless and bowed, and thus there is greater latitude for exploring subtleties of pitch, ornament, and timbre than, say, the sitar and the violin. Yet as well as they blend in this performance, the instruments from the two traditions maintained their distinct individuality--largely because of the acoustic differences between the skin head of the kemancheh (stretched over the instrument's astonishingly small--for the forcefulness of the sound produced--mulberry sound sphere, almost toylike in appearance) and the seasoned wooden soundboards of the western instruments.

Finally, the ethos of the larger group, in the willingness of its individual particpants to move beyond traditional musical boundaries in a kind of humanistic, or even spiritual quest for commonality, combined with the mutual respect on both sides for the artistry of the "other" and the intimacy brought by shared experiences, results happily in original creations that can appeal to a wide audience, as was evident in the diversity--in age as well as ethnicity--of those fortunate enough to be present for this extraordinary event.

Time and gumption permitting, I'll return at a later point to the second half of the program. In the meantime, to hear the music itself, you might want to go to Brooklyn Rider's whimsical Website, which points to two YouTube videos--presumably sanctioned by the group--of "Beloved . . . . " (click on the cobalt blue television screen in the lower left-hand corner of the site). Further browsing on YouTube will also bring up a performance of "Ascending Bird."

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