Entrancing Persian Music at the Asia Society
Every year, it seems, the Asia Society casts a wider and wider net, bringing an astonishingly eclectic group of performers to New York. This spring’s concert series there is typical: on March 3 at 8 PM, Afghani rubab lute virtuoso Homayun Sakhi plays an adventurous program with sarodist Ken Zuckerman and percussionist Salar Nader. On March 16 at 8, there’s Javanese shadow puppet theatre by Ki Purbo Asmoro backed by a full gamelan orchestra, then on April 28, also at 8, Pakistani percussionist and pop star Arif Lohar leads an ensemble playing updated versions of centuries-old works. And while this past Friday night’s performance by Iranian multi-lute virtuoso Hossein Alizadeh with percussionist Pejman Hadadi was sold out, it was surprising that there weren’t more American kids in the crowd: what the duo played could easily be called psychedelia or trance music.
Since Iran is right in the center of the Silk Road, the melodies of classical Persian improvisation veer between the eerie microtonal modes of Arabic music and the hypnotic one-chord jamming of south Indian ragas. Alizadeh can be a very terse, direct player (especially when he plays in Masters of Persian Music with Kayhan Kalhor), but this was his expansive set. With Alizadeh playing the setar, the concert took awhile to get going but followed a deceptively intense upward trajectory and ended on a powerfully memorable, incisive note. In a lingering, warmly consonant, major-key mode, dynamics rose and fell, Alizadeh’s attack shifting from thoughtfully exploratory rivulets to explosive clusters of frenetic tremolo-picking, much in the style of an Indian raga, while Hadadi held the center gracefully, his fingers firing off intricate but steady flurries of beats from his frame drum. A martial beat appeared and then fell to the wayside as Alizadeh took the piece down, solo, to an almost minimalist sparseness and then back up again as Hadadi joined him. Throughout the concert, his approach was the opposite of rock music: rhythm following the melody rather than leading it.
The second piece picked up the pace and added melodic complexity, Alizadeh switching to the more resonant shourangiz lute. His variations on a falling four-note motif added intensity almost imperceptibly; finally, about halfway through, he began with allusions to bracing Arabic motifs which he drifted further toward as the duo went on, winding it up with a biting minor-key (or at least what would be considered minor-key to western ears) theme over which Hadadi took his one solo of the evening, a surprisingly suspenseful interlude that evoked distant thunder far more than fireworks. The concert wrapped up with a relatively short (less than ten-minute) piece, Alizadeh switching back to the setar and its more brittle, staccato tone that made a good fit with its the relentless, suspenseful insistence. Fingerpicking both chords and lead lines simultaneously, he built a bracing, apprehensive mood against Hadadi’s elegantly galloping beats, then took it up and out with a flurry of notes whose understatement fell just a hair short of outright anguish.