Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Deep Sounds from the Middle East at the World Financial Center

[republished from Lucid Culture’s sister blog New York Music Daily]

What’s the likelihood of seeing two octogenarian Armenian music legends in a single week, outside of Armenia, anyway? Thursday night was Souren Baronian at Barbes, Saturday night was Jivan Gasparyan at the World Financial Center, on a transcendent doublebill with Iranian spike fiddle virtuoso and composer Kayhan Kalhor. Only in New York, right?

Though Gasparyan’s show was billed as his farewell American concert – he’s 86 and about to quit touring after more than six decades of it – this was unmistakably a victory lap. Gasparyan was a renowned symphony player and soloist on the duduk – the small but lower-pitched, moody wind instrument, sort of a Middle Eastern counterpart to the bassoon – for decades in his native land, finally finding a global audience with his suite I Will Not Be Sad in This World, from a Brian Eno-produced album in the late 80s. That was the set’s last number, a new arrangement by Kalhor played by the two headliners plus Gasparyan’s grandson (also named Jivan) on clarinet and Behrouz Jamali on dumbek. It made a suitably eclectic, majestic coda to what had been a riveting concert, beginning as a lullaby before growing more bracing, through a brief canon of sorts and then a series of graceful exchanges between the musicians.

Gasparyan and his grandson had taken their time getting to that point. The elder player began with a saturnine, distantly majestic theme, his younger counterpart choosing his spots to add harmonies while a low E drone lingered in the sound system. Was it a harmonium stashed away offstage? An electroacoustic element? A fluke of the ventilation system that the two had decided to incorporate? There was no explanation. From there, the two slowly, methodically and unselfconsciously magically made their way through an unexpectedly lighthearted, gracefully dancing number, a brief prelude of sorts with echoes of the baroque, and a couple of nonchalantly chilling nocturnes, first by Gasparyan senior, then his younger counterpart.

Kalhor’s compositions and improvisations vividly reflect contemporary Iranian experience. Themes of exile and alienation figure heavily in his work, as they did his single, long piece this particular night, which he played in a duo set with Jamali. Kalhor began it solo with plaintive, anguished, sustained lines, then picked up with sudden, seemingly horror-stricken cadenza that signaled a long crescendo. Kalhor – playing his signature custom-made “shah kaman,” a genuinely regal instrument whose range is similar to a cello’s, but with a more biting tone – wove slithery, crystalline glissandos into his alternatively austere and frenetic melodies. The duo took them up and down, galloping and then relenting, never letting go of a pervasive unease, ending sudden and unresolved.

But there was also a very funny interlude when some unexpected harmonies joined Kalhor midway through his set, wafting from behind a curtain to the right of the stage. On the spur of the moment, one of the Gasparyans decided to flex his chops and play along – and much as this drew a lot of quizzical looks from the crowd, whichever guy had his duduk out blended in as seamlessly as anyone could have under the circumstances. For all we know, Kalhor might have planned it as a joke, considering that he didn’t seem the least bit perturbed when the playing started or when it suddenly stopped.

June 19, 2014 Posted by | concert, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Shattering Performance by Kayhan Kalhor and Ali Bahrami Fard at the Asia Society

“So many moments,” murmured one concertgoer to his friend after watching Kayhan Kalhor and Ali Bahrami Fard play a shattering version of their duo suite I Will Not Stand Alone to a sold-out audience at the Asia Society Saturday night.

“The Jimi Hendrix of kamancheh!” his friend exclaimed. Actually, the instrument that Kalhor, the iconic Iranian composer and string player, had been using was a custom-made “shah kaman,” which combines elements of the Turkish tanbur, Chinese erhu and the Persian kamancheh fiddle. Fard also played a modern instrument, a bass santoor, which is tuned an octave lower than the traditional Persian hammered dulcimer and delivered a spine-tingling, richly resonant sound akin to the lower midrange of the piano mingling with a distant meteor shower of microtones much further up the scale. And while Kalhor’s compositions draw deeply on Persian classical music, this work is completely in the here and now. The Asia Society has been celebrating the music of Iran this fall, with a final concert this coming December 7 at 8 PM with the prosaically titled but exciting, jazz-inclined Iranian/Syrian ensemble Sound: The Encounter.

I Will Not Stand Alone portrays profound sadness, but also profound resilience. The people of Iran have suffered greatly under brutal repression since the late 70s (and before then, life under the Shah was no picnic for a lot of people, either). Kalhor’s program notes spoke to how music gave him and his fellow citizens hope throughout the darkest hours of the Khomeini regime. But this enigmatic, dynamically-charged theme and variations resonates beyond any borders: as an account of suffering and transcendence, it ranks with the most powerful works of Shostakovich or any western composer. And while the two musicians followed the arc and movements of the recording of it they released last year, this was hardly a rote, note-for-note rendition, each player following the other’s improvisations closely as it went along. It began elegaically, Kalhor using the shah kaman’s cello-like low register for a misty, opaque tone as Fard played hypnotic, rhythmic ripples or gentle, austere accents. But the shah kaman, and the kamancheh, can also evoke weeping, and there was no absence of that once the work got rolling, Fard’s elegant volleys and understated, artful variations on a recurrent chromatic vamp propelling it until then.

The musicians’ cameraderie was so tightly aligned it was often as if they were one and the same instrument; despite the sonic differences between the two instruments, it was often hard to tell who was playing what, not that it really mattered. Once they reached about the midway point, Kalhor took centerstage, much more animatedly than he usually does, quite possibly because this work is so autobiographical and close to his heart. He swirled through a circular theme for Fard to ornament, threw off a handful of lightning, spiraling descending motives and angst-fueled, leaping cadenzas, then finally backed away. Fard then moved in with a glimmer that was as precise and sonically exquisite as it was distantly menacing. A lively, even wryly amusing country dance fueled by Kalhor’s rapidfire bowing quickly got twisted out of shape and took on a macabre, maimed character. Leaping flourishes from Kalhor on the way out ended the concert with an exhilarating display of chops that still left a lingering note of disquiet. It is hard to think of a composer or a soloist who so vividly captures the state of the world in 2013 as Kayhan Kalhor, and Fard matched that intensity as well: this was as state-of-the-art as music gets these days.

November 19, 2013 Posted by | concert, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Yet Another Transcendent Album from Kayhan Kalhor

As a founding member of the Dastan Ensemble, Ghazal Ensemble and Masters of Persian Music, Iranian composer and kamancheh fiddle player Kayhan Kalhor is in considerable demand as a collaborator: his 2008 album Silent City with string quartet Brooklyn Rider is one of the the highwater marks in music this century. Most recently, he’s recorded a somewhat different album, a suite titled I Will Not Stand Alone with bass santoor (a slightly lower-register Iranian hammered dulcimer) virtuoso Ali Bahrami Fard, due out on World Village Music on February 14 and streaming here. Like its predecessor, it is a transcendentally beautiful album, one that fits this era particularly well, never quite letting its undercurrent of anxiety lift despite the melodies soaring overhead. It’s a vivid, rippling, nocturnal work.

The question of how much of this was improvised and how much was composed is really beside the point. For the most part, the suite blends Fard’s ringing, cascading phrases with Kalhor’s sometimes plaintive, sometimes warmly sailing, often haunting sustained lines, silvery glissandos and his trademark echo effect, letting a phrase trail off elegantly into silence at the end. Fard’s precision is breathtaking, as is Kalhor’s. Playing a new instrument that he calls the shah kaman, Kalhor gets an especially breathy, raw tone here. Recorded in a space with immense natural reverb, the instruments mingle seamlessly to the point where it is sometimes hard to keep track of who’s playing what. As with much of classical Persian music, the scales hover between East and West, blending bracingly distinct Persian modes but also the warm consonance of western classical music. To call this cutting-edge is a somewhat of an understatement.

The suite begins with a lushly gorgeous, distantly Mediterranean-flavored theme, Between the Heavens and Me, opening with solo santoor: the Godfather obscured by an olive grove, perhaps. Kalhor eventually winds his way in, fluttering, taking turns with the Fard as each player shadows the other and then a brief, subdued conversation follows. As the piece segues into its second interval, Where Are You, it takes on a dirgelike sway and then grows more aggressive. A somewhat bucolic, energetic dance theme playfully titled The Laziest Summer Afternoon is then introduced, followed by the warily crescendoing, rather brooding Dancing Under the Walnut Tree. If that’s a dance, it’s less celebration than elegy.

Kalhor’s shah kaman then picks up the pace with an energetic insistence in the next movement, Hear Me Cry, which reaches a spiraling, whirling crescendo with Pluck a Star from the Sky. Then they return to a variation on the opening theme, Here I Am Alone Again: Kalhor’s stately, steady pizzicato interspersed among the rivulets rushing from the santoor establishes the work’s most haunting ambience. They close the album on an unexpectedly triumphant note, Kalhor’s resolute, rhythmic staccato rising against Fard’s muted tones. A vividly provocative evocation of the state of the world today, whether Kalhor’s or anyone else’s, this piece transcends categorization. Whether you prefer to call this world music, Middle Eastern music, classical or even jazz, it’s captivating to the point of being impossible to pull away from until it’s over. You will see this on a lot of “best-of-2012” lists at the end of the year.

January 30, 2012 Posted by | middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment