Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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.

February 6, 2012 Posted by | concert, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Concert Review: Masters of Persian Music in NYC 2/18/10

A characteristically transcendent performance by one of the world’s greatest ensembles in any style of music. Classical music from Iran is almost inextricably linked to lyrics and poetry and for that reason its instrumentals are songs without words. Likewise, the voice serves as an instrument in the ensemble, joining the interplay as much as it leads it. Like any other established style of music, Persian music has its devices and tropes passed down through the ages: over there they call them gushehs. Over here we call them riffs.

Last night at NYU’s Skirball Center, the Masters of Persian Music played two riveting, practically hourlong suites full of them, the first an improvisation, the second composed pretty much all the way through. The jam, said kamancheh (spike fiddle) player and composer Kayhan Kalhor, was dedicated to a friend who’d just lost a family member. For this set he played a darkly resonant five-string kamancheh alongside his fellow luminary and longtime bandmate Hossein Alizadeh on jangly, clanging shourangiz lute. The two began slowly, mournfully, climbing to what became a funeral march, working the tension between two adjacent notes into an apprehensively memorable, interlocking four-note theme (a westerner might say that the whole thing, both sections of it, was a one-chord jam, and in a sense they’d be right). Kalhor alternated cello-like low-register ambience with rapidfire upper-register work, frequently tapping out percussion or notes high on the fingerboard and making the most of his signature echo effect, bowing with less and less pressure until the notes seemed to be coming back under their own power. Meanwhile, Alizadeh’s right hand was a whirlwind of ferocious fingerpicking. They finally built to a raga-inflected dance, Alizadeh firing off a series of descending progressions that would have been right at home in the Ravi Shankar songbook. And then it was over. The second part of the jam grew more hopeful, rising to a majestic, heroic anthem pulsing along on Kalhor’s insistent low notes. It had a happy ending.

The second part of the show segued between compositions by both Kalhor and Alizadeh (both of whom had switched to smaller, more rustic instruments, in the latter’s case a traditional tar lute) and brief solo passages for kamancheh, tar and the sonorous nay flute of Siamak Jahangiry. Hamid Reza Nourbakhsh, a star pupil of Persian vocal legend Mohammad Reza Shajarian, lent his alternately sepulchral and frenetically ornamented baritone to lyrics by several noteworthy poets: Nima Youshij, Shafi’i Kadkani, Abou Said Abou Kheyr, Akhavan-e Sales, Molavi and Salman Savoji. Here the interplay and the riffage took centerstage when the vocals didn’t, Alizadeh introducing many of them and then returning sometimes several minutes later with their variations. There was plenty of call-and-response, as well as everyone including Nourbakhsh echoing or working their own version of another’s phrasing. With the additional low end provided by Fariborz Azizi’s bass tar and Pezhham Akhavass’s tombak frame drum, it was as if Alizadeh had been freed from carrying the rhythm and could now, as one would say in rock vernacular, “play leads.” Seamlessly and spiritedly, they made their way through a stately tribute to hope against all odds – out of self-preservation, no doubt, the group steered clear of anything that could be construed as overtly political – to a cynical anthem about hypocrisy, a swaying drinking song and a couple of hypnotic, circular anthems, the second closing the show with the whole group singing and playing its series of hooks in perfect unanimity. The sold-out crowd wouldn’t settle for giving them just one standing ovation – after getting another relatively brief mesmerizingly catchy, swaying number as an encore, they wanted more. Kalhor, clearly game, raised his eyebrows and looked around at his bandmates. Then the house lights went up.

Masters of Persian Music’s Spring 2010 US tour continues on Feb 19 at the Sanders Theatre in Boston; 2/20 at the Hanna Theatre in Cleveland; 2/23 at Symphony Center in Chicago; 2/26 at the Ferst Center for the Arts in Atlanta and concluding on 2/28 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. Adventurous listeners in these cities would be crazy to miss them.

February 19, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Kayhan Kalhor & Brooklyn Rider – Silent City

Kayhan Kalhor is having a hard time doing anything wrong right now: pretty much everything the renowned Iranian kamancheh (spike fiddle) player touches turns into something magical. Like most of his contemporaries, Kalhor delights in cross-cultural collaboration, and this latest cd, created with inventive string quartet Brooklyn Rider is typical. Brisk, bracing, exhilarating and often wrenchingly haunting, it’s a spectacularly successful achievement. It’s less an attempt to blend East and West than simply a collaboration between friends. Kalhor – founder of the Dastan Ensemble, Ghazal Ensemble and Masters of Persian Music –  has two lengthy compositions here, playing kamancheh and also santur (a four-string lute) on his own darkly rustling retelling of the Persian flight myth, Parvaz. Fascinatingly arranged by maverick violist/composer Ljova, its recurrent refrains slowly builds, inexorably gaining intensity..

 

The cd opens with a vividly evocative traditional piece, Ascending Bird, an imaginative musical rendition of the same myth that Kalhor explores in Parvaz. The piece begins with the strings bristling with anticipation and urgency before taking flight over the rapidfire strumming of guest setarist Siamak Aghaei. At this point, for all intents and purposes, it becomes a rapidly, fascinatingly shapeshifting acoustic rock song. The album’s centerpiece is its title track, a Kalhor composition, perhaps the most intense and emotionally wrenching work he’s written to date. It’s a dead-accurate portrayal of the aftereffects of shock on the human psyche. An evocation of Saddam Hussein’s poison gas attack on the Kurdish city of Hallabjah, it begins almost inaudible with a faint hum that only gradually grows into a wash of numb atmospherics. Slowly, the city’s residents make their way back, piecing together whatever may be left of their families, their lives and their memories. Running their instruments through a delay effect, both individually and in unison, the group create a hypnotic, echoey, otherworldly ambience that goes on for minutes on end: this is a long piece, clocking in at around thirty minutes. Only at the end does the melody erupt in raw outrage, and when it does, it ranks with Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, Julius Reubke’s Sonata on the 49th Psalm or Elvis Costello at his most excoriating as a potent expression of despair followed by fury. Even if it is much quieter.

 

The cd’s final piece Beloved, Do Not Let Me Be Discouraged begins stately and atmospherically before growing to a lively dance with what could be an attractively major-key pre-baroque English folk melody rearranged for strings: Henry Purcell, anyone? Based on a 16th century verse by the Turkish poet Fuzuli, its theme is crazy love: interestingly, while the players attack the melody with considerable abandon, it never gets completely out of control.

 

Perhaps because of the diversity of the performers’ backgrounds, this cd sounds neither particularly Middle Eastern nor American. Kalhor and Brooklyn Rider just might have created a a new genre here: dark ambient modernist Persian-American classical, for lack of a better term. It’s accessible enough to appeal to mainstream classical fans, although more adventurous listeners will undoubtedly spin this over and over. To completely appreciate it, headphones are an absolute necessity. Without a doubt, one of the most enjoyably pioneering cds of the decade.

September 9, 2008 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment