A View of Classic Ragas From Five Thousand Feet by Sitar Virtuoso Shahid Parvez Khan

by delarue

Saturday night at Roulette, sitar player Shahid Parvez Khan brought the same vast game plan to two completely different ragas. Much as improvisation is the central focus of classical Indian music, and there were plenty of electrifying jams at this show, it became clear early on that Khan had come up with a devilishly clever architecture for how he wanted to entertain the crowd.

Job one was delayed gratification, to tease them with one implied resolution after another until finally it made sense to ease into a comfortable crescendo, finally tying the tension together. Job two was to make the performance just as fun as it was artfully conceived, and Khan did that incessantly, with a killer sense of humor. Job three was thrills and chills, which he usually but not always saved for the codas at the end, in over two hours onstage with tabla wizard Nittin Mitta and a tanpura player who provided an aptly subtle drone behind them.

Khan opened the first raga with a very long, minimalist alap (improvisation), working with an increaingly rhythmic insistence toward but hardly ever reaching the octave that loomed just above his hypnotically emphatic, circular phrasing. When Mitta joined the fray, it seemed almost almost an afterthought, considering how much Khan had been his own drummer up to that point. As the piece went on, Khan brought his riffs closer and closer together as the two shifted gears, working toward overdrve.

Suddenly the concept became clear: while they weren’t taking the music quite doublespeed, what Khan had done was to bring those adrift riffs closer and closer together until he’d finally crystallized them. Likewise, it became clear that this raga was more about beats than lavish melody. After he and Mitta had interwoven a vertigo-inducing series of polyrhythms, a series of fiery sitar cascades punctuated rising and falling waves, through a trick ending or two, down to a sudden, unresolved conclusion.

The second raga was a brooding nocturne. Again, Khan resisted any easy resolution, putting on a clinic in implied melody, letting the audience’s ears fill in the blanks. This time the recurrent trope was stratospherically high, keening, theremin-like bends, creating sudden spikes of aching intensity. Mitta matched Khan’s plaintive cantabile approach, this time leaving the fireworks to the sitar. Khan took the closing gat out with an increasingly towering series of rapidfire climbs…when he wasn’t hitting on a phrase, then peeking out mischievously at the crowd as he let them fade, forsaken for the next one. If one riff doesn’t work, time to try another! It’s seldom that a piece of music could be so funny at times, yet ultimately so poignant.

Robert Browning Associates, who over the past few years have become a valued resource in bringing music from around the world to this city, staged this concert as part of their World in Trance series at Roulette, which concludes tonight, April 29 at 8 PM with a performance by Iranian ney flute player Hossein Oumoumi and his ensemble. Cover is $30 and worth it.

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