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Tag: Kayhan Kalhor review

Kayhan Kalhor and Kiya Tabassian Play a Historic Concert at CUNY

About half an hour before their show last night, Kayhan Kalhor and Kiya Tabassian were chilling in the shade of a scaffold just north of 34th Street. Nobody seemed to recognize them. They may not be household names in this city, but they are elesewhere – and they should be

Kalhor is best known as this era’s great virtuoso of the kamancheh, the Iranian stringed instrument (he plays a custom-made model with the range of both a violin and a cello, called the Shah Kaman). He’s also one of the foremost composers of the past couple of decades. Whiile he also plays the setar lute, he’s very rarely played it onstage until recently. In fact, until yesterday evening’s engagement at CUNY’s Elebash Hall, he’d never played a full concert on the instrument in New York. A sold-out crowd gave him and his protege Tabassian a standing ovation before the show began – they knew they’d be witness to history.

Rather than a duel, the two setarists’ ninety or so uninterrupted minutes onstage turned out to be a clinic in how to build something transcendent. Although the show didn’t come across as a conversation between teacher and student, Tabassian’s ideas, in general, were more directly poignant, while Kalhor took his time.

The musicians’ individual styles complemented each other. For most of the show, Tabassian stuck to stinging, often heartbreakingly beautiful riffs which contrasted with rain-washed, lingering chords and deftly interpolated countermelodies: he has an amazing sense of harmony.Yet when he finally cut loose, toward the end of the show, he displayed blazing speed to match that poignancy

Kalhor’s atttack on the strings is more feathery than incisive, but that’s probably a good thing, considering how fast his fingers were flurrying on the strings. Consider: if you tried tremolo-picking a guitar, fingerstyle as these two were doing, your fingers would be a bloody mess in seconds flat.

Throughout the show, the duo exchanged riffs, often echoing each other, other times developing subtle variations on a slowly shifting series of themes. Each player gave the other plenty of room to raise the electricity or shift into more shadowy emotional terrain. Taking a brooding, initial downward theme in an Iranian dastgah mode approximating the western minor scale, the two embellisehd it with a groove that grew to just short of a gallop. They then backed away and for a little while, midway through, they edged into a more resonantly chordal, sunnier tableau.

But that didn’t last, and Tabassian was the first to reintroduce a subtle variation on the plaintive initial theme. Kalhor took a turn on the mic, singing a practically imploring couple of verses in his resonant baritone, at one point putting down his setar and letting Tabassian play the changes. Finally, Kalhor let an enigmatic open chord linger, then looked at Tabassian, as if to say, ‘What if we’re both wrong?” They gently made their way out of that enigma and ended the show with an unexpectedly muted if angst-fueled minimalism.

The Elebash Hall concert series – programmed by Isabel Soffer of Live Sounds – is more or less monthly and features a lot of music like this that you’re unlikely to see anywhere else, watch this space.

Two of the World’s Greatest Middle Eastern Musicians Revisit a Legendary Collaboration at Pace University This Saturday Night

Kayhan Kalhor is arguably the world’s greatest player of the kamancheh, the rustically overtone-drenched Iranian standup fiddle. He also might be the world’s foremost composer. His music is harrowing, windswept, mystical and majestic, often all of those qualities at once. Considering his Kurdish heritage, it’s no surprise that a powerful political streak runs through his work, most notably on his shattering 2008 Silent City suite, whose epic centerpiece commemorates Saddam Hussein’s poison gas attack on the Kurdish city of Hallabjah,

Unsurprisingly, Kalhor – a founding member of the Silk Road Ensemble – is constantly sought after as a collaborator. Back in the mid-zeros, he made a characteristically magical, serpentine album, The Wind, with Turkish baglama lute player Erdal Erzincan (streaming at Spotify). In a serendipitous stroke of fate, the two are touring this month, with a stop this Saturday night, May 19 at 7 PM at the Schimmel auditorium at Pace University at 3 Spruce St. in the financial district. Tix are $30 and still available as of today; the closest train is the 6 or the J to Brooklyn Bridge.

Obviously, with two of the world’s great improvisers onstage, there’s no telling where they’ll go, or to what degree they’ll replicate any of their previous performances together. Interestingly, back in the winter of 2013 at the Asia Society, Kalhor and santoorist Ali Bahrami Fard closely followed the trajectory if not the exact changes of their unforgettable duo album, I Will Not Stand Alone.

 At times, this album seems like an endless taqsim, a Sisyphean Middle Eastern journey up the mountainside which rather than tumbling down will slide back gracefully from an electrifying thicket of notes into into spare, plaintive resonance. In the same vein as American jazz, music from this part of the world, this included, relies on the western scale but with all sorts of blue notes, in lieu of the microtonal scales of, say, the Egyptian maqam tradition.

Erzincan flutters elegantly through a pensive minor mode to open the collaboration. Kalhor joins in with eerily microtonal melismas, then sets his sights on the clouds – or other galaxies, as he stabs further and further into the great beyond. Erzincan subtly moves toward the forefront with variations on a catchy riff with a surreal resemblance to an Appalachian theme.

Throughout the album, spare plucking interchanges with long, desolate kamancheh phrases and angst-fueled, quavery interludes. Interestingly, it’s not Erzincan but Kalhor who first introduces two plaintive classical Turkish themes, although Erzincan welcomes them with a spiky abandon. Angst rises as the two grow more insistent and then hypnotic together. A lively pizzicato duel grows into a bouncy, uneasy circle dance, then the two return more slashingly to starkly driving chromatics. There is no western jamband who can match their intensity. Find out for yourself Saturday night. 

Deep Sounds from the Middle East at the World Financial Center

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.

 

A Haunting Tribute to the Suffering and Resilience of Iran by Kayhan Kalhor and Ali Bahrami Fard

“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.