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Tag: Kinan Abou-Afach

American Choir and Andalucian Traditional Ensemble Join Forces to Mesmerizing Effect

One of the most fascinatingly original large-ensemble albums of recent months is Words Adorned, the cross-pollinated collaboration between Philadelphia chamber choir The Crossing and traditional Andalucian group the Al-Bustan Takht Ensemble, streaming at Navona Records (click the link and scroll down to the listen button on the left). Donald Nally conducts; the lyrics are in Arabic.

While the tradition of audience singalongs in Middle Eastern music goes back thousands of years, there’s never been an album quite like this: a choral group fond of concept albums with music by contemporary composers joining forces with a starkly dusky, often rustic maqam ensemble. The closest comparison is the Navatman Music Collective, who bring harmony to new Indian music, another otherwise completely harmony-less idiom. Which is not to say that the music here always employs harmonies, but when it does, the effect is striking.

There are two suites on the album. The first is Kareem Roustom‘s new settings of ancient poetry, titled Embroidered Verses, packed with unexpected diversions and false endings. The opening song is Oh People of Andalucia, What Beauty You Have, where suspenseful ripples and flurries from Wassim Odeh’s oud and Hicham Chami’s kanun are quickly joined by the choir. A fleeting, bracing rise from Hanna Khoury’s violin and Kinan Abou-afach’s cello at the end will give you goosebumps.

The second number, a drinking song, begins with a surreal, strutting riff before the chorus and instrumentalists kick in over a jaunty clip-clop rhythm fueled by Hafez Kotain’s percussion. The mix of baroque counterpoint and Arabic maqam modes is surreal, to say the least.

The third segment, a setting of a love poem by Umm Al-Kiram has a gentle, lilting motion, tantalizing accents from the strings, an even more tantalizing Khoury solo and breathtaking contrast between her shivery lines and the crescendoing power of the singers. The bellicose finale begins with a mysterious pulse from the strings, the men of the choir anchoring the most rhythmically complex and harmonically enigmatic interlude here. This time it’s the kanun rippling through the mix which provides the extra bite.

The second suite is Abou-Afach‘s Of Nights and Solace, a collection of poems that begin at sunset and wind up at the break of dawn the following day. Soloist Dalal Abu Amneh‘s assertively articulated soprano blends within an increasingly complex contrapuntal web in the opening prelude, Moonrise.

She brings a visceral sense of longing to the second song, Greet These Faces, over a slinky, gorgeously bittersweet, glittering backdrop, the choir echoing and doubling the melody line: it’s the most hypnotic track here. As you would expect, Forsaken is more desolate, stark and ghostly, the choir using a vast sonic and dynamic range as they rise from basso profundo lows.

A lively but understated instrumental mix of flamenco and dervish dance sets up You Who Left and Passed, blending the playful and the plaintive, spaciousness giving way to robust density. The two groups pack a wild blend of ideas into the rousing, barely two-minute concluding sunrise tableau.

Abu Amneh and the takht ensemble wind up this late-2019 concert recording with When He Appeared, a brisk, stately, haunting song utilizing text by Muhammad Abd Al-Rahim Al-Maslub. It’s rare that music this cutting-edge is just as unselfconsciously beautiful.

Kinan Azmeh’s Somber New Song Cycle Draws a Sold-Out Crowd at Symphony Space

In a chat with the audience after their sold-out show at Symphony Space last night, clarinetist Kinan Azmeh and cellist Kinan Abou-Afach explained that their great childhood ambition had been to busk in the Istanbul subway, since their Damascus hometown didn’t have one. It was a humbling revelation from two extraordinary musicians whose work defies category – and has still not been been performed in a duo arrangement on an train platform anywhere in Turkey.

Azmeh also revealed that in the wake of the 2011 Syrian revolution, he found himself so overwhelmed that he didn’t write any music for a full year. Since then, the Yo-Yo Ma collaborator has made up for lost time: just in this past year alone, this blog has caught him playing lively Middle Eastern flavored jazz, intricately conversational improvised music and ominous, war-themed soundscapes. This concert was the album release show for his latest cycle, Songs for Days to Come, commissioned by pianist Lenore Davis, impresario of the popular Upper West Side St. Urban concert and literary salon series. She and Azmeh’s fellow Damascus expat, soprano Dima Orsho, filled out the quartet to perform the raptly brooding, sometimes harrowing five-part suite in its entirety. Each song was preceded by the recorded voice of each of the five expat Syrian poets whose original Arabic words Azmeh had set to music.

The news that the last remaining hospital in the beseiged city of Aleppo had been destroyed in a bombing raid may have fueled the musicians’ steely resolve and acute sense of anguish. The poems – by Lukman Derky, Mohammad Abou-Laban, Hazem Al-Azmeh, Liwaa Yazji and Adnan Odeh – speak of abandonment by god (or sheer disbelief), allude to wartime horrors, solitude, alienation and loss. The most gripping of all, by Odeh, was a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, where the narrative itself is blown to bits. It was the one moment during the concert where Azmeh went to the deep well of classical Arabic maqamat for gracefully plaintive Levantine melody.

Beyond that, tensely still, sustained passages rose to angst-fueled codas and then returned groundward. Davis played Azmeh’s artful, elegaic bell-tone, Mompou-esque motives and muted inside-the-piano accents with a wounded, resonant restraint matched by rapidfire, circular lines. Likewise, Orsho moved effortlessly between a muted calm – most vividly during one of the early numbers, evoking a Syrian singer killed by a knife to the throat – and soaring operatics. Azmeh’s clarinet alternated between rippling, uneasy balletesque passages and a mournful sustain while Abou-Afach anchored the music in austere washes of sound. Like the rest of Azmeh’s work, it’s informed by but hardly limited to a Syrian idiom. That there was such an engaged, multicultural audience assembled to witness this concert, at a time in New York when live music is often no more than a meme for grubbing for status, speaks well for the people of this city.

The Songs for Days to Come album – streamng at Spotify – is the first in a series commissioned by Davis, with a second volume planned for the spring of next year.

Cocooning on Multiple Levels

If there’s ever been a time for soothing, enveloping sounds in New York, this is it. Two shows this week gave audiences a good idea of what’s available in an month where pretty much everybody’s women friends are afraid of losing their reproductive rights, everybody’s Mexican friends are worried about being lynched, and everybody’s up in arms about where they’re going to live after 1/19/17.

Virtuoso violist Ljova explained that he was new to loopmusic, so he cautioned the crowd at Barbes Tuesday night that they should take what they hear with a grain of salt. Then he launched into a characteristically ambitious solo soundscape that echoed the rigor of his Moscow conservatory training, his wide-ranging eclecticism as one of this era’s great film composers, as well as the wry humor and irony that pervade his work across the board. His setup was pretty simple, mirroring the directness of his melodies: his signature, custom-made six-string “famiola” running through delay, loop and volume pedals. It was interesting to watch him think on his feet: when he hit on a riff he liked, he ran with it. There were also a few times when he’d hit on one he didn’t think worth keeping, scowled a little and then moved on.

Then the great Syrian-born clarinetist Kinan Azmeh joined the festivities. While his music can be kinetic – he leads a fantastic jazz group, his City Band – it more frequently tends to be on the serious side, often extremely poignant. The early part of the duo’s calm, methodically shifting improvisation echoed the eerie washes of Azmeh’s upcoming album with the similarly brilliant Turkish guitarist and soundscaper Erdem Helvacioglu. But Ljova was in a restless mood, and began to pull away, and Azmeh stayed in sync with some judiciously spaced, bubbly phrases in contrast to his more usual brooding resonance. At the end of the set, the two joined in an enigmatically lilting, minor-key waltz by the violist. The two have played together many times, although this was their first joint improvisation. Azmeh plays his song cycle Songs for Days to Come, featuring the work of Syrian poets in exile, tomorrow night, Nov 19 at 8 PM at Symphony Space with pianist Lenore Smith, soprano Dima Orsho and cellist Kinan Abou-Afach. $25 tix are still available as of today. Ljova stays busy on the road: his next gig as a bandleader is with his vibrantly cinematic Kontraband string ensemble on Dec 3 at 7:30 PM PM at the San Fernando Cathedral, 115 W Main Plaza in San Antonio, TX, reservations to (210) 464-1534 are required.

The soundscapes played last night at Spectrum by guitarist Martin Bisi, multi-instrumentalist Thursday Fernworthy and ambient music artist Robert Pepper were more  lushly enveloping, a dense, misty, slowly swirling vortex. Seated within an audience with closed eyes and slowly bobbing heads, just about everybody reclined in a comfy armchair, it felt weird to rise up and actually watch the musicians at work rather than  drifting off in a surrealistic tequila buzz. Although the overall sound was contiguous, a single river fed by a kaleidoscope of streams, there was a lot of interplay and camaraderie among the three. There were distinct segments where each musician essentially got to lead the trio, whether that meant Pepper intoning into what looked like a mini-digeridoo, or Fernworthy sending keening violin overtones spiraling through her mixers, or Bisi doing the same with an emphatically minimalist riff or gentle chordal wash. Meanwhile, trippy projections played on a screen behind them, the best being a slow walk into the woods, Blair Witch style. Likewise, about two-thirds of the way through their roughly forty-minute improvisation, the three laced their ultraviolet backdrop with bracing close harmonies, jarring rhythmic hits and lower, more distinctly ominous drones.

Pepper books and plays the regular Ambient Chaos series at Spectrum, typically on the third Thursday of the month starting at around 9 in the welcoming, comfortable second-floor Ludlow Street space. Bisi and Fernworthy – someone whom Facebook does not believe is an actual person, notwithstanding the evidence of her performance here – have been known to do live atmospherics at Bisi’s legendary Gowanus digs, BC Studios on Sunday evenings. It’s not a public venue per se, but if you know them or care to keep in touch, you may be able to get an invite.