Time stood still last night in the financial district at the duo performance by Iranian kamancheh player Kayhan Kalhor and Turkish baglama lute player Erdal Erzincan. They opened with a whisper, Kalhor bowing a barely audible mist until Erzincan responded with a single spare, plaintive, minor-key phrase. After the better part of two hours onstage, they ended cold with a single bracing cadenza. In between, they channeled mystery, and occasional horror, a little irresistible humor and some snark – and pretty much every other emotion in between.
Kalhor is often acknowledged as this era’s greatest Iranian musician, and might also be the most riveting composer of the late 20th and early 21st century as well. He is equally skilled as an improviser, as is Erzincan. In the crowd last night, one of the great impresarios of Turkish music called hin the world’s most innovative baglama player.
Slowly and methodically, Erzincan drew Kalhor from his deep-sky whispers into a brooding exchange of simple, warily allusive phrases. Soon after, Kalhor set the stage for the rest of the evening with a plaintive descending riff in the whole-tone scale. From there the show was a roller-coaster ride of several variations on that theme – four in particular stood out, although variations in Middle Eastern music can be pretty much infinite.
As was the epic scope of the concert. It was impossible not to get completely lost in the music. On one hand, much of it was Middle Eastern Twin Peaks themes, developing increasingly ominous melodies based loosely on the two musicians’ landmark 2006 album, The Wind. This was less a full-force gale – or uneasy breeze – than a series of storms punctuated by portents of more to come.
It’s impossible to remember Kalhor playing with more sheer ferocity than he did last night. His percussive attack seemed to be a new development: often he’d pluck out a galloping beat on his fingerboard, using his little finger on the bulb at the base of his fiddle for a striking, boomy impact, enhanced by the immense amount of reverb that both instruments benefited immensely from. His seemingly endless waves of practically supersonic sixteenth notes as the music reached full altitude toward the end of the show were literally breathtaking, in terms of both raw speed and clenched-teeth emotional wallop. And he didn’t even introduce his signature echo effects – where he bows the same note and then gradually backs off – until at least the halfway point.
Erzincan’s technique and melody were just as riveting. His rippling, pointillistic volleys of chromatics underneath Kalhor’s aching, astringent washes seemed absolutely effortless. Likewise, there were several interludes where Erzincan put two hands on the fretboard and fired off long spirals of tapping that put just about any heavy metal guitarist to shame. For whatever reason, after Kalhor had introduced that first troubled central riff, it was Erzincan who ushered in each of the others.
Perhaps because music from Iran and Turkey blends the microtones of classical Arabic maqam music with western tonalities, there were points where razors-edge Middle Eastern chromatics were front and center, and others – particularly during the lulls – where the ambience was closer to western classical, or even horror film music. There were also a couple of points where Kalhor threw a couple of absolutely buffoonish swipes at Erzincan, who passed them right back without missing a beat – was this to gauge how much people were paying attention? For what it’s worth, nobody laughed out loud,
The long upward sprint at about the ninety minute mark turned out to be just clever foreshadowing; the two suddenly backed away for a return to the introductory whispers before raising the energy toward redline again. And then suddenly the show was over. At that point, it was impossible to recall anything more than this, considering how much of a dream state the crowd had been drawn into. A cellist in the audience, sister to one of the great innovators in Punjabi and blues music, mused about what a privilege it had been to witness this. Her friend, one of New York’s foremost concert presenters, revealed that she’d spent the whole show with her eyes closed, letting the duo deliver a surrealist film for the ears.
This was the final concert of the year at Pace University’s Schimmel Center, but is typical of the programming here. A big shout to Isabel Sofer of Live Sounds, who booked this concert and has been one of the world’s foremost advocates for Kalhor and many similar artists from around the world since the 1990s.