Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Review: Kayhan Kalhor & Brooklyn Rider

UCSB Arts & Lectures:
-Kayhan Kalhor & Brooklyn Rider-
When: February 16
Where: Campbell Hall

On Wednesday, February 16 I had the immense pleasure of seeing 3-time Grammy nominee Kayhan Kalhor & Brooklyn Rider perform at Campbell Hall at UCSB. Let me preface this review by stating clearly and concisely: I am not a music critic. But even with my little knowledge about Persian music or even Kalhor's instrument of choice, the kamancheh, I was able to immerse myself in the gorgeous, haunted rhythms of this collaborative performance.

Cited by NPR as being responsible for "recreating the 300-year-old form of string quartet as a vital and creative 21st century ensemble," the evening began with Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen on violin, Nicholas Cords on viola and Eric Jacobsen on cello performing Giovanni Sollima's "Frederico II" from Viaggio in Italia, a composition which chronicles Italy's tumultuous history. Sollima is quoted saying that the inspiration for "Frederico II," was based off of the Italian ruler, who when his tomb was exhumed was found in the arms of woman. Sollima chose Frederico II as inspiration because he wanted to "render the bright, joyous and multiethnic atmosphere of the court of Emperor Frederico II (1194-1250) in the guise of dancing..." This inclination for a transnational transference of language, emotion, and experience parallels Kalhor and Brooklyn Rider's collaboration. What began as a soft interim soon segued into a profound musical experience that had the audience utterly captivated and enraptured with the beaucoup of musical innovation and creativity on Campbell's stage. It was at once active and tender, tantalizingly delicate yet still laden with vibrant fortitude. There was an indelible, muscular quality to their performance. And it seemed to be almost a dialogue between the instruments, a duel of an expansive, sonic feast, teased out by the musicians who sporadically beat on the sides of their instruments and playfully took turns with unique solos. And as quickly as they began this banter of sound, they just as easily, seamlessly and masterfully aligned themselves in their primal yet dulcet vibrations.

After a roar of applause, they embarked on Philip Glass' Quartet No. 3 "Mishima." Prefacing it by stating that they wanted to move from one port city (Sicily) to another port city (New York), they began to evoke a transnational, borderless and, seemingly, boundless performance. "Mishima" was multilayered, pensive, and saturated with wistful longing. The violins' wavering strings mirrored that of a slowing heartbeat or a swaying breath. It was a dark, romantic, winding tide that surprisingly culminated into an abrupt, anticipatory pause. After a few moments of searing silence, they erupted into soaring crescendo of newfound energetic revival. The song's stages were staggering: from fragile and exquisite to sojourn and somber to frenetic and pulsating, the song was both rich and riveting throughout its entirety. Inspired by the famous author's suicide after an unsuccessful coup d'etat, the group is quoted saying that the openness of the music allowed it to be "curiously 'unstuck' from time" which catalyzed them "to draw connections to other familiar sounds from the urban mechanization of Brooklyn to the drone infused textures of Persian music; all of this made the music more deeply rooted in our collective experience."

Soon it was time for the next piece. The musicians discussed how upon their pilgrimage to Iran they soon became enveloped with not only Iran's language and culture, but also the ultimate texture of the culture, a texture that seemed to permeate all facets of life, from calligraphy, to art, and, most significantly, to the music they heard everywhere, from temples to every nook and cranny of Iran's busy streets. There was a component of antiquity to their performance, almost as if an homage was being paid to the Zoroastrian temples in which they observed Kalhor improvise for hours upon hours during their trip. They likened this experience of observing Kalhor to fire, an element that was "at once hypnotic and perpetually changing." Then, Kalhor arrived: He came onto the stage, quiet and unassuming, taking his seat on a large, Persian pillow center stage. He raised his bow and immediately began Beloved, Do Not Let Me Be Discouraged, a title stemming from 16th century Turkish poet Fuzuli who writes of star-crossed lovers, doomed by their zealous love. It begins slowly, with deep complexity and intention. It rendered the audience silent with its tendrils of smokey and hollow tones, combined with its tenuous and diaphanous melodies. Soon, Kalhor's kamancheh merged with the other musician's strings, creating a marriage of two sounds and, subsequently, two worlds. It was an undulating efflux of competing but complementary sounds: it was not a clash of cultures but rather an entrancing dance. It seemed voyaging and triumphant, conjuring feelings of epic and primordial distinction. And all too soon, it was time for intermission.

After a brief break of toffee and tea, the audience returned to their seats, wide-eyed and eager for Kalhor and Brooklyn Rider to continue. Their last piece was entitled, Silent City, a collaboration that they explained was the result of a process in which they not only explored one another musically, but also delved deeper on an emotional and personal level. They relished their relationship with one another and began to learn from Kalhor the subjective and reflexive nature of time and music. Music became a journey and Silent City became an example of their assertion of control and autonomy over the time of a story: they decided to have the song tell a story in reverse, going gradually from desolation to a state of prosperity. And so the song commenced: it began like an instrumental desert, as windswept and bare as the land from which Kalhor hails. But soon this dirge bloomed into a sound of resurrection, unfurling with sounds of grandiose exultation and joy. Utilizing improvisation, call and response, and divergent harmonies, the piece becomes a narrative of "a universal testament to fallen cities and civilizations. But even more central to Silent City is the idea that life always returns, sprouting anew out of the empty landscape." As the audience sprang from their seats for a standing ovation, the ending of the song was an appropriate conclusion to an enriching evening of musicianship at its finest. Their performance was many things, but above all, it was drenched in feeling, feeling that lingered long after the last note.

All the best,

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