Nonesuch Explorer

It could almost be Schubert at first, the delicate minor key chords, rising in pitch and dynamics. But then there’s that rhythm. Not quite a waltz, it rises and holds itself for an extra breath, like a stylized step with the knee held while the body balances on one foot, using music to move slower than the regular pace of life. Then the pulse quickens in both the music and the listener. The tablas and doyra enter, and now we are someplace very different from both 18th century Vienna and contemporary America.

Central Asia is difficult to see in the imagination. The idea of it seems to still belong to the ancient times of camel caravans and Tamerlane, a place so vast that it swallows up not only travelers but civilizations, entombing them in sand and grass. It seems peopled by mysterious tribes with surprising combinations of race, dress, language and religion. And the music is equally strange, using instruments from the Caucasus, Persia, Afghanistan and the deserts of China. Kronos have approached the borders of this land before, tentatively on their dark Night Prayers CD, more firmly but narrowly on their collaboration with Azerbaijani composer Franghiz Ali-Zadeh, Mugam Sayagi. Last year’s Floodplain turns out to be an introduction to the newest Kronos CD is substantially different though, beginning with it not being a Kronos CD.

Rainbow, Music of Central Asia Vol. 8, a CD/DVD set, is the latest in the Smithsonian Folkways recorded exploration of this kaleidoscopic region. Kronos serve as accompanists to the music and playing of Homayun Sakhi and the father-daughter duo of Alim and Fargana Qasimov. The recording opens with a long piece that feels like a sweeping survey of the land and a context for the music to come. Rangin Kaman is by Sakhi, and arranged for his ensemble and the quartet by Stephen Prutsman. The music builds slowly, evocatively, colors and phrases coming and going. The cliché is that we are in the territory of exotic spices, perfumes and septuple meters, the reality is that we are in truly unusual and interesting musical territory. Sakhi is the composer of this piece, but that has very little to do with the Western context. His work is a codification of his own playing, which itself is an exploration and expression of his musical roots in a land where the dish of music is made with stringed instruments from the North and West, percussion and rhythms from the East, and the Sufi vocal qualities of the South. It has roots in formal and informal social rituals, like weddings and seasonal festivals and just plain dancing. In our terms, he is more an anthropologist of his own heritage than a composer, and he ignores the artificial distinction between composer and performing; his every moment of playing music on the rubâb is of recreating the music of his world and creating new comments on it.

And despite the unusual instruments and sounds, the structural elements are clear and familiar; a phrase is repeated, another one added to it, a rhythm joins, then another. There’s an increased complexity of lines, but it’s not counterpoint; they are all working towards a melodic and emotional goal. The music is dramatic and almost physically exciting on record. Fundamentally, it should make people dance. And listening to this CD makes one want to dance.

For a while the music seems to tease with fragments of beats and wisps of sounds. There are hints of a Mediterranean sound, and the strings and percussion build a real groove. Then the ensemble drops off, while Sakhi plays a long, introspective interlude, that is both clearly improvised and clearly working within the rules of his own idiom. The sound of the rubâb is like that of a banjo, though more supple, and the playing style is picking single notes in short, ruminative, highly vocal phrases. As the music progresses, there is more interaction between soloist and Kronos, with the strings playing a bed of simple harmony, followed by some call and response, then Rangan Kaman meshes into growing intensity, and the musicians sound like a churning, driving jazz ensemble that has been playing together for years. There is some basic structure of ensemble passages then solos from Sakhi, as if he is a tour guide, showing the various charms of his home. These sections are musical, lovely, fascinating, and they also build tension, as they seem almost deliberate excuses to hold off the excitement to come until the last moment. The piece becomes real dervish music, irrisistable as it burns and rocks to an explosive finish. The quartet sounds right at home. Kronos are musicians’ musicians, and it’s a tribute to them that after decades as contemporary music superstars they sound so sympathetic and fulfilled as part of a band, serving the music making of others. Their ability to play with a lean sound, hard accents and propulsive rhythmic energy makes them a natural in this context, in fact they sound both so comfortable and self-effacing in this music that without their names on the digipak one would mistake them for another traditional ensemble from Central Asia.

After this spectacular opening track, the Qasimovs perform five mid-20th century Azeri popular songs, and the results are just as exciting, satisfying and deeply passionate. That the quality of the songs, and the singing sound so much like the Qawwali music of Pakistan tells more about the wonderfully complex history of people than a thousand pages of history books could. In particular, the microtonal melismas and articulation heard at the start of Köhlen Atim and the phrases in Getme, Getme could have come from a Nusrat Fatah Ali Khan recording, but instead they crossed Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq and made there way into the Caucasus, during the Soviet era and before anyone had dreamed of the CD or ‘World Music.’ This music is specifically more secular than Qawwali songs, but the alluring sound and emotional urgency are the same.

The arrangements by Qasimov, with Jacob Garchik doing the charts for Kronos, seamlessly blend the quartet into this music. The nasal, wavering timbre of the balaban an Azeri oboe that sounds like a cross between the duduk and a wood flute, is shadowed by the muted strings. Another traditional instrument, the tar (a fretted lute), is a sonic bridge between the two worlds. It’s inherent tuning places it frequently at dissonant intervals to the quartet, until it hits the tonic where everyone meets in plangent comity. The inherent style of this music is that the voice and instruments alternate playing, and playing around with, the same melodies, so the instruments are played in a very vocal style, while the singers, when not conveying words, model the sound of their voices after the qualities of the instruments. It’s a quality generally unfamiliar to our ears in the West but totally natural to these performers.

At its heart, the music cries. The singers end lines, and songs, with literally cries; exclamations of passion, sorrow and devotion, the sound of a note being tossed into the air like a ball, the pitch falling to earth. That musical gesture is incredibly complex, expressing a mix of positive and negative emotions, all strongly felt. And underneath all the music, consistently, there are dance rhythms. Some are rollicking and funky, like Qahlarin Kamandir, others, like on the beautiful and mysteriously passionate Getme, Getme, are sinous and sensuous. The arrangement here is especially fine, with Kronos interjecting some vertical harmonies and Western cadences as a comment and contrast to the traditional music. Many cultures are meeting in time and space, and the music is deeply fascinating and quite wonderful. The final call by Alim, the very last sound heard on the CD, is so full of both musical finality and protean emotion that the listener is compelled to start the music over again. This is both a superb Kronos recording, one of their most focused and exciting, and a fascinating sample of some of the best music from this region of the globe. (The Smithsonian site has a free stream of the CD available through April 6)

Kronos, as accompanists, helped usher this music onto the stage during their recent series of Perspectives concerts at Zankel Hall. They also presented music from Terry Riley, music variously composed for toys or newly built instruments, and a brilliant, surprising program of music from the Arctic Circle, called “Tundra Songs.” The pieces came from Finland, Sweden and Nunavut, connecting folk to pop to classical to experimental and were even more astonishing in their variety than that description would indicate.

Ritva Koistinen began the concert playing traditional and new music for the kantele, a Finnish folk instrument in the zither family, but with an attack like a clavichord and sustain that has the quality of a bell’s peal. It also has a damper for changes in dynamics and timbre, and is capable of a little bit of portamento, at least in the hands of a skilled player like Koistinen. She played a traditional song, then new music for the instrument, finishing with an arrangement of Arvo Pärt’s Pari Intervallo that beautiful revealed the harmonic power of the instrument. The music was quiet and exquisite, the delicate qualities mesmerizing to the audience. The sense of sound appearing and disintegrating in space evoked the solitude and stillness of woods in dark winter. The Swedish duo Hurdy-Gurdy evoked a different quality of winter; gathering with friends in a warm place and drinking something hot and preferably spiked. As their name indicates, the two play amplified hurdy-gurdys, using effects and signal processing. It’s weird as hell, so un-hip it’s hip, so goofy it’s cool – a lot of fun. The grinding, nasal sound of the instruments is just at the edge of tolerance, but the two, Stefan Brisland-Ferner and Totte Mattsson, have mastered various ways to produce sound, from delicately plucked harp-tones to a harsher sound that crosses bagpipes with overdriven electric guitar. The music is rollicking, playing with the conventions of folk music and expanding on it. There’s room for growth too, and the duo need it; their technique of a grand introduction followed by thumping synthetic beats needs some variety to maintain interest, even with Kronos joining them in a final jam on their original Scatter. The sound is good, but everything sounds the same after a couple tunes.

Not so for the stunning Kluster, led by accordionist Kimmo Pohjonen and joined by electronic percussionist Samuli Kosminen. Here is music that starts with a folk roots and, without ever totally abandoning them, scales tremendous heights. His music works on a theme and improvisation basis similar to jazz, and there is a fundamental folk quality in the melodies and rhythms, but Kosminen, singing and slinging his accordion around, plays with the intensity and physical presence of Eddie Van Halen or Iggy Pop. Together, the two produced a sound like a storm of electronic metal shattering in the ionosphere. The music has a strong pulse and lyrical thread running through it, and they are masterful players, listening and responding to each other. Their set was hugely pleasurable and exciting, well-shaped from the opening Reaktio to the final, dramatically explosive Voima.

At the end, Kronos reappeared on stage with the singer Tanya Tagaq, who is a throat-singer, human-beatbox, crooner and narrator rolled into a dynamic, mesmerizing performer. The ensemble played Tundra Songs, from composer Derek Charke. The piece combines samples of environmental sounds from nature and life in Nunavut with different bowing techniques meant to match the timbre of the strings with that of the singer. The sounds make for an expansive context, the music uses sets of looping melodic and rhythmic material, and the singer and strings are tightly integrated, with Tagaqs voice mainly treated as another instrument in the group. There is a section where she narrates a strange origin myth, but mostly it is cries, sighs, gasps, grunts, multiphonics, phonetic attacks, and the musicians joining each other in shared action and energy. It was both culturally alien and deeply humane, and a spectacular close to an surprisingly impressive concert.

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