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Concert Collaborations with the Kronos Quartet

Concert Collaborations with the Kronos Quartet

Please also see: About the collaboration with the Kronos Quartet

Concert review: Alim Qasimov and Kronos Quartet at London’s Barbican Centre

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Kronos Quartett & Alim Qasimov Ensemble.
Sebastian Schutyser

Ramadan Nights, the Barbican’s eclectic survey of music from the world of Islam, was an auspicious setting for the second in a series of concerts co-produced by the Aga Khan Music Initiative that brings together leading musicians from Central Asia with the San Francisco-based Kronos Quartet in performances of new collaborative works. The first of these concerts - at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts - featured Afghan rubab virtuoso Homayun Sakhi. This time, it was the turn of Azerbaijani singer Alim Qasimov, who shared the lead vocal role with his daughter and musical protégé, Fargana. The Qasimovs were accompanied by a quartet of young Azerbaijani instrumentalists performing on kamancha (spike fiddle), tar (long-necked lute), balaban (oboe), and naghara (frame drum).

The seeds of the Kronos-Qasimov collaboration were sown last spring, when the two groups met in San Francisco to rehearse a set of songs drawn from the repertoire of Azerbaijani ashiqs - bardic singer-songwriters whose music is widely popular in Azerbaijan. The challenge was to create a seamless interface between the note-reading Kronos players and the Qasimov Ensemble, whose performances typically feature an ever-shifting blend of memorized and extemporized musical gestures.

The Barbican concert demonstrated the rich possibilities of such collaborations. Playing from notated arrangements of the ashiq songs created by American composer-arranger Jacob Garchik, Kronos not only complemented the melodic and rhythmic motifs of the Azerbaijani quartet, but added its own extensive pallette of musical colors. In their most adventurous moments, Garchik’s arrangements depart from the script provided by the songs and offer short compositions for Kronos - instrumental intermezzos that evoke the signature styles of other composers who have represented the East, from the lush harmonic textures of Rimsky-Korsakov to the brooding modal melodies of Bartòk and motoric ostinato patterns of Philip Glass.

Alim Qasimov also introduced elements of innovation into the program - in particular, the high drama of the vocal duets he performed with Fargana. The dramatic quality of the singing was particularly apparent in the Qasimov Ensemble’s solo rendition of “Bayati Shiraz,” which preceded the collaborative set with Kronos. The Qasimovs set the music to ghazals by Fuzuli that anatomize the panoramic emotions of intoxicating unrequited love, from self-reproach to sublime passion. Fuzuli wrote his text in the sixteenth century, but it could just have easily been written last week, for the heart-rending tensions and anxieties he describes are surely ubiquitous through time and cultural space.

The Kronos Quartet opened the concert with its own solo series of short pieces loosely connected by dark, luminous colors and an Eastern theme: arrangements of an Iraqi folksong, an Iranian lullaby, the introductory alap section of an Indian raga, a song by the Palestinian group Ramallah Underground, complete with street sounds presumably recorded in Palestine. A movement from the young Serbian composer Aleksandra Vrebalov’s “Sketch from a Balkan Notebook” sampled a recording of a muezzin reciting the call to prayer.

The enthusiastic response of the two thousand-strong Barbican audience to both solo and collaborative parts of the concert confirmed the Kronos-Qasimov program’s broad accessibility. It also underscored the value of pairing performers from East and West as a way of contributing to the Music Initiative’s mission to cultivate new approaches to musical performance and stimulate interest in Central Asian music worldwide.

Concert Reviews from The Guardian, Muscial Criticism

Review: Homayun Sakhi and Kronos Quartet Dazzle San Francisco Audience with World Premiere

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Yerba Buena Concert in San Francisco, USA.
Courtesy of Kronos Quartet

The Music Initiative’s mission to bring Central Asian music to a worldwide audience broke new ground on August 2nd, when Afghan rubab virtuoso Homayun Sakhi teamed up with the San Francisco-based Kronos Quartet to perform “Rangin Kaman” (The Rainbow), for Afghan rubab, percussion, and string quartet. Composed by Sakhi and arranged for Kronos by Stephen Prutsman, “Rangin Kaman” takes listeners on an impressionistic musical journey through different regions of Sakhi’s native Afghanistan. Throughout the piece, the Kronos players are Sakhi’s fellow travelers, by and large following his lead, but now and again breaking away to offer their own musical impressions of the landscape. The territory that Kronos and Sakhi chart is both expansive and varied, ranging from austere medieval-sounding harmonies and modal motifs anchored by drones to chromatically adventurous modulations that zigzag unpredictably around the conventions of Afghan melodies and scales.

The convergence of Afghanistan and San Francisco is less a geo-cultural oddity than it may seem at first, for the largest Afghan community in the United States is centered in nearby Fremont, California. Homayun Sakhi has lived in that community for some half-dozen years, and his own experience navigating the byways of American-style multiculturalism has clearly served him well as a “world music” composer. Sakhi reveals a knack for synthesis, and, with help from Stephen Prutsman, forges a sinuous convergence of East and West whose strongest moments call to mind the early work of that icon of Indian-Western fusionism, John McLaughlin.

The evening’s percussionists were Salar Nader on tabla and Abbos Kosimov on doyra - the Central Asian frame drum. Both had strong supporting roles in “Rangin Kaman,” however it was in the first part of the concert, devoted to the traditional Kabuli style of Indian raga performance of which Homayun Sakhi is arguably the greatest living exponent, that Nader and Kosimov shined brightest. The metaphor of music as language is nowhere clearer than in the discursive “question and answer” (sawol-jawop) played out between drums and melody instrument that is a hallmark of the North Indian, and also Kabuli, classical performance tradition. Nader and Kosimov drew laughs and repeated applause as they playfully rendered “answers” to Sakhi’s “questions” by transferring the rhythmic patterns of his rubab to their respective drums. In the fiery drut section of raga Yemen, Sakhi was part musician and part magician, extracting from his rubab with seemingly effortless ease a swirl of melodic colors and rhythms. Both in his ebullient collaboration with Kronos and in the raga performance that preceded it, Homayun Sakhi provided ample evidence that in the hands of a master, the resources of tradition are all but inexhaustible.

For more information about the second programme, featuring works for the Kronos Quartet and the Alim Qasimov Ensemble, scheduled to open the Ramadan Nights festival at the Barbican in London on 26 September 2008, please see the Barbican site.