Giving Voice to "Silent City": Kayhan Kalhor Bridges Tehran and Brooklyn

09.02.08
Kayhan Kalhor & Brooklyn Rider , Brooklyn Rider
Spinner.com

There are several intriguing angles one could take regarding 'Silent City,' a new album combining the talents of Iranian kamancheh (spike fiddle) virtuoso Kayhan Kalhor with the adventurous American string quartet
Brooklyn Rider. An outgrowth of the musicians' experience as part of Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble recordings and tours, this album comes at a time of ever-increasing tensions and rhetoric between the two countries' governments, a time when suspicion seems to trump reason and a time when more and more artists are seen as ambassadors of their cultures. And the title piece is emotionally stunning, a 29-minute musical Guernica, a threnody for the Kurdish village Hallabja that suffered the 1988 chemical weapons attack by Iraq that left 5,000 dead.

But don't overlook one striking thing about the contents of this album, particularly that title composition: This is simply utterly remarkable music.

This is not a case of Persian styles adorned with Western strings, or conversely a string quartet with Iranian
music on top of it. Much like compositions of fellow Tehran native Hafez Nazeri discussed in an earlier Around the World column, this is a true fusion. And it's not just a melding of of cultures and genres but of the musical minds of the people making it -- which is exactly what Kalhor intended when he conceived the piece.
"I think the best part of any musical encounter is the thinking stage," he says. "Let me give an example: You
listen to a great African musician. You enjoy the music and suddenly you think of what you can do with him or her in a musical collaboration. This happens to me a lot. I hear a great piece of music somewhere and would love to picture myself in it! What can I add to it to make it different if I was given the opportunity? Not that it should be different."

That, he says, was the case with such groundbreaking collaborations as Ghazal (with Indian sitar player
Shujaat Husain Khan), Masters of Persian Music (with vocalists Mohammad Reza Shajarian and Shahram
Nazeri and tar master Hossein Alizadeh), his 2004 'In the Mirror of the Sky' album (with Kurdish lute player Ali
Akbar Moradi) and a featured role on the Kronos Quartet's album 'Caravan.'

"The biggest challenge in these cases is to learn about that certain kind of music or musical culture and the
next is how to combine the ideas, technically and sentimentally," he notes.

This was different, though, both on the title piece and on the three others surrounding it: 'Ascending Bird'
(based on a traditional Persian tune and arranged by Rider violinist Colin Jacobsen and guest santur player
Siamak Aghaei), 'Parvaz' (a 2000 composition by Kalhor) and 'Beloved, Do Not Let Me Be Discouraged'
(written by Jacobsen, inspired in part by the medieval Persian romantic tale 'Layla and Majnun').
"With Brooklyn Rider, I didn't really have to picture myself in the music. We had played many pieces together, by different composers, and they knew my music better than other musicians I had worked with." Which means the "thinking stage" of this was a little different than he had experienced, with an element of freedom he'd never really had before.

"After playing together for a long time, I think one of the elements that we were after was the use of freedom
and improvisation," he says of arranging the music for him and Brooklyn Rider, supplemented by bass player
Jeff Beecher and percussionist Mark Suter. "How to bring that to a piece played by an ensemble of six players and not make it chaotic was the question. I'm not very keen on jamming without direction, so I tried to find one and explain it to the others. And for even more direction, I decided to finish the piece with a pre-written -- totally arranged -- movement to bring everything together. To me, the piece is like a story, and it has a certain ending, which was very intentional."

And that means, to him, that he came up with something that on one hand is specific to the musicians
involved, but on the other transcends even that -- something that is designed to have a life in other settings.
This, in fact, is not the first presentation of it. It was commissioned by Carnegie Hall and debuted at
Tanglewood Music Center in 2006 with Kahlor leading an eight-piece string ensemble in a 20-minute version,
as can be heard and downloaded here. But the Brooklyn Rider version takes the ideas to new places, and
even more expansion of the ideas is to be expected in the shows the musicians will be doing in the U.S. next
spring, following the Silk Road Ensemble appearance Sept. 27 at the Hollywood Bowl, featuring Kalhor.
"The personality and deep understanding of the players made this particular recording very special, although
it could also be approached by other instrumentalists if explained well," he says. "For me, 'Silent City' is an
idea more than a piece, and that idea can be used in many formats with many other combinations."
And that, arguably, is where the art and craft of this piece meets the emotions behind and evoked by it. Not
only does the music work in different combinations of players, but it also works for a great variety of listeners.

Kalhor wrote it about a very specific occurrence but has encountered people from different places, who
endured different situations yet found great personal resonance in this music.

"As humans, we share many similarities in our lives: death, catastrophe, injustice, unhappiness, aggression
and wars at one side, and happiness, friends, kindness, love and peace at the other," he says. "All are
emotions we feel and will greatly be affected by. I don't think it's hard for a person from New Orleans to relate
and understand the suffering of an Iraqi or an Afghan or a Rwandan, or vice versa. They might be from
different cultures, but to lose a loved one -- to accident or human aggression or a wrong decision or political
difficulty -- is the same everywhere. Unfortunately, many social, political, racial factors are trying to separate
us as humans. But I think at the end of the day and despite all of the negative propaganda, we remain
humans and would unfortunately remember it most when something terrible happens."

Do not take this as a political statement, though, a commentary against -- or for -- the Iranian government or
U.S. policy or any such thing.

"My personal goal and wish is to make people realize that a citizen of any country does not represent their
politicians, nor should they," Kahlor insists. "And to say that musicians are cultural ambassadors of any
culture, not the political one. I come from an old culture that has offered many values to the human society,
and I want to share that with everyone through music.

"Unfortunately, most of the time I have to get engaged in political discussion with friends or reporters about
the political situation in Iran or the relationship between our governments -- not our countries -- and the
images that the Western media depicts from today's Iran does not really help me make my points."
Make what you will of it, then. Or make nothing of it, and simply enjoy it for what it is: great music.