CD Review: Kayhan Kalhor & Brooklyn Rider -Silent City

09.09.08
Kayhan Kalhor & Brooklyn Rider
Lucid Culture

Kayhan Kalhor is having a hard time doing anything wrong right now: pretty much everything the renowned Iranian kamancheh (spike fiddle) player touches turns into something magical. Like most of his contemporaries, Kalhor delights in cross-cultural collaboration, and this latest cd, created with inventive string quartet Brooklyn Rider is typical. Brisk, bracing, exhilarating and often wrenchingly haunting, it's a spectacularly successful achievement. It's less an attempt to blend East and West than simply a collaboration between friends. Kalhor - founder of the Dastan Ensemble, Ghazal Ensemble and Masters of Persian Music -  has two lengthy compositions here, playing kamancheh and also santur (a four-string lute) on his own darkly rustling retelling of the Persian flight myth, Parvaz. Fascinatingly arranged by maverick violist/composer Ljova, its recurrent refrains slowly builds, inexorably gaining intensity..

The cd opens with a vividly evocative traditional piece, Ascending Bird, an imaginative musical rendition of the same myth that Kalhor explores in Parvaz. The piece begins with the strings bristling with anticipation and urgency before taking flight over the rapidfire strumming of guest setarist Siamak Aghaei. At this point, for all intents and purposes, it becomes a rapidly, fascinatingly shapeshifting acoustic rock song. The album's centerpiece is its title track, a Kalhor composition, perhaps the most intense and emotionally wrenching work he's written to date. It's a dead-accurate portrayal of the aftereffects of shock on the human psyche. An evocation of Saddam Hussein's poison gas attack on the Kurdish city of Hallabjah, it begins almost inaudible with a faint hum that only gradually grows into a wash of numb atmospherics. Slowly, the city's residents make their way back, piecing together whatever may be left of their families, their lives and their memories. Running their instruments through a delay effect, both individually and in unison, the group create a hypnotic, echoey, otherworldly ambience that goes on for minutes on end: this is a long piece, clocking in at around thirty minutes. Only at the end does the melody erupt in raw outrage, and when it does, it ranks with Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony, Julius Reubke's Sonata on the 49th Psalm or Elvis Costello at his most excoriating as a potent expression of despair followed by fury. Even if it is much quieter.

The cd's final piece Beloved, Do Not Let Me Be Discouraged begins stately and atmospherically before growing to a lively dance with what could be an attractively major-key pre-baroque English folk melody rearranged for strings: Henry Purcell, anyone? Based on a 16th century verse by the Turkish poet Fuzuli, its theme is crazy love: interestingly, while the players attack the melody with considerable abandon, it never gets completely out of control.

Perhaps because of the diversity of the performers' backgrounds, this cd sounds neither particularly Middle Eastern nor American. Kalhor and Brooklyn Rider just might have created a a new genre here: dark ambient modernist Persian-American classical, for lack of a better term. It's accessible enough to appeal to mainstream classical fans, although more adventurous listeners will undoubtedly spin this over and over. To completely appreciate it, headphones are an absolute necessity. Without a doubt, one of the most enjoyably pioneering cds of the decade.