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Kayhan Kalhor & Brooklyn Rider: Silent City

01.23.09
Kayhan Kalhor & Brooklyn Rider
Pitchforkmedia.com

Kayhan Kalhor is a Kurdish Iranian master of Persian music and one of the greatest living players of the kamancheh, a four-stringed, upright Persian fiddle that's tuned like a violin but has a darker tone; Brooklyn Rider is a young American string quartet in the tradition of the Kronos and Balanescu Quartets. Together, their repertoire is a mixture of classic string pieces, modern compositions, and originals composed by one of the group's violinists, Colin Jacobsen, and fleshed out by a talented bunch, equally comfortable improvising and playing complex arrangements as they are performing in concert halls and small rock clubs.

Kalhor and Brooklyn Rider met as members of Yo-Yo Ma's ambitious Silk Road Ensemble, a project seeking to unite the vast range of musical traditions along the historic trade route in a way that preserves each one but casts it in the context of something broad and modern. They continue in that spirit on Silent City, finding common ground between Persian folk and modern minimalism. The album's two short pieces, "Ascending Bird" and "Parvaz", bridge those genres directly, the former by adapting a piece of folk music, and the latter by retelling the same legend with a new composition by Kalhor. "Ascending Bird" balances slow and deliberate phrases from the quartet, with Kalhor's warm, searching kamancheh and frenzied santur (Persian hammer dulcimer) from guest Siamak Aghaei. Percussionist Mark Suter and double bassist Jeff Beecher are also on hand to widen the aural palette.

Colin Jacobsen's "Beloved, Do Not Let Me Be Discouraged" fuses a passage inspired by the Central-Asian Romeo & Juliet story Layla & Majnun with a 14th-century Italian song, beginning with a long, solemn meditation on the latter before swelling and finally bursting into its rhythmic second half. Engineer Jody Elff has brilliantly captured the detail and dynamic depth of the group, and this is most apparent on the half-hour centerpiece, Kalhor's magnificent composition "Silent City". It begins nearly inaudible, with a slow improvisation that gradually grows to a heaving, jaw-dropping climax around the 17-minute mark, only to break back down to an aching, kamancheh-led passage. Where the first climax comes with a sudden shift from dissonance to gorgeous consonance, the second is a cathartic, celebratory dance movement, with Suter returning to percussion.

Silent City has something for nearly everyone-- classical music fans will appreciate the fine quality of the playing, world music aficionados will enjoy the cross-cultural currents, and it's very easy to see kids reared on post-rock and miminalist electronic music feeling at home here (if you've ever liked anything released on Kranky, you're almost certain to enjoy this). Experimentalism is always more rewarding when it leads to resounding emotional depth, and this is as good an example as you'll find of a group of musicians achieving that ideal balance.