Tom Strini

Present Music goes Middle Eastern

By - May 9th, 2010 12:27 am

Amir ElSaffar

Iraqi music, as I found out at a Present Music concert Friday, is unusually subtle and elegant. Or maybe that’s just the way Amir ElSaffar and his sister, violinist/joza player Dena ElSaffar, and brother-in-law, percussionist Tim Moore, play it.

The trio, collectively known as Safaafir, opened their set with traditional Baghdad-style maqam, a courtly, classical genre wedded to love poetry. The piece winds around a long melody that has some rhythm and momentum when played straight and gently driven by Moore’s hand drum. During these passages, Dena either doubled the melody or embellished it with ornaments on joza, a four-string fiddle with a half coconut shell as a resonator. Amir sang the melody and played/ornamented it as he sang.

Dena ElSaffar

The drum laid out and the joza mostly settled on drones when Amir went into highly melismatic vocal embellishments. The style involves a micro-virtuosity that turns on very fine gradations of pitch within a very narrow range. You’d be amazed how easily ears attuned to the relative crudity of equal temperament can zero in on the finer shadings of quarter-tones after a few minutes acclimation. Music doesn’t get much more intimate than this.

The hypnotic quality of Amir’s singing draws you in. When the song moves on, the rhythm kicks like a bracing splash of cold water. The last such episode inevitably ratchets up the speed and volume just a bit, to big effect.

Tim Moore

Amir has another life as a jazz trumpet player. He got out the trumpet, Dena subbed her viola in for the joza, and they showed how he is trying to integrate jazz thinking with maqam tradition. The first number, a subtle and witty mumbling, muted affair, and the full-bore second number sounded very convincing. The deep groove Moore extracted from that little drum was a big part of the argument.

Saafaafir and six members of the Present Music ensemble got together for an engrossing collaboration on a traditional maqam song. Everyone met somewhere between traditional Iraq, jazz and post-modern avant-gardism, and everyone sounded happy. The big audience at Turner Hall cheered the music lustily.

Violinists Shu Zhan and Eric Segnitz, violist Brek Renzelman, cellist Adrien Zitoun and clarinetist William Helmers opened the concert with Betty Olivero’s Six Yiddish Songs and Dances, a wildly virtuosic and frequently antic take on klezmer. It’s like a miniature clarinet concerto. Helmers played it with crazy abandon and utter precision, and it was a thrill.

Present Music’s relationship with Turkish-American composer Kamran Ince has been its longest and most fruitful. Saturday, music director and conductor Kevin Stalheim revived Istathenople, a 2003 commission. Here, Ince runs two distinct ideas, one driving and virtuosic, the other placid and glowing, through all the styles that have influenced him: Turkish and Greek traditional, Balkan, rock and pop, European modernism and Minimalism.

The 10-piece band includes bouzuki, mandolin and electronic keyboard. Ince’s astonishing colors make even the most basic harmonies fascinating. Bathe a major third rocking to a minor third in gorgeous, shifting colors, and you can listen to them all night.

You’d expect a musical Tower of Babel, but the simple, instantly recognizable materials hold the piece together. The piece is ever changing but ever the same, as ideas we hear at the outset keep returning in colorful new clothes and dancing slightly different steps. It’s fun to compare, and impossible not to be swept up in the overall rising energy. It grows exuberant and riotous, as the reiterations of the fast section take on the urgency of an alarm.

Singer Rebecca Davies, for most of the piece, is just another instrument in the mix, another wordless color. But just as the music couldn’t possibly become more brilliant and exciting, it grew impossibly beautiful and Davies’ ravishing voice came to the fore.

She sang a melody that tumbled gently over cushioned, descending chords. Davies sang long, pitched sighs, dreamy sighs, sighs of gratitude for the intoxicating charms of music of all sorts.

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