Authentic Eastern Music
East of the River offers a memorable performance of early Mediterranean music.
Early Music Now, recognized for scheduling the best in early classical repertoire, hosted an ensemble that introduced Milwaukee to rhythms and melodies rarely heard here in its Saturday concert at the UW-Milwaukee Zelazo Center. The East of the River ensemble led by Daphna Mor and Nina Stern on recorders and related instruments, included Tamer Pinarbasi on kanun, Jesse Kotansky on violin and Luke Notary on a variety of percussive instruments. “East of the River” refers both to the members’ Brooklyn neighborhood and the “Eastern” Medieval music they play.
Early Music Now often features western music from centuries that preceded the development of its familiar Classical canon. But developments in the “Eastern” world beginning with similar roots occurred independently – creating scales (in Arabic – madam) and rhythms (Muwashahat) far more complex than any in Western music.
This concert featured early music from many countries including Bulgarian, Serbian, Turkish and other “East of the Danube” cultures along with 19th and 20th century selections derived from those earlier traditions. Jewish and Muslim migrations may have helped to disseminate this musical culture.
At the heart of the music are infectious melodies with a strong rhythmic base. Lines are structured in compound sets made of a sequence of slow and fast rhythmic measures with clearly accented beats. Plucked strings, rapid recorder runs, sharp-edged percussion and short bow strokes on the violin serve precise rhythms – often at a break-neck pace. But even the ballads retained a strong beat – supplied by an ever-present percussion accompaniment.
The evening began with more gentle, less complex music, then to works with more virtuoso, looser shapes featuring each player and
finishing with infectious dances with ensemble and solo turns.
For “Krunk” (The Crane), performed early in the evening, a small shurti box with bellows created a drone sound that served as the backdrop for a lyrical Armenian ballad featuring Stern on recorder. The text (not a part of the concert, but beautifully sung on-line here forms a sad chant from the perspective of one left behind in the homeland. The reflective, wistful legato tones on the recorder were unusual for the evening.
“Sammai Hijaz” featured Mor on a ney with Pinarbasi on kanun in support. A hollow cane, the ney is narrower than recorders and produced a thinner, somewhat raspy sound. The song remained low key, weaving tenderly. Notary tapped the beat on a small frame drum, occasionally adding small shaken bells strapped to his leg. Theatrical images of the Casbah came to mind.
Pinarbasi’s mastery of the kanun was a joy to watch. Most kanun players pluck the strings using two picks. Pinarbasi uses all ten fingers instead, floating like a spider above the 72 strings. One hand frequently darted to the edge of the instrument to adjust the many levers that modify the individual pitch of each string. He was featured in “Longa Farahfaza.” A simple melody repeats in variations. During slower sections, lever adjustments introduced a microtone twang to the sound. Rapidly pinched pairs of strings and even faster strumming demonstrated clear control of the instrument. The compound rhythmic pattern retained its essential structure throughout, but the pace changed constantly, appearing improvised. After a solo set, Notary joined on a tabla-like drum, Mor on recorder exchanged melodic lines with the kanun and Kotansky’s violin joined refrains in unison. (Pinarbasi is featured on-line here although detailed views of a kanun are better at this link.)
A dance set from Bulgaria, Serbia and Greece ended the first half of the concert. Through their recorders, Mor and Stern danced to an infectious melody in “Kozarica Kolo.” Kotansky picked up the dance on violin in a lively, though minor mode. Notary introduced the drum he was sitting on – a Cajón – originally fashioned by Cubans from cod fish shipping boxes. Large and small circular cuts in the sides shaped the percussive tone. The kanun was difficult to discern in the more lively music except when participating in short duet exchanges with violin or recorder. “Sirto,” the final dance, stepped up the pace. (Readers may hear East of the River play two of these dances online), although an accordion replaces the kanun.
“Krivo Sadovsko Hero” allowed Kotansky to play virtuoso violin. Between ensemble refrains, the violin took flights of fantasy. The scales were Eastern, the bowing that of a fiddle. As with other instruments, microtonal adjustment introduced slight variations in the scale.
The concert closed with “Bucimis,” introducing a short melodic ear worm that cycled again and again through playing resembling a jazz ensemble – solo turns, each featuring virtuoso playing at high energy. A broad beat picked up a knee tapping pattern surrounding a compound internal rhythm.
The audience responded with a standing ovation. Hollywood may have tapped elements of this music, but never with the skill, authentic complexity and sheer pleasure produced in this concert.
The second half of the concert began by highlighting the results of an extensive residency program in Milwaukee. Twenty-nine 4th and 5th graders from West Milwaukee/ West Allis schools joined the ensemble for a small set. East of the River worked with that school system and have performed in several venues around the community as a part of the Early Music Now outreach program.
Early Music Now will next host the Four Nations Ensemble in a concert featuring “The Paris of Leclair and Rameau” on April 12th at the Zelazo Center. More information here. http://www.earlymusicnow.org/20132014season/aprfournations.html