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Separation Anxiety

We in the West like to think that music is a series of narrative events about me.  How did I, the composer or performer, feel today? Was I happy or sad? It’s more or less high drama all the time and the romantic tradition is, of course, all about the individual.  In the East things are different.  Or are they? These ideas came to mind when I caught the the Silk Road Ensemble Iranian kamancheh (spike fiddle) virtuoso Kayhan Kalhor and his drummer Behrouz Jamali, on tombak, performing a demanding 88 minute intermission-less program of Persian classical music, which the California Institute of Integral Studies presented on a crisp February evening at San Francisco’s Herbst Theatre.  Philip Glass performed a similar marathon feat when he gave a 70 minute interval-free recital of his piano pieces at the city’s Novellus Theatre last year.

In both cases the music was clearly about time and its uses. Persian music operates as a very specific and highly balanced calibration of time as a fleeting yet permanent force. The closest thing in our tradition is the Baroque which demands an acute sensitivity to touch and line from the performer. How one realizes the unfolding melodic gestures in Persian modes–one, as in raga, is explored up close–separates the men from the boys. Kalhor, who’s been performing his country’s music since age 7, clearly knows his way around this block. His smooth and sustained bowing exploited the music’s quarter tone resonances–each mode contains 24 tones–and suggested a viola da gamba at times, with harp-like and reedy effects which he played as ornaments near his instrument’s double pegged top. Slow passages alternated with infrequent vigorous ones, though Jamali, who spent most of the time on the rug-draped space they shared like an enthralled devotee, supplied no gravitas and precious little rhythmic charge. Contemplative music from the West or East can pull the audience in, as did Jordi Savall and late great singer Montserrat Figueras and artists from both traditions as they did in their astonishing concert DVD/CD Jerusalem–City of Two Peaces,  recorded in Fes Morocco.  Drama–meaning something that excites the nerves and awakens the heart–should not be relegated to the legit stage.

The program’s ostensible subtext was the great Sufi poet Rumi whose poems chart the soul’s separation from and desire to connect with human love in order to reach the all-encompassing divine. The audience here responded warmly though not with the same ardor with which they embraced the  great Iraqi oud player and composer Rahim Al Haj at a previous CIIS concert. And audience response is always the litmus lest. As my late composer friend Virgil Thomson quipped when someone asked him what the best criticism is: “Loud and continued applause.”  Music should take us to heaven, and if we don’t feel it fully we’re just on a smaller, less exalted cloud.