While it might make some sense to discuss Zilzal, the debut album from Ayman Fanous (guitar and bouzouki) and Jason Hao Hwang (violin and viola) in abstract musical terms, it is much too tempting to talk about it in programmatic terms to resist. Certainly terms like melody, harmony, and rhythm are not irrelevant, but somehow to dwell on them seems to do an injustice to both the effects of the music as well as the freewheeling approach to its creation. It would seem odd to focus on the structure of music that is freely improvised in the moment, music that has had no pre-planning. What structure there might be in such music would inevitably have to be accident.
Now maybe the same can be said about the programmatic suggestions of the music, but to the extent that such suggestions reflect the listener’s response, they would at the least have that much validity. Whether they reflect the musician’s intentions, that of course is another question.
With that by way of caveat, let’s begin with the title track. As Fanous tells us in the liner notes, Zilzal is the Arabic word for earthquake. Applied to the album as a whole, it refers to the tumultuous state of the world, politically and culturally, as reflected in the collision of musical ideas and traditions in each and every track. Applied to the individual track titled “Zilzal,” the turmoil of the music clearly holds the mirror up to nature. The associations of “Lapwing,” on the other hand, are less clear. How its chaotic beginning, which seems to resolve itself as the piece moves on, only to end again in chaos, relates to the bird (if indeed it does) is at best a mystery. Of course, the danger in such response criticism is that one man’s chaos may well be another’s smooth flight.
A track like “Mausoleum of Beybars the Crossbowman,” named for an actual place in Egypt, is driven dynamically with an intensely rhythmic passion whirling like a dervish to an exhausting climax, leaving it spent lyrically. Both the opening track, “Nilometer at Roda,” and the final piece, “Tree of the Virgin at Matariya,” exude an exotic Middle Eastern vibe, no doubt in some part related to Fanous’ work on the bouzouki.
The titles of three pieces begin with the designation “DNA:” “DNA: Untranslated,” “DNA: Messenger, the Message,” and “DNA: Binding Sights.” Presumably these refer to their musical genetic material, genetic material as different as that of the two musicians and their musical heritage.
In any case this is not what you would call pretty music. If it is beautiful, it is the beauty of awe. At times it is wistful, at times wildly screeching. At times the musicians complement each other, at times they seem to be at war. At times one steps front and center, at times the other. Through it all, their free improvisation is only possible because they seem to know each other so well.
This is not music that will appeal to everyone. It is, however, music that is on the edge of the future. It is music that needs to be heard and explored.