For most of us in the West classical music calls up visions of men in tuxedos and women in long gowns playing highly formalized and rigidly controlled music. This is the last type of music we’d ever associate with any sort of improvisation as the musicians are there to serve the wishes of the composer as interpreted by the conductor. Unless they’re soloists of very high standing they have little or no say in how the music sounds and what it expresses.
So it might come as a bit of shock to find out that the traditions surrounding classical music in other cultures actually encourage improvisation. For, while in countries like India there are certain formal patterns of structure adhered to, within the form there is plenty of room for the musician to interpret the music. The performances of music is considered a personal and spiritual journey, a means of expressing a connection to the gods, so it can’t help but change from individual to individual. India is not unique in having this kind of musical tradition, and considering the cross-pollination of culture between the two countries down through history, it’s not surprising to find a similar tradition has existed in Iran since the twelfth century.
Persian classical music, like many others where there was originally nothing committed to paper, involves a long and involved training period for anybody wishing to perform it. First of all a student has to memorize a canonic repertoire known as radif (literally translated as “order”) comprised of over 200 modal pieces of music known as gushehs. These gushehs are grouped together as progressions of modally related pieces into twelve distinct dastgah (systems). Once a musician has memorized all the gushehs individually and collectively in their respective dastgah, they are ready to begin creating. Unlike in the West where we have specific pieces of music to perform, the radif is not something that is actually performed as an individual piece of music, but instead serves as the starting point for creative improvisation.
Of course in listening to music the theory behind it usually flies out the window as you get swept up in the sounds and emotions being generated by the artist in question. Such is the case with I Will Not Stand Alone the latest release from Kayhan Kalhor on World Village Music. The recording features Kalhor playing a variation on the traditional Middle Eastern four-stringed bowed instrument, the kamancheh (called a shah kaman) accompanied by Ali Bahrami Fard on a hammered, dulcimer-type instrument known as a bass santor. If you have any thoughts that the conditions described above for the creation and playing of music were restrictive they will be quickly dispelled as you listen to what these two men are able to generate between them.
Looking at a picture of a kamancheh—the shah kaman has a slightly deeper tone then the original—you’ll be amazed at the quality of sound Kalhor is able to create with what looks like a very simple instrument. With only four strings and a resonating chamber made out of a gourd covered by an animal skin, you’d assume its sound would be limited or at least thin. I don’t know whether it’s the virtuosity of the player or a matter of appearances being deceiving, but on this recording it seems to have the ability to sound like most of the bowed four-stringed instruments in an orchestra. From the heart-stopping emotional clarity of a violin to the rich texture of the cello to the mid tones of the viola, Kalhor not only covers almost the entire musical scale as we know it but its emotional equivalent as well.
Serving as a combination percussion and bass Fard’s bass santor not only offers a rich counterpoint and underpinning to Kalhor’s playing, he also adds the additional element of being able to emphasize the rhythm through his use of the hammers required to play his instrument. Any expectations we might have as to its limitations based on our experiences of bass instruments in other compositions are quickly dispelled. For Fard does far more than merely play a simple bass line; instead he plays a melodic accompaniment in the lower register that is every bit as involved as Kalhor’s lead instrument.
In the liner notes accompanying the recording Kalhor describes the eight pieces of music as having their origins during a period of unrest in Iran. He’s unclear as to whether he’s talking about the revolution which saw the overthrow of the Shah back in the 1970s or the more recent period of turbulence and its unsuccessful attempt to push for reforms. Whenever the period, he describes it as one of the most difficult periods in his life, “where darkness and violence seemed to be taking over”. Out of this period came the realization that music has the capability to open what he refers to as doors of hope and he made the choice to play his music for the people for this reason. The actual playing and recording of the music was a way for him to break out of the isolation he felt because of the unrest and to connect with those around him—hence the title I Will Not Stand Alone.
Listening to the music after reading these notes one can’t help but be struck by how well they capture the journey he took from darkness to light. The titles of individual pieces aren’t what you’d call an accurate indication of their musical content; you’d think tunes called “The Laziest Summer Afternoon” or “Dancing Under The Walnut Tree” would be lighthearted and carefree when the former sounds nothing at all like any idle summer day I’ve ever had and the latter bears no relation whatsoever to dancing. Perhaps something was lost in their translation from the original Farsi, but I think he’s commenting on the sense of disconnect he must have felt witnessing scenes of violence and trouble on beautiful summer days. Idyllic conditions have no bearing on how humans behave. It can be a beautiful day and people can still commit atrocities just as easily as if a horrible storm were taking place. The distance between the meaning conveyed by the title of the song and the story the music tells us captures that horrible irony better than anything I’ve heard before.
Everyone of these pieces has an emotional depth that far outstrips most music we’re used to hearing, whether popular or classical. Kalhor has taken the basic skill set required to play Persian classical music to build a collection of pieces that explore both the depths the human spirit can sink to and the heights to which it can ascend. You may have trouble believing this is the work of only two men playing given the multitude of sounds, tones, and emotions they express, but it is indeed only Kalhor and Fard and their two instruments on each track. If you’ve never experienced non-European classical music this recording will be an eye opener, dispelling any doubts you’ve ever had of music’s capacity to cross cultural and linguistic boundaries. The gulf between the Iranian and Western governments is huge these days. Yet listening to recordings like this one help to remind us that the divide between the people of our respective cultures is far smaller than some would have us think.