To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Emel Sherzad shares his perspective on Amir ElSaffar: Rivers of Sound. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!
I grew up listening mostly to Indian classical music and jazz. The late 60s and early 70s were a time when artists tried to bridge different cultures through music. But blending a very old tradition such as Indian classical music or the Arabic maqam with a newer style such as jazz, and to do so tastefully, is not an easy task. Older forms of traditional music can be rather rigid and hard to blend with other styles. That’s where jazz plays a crucial role. Being a much younger hybrid art form emphasizing improvisation, it works wonders as a catalyst. I think jazz lends itself better than any other genre to adapting to and adopting from other traditions.
Amir ElSaffar’s Rivers of Sound, a 90 minute suite for a large ensemble of 17 musicians, flowed like water. At times it evoked droplets, other times flowing streams and rivers, and sometimes the tumultuous sea.
The music was wide in scope. Cinematic. Subtle.
The meanderings of the large ensemble were fueled by the fabulous drumming of Nasheet Waits, providing the necessary momentum throughout the evening.
The music had a wide dynamic range. From quieter sections it built up tension and gained an intense driving force. The transitions between sections were smooth.
The concert started like peaceful breathing, but soon the sound became massive via an intense bass saxophone solo by J.D. Parran, where he sounded like he was laughing and crying simultaneously through his instrument.
The concert was one of the best examples of blending genres I have ever heard. Amir ElSaffar brought elements borrowed from classical composition, interspersed with Arabic classical music, but the glue that kept everything together was the language of contemporary jazz.
At times, the music sounded like Gnawa, the Moroccan trance music. Other times I was reminded of Indonesian gamelan, particularly when the vibraphone and the santur played interlocking patterns. The early music of Terry Riley also came to mind during certain passages.
The musicians were comfortable with the microtonal system. The piano was tuned in such a way that it could produce a jazz solo or play eastern scales. The violinist and the cellist were both very comfortable playing Arabic melodies. The wind instruments played the notes with subtle inflections that imparted an eastern flavor to their phrasings.
The music evoked a different place, a different time.
Layers of sound danced together as though in a dream.
Somehow, the inclusion of the Indian double headed drum, the mridangam, helped the transitions from western moods to eastern modes and vice versa.
In time, each instrument took a solo, showcasing the mastery of each musician, but the emphasis remained on the sound of the ensemble, navigating from section to section smoothly and effortlessly.
The musicians seemed to have a great time playing. The audience in turn became intoxicated by the beauty, joy, and sadness of the music.
The different genres blended perfectly throughout the various sections of the suite.
When Amir ElSaffar put down his trumpet and sat behind the santur and started singing in the tradition of the Arabic maqam, we heard a lament, longing for a lost time. In these sections, the plaintive sounds of the oud, oboe and Turkish ney were reminiscent of the poetry of Rumi. The whole ensemble mourned like the sigh of an orphaned child.
In these times where divisive winds blow from various directions, the work of artists bridging cultures beautifully is important.
Drop by drop the river is formed.