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Splendid Rendition, Sins of Omission

New York
Corpus Christi Church
04/14/2024 -  
Anon: Golestan – Glosa sabre el canto Ilana Pange Lingua
Francisco Guerrero: Si tus penas no proebo y so slosa
Luis de Narváez: Diferencias de Conde Claros
Aga Mu’men: Nikriz Pishrow
Alonso de Mudarra: Diferencias de Conde Claros – Fantasia que contrahaze la harpa en la manera de Ludovico – Romanesca o Guádame las vacas
Dimitrie Cantemir: Buzurg Pishrow
Miguel de Fuenllana: Fecit potentiam & Fantasia
Santiago de Murcia: Fandango
Kiya Tabasssian: Chavosh

“Constantinople” and “Accademia del Piacere” ensembles, Kiya Tabassian (Leader, Setar and voice), Fahmi Alqhai (Leader), Johanna Rose (Viola da gamba), Didem Basar (Kanun), Hamin Honari (Tobmak, Daf), Patrick Graham (Percussion)

Accademia del Piacere & Constantinople Ensembles

Soon, with a noise like tambourines,/Came her attendant Byzantines.
From Peter Quince at the Clavier, Wallace Stevens

Art is the conversation between lovers. Art offers an opening for the heart. True art makes the divine silence in the soul Break into applause.
Hafez (1325-1398)

“Music Before 1800” has produced such exciting eclectic programs these past few years, ranging from ancient Mali to old Portuguese motets that I was especially anxious to hear their “From Seville to Isfahan” concert yesterday afternoon at the lovely Corpus Christi Church. I had just returned from Andalusia (an amateur student of the Judeo-Islamic-Catholic relations), been many times to Istanbul (though no Byzantine chants are permitted), and in the pre‑Ayatollah days, had woken to the stringed pentatonic scales and rhythms, from Isfahan to fundamentalist Meshed.

True, I was ignorant yesterday afternoon of each of the twelve works, and even the instruments (kanun?, daf?, tombak?) But the fame of both “Constantinple” and “Accademia del Piacere” had reached me. I had never heard them before. But decided against listening on YouTube, hoping for an initial joy at their singular sounds.

The sounds were indeed rare. First of course the vocals by Kiya Tabassian, smooth, lyrical, loud when necessary (more on that later). Solos by the two viola d’amore, one of the instruments I actually did recognize. Then we had a solo of the “talking” drum, played by Patrick Graham, who, with virtuosity made his single flat drum simulate different voices, a whole variety of tones.

I did faintly recognize one or two of the songs here, but the sounds were different. Mainly, in downloading early Renaissance music, several works were played–but never by complete ensembles. Rather, they were played on single lutes or guitars or cithara. Which meant that the complete ensembles of drones (incessant drones) and additions and subtractions of different instruments sometimes disguised the melody itself.

That positive sides of the music was obvious.

The negative problems were more acute. Seated way in the back toward the extreme right in the church, I couldn’t tell what was playing what. The familiar sounds were fine, but in the dense aural textures, I could never differentiate the instruments.

Second, there was not an iota of chronology here. From Persian to Renaissance back to Persian. One wanted (as an example) Berber to Spanish to Byzantine Greek to the leap into Indo/Arab/Persian music.

Even more distressing–I mean really distressing–is that in these uncommon works, we had not a single word of explanation in the program. No description of instruments, no explanation of the individual works.

The Persian music by itself had wonderful aural fabric. But as Henry Cowell showed in his faux‑Persian Persian Suite, these works have a structure, which must be followed. The same as sonata form or raga form.

Persian Musicians, 18th Century (© Mary Jane Evans Picture Library)

For the Renaissance Andalusian music–music which comes from Berber, North African and Castillian roots–I was happy to hear (finally!) familiar diatonic scales, a melody, an identification. I still had no idea what it was all about. Fantasia que contrahaze la harpa en la manera de Ludovico was obviously a set of variations from Ludovico. And I had to search my memory that Ludovico was a rather wicked city‑state ruler, and these were variations. And that was all.

Let us add to these sins of omission. The titles were in Medieval Spanish or Persian from the 16th Century Safavid dynasty. Forgive my ignorance, but I had no idea what they meant. (With the exception of Fandango.)

Add to that, Mr. Tabassian’s vocals were from the ecstatic Sufi poetry of Hafiz. In rare good translations, his poems are lyrical, exciting–and they mean something. Words are more than sounds. They refer to things, emotions, situations, complexities, simplicities. One doesn’t need Wittgensteinian tenets about language to understand that the Hafiz poetry of the music had references.

Nobody bothered to print even a primary translation in the program.

If the full house (full church?) was polymathically knowledgeable, good. Or they simply applauded the virtuosity of the music, also adequate.

Virtuosity, though, is a tool. The results must be more than amorphous, even if rapturous) sounds. I was happy that the congregation loved these sounds, applauded, gave extra plaudits, jazz style, for the talking drums.

Bless their happiness, bless the artistry of the septet. Wistfully, I was happy to leave. Ignorant, relatively confused, but thrilled to be on a street where the only truly graspable language was the twilight breeze.

Harry Rolnick



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