Five Visionary Musicians Travel to the Apocalypse and Beyond


Kayhan Kalhor and Brooklyn Rider carried Milwaukee to the nether edge of pan-cultural, time-tripping music-making in a recent concert at Alverno’s Pittman Theater. Now we know why raved about these guys, and nary a guitarist among them.

Let’s start with Brooklyn Rider, which is classy-cool, not overdoing the hipper-than-thou theatrics that Kronos Quartet sometimes indulges. But this quartet band ain’t four-corner square fuddy-duds. Each player (save the cellist, who still romances his instrument in a loin embrace) performs standing up, unlike traditional or even most other “hip” string quartets. They may not subject their axes to Pete Townshend arm wind-milling, but every once in a while you hear a full-throated ensemble power chord from their discretely amplified instruments.

But such a stunning harmonic attack is no brain-and-body crunch. It’s more a genuine heart palpitator, as in the second movement of the latest Philip Glass string quartet which opened the second half of their concert with a mewling, wailing, bird cry effect, a soulful sonic wave in time and space.

Kalhor, by contrast, does sit – but he doesn’t even use a chair. Foregoing bourgeois conveniences is part of the rigor and ritual of Eastern and, in this case, Middle Eastern music. (Check it out: Brooklyn Rider is collaborating with an Iranian master, undercutting stereotypes of Iran as a bunch of jihadist war mongers. The quartet and Kalhor met in cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble tour).

Intensely focused yet collectively attuned, Kalhor is a compact man, a virtuoso of a four-stringed instrument, the kamancheh, with a gourd-like voice box that, despite its smallness, cuts through the Western string ensemble sonority easily as a lead voice. At times it almost keened, but eloquently.

The concert ranged from “Atasgah,” inspired music by BRider violinist Colin Jacobson’s experiences in Iran (like most non-classical groups, they compose some of their own material) to music drawing from the classical tradition, specifically Beethoven. “Seven Steps” reimagined segments of the German romantic master’s genius into a contemporary mélange befitting, say, today’s Web-surfing sensibility.

But these riders were brave musical expedition guides bent on transporting listeners, after intermission. Again they balanced Western and Persian sources. The Glass quartet — music from the film Bent — characteristically doesn’t travel far harmonically but rather envelops the listener in its ardent sonic direction. Brooklyn Rider plays Glass music like second nature, lending all the sharp and supple dynamics that give the minimalist composer his expansively romantic  interest and enchantment. And in this ensemble’s harmonies — both power chords and supple aural massages — reminds the listener of the peerlessly quadrupled expressivity of the string quartet form.

It all led up to this unique quintet’s big “hit,” if you can say that of a half-hour long piece, Kalhor’s remarkable “Silent City.” BRider had recently spoken with the great Indian jazz pianist-composer Vijay Iyer (who’ll return to Alverno for a solo concert on March 10), and noted Iyer’s characterization of music as “necessitating an architectural space for things to happen.” That’s “Silent City” to a T, though it began with the T virtually obliterated.

Like the Glass, “City” is essentially but richly modal, rising at first like the meager embers of devastated urban ruins. Here the composer’s instrument creeps out tentatively amid the quartet’s vast, bleak setting of shifting microtonal textures, a slow emergence somewhat reminiscent of, say, Barber’s greatAdagio for Strings,” rescored as a tonally ambiguous soundtrack to Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel The Road. The group’s muted but intensifying pitches uncover a furtive, slightly frightening aura, suggesting a lone surviving consciousness — in the tentative voice of Kalhor’s kamancheh, with a memory haunted by spectral echoes. At one point, the piece begins growing almost like a random seed windblown to a fertile spot; a tree grows in scorched Brooklyn? Actually, Kalhor’s small, vertical instrument — with bulbous base, stalk-like neck and large pegs — resembles a growing plant.

The sonic sun gradually spreads, mournfully illuminating a morning of disabused innocence and pensively posing musical questions: What happened? What did we do to our world? Where do we go from here? The light births a new day and a now-insistent rhythmic sense of human industry. At this point, one sensed the concert had gradually achieved a touch of greatness — certainly a heady, breathtaking majesty to match the inextinguishable hope of a new era of life, amid desolation and death.*

The encore piece, bursting with joyously frenetic purpose, is titled “The Bird,” and depicted an intrepid winged creature “trying to fly to the sun,” Kalhor explained afterwards. In a post-technological world, Nature leads The Way.



*The recorded version of “Silent City” is enhanced by a bassist and a bodhran percussionist. It would be interesting to hear this ambitious work played by an East-meets-West chamber orchestra.

BTW, BRider has one of the coolest artist websites ( I’ve seen, with homepage site tabs deftly integrated into a gloriously funky ink pen-and-watercolor cityscape portrait of Brooklyn, and an actual online art gallery.

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