Into the mystic with Persian masters Kayhan Kalhor and Ali Bahrami Fard

Duke Performances presents a mind-boggling range of music, from soloists to huge ensembles, in many venues at Duke and in Durham, and regular theater-goers here have become accustomed to glorious experiences. But last night’s event was something extremely special. In conjunction with the Nasher Museum of Art, DP presented Persian classical music virtuoso Kayhan Kalhor, from Teheran, along with Ali Bahrami Fard of Shiraz, Iran, in the small auditorium at the Nasher. This setting gave the concert an intimacy that made the mesmerizing music even more overwhelming.

Kayhan Kalhor. Photo: courtesy Duke Performances.

Kayhan Kalhor. Photo: courtesy Duke Performances.

The Nasher’s current exhibition, Doris Duke’s Shangri La: Architecture, Landscape and Islamic Art, on view through Dec. 29, created this opportunity for two branches of Duke’s art tree to intertwine. Doris Duke’s former Hawaii home is now the Shangri La Center for Islamic Arts and Cultures, and Kalhor has appeared there in concert, and earlier this year, spent time as artist-in-residence there. Doris Duke amassed a very fine collection of Islamic artworks from many cultures; examples are on display, along with more recent artworks by other artists-in-residence at Shangri La, and large photo images of the rooms and grounds. It must have been strange for Kalhor to walk through a representation of rooms he has inhabited.

Classical Persian music depends on the musician mastering a large repertoire, in order to be able to embellish and improvise on it (Kalhor devotes a section of his website to a discussion of the music’s history and forms), no matter which instrument he plays. It includes much resonance, many repetitions with or without variations, and intensely moving melodic lines that flow out like calligraphic ink, or like the graceful arabesques painted into miniatures, woven into textiles or worked into bronze. With Kalhor playing, the music induces a meditative state leading, sometimes, to an ecstatic one: it takes the listener high and far, and the musicians even further. I experience a pleasing double awareness when listening–the awareness of my dancing mind within my body, and an awareness of great elemental imagery conjured by the sounds surging through time. As if from overhead somewhere out in the cosmos, I see vast landscapes of stone and dust, fields of grain and crickets, fast rivers, clear pools, trees, wind, fire, stars in the dark.

At the Nasher, Kalhor played not the kamancheh, the four-stringed spike fiddle with which the world has become familiar through Kalhor’s participation in Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, but a recent hybrid instrument devised by Peter Biffin in collaboration with Kalhor. With five strings and seven “sympathetic strings,” the Shah Kaman produces a deeper, richer sound, even more like human singing than the kamancheh. In the small room at the Nasher, one could see clearly how the musician makes the loosely-strung bow taut with his fingers, and how he turns the instrument, not the bow, to play upon different strings. Kalhor also made the Shah Kaman into a tonal percussion instrument by lightly beating on the conical neck while fingering the strings with his left hand. He punctuated these beats with sudden vibrant pluckings, before retrieving his bow.

Most of the time, Kahlor kept his eyes closed, going deep into the mystery, but now and then he glanced quickly at his partner on the bass santour, Ali Bahrami Fard, and they exchanged small blissful smiles. The santour is a struck zither, or as we say around here, a hammered dulcimer. The bass version Fard plays has 96 strings, and produces a powerful ringing into the deeper tones, making it a wonderful accompaniment to the Shah Kaman. Like Kahlor, Fard was completely in the music as it flowed through the minutes, speeding, slowing, swirling, resting, reviving to soar again. At times his mallets moved so rapidly that all one could see were liquid circles of motion.

This was the fourth time I have heard Kalhor live, and by far the most thrilling. I came to him backwards, as it were, from the huge Silk Road Ensemble, from his work with the Brooklyn Rider String Quartet (Silent City!) and with experimental cellist Maya Beiser. I had heard him in a small venue with two or three other musicians, but hearing him play with just one other master, each mentally attuned to the other…there was ecstasy on offer, more than enough for everyone in the room.

Kalhor and Fard collaborated on an album that provides a reasonable alternative to following them from concert to concert. I Will Not Stand Alone, released in 2012, is available on the World Village label.

ADF @ The Nasher: Mark Haim

This Land Is Your Land, repeats tonight only

The American Dance Festival and the Nasher Museum of Art are doing an extremely cool thing, co-presenting an unusual dance by Mark Haim in the museum’s atrium. There were two shows of This Land Is Your Land on the 25th, and there will be two more tonight, June 26. After that you will have missed your chance to see something surprising, life-affirming and–yes–cheerful.

Mark Haim, from Seattle, has been teaching in the ADF School for years (and has been an artist-in-residence at Durham’s Cassilhaus), and has a long, impressive roster of work to his credit. He is one of the 14 (Seattle-based) performers who walk, skip and turn before a striped backdrop, moving unceasingly through a series of permutations and modulated repetitions that would make Philip Glass goggle. Although the sound was a mix of country and western songs, old and new, I felt as if I were seeing music being made in the minimalist style of Glass or Reich. It was a fantastic feeling.

From Mark Haim's THIS LAND IS YOUR LAND. Photo: Tim Summers.

From Mark Haim’s THIS LAND IS YOUR LAND. Photo: Tim Summers.

The 50 minute piece has to do with contemporary city life, its river-like qualities of homogeneity and sparkling difference. The dancers appear from one side of the striped curtain, walk the line outward, turn and reverse, taking up the next position on the return, when at the same time the outermost dancer exits past the trash can, tossing in the Starbucks cup, beer can or drink cup with which each is supplied nearly all the time. They do not interact at all until very near the end, but, like fish in a river, they move near and past each other. As the dancers cycle out of our sight, they change something–cup, cap, shirt, shoes, phone, gun, etc., and the movements and tempo in the walking alter slightly with each change. It is pretty brilliant. And not even the tiniest bit self-indulgent or self-absorbed. The end could be stronger, and for some reason the last song is “Great Speckled Bird,” not “This Land Is Your Land,” but those are quibbles. This is a portrait of America that makes the bleak failings absurd, and the bright strengths joyous. We just need to keep on walking, and changing in a rainbow world.

The Nasher is small venue. There is a very limited number of chairs, and limited sitting/standing room beyond them. If you want to go, which you do, calling ahead for a ticket and getting there early are both advisable.

“I wanted to spend the rest of my life making artwork about things you can’t make artwork about.”

Meredith Monk. Photo courtesy Duke Performances.

That was Meredith Monk, high priestess of performance art, speaking on Oct. 25 in the auditorium of Duke University’s Nasher Museum of Art. Monk is in Durham for a two-week residency sponsored by Duke Performances, which will culminate with two performances in which she will revisit her important 1973 work, Education of the Girlchild. In the meantime, Duke Performances is contributing to the greater cultural good by providing Monk and her ensemble time and a theater in which to develop new work. Universities have become the great patrons of new performing arts, and generally they get the glory of premiering the new work. But occasionally, they do something even more generous–they give with no expectation of immediate return. This is not the first time Duke Performances has provided such sustenance to important artists; DP deserves thanks from all of us for this kind of magnanimity. Their generosity extends to the community off-campus, too. Last night’s engrossing program, “Archeology of An Artist,” in which Monk talked, sang and showed video clips for 2 hours, was free. Even the parking.

Meredith Monk is almost 70 years old. She has been making her unique art for nearly 50 years, and is still in the avant-garde. She looks like she could live forever; her generous, acute mind is working full-tilt, and her voice is still very fine. But one day she will sing her last song (perhaps it will be “The Last Song,” from her work Impermanence) and you will kick yourself into next week if you have missed your opportunity to hear and see her. Nov. 2 and 3, Reynolds Theater. If nothing else, you will get a chance to better understand how her exploratory works have encouraged recent edge work like Maya Beiser’s CelloOpera, or Shen Wei’s painted dancers in the NCMA last summer. (Note: Monk’s percussionist, John Hollenbeck, will perform in Reynolds with his Large Ensemble on Dec. 8.)

Chris Vitiello has a good piece in this week’s Indyweek on Monk, and Duke Performances has a wonderful two-part interview with her on its blog, The Thread, so I’m just going to list some of last night’s compelling quotes.

“Singing was my early language. I sang before I read, before I spoke.”

“I was learning my body through music.”

“I went to New York in the mid-60s–it was a rich time for cross-media and breaking the boundaries of forms.”

“It was an imperative for me to integrate these forms…that was a way to counterbalance the fragmentation of our culture.”

“I try to start from zero. Each piece is a world I have to discover. It’s a little like being a detective.”

“Making artwork is very much the same practice as living life. When curiosity comes in, fear starts to go away.”

“I always have thought of my performance work as sacred, spiritual work.”

“I feel very privileged to be an artist, working with the un-nameable.”

“I try to connect to the magic in our ordinary world.”

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