Sunday, May 1, 2011

In review--Soaring Continents

Amjad Ali Khan
Scottish Chamber Orchestra with David Murphy
Samaagam
World Village

I’ve heard diverse European classical fusions with classical music of other cultures.  But the bridge between traditional Indian classical and European classical music provides a blissful experience that travels beyond words.  When you consider that European music is currently based on a well-tempered scale with basically 7 notes (an octave repeats a note) and Indian music possesses 12 note scales with microtones, it seems like a miracle that these 2 languages can actually converse musically.  Traditional Indian instruments were created around the 12 note scale and the European classical instruments were created for the rigors of European classical music.  But that didn’t stop Indian master sarod player Amjad Ali Khan from teaming up with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra laboratory from exploring Indian ragas and employing 2 musical systems to achieve this goal.

Khan is quoted in the liner notes of Samaagam, “I understood the vastness and the oceanic depths of music.  I feel that the twelve musical notes are powerful and vibrant like the sun, and all the harmony around it, are like its rays.” The title of the recording, Samaagam refers to union and in this case the union between Eastern and Western music.  But this recording provides more than a bridge where musicians try out each other’s scales and modes.  You can actually hear the western musicians performing ragas (those lovely microtones) on their western instruments.  And you hear the sarod coming on as the solo instrument of this exotic concerto.  Oddly, the recording is presented as a world music CD and not a classical one.  Does this give a new definition to “world music”?

The recording opens with three ragas performed on the traditional sarod and table. Listeners are introduced to the warm tones of the sarod and the textures of a raga.  Later the sarod adopts a melodic style that mirrors a western definition of melody and the orchestra will adopt South Asian modes and motifs while performing a series of chromatic phrases.  In fact, you hear a lot of movement with both the orchestra and the sarod alternating with impressionistic passages that recall Claude Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of the Faun.

The actual concerto begins on track 4, Ganesh Kalyan and will continue through ragas divided into 3 sets of 3 and culminating in the invigorating morning raga Bhairavi (which fans of classical Indian music will recognize right away).  Track 4 opens with an orchestral wash then the ethereal sarod gently delivers its warm throaty voice joining the conversation with the orchestra.  Track 5, Subhalakshmi, journeys on a more introspective path and is followed by Swar Samir, a lively raga that highlights the sarod with many solos and takes the orchestra on a South Asian journey.

In the next set of ragas, track 7, Maarva, opens with horns vibrating in the low register and the sarod now framed by a birdlike flute, performs an alap with its melody gently unfolding.  The following track Durga travels deeper into the inner terrain with its meditative and pastoral tones.  Intensity increases as the orchestra instruments engage in a raga conversation, speaking South Asian dialects.   Next we hear the familiar (to many of us), Malkauns where the sarod dominates and the orchestra mirrors Chinese classical music.  Amjad Ali Khan puts down the sarod and sings on tracks 10 and 11, and he delivers mesmerizing vocals that true to a raga build in intensity until the fiery raga’s end.  Next we hear short staccato clips of Kalavati, Basant, and Megh, thus ending the second set of ragas.

The final set begins with the lyrical Khamaj.  The orchestra plays a gentle lilting melody with strings dominating and conversations between bassoon, clarinet, and flute engaging the sarod.  The pace quickens halfway through and listeners are treated to a wild ride. And speaking of wild rides, Bhupali swirls like a waltz on steroids causing listeners to feel that they are spinning around the room.  The sarod takes on a Rajasthani folkloric quality which contributes additional playfulness to the raga.  Finally, the recording closes with the morning raga Bhairavi, running over 10 minutes and ending on a frenzied note.  In fact, I recommend listening to tracks 1 to 15 in the evening and saving the final track for the next morning.  It’s too invigorating to listen to near bedtime.  I can attest to that.  And in India where ragas are performed throughout the night, Bhairavi salutes the new day.

I know it’s still early in the year, but Samaagam is easily the most exquisite recording I have reviewed in 2011.  I’m a fan of both European and Indian classical music so hearing them performed together in this seamless way delights me.  Here you have the gorgeous timbres of western instruments engaging with their exotic cousins.  It feels so much like two worlds coming together, building more bridges, and manifesting peace in hearts and minds.  This is soulful music that I’m sure enriches every cell in our bodies and prepares us for life on a harmonious planet.  This is the music of the planets and spheres, and the oceanic depths that Amjad Ali Khan refers to in the liner notes. 

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