The Ramadan Nights mini-festival at the Barbican - given around the end of the holy month of Ramadan in order to 'highlight outstanding music of the Islamic world in all its diversity' - has reached its fourth year.
Judging by the strength of this year's programme, and the diversity of the audience at this concert, the goals of the festival continue to be met with a great deal of creativity, and success. The Kronos Quartet are of course the ideal ensemble to facilitate some sort of interesting cross-cultural exchange whilst at the same time drawing in a large audience for the festival.
As such, the Aga Khan Music Initiative's commissioning of their collaboration with Alim Qasimov and his ensemble for this concert was shrewd. The Kronos' willingness to explore many different musical types from around the globe has admittedly produced music of often-variable quality. Their Asha Bosle disc was revelatory for example, but their collaboration with button accordionist Tony McMahon was less resolved, failing as it largely did to overcome the obvious disparity that exists between a string quartet, and the aesthetics of Irish traditional music. It was prudent thus that Kronos and the classical Azerbaijani ensemble of Alim Qasimov were given a set each in the first half, before the much-vaunted wedding of the second, so as not to overburden the union.
The Kronos Quartet's opening set focused on short pieces that had been either composed or arranged for them, most of which had direct Eastern ancestry. We were offered an arrangement of a driving Iraqi choubi (a common rhythmic dance style), an Iranian lullaby, a couple of short bespoke works composed by the Ramallah Underground and the young Serb composer Aleksandra Vrebalov, a version of a Sigur Rós song, and a brief extract from a raga of the Indian sarangi virtuouso Ram Narayan. The works varied in quality, but the performances were all first rate; Kronos were able, in the main, to match their protean technical skill to a deeply expressive sensitivity that always attended both to the idiom and the emotion of each of the short pieces. And the presence of heavy amplification on the strings, and a backing track for some works, proved not to be problematic, for once, as the reverb-heavy sound served to intensify some of the performances. The diversity of the source material clearly lent itself to such a resourceful code of realisation.
Particularly impressive in this first set was the Iraqi choubi Oh Mother the Handsome Man Tortures Me, where against a heavily syncopated drum track the two violins clattered around each other in fast triplets with heavily ornamented, reedy lines. The passionate improvisations of the viola player Hank Duff in the raga, where he took over the role of the sarangi with great aplomb (he only rarely veered into Western style framing devices such as extremes of range or dynamic), were the expressive highpoint of the quartet's set. The group met the rather facile (though rhythmically engaging) Bang-On-A-Can type writing of the two new compositions with competent performances that failed to excite. The glacial, circling string lines of the Sigur Rós arrangement, however, were startling, for the first two thirds at least.
The highlight of the evening, for me, was witnessing Alim Qasimov lead his ensemble through Mugham Bayati Shiraz (one of the 7 central suite forms of Azerbaijani classical music, known as mugham). This was an extended outpouring of introspective emotion concerning unrequited love and despondency in the face of isolation (the texts were helpfully projected in surtitles). Seated in the lotus position on a raised central platform with his daughter beside him and the four accompanying musicians on similar platforms on either side (with one on various reed instruments, one on Kamancha, a bowed fiddle, another on a Tar, a plucked lute, and the last on percussion) Qasimov gave us an astonishing display of vocal skill. His high tenor was a voice of incredible flexibility at its top; Qasimov's ability to project a yearning and keening desolation whilst at the same time keeping an utterly precise hold on pitching and scope of projection was breathtaking. Ably supported by his strong daughter who nevertheless stayed very much in the lead voice's shadow, Qasimov again and again imbued the text with a rich seam of character and ornament (the text is fixed but the line loose in mugham music). His ability to continuously add new colour and range to the sound, for instance sitting just below the notes at crucial emotional moments, always kept one's attention utterly rapt.
Formally the suite moved quite organically between two zones of action. Lively ensemble instrumental passages of some freedom and energy bordered longer, even freer passages for voices and improvised accompaniment. An instructive parallel, at least in terms of organisation, could be drawn between this form, and vocal jazz. This Azerbaijani music is a much more expansive form than vocal jazz though (only in terms of length), and the musicians thus showed incredible skill and fluency with the form in holding a relatively non-partisan audience in thrall for as long as they did. The frequent addenda each of the accompanists (particularly the bold Kamancha playing of Rauf Islamov) gave to the leading singers filled the performance with the sort of collaborative, fluid energy of which only improvised music can boast; the performance was as consistently compelling as it was frequently moving.
Questions as to how the two ensembles could fit their music into that of the other were of course paramount during the interval. Clearly the organisers had anticipated this, and as such chose to screen a short film at the start of the second half documenting the slowly gestating nature of the collaboration over the previous few months. Many questions were immediately answered. The style of music itself was to be Azerbaijani, though now shorter, less expansive song-based forms, and Kronos were to attempt to fit in with the performances of the Qasimov ensemble rather than engage them in a dialogue about, say, twentieth century experimental music (as is their way when crossing musical borders). The members of the string quartet were shown improvising along rather tentatively with the Azerbaijani men, before a rather funny scene where their arranger of choice Jacob Garchik starts notating some of their ideas, whereupon Alim Qasimov asks incredulously: 'is he writing this down?!'
The performance itself, unfortunately, contained little improvisation from Kronos, who preferred instead to stick to their charts. Initially I began to question I have to say the point of their presence in the expanded ensemble, as their contribution was insubstantial and supportive, rather than individual and enhancing. However by the third piece, which boasted an undulating glissandi introduction from the string quartet, the two sets of musicians seemed to be much more in sync. The bowed fiddle player was by now moving more towards the forceful rhetoric of Kronos, and they themselves were showing much less restraint and more fluidity. Kronos also showed great facility with the dinky patterns of the unexpectedly pulse-based rhythms of some sections of the climactic fifth piece (Your eyebrows are bow-like), and the Qasimov ensemble showed their own skilful way with more repetitious, dance-based music in the short quasi-encore (no one actually left the stage). The collaboration can thus be judged to be a qualified success, if only because those involved erred very much on the side of caution in determining how one approach might fit to the other. There is no reason, though, why it shouldn't bear much more unique fruit in the future, now that the musicians have some common ground from which to work.