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V/A - Open Strings: Early Virtuoso Recordings From the Middle East and New Responses

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Artist: V/A

Album: Open Strings: Early Virtuoso Recordings From the Middle East and New Responses

Label: Honest Jon's

Review date: Apr. 28, 2009

If you’re a fan of historical global popular music, the last few years have been near golden ones. Labels like Dust-to-Digital (Victrola Favorites and The Black Mirror) and Honest Jon’s (Give Me Love and Living is Hard) have found, whether in attics or archives, a treasure trove of recordings dating from before the rock revolution. The story these releases tell is rich in musical detail that, if not exactly new, then at least sounds fresh, or refreshing, to overloaded Western ears.

What’s missing, though, is a sense of what kind of effects, if any, these recordings might be having on 21st century music-making. When Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music was discovered by a generation looking for a new source of creativity, the folk boom – the good and the bad – had its talisman. Is anything of the sort still possible today? Or, are we all too knowing, too jaded? Of course, the music on these releases is so strong that it doesn’t need to be updated or adapted to be relevant. It’s good enough that it can just be. But then again, it’s exciting to hear the music live again, to watch stretch its legs in a new century. And since it’s here, why not see what it can do to us?

Open Strings: 1920s Middle Eastern Recording / New Responses doesn’t provide any evidence for a direct influence from these recordings of string music from 1920s Egypt, Turkey, Iran and Iraq, but it at least tries to kick-start the debate on what relevance these archival finds might have. The concept was simple enough. Honest Jon’s provided a CD-R of the 20 recordings, themselves discoveries from the EMI Archive in Hayes, England, to a sampling of modern-day string players, enlisting them to craft a response. The result are these two discs (or four LPs),one for the original recordings and one for the modern responses.

The archival finds are, without exception, phenomenal – and mesmerizing. The oud, the santour and spike fiddle dominate. There are other instruments, but without a little more familiarity with the region’s music traditions (of which three – Arabic,Turkish and Persian – are represented here), these are difficult to accurately identify. Honest Jon’s has intentionally foregone providing any notes, instead letting the listener engage directly with the pieces, all of them improvisational performances lasting about three minutes.

The instrumental command on these performances simply dazzles. Blindingly fast runs through the high register get tempered with stretches of silence and a preternatural understanding of fluctuating tempos. Melodic inventiveness never fails to heighten the drama, making one want to follow each note of each piece, so as not to miss a detail. Nechat Bey, with five tracks here, is notable for his versatility, appearing on oud as well as spike fiddle. Adul Hussein Khan Shanazi, with three tracks, brings shape to even the fastest, densest passages. Starting with a simple passage of chording, his "Mavaraounnahr" builds into a complex weave of ecstatic chording and intricate rolls.

At times, especially on the spike fiddle tunes from Sami Chawa as well as Mehmet and Ahmet Balki-Oglu, the nearly 90-year-old recordings predict all sorts of modern musical vocabulary, much of what we might consider "experimental" now. Chawa posits, in brief flashes, a particularly abrasive take on free improvisation, while the latter duo prefigure the current obsession with scraping, wavering drone.

That the new responses mostly fall short of the inspiration should come as no surprise. Many of the efforts here suffer from the same effect that studio demands eventually placed on the blues, namely, a regularizing of form, the rough edges of intuitive, spontaneous structure polished off. Where the Middle Eastern pieces create forms that make it feel as if the players are playing each note and run for the first time, many of the modern cuts have a more rigid structure. Charlie Parr’s "Paul Bunyan’s Fall" gets watered down by cycling through the same Takoma-style riffs over its ten-minute length. At its conclusion, when it returns to the opening theme, the result feels flat-footed, trite, too easy. Likewise, Ben Chasny’s (a.k.a. Six Organs of Admittance) entry, while drawing more on the ambiguous minor modes that give the originals their mysterious draw, suffers from the same sort of predictability. And do you need to know more about Rick Tomlinson’s "Surfin’ UAE" than its title?

To say who has actually responded to the originals, or least has a feel and understanding of the material, is clear. Sir Richard Bishop proves that his engagement with the Middle East’s music is no exotic dalliance, his tart, semi-amplified tone even echoing, without mimicking,the terse sound of the oud. Mick Flower (with a little help from Chris Corsano) ditches form and structure all together and dives into the buzzing, amplified microtones that his Shahi Baaja produces. But it’s Paul Metzger and Steffen Basho-Junghans who come the closest to capturing the feel of the originals, while staying true to their own conception. Both expand upon simple themes, transforming them gradually with each iteration, but never failing to build a longer arc.

It’s telling that half of the originals are taqsim, improvisational forms based on a single mode. These forms are so liquid, so slippery, and have so much of their own logic, that re-creating them with a Western musical vocabulary, one based in tempered scales and harmonic progressions, seems near impossible. Rather than posit a bridge to the past, Open Strings reveals what a wide gap still exists, and suggests that much of our future might still be locked in the past.

By Matthew Wuethrich

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