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A Master Iranian Musician Plays Cultural Ambassador

Kayhan Kalhor, Kayhan Kalhor & Brooklyn Rider , Brooklyn Rider
The New York Times

In “Silent City,” a hypnotic work commemorating Halabjah, a Kurdish village annihilated by Saddam Hussein, the kamancheh, an upright four-stringed Persian fiddle, breaks out in a lamenting wail based on a traditional Turkish melody.

“Silent City” is included on a new disc of the same name on the World Village label, which Kayhan Kalhor, a virtuoso kamancheh player, recorded with the young string quartet Brooklyn Rider.

The work opens with a desolate murmuring improvised by the strings, eerily evoking the swirling dust of barren ruins, with a Kurdish melody heralding the rebuilding of the destroyed village. It has a particular resonance for Mr. Kalhor, 45, who was born in Tehran to a family of Kurdish descent. The sound of the kamancheh is “warm and very close to the human voice,” he said by phone from Tehran, where he now lives.

He began studying the kamancheh at 7 and playing with Iran’s National Orchestra of Radio and Television at 13. He left the country after the Islamic Revolution (when universities were closed for several years) and lived in several Western countries, including Canada, where he studied music composition at Carleton University in Ottawa. His main motivation for leaving Iran was not political, he said; it was to further his musical studies.

Mr. Kalhor met members of Brooklyn Rider in 2000 at Tanglewood, where they took part in the cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project. The quartet’s members are Colin Jacobsen and Jonathan Gandelsman, violinists; Nicholas Cords, violist; and Eric Jacobsen, cellist.

“Silent City” is the result of eight years of learning and experimentation, Mr. Cords said. “We enjoyed each other on first meeting and were fascinated with his world, but at the beginning wouldn’t have dreamed of making this recording together.”

The beginning of “Silent City” is improvised, a skill that is integral to the Persian classical music tradition, in which performers base their extemporizing on a collection of melodies and motifs known as the Radif. Western classical musicians rarely improvise, but Brooklyn Rider honed its skills with Mr. Kalhor; Mr. Cords and Colin Jacobsen received further instruction while visiting Iran in 2004. “The improvisation feels like an outgrowth of our friendship,” Mr. Cords said.

The men of Brooklyn Rider also had to learn how to adapt to playing the quarter tones and modes common in Middle Eastern music.

Mr. Kalhor is well versed in cross-cultural partnerships. His many successful musical collaborations include Ghazal, a duo with the Indian sitarist Shujaat Husain Khan. The sitar and kamancheh work well together, Mr. Kalhor said, largely because of the “affinity of the two cultures” and their many historical connections.

He has also performed with the New York Philharmonic and at the Mostly Mozart Festival. On Oct. 18 he will appear at Carnegie Hall. He said he rarely performed in Iran because of the bureaucracy involved in organizing a concert.

Mr. Kalhor, who has incorporated techniques like pizzicatos (not traditionally performed on the kamancheh) into his music, insists on a deep understanding of the musical cultures he works with. “Nowadays with a lot of musical collaborations and fusion music, it’s obvious that the performers really don’t know each other’s culture,” he said.

Sometimes, he added, “I think the producers just put four different guys from different cultures in a studio and want them to jam. This is not going to be my approach.”

As an Iranian musician who frequently performs for Western audiences, Mr. Kalhor, who has lived in New York (he returned to Tehran in 2003), said that he inevitably faced political questions. But he stressed that he was a cultural ambassador, not a politician. “We are always in the middle of politics,” he said, laughing. “We go to a concert and boom, a political question about the government, about the president, etc.”

For that reason, his ensemble with the celebrated Iranian singer Muhammad Reza Shajarian, the singer Homayoun Shajarian and the lute player Hussein Alizadeh is called the Masters of Persian Music, not Iranian Music. “For political reasons, I think we didn’t want people to think it has anything to do with today’s politics of Iran or the U.S. or any culture for that matter,” Mr. Kalhor explained, adding that the culture of Persia (which was renamed Iran in 1935) goes back much further. “When we say Persian we don’t mean today’s Iranian borders.”


Traditional Persian melodies inspire much of “Silent City,” a recording, whose pieces are composed and arranged by Mr. Kalhor, Colin Jacobsen, the violist Ljova and the Iranian santur player Siamak Aghaei. The bassist Jeffrey Beecher, the percussionist Mark Suter and Mr. Aghaei also perform.

The disc opens with “Ascending Bird,” based on a melody (inspired by a mythical tale of a bird trying to fly to the sun) that Mr. Cords and Mr. Jacobsen heard while visiting Iran. It begins with melancholy whispers of melody before exploding into an ecstatic frenzy.

“Parvaz” (Persian for flight), which also explores the soaring-bird theme, features Mr. Kalhor playing the setar (a four-stringed, long-necked wooden Iranian lute), whose bright, jangly line dances with restless fervor above the other strings.

The disc closes with “Beloved, do not let me be discouraged,” whose title is taken from a poem by a 16th-century Turkish writer about ill-fated lovers — an evocative blend of courtly medieval Italian music filtered through a Middle Eastern prism.