Jean-Guihen Queyras, cello Sokratis Sinopoulos, lyra Bijan & Keyvan Chemirani, zarb & daf
Thrace: Sunday Morning Sessions
Latitudes / harmonia mundi
Review by Erik Keilholtz
Uh-oh. Thrace. The gateway between East and West, Europe and Asia. Western trained musicians playing with near-Eastern traditions. Peace. All that crap. By now we know the drill: bloody cellist plays plaintive melodies ripped off from some exotic locale. Rimsky-bloody-Korsakov lives! Chinoiserie Uber Alles and all that. The cultural theorists can scream "appropriation!" The purists can sniff and snort.
But then there is the music. Oh, there is the music. And there is that piece by Witold Lutoslawski (there should be a little slash in the "l". I am German, not Polish, and I can't even figure out how to do a proper umlaut on this stupid machine. Put the little slash on the "l" in your imagination. See. That wasn't hard. Using the imagination is actually a beautiful thing, but we will speak more of that later). It is entitled "Sacher Variation" (sit down, ye fans of the Viennese pastry, this is named for a different Herr Sacher). The cello is not soothing, it bites and snarls and thoroughly grasps the beautiful melodic adventure that Mr. Lutosławski takes us on. And this modern Polish piece fits in with the Iranian, Greek, Turkish, Arab, Bosnian, Romany, etc. music that informs this recording, and not just because of Mr. Lutosławski's use of quarter tones, as implied by the liner notes, but because of a melodic sensibility that unites the near east and the west, in spite of our forgetting that we have lived next to each other for a few millenia.
Oh, the music. Crisp rhythms, expertly phrased, intelligently composed. Intriguing harmonics (especially on "Zarbi & Shustari", which uses a very Thracian-style violin on an Iranian melody, to great effect), gently pulsing drums, subtle melodic variations. OK. You do get some lovely plaintive melodies in a traditional (from some tradition, the liner notes don't specify) tune called "I would I were a bird," presumably in not so tortured syntax in the original, but one never knows, but they are so lovely that you can forgive them (being plaintive melodies and the tortured syntax of the translated titles). Anyway, the good, gritty bite returns on "Sunday Morning" with a vengeance, even down to the microtonality, pulsing rhythms, complex harmonies, extended techniques, and extremely varied timbral range.
"I would I were a bird"
Oh the music. What? Is Dear Reader tired of this device? Dear writer is, so it will be used for its last time before being taken out back and shot. Oh the music. When it comes right down to it, the lesson of Thrace is a good one for all of us purists. When musicians are always around each other, the way Jean-Guinen Queyras and the Chemirani brothers were, growing up in Provence, they will inevitably play with each others' ideas. They can't help but absorb good melodic turns, rhythmic patterns, and so forth. Especially when one of them, M. Queyras, gets obsessed with microtonality in his stint with the Ensemble Inercontemperain (there is a beautiful tribute to Pierre Boulez on this album, the "Etude Digitale").
"Dast e Kyan"
When it comes down to it, there is no such thing as a pure music. Well, maybe Harry Partch. He may have been the only person in history to make a pure music, but the rest of us, well, we borrow. We steal. We try on each other's hats. We imagine (I told you there would be some use for the Imagination). We might be in Provence, or Louisiana, or California, but we can close our eyes and fly away in our heads to a Thrace of our imaginings, and so long as the music has integrity, as it does on this record, we will be OK. If the music ends up as a sales pitch or a mood piece for the latest Disney attraction, well, that is a different story. But an uncompromising auditory adventure into familiar and exotic terrain? That will always be worth the ride, and Thrace: Sunday Morning Sessions delivers.
This is not to say that all of Thrace: Sunday Morning Sessions is a dour, serious listening piece, seemingly put together to inspire furrowed brows and stroked beards. No there are plenty of moments; for instance, "Hasapiko," which call for the listener to lift a glass of slivovica or rakia and dance around the room until your teenage daughter tells to you "turn it down" for Chrissakes.
Which brings us to discussing the overall balance of the album. With a mix of joyous dancable pieces and thought-provoking explorations in micro-tonality, all held together with exquisite musicianship and intelligence, Thrace: Sunday Morning Sessions, is a good multi-purpose listen. In addition to outstanding musicianship, the musicians on this record show ample evidence of having mastered their respective musical traditions. Part of what makes multi-cultural explorations work is when the various players are masters. Juggling with unfamiliar musical concepts is when lacunae in the understanding of ones own culture become painfully obvious, and none of those moments are in evidence here. These musicans are rock solid, able to leap off into the unfamiliar because they have strong roots in their own musical traditions, and strong enough in their musical communicative skills to take the listener with them. - Erik Keilholtz
And for the record, this writer is completely smitten with Rimsky-Korsakov and realizes that taking cheap shots at his Chinoiserie is a glib twenty-first century response to a great nineteenth century master whose sandal we are not worthy of tying. - EK