Various Artists: Honest Jon’s Records Open Strings: Early Virtuoso Recordings From the Middle East, and New Responses

[Honest Jon's; 2009]

Styles: Middle Eastern classical/modern raga virtuoso
Others: Aziz Herawi, Sir Richard Bishop, Paul Metzger

Mark Ainley of Honest Jon’s deserves accolades for putting together brilliant compilations. His work digging through the stacks at EMI results in rich, lush visions of foreign lands, compilations uncluttered with over-produced mimicry of classic sounds or slick synthesized genre mock-ups. While Open Strings: Early Virtuoso Recordings From the Middle East, and New Responses is no exception, there is a twist: the entire second disc is music performed by modern artists in response to the old classic recordings. Honest Jon’s took a 20-song mix of classical string music -- performed by artists about whom we know nothing other than their names -- and circulated it to some of the most amazing modern purveyors of string music from the West. With no real provisions, Honest Jon’s simply asked the artists to listen to the disc and craft a musical response. Truly an experiment, the results are disparate, beautiful, and thought-provoking.

We are left with two distinct yet subtly interrelated CDs to evaluate. The first disc, Early Virtuoso Recordings From the Middle East, is nothing short of breathtaking. However, since Honest Jon’s isn’t giving us any clues (no liner notes, a deliberate move), we are only left to speculate about the artists, their instruments, their stories, their songs. All 20 tracks on the first disc are between three and four minutes long, and all of them have an immediacy that makes me believe they are cut from much longer compositions or improvisations. It's possible that some of the songs are derived from typical forms or compositional structures, as they seem to follow defined scales within a certain timeframe. However, I don't pretend to be an expert scholar on Middle Eastern music, and without proper context, to surmise about the exact nature of these songs might conspire to injustice.

Rather, it seems prudent to think of these 20 tracks as statements, with the whole serving as a vision. There is variation from track to track, but to an untrained ear, the whole thing might just sound like ragas. Close listens reveal that some tracks drone, while others scatter about like roaches hiding from flickering lights. Sami Chawa’s “Eerabi Fil Sahra” features a sad funereal tone, whereas Haigo’s “Shushtar” has a lighter atmospheric quality, as if a bow were being drawn across clouds wound into yarn, held by a spindle on a distant horizon. Nechat Bey, the most prolific featured artist with five tracks, tells dense musical tales with floating and sinking scales. Tempo is never constant. Unpredictability is key.

This is where we find clearer lines being drawn between disc one and disc two. Disc two, New Responses, is like a Who’s Who of bad-ass string players from the underground of the past 30 or so years -- Paul Metzger, Richard Bishop, Ben Chasny (as Six Organs of Admittance), Charlie Parr, Bruce Licher (Savage Republic), and MV & EE all contribute. There’s a lot of variation. Paul Metzger’s banjo, strung in the style of a sitar, winds through a bizarre and intense path for 13-plus minutes, whereas Rick Tomlinson’s satire-bordering “Surfin’ UAE” is not as kitchy as you might think. Michael Flower, in a more densely packed cloak of sound, weaves a seemingly pointless but subtle, deliberate stoned crawl from moronic groaning to tinkling timbre. Charlie Parr’s work on the resonator is masterful.

Many of the modern new responses seem more or less typical of each performer's dominant style; there aren’t many deviations from their typical work. However, the experiment does seem to prove that there is an underlying current between these new string masters that can be tied into Middle Eastern virtuosity. But was the influence already there, and if so, was it subconscious or deliberate? Or perhaps, as it seems in the case of Six Organs, the artist chilled out with the album and then just straight-up busted out a track influenced as strongly by the old Middle Eastern masters as the last 50 years of avant-garde string-playing in the West? This is all part of the experiment, and it also part of the fun of listening to the album.

Some critics have responded that certain elements of the second disc are "predictable," but then again, after having listened to over an hour of 1920s string recordings, what would you expect from the second disc? Sonic booms? If you are already familiar with the artists on the New Responses disc, then you can probably accurately guess how their tracks will sound. It's also likely that those who were featured on the second disc probably didn’t treat the assignment like it was their chance to play for the Ghost of Gandhi, Queen Elizabeth II, and one trillion dollars. This doesn’t dilute the power of the disc in my mind. It's not necessarily groundbreaking, but it's a grade-A listen, and I haven’t seen this good of a mix of string players on one disc since A Raga for Peter Walker.

I recently had the privilege of spending a day at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. Not one to be particularly interested in the works of the European masters of old — Flemish portraits of aristocrats with their hunting dogs — I instead found myself spending more time in the musical instruments room than any other. Here I found exquisite examples of some of the more esoteric stringed instruments of the world, along with curious brass instruments of old and amazing banjos built in Ireland. But it was the exotic Middle Eastern strings — oud, kamancheh, santur — that evoked the most wonder, for I couldn’t help but imagine how these instruments would sound in the hands of a master. That MFA visit happened just two days prior to my receiving this amazing new Honest Jon’s comp. What a coincidence that I would be so privileged to discover the range of sound and timbre possible through the plucked, struck, or bowed open-stringed instruments of Persia, Turkey, and Arabia after having seen wondrous and beautiful examples of each.

Disc 1: Early Virtuoso Recordings From the Middle East:

1. Abdul Hussein Khan Shahnazi - Homayoun
2. Moustapha Bey Rida - Taxim Hugaz Kar Wahda
3. Bahkesirli Fuat Bey - Nigris Taxim
4. Tanbouri Ibrahim Bey Adham - Taxim Hidjaz
5. Sami Chawa - Eerabi Fil Sahra
6. Abdul Hussein Khan Shahnazi - Bidad
7. Haigo - Shushtar
8. Abdul Hussein Khan Shahnazi - Mofhalef Segah
9. Sami Chawa - Taxim Nahawand Wahda
10. Nechat Bey - Adjem Achiran Taxim
11. Nechat Bey - Hidjaz Taxim
12. Nechat Bey - Husseini Taxim
13. Nechat Bey - Yeghia Taxim
14. Kanoni Artaki - Soultanigiah
15. Kementchedi Alecco - Kurduli Hidjazkiar Taxim
16. Nechat Bey - Rast Taxim
17. Oudi Yorgho - Seghiah Taxim
18. Abdul Hussein Khan Shahnazi - Mavaraounnahr
19. Tambouredji Osman Pehlivan - Anadol Kachik Havassi
20. Mehmet And Ahmet Balki-Oglu - Aydin Oyun Havassi

Disc 2: New Responses:

1. Sir Richard Bishop - Olive Oasis
2. Micah Blue Smaldone - Mortissa
3. Michael Flower - Lake Of Fire
4. Charlie Parr - Paul Bunyan's Fall
5. Six Organs Of Admittance - Goat, Thorns And Brick
6. Bruce Licher - Mesopotamia
7. Paul Metzger - Emel
8. Rick Tomlinson - Surfin' UAE
9. Steffen Basho-Junghans - Improvisation 6
10. MV & EE - You Matter, Sometimes

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