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Strings for Peace
By the Moon – Raga Behag [13:28]
Love Avalanche – Raga Mishra Bhairav [3:57]
Romancing Earth – Raga Pilu [16:38]
Sacred Evening – Raga Yaman [16:35]
Sharon Isbin (guitar)
Amit Kavthekar (tabla)
Amjad Ali Khan, Ayan Ali Bangash, Amaan Ali Bangash (sarod)
rec. 2019, Reservoir Studios, New Yok City ZOHO ZM202004 [50:47]
In the booklet notes to this CD, by Neil Sorrell, one paragraph strikes me as particularly significant: “If we are to seek the common ground between Indian and Western music, we can look to the modes of ancient Greece and European medieval and renaissance music, all of which are found in the ragas of India, and to the towering figure of J.S. Bach, who was also a master of improvisation, and whose unsurpassed compositions have what may be described as a spiritual geometry that is also the foundation of the raga system”. There is common ground between Western and Indian music, and also in the dastgah system of traditional Iranian music in much the same way that there is so much that is shared in the family of the Indo-European languages, which includes most of the languages of Europe, of the Indian subcontinent and of the Iranian plateau; individual languages of the family include Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, Hindi, Urdu, Spanish, Italian, Bengali, French, Farsi (Persian), Polish and Russian. All are derived from a single prehistoric language and all contain evidences of that language. Scholars have given that (now lost) language the name of ‘Proto-Indo-European’ and have reconstituted it, to a considerable extent, on the basis of the evidence contained in the later languages derived from it (see, for example, The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World by J.P. Mallory and D.Q. Adams, 2006). Just as each language originating in the ancient language gradually developed its own distinct identity over the centuries, so the musical ‘languages’ of, say Ancient Greece and Iran, and of the Indian sub-continent must surely, have had a common origin in a kind of ‘Proto-Indo-European’ music. So, just as scholars have been able to ‘reconstruct’ the original Proto-Indo-European language, musicians from different modern musical traditions who have the necessary desire and sufficient gifts can find ways of collaborating, by recognizing and working with the common source of their musics in a long distant past, giving us tantalising glimpses of what such an ‘Indo-European’ music might have sounded like.
To be meaningful, such collaboration has to go beyond the situation in which musicians in one idiom embed elements (perhaps particular musicians or specific instruments) from another music within ‘their’ music. That has most often happened with western musicians, in a kind of quasi-colonial cultural appropriation, making use (often in a very well-intentioned fashion, it must be said) of, for example, African or Indian music. Happily, the present disc is more of a true collaboration, in which all concerned try to go ‘behind’ their own music to reach out imaginatively towards a time when their musics were closer together. Though all four pieces on the album are credited to Amjad Ali Khan, each is essentially based on a traditional Indian raga, adapted slightly to accommodate a Western mode. So, for example, ‘By the Moon’ uses Raga Behag and the Ionian mode and ‘Love Avalanche’ is grounded on Raga Yaman and the Phrygian mode; ‘Romancing Earth’ uses Raga Pilu, combined with, I think, the Ionian mode; ‘Sacred Evening’ is based on Raga Yaman while also having affinities with the Lydian mode. Neil Sorrell’s booklet notes provide some additional information – although I would have been pleased to have more! – as when he writes of ‘By the Moon’ that it uses “the same notes as the natural scale, or the C-mode (Ionian), with the addition of a sharp fourth in certain phrases within the prescribed ascending and descending shape of the raga”.
The resulting CD is full of music which is both sophisticated and lively, clearly structured and studded with impressive improvised passages. There are attractive melodies to hold on to, rhythms by turns hypnotic and exciting, as well as passages of meditative mystery. It helps, of course, that the recorded sound is of the highest quality. Individual instrumental voices are distinct, but the ensemble sound is perfectly blended and cohesive. That the ensemble playing is so seemingly intuitive doubtless owes something to the fact that Sharon Isbin played concerts in India with some of the same musicians in 2018 and that the three sarod players are a father (Amjid Ali Khan) and his two sons, Amaan Ali Bangash and Ayaan Ali Bangash.
A ‘language’, whether verbal or musical, can be one way of defining an ‘identity’. It is part of what is meant by saying that someone is English, French or Chinese. But the ‘language’ of this music speaks of something different and larger; it ‘defines’ an identity which transcends modern boundaries of nationality, an identity which is a matter of being human. This music’s manner – and in some sense its subject – is love, harmony and peace.
Thomas Carlyle wrote that “Music is well said to be the speech of angels; in fact, nothing among the utterances allowed to man is felt to be so divine. It brings us near to the infinite.” Listening and relistening to this CD suggested something of what he had in mind. In one of Hamlet’s soliloquies (in Act II scene ii of the play) Shakespeare has his hero describe man as “the paragon of animals” and also declare that of man that he is “in action […] like an angel” and “in apprehension […] like a god”. Much in our lives makes it all too easy to see that man is one of the animals – any knowledge of history or, indeed, watching the daily news on TV will offer sufficient evidence for such a view of humanity. On the whole, we generally encounter less evidence that man has any affinity with either the angels or the gods. For me the work of Raphael, Michelangelo, Mozart or Beethoven (or, indeed, Shakespeare) can sometimes make me believe in such affinity, at least for a while. But in such cases, one is responding to the work of a towering genius, of men who are, almost by definition, far from being typical of ‘Man’. The music on this CD, truly the product not of an individual genius but of an ancient civilisation and its people across the centuries, also has the power to make one understand that while we may never leave our animal natures entirely behind we are capable of something that approaches those higher points on the Great Chain of Being. In short, an inspiring album.