Sunday Spotlight on the Non-Western Cello: Kurosh Ali Khan and the Cello in Persian Music

Kurosh Ali Khan playing a Persian cello improv on his prime-time television show, Kurosh Ali Khan va Dustan (Tehran ca. 1970)

I just wanted to post a brief Sunday Spotlight as I spent the afternoon/early evening seeing the LA Phil Live at the Cinema earlier today and I’m still gathering my thoughts about the whole experience.

Dr. Lloyd Miller (aka Kurosh Ali Khan), from what I understand, was primarily (or at least started out as) a jazz musician who eventually finished his doctorate in ethnomusicology from the University of Utah.  His focus was Persian music (his dissertation was titled “Music and Song in Persia” and I think I have a copy of it around here somewhere) and he spent some 7 years or so doing field work and generally integrating himself into the Persian Classical Music scene.  Miller even produced his own television series–a variety show–titled, Kurosh Ali Khan va Dustan (“Kurosh Ali Khan and friends”) during the 70s in Tehran.

A couple years ago I came across a clip from his show of him playing bedaheh navazi (literally “spontaneous playing” used by musicians to refer to improvisation) on the cello.  Of course, if any of you have been reading this blog, you’ll know that so much of the idea of improvisation in non-western cultures have very specific rules for the melodic development that this isn’t just a matter of freely playing in one of the many Persian radif.

But, as I said, I really don’t want to make this a lengthy post about Persian music theory and practice so will present the video instead for your listening pleasure.  The cello improv begins at 4:35 in the following video.

Continue reading

Sunday Spotlight on the Non-Western Cello: Anup Biswas, the Cello in India, and Bollywood

Anup Biswas (right cello) with Soumita Roy (dancer) and Dipak Sapui (left cello) at Garden Buffet Supper and Soirée Musicale 5 June, 2010 , at Poulton House in Gloucestershire During a fundraising tour of England and Scotland for the Mathieson Music Trust June/July 2010

This installment of the Sunday Spotlight on the Non-Western Cello will be a bit more personal than those in the past. I know I’ve been terrible the past couple of months about blogging, but [fortunately] I’ve just been far too busy performing and giving presentations to have spent much time writing here or elsewhere.

After having this wonderful dinner with some new Indian-Muslim friends at a Bollywood Party last night, though, I decided it was time to do another spotlight. The subject of this post is Anup Biswas, about whom I discovered after reading the Cambridge Companion to the Cello (which I still think should either be significantly amended or at least have the title reflect the actual subject matter: “The Cambridge Companion to the Western Cello”).

The reference to Biswas at the end of a chapter in the Cambridge Companion to the Cello.  Mainy in reference to the music school he started at an orphanage in Calcutta.  Found this wonderful photo (above) of a collaborative performance between Dipak Sapui, Soumita Roy – the Bharat Natyam Dancer in center, and Anup Biswas at the Poulton House in Gloucestershire (5 June, 2010).  It was part of a fundraising tour for the orphanage music school which teaches both Western and Indian classical music, and, apparently collaborative fusions between both art music traditions if this image is any indication.

The one video I’d been able to find of Anup Biswas playing Indian Music was from this recital, again to benefit the Mathieson Music Trust, at the Sacred Heart Church in Caterham, Surrey.  The tabla player is Chiranjit Mukharjee.

Two things struck me when I first came across the reference to Anup Biswas: 1) that the Cambridge Companion to the cello bothered to mention anyone connected to a non-Western Cello playing tradition at all, and 2) until learning about Biswas, I was unaware of cellists in India who were already incorporating the cello into Classical Indian Music, most of what I’d seen are Western cellists (e.g. Saskia Rao-de Haas, Nancy Kulkarni) who had gone to India to learn Indian music on the cello (though now some cellists in the states are now getting conservatory level training on Indian music–more about that on a future Sunday Spotlight).

Continue reading

Sunday Spotlight on the Non-Western Cello: The Cello in Arabic Orchestras

Jon_AhelElNagam

Cellists in Umm Kulthum's firqa (orchestra) photo ca 1965

This week’s installment of the Sunday Spotlight on the Non-Western Cello will focus on the cello in Arabic Orchestras.

Stringed instruments have long been part of Middle Eastern art ensembles.  Whether the kamancheh, djoze, rebab, or eventually the Western violin, bowed strings have nearly always played an integral role in the sound of the ensembles from that region.  Once western instruments, especially the violin, were introduced many of the folk instruments began being replaced by the violin.

By the 20th century, and especially after the first Cairo Congress of Arab Music (1932) the rest of the Western strings began to be incorporated into the traditional art music ensembles of the the Middle East (due to the influence of Muhammad Fathi) and eventually larger orchestras started to develop and composers from the region started writing music for these larger forces while also adapting some Western composition techniques and music ideas and fusing them with the indigenous art music traditions.

The difficulty with incorporating Western strings into the Arabic Orchestra has nothing to do with the instruments themselves, per se, but with the tunings and scales (maqamat) and the standardization of ornamentation for a whole section of strings rather than one string soloist in a smaller takht ensemble.

Arabic oudist, Saed Muhssin, lays out some of the fundamental differences in tuning at his blog post, The Arabic String Section.  The primary difference for the cello is the A would be tuned to a G which gives the four string tuning CGDG rather than CGDA.  While it is possible to play Arabic music with a Western tuning, which I generally do since I prefer not to retune my instrument much, as he notes

While it is possible to play the notes in the alternate tuning, the resonance of the instrument is different. Furthermore, from string players who’ve done the switch after trying to play in western tuning, the fingering of some maqams is a lot more cumbersome in western tuning, and Arabic tuning lends itself to playing Arabic music.

he is correct in that the Arabic tuning is far less cumbersome for a lot of the maqams.  Once I get any of my spare  cellos set up for playing I will likely leave one in Arabic tuning specifically for my performances of Arabic music.

Continue reading

Sunday Spotlight on the Non-Western Cello: Chinese Cellos

Chinese gehu

Chinese géhú (革胡)

In China, there have been many attempts at creating variations on the cello (and bass) to fill out the string section of traditional Chinese Orchestras.  The èrhú (二胡), an ancient instrument that likely originated in Central Asia nearly a millenea ago, probably has the quintessential “Chinese sound” that Westerners imagine when they think of Chinese music though I’m sure a close tie would be the sound of the gǔzhēng (古箏).

The instrument in the photo to the left is a géhú (革胡).  As Brandon Voo states:

The Gehu comes in two sizes, the Da-Gehu (large) and the Diyin Gehu (bass). In a Chinese orchestra, they take the same roles as the cello and double bass in a Western symphony orchestra. The four strings of both sizes are tuned exactly like the cello and double bass and are attached to a machine head with gears.

The wikipedia article for the géhú states that it was “developed in the 20th century by the Chinese musician Yang Yusen (, 1926-1980)” which I’ll have to confirm once I do some research but given the time frame referenced by Brandon Voo in his article regarding the changes undergoing Chinese Orchestras during the 1950s, Yang Yusen’s dates would fit in fine.

Here’s what the géhú sounds like:

Continue reading

Sunday Spotlight on the Non-Western Cello: Markos Sifnios, Marika Papagika and the Greek Cello

Marika Papagika

I wish I had more information about Markos Sifnios, but as there is only been a recent resurgence of interest in his collaborator Marika Papagika and I’m not in a position to be doing extensive research into her career in the US during the earlier part of the 20th century (yet).

I had first come across Sifnios’ work when I found this wonderful youtube video (see below) of a tune called Smyrneiko Minore (Smyrnaean Air) which, given the date (1919) here (if it is correct) would coincide with Papagika’s first recording in the states with Victor Records.

There is a brief snippet about Sifnios’ collaboration with Papagika at the Wikipedia entry which I can’t really verify or attest to the truth of though interesting in its own right:

Cellist Markos Sifneos [sic] collaborated with Marika Papagika on at least 24 separate occasions. Aside from Kostas, he is her most frequent collaborator, and was one of the few people to play cello on Greek recordings before World War II. There are no records of him recording with anyone except the Papagikas as Cello was not an acceptable instrument for Greek music at the time.

So I came across this video and though I had already known about Marika Papagika I knew nothing about the fact she had a cellist in her Greek band.  So that was something of a revelation.  I doubt cellos were typically a part of traditional or folk Greek ensembles as the above quote seems to indicate, and more than likely, as is the case with Klezmer and other folk music ensembles (and “pick-up” bands in general) Sifnios and his cello just happened to be at her disposal.   But what this also says is that Sifnios could be considered one of the first “Alternative Cellists” in the US (if not the world).

Continue reading