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

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: The Cello in Arabic Orchestras”

Kayhan Kalhor and the Persian kamancheh at Tully Scope

Kayhan Kalhor playing the Persian kamancheh

Yeah, I know–technically it’s Brooklyn Rider and Kayhan Kalhor at Tully Scope, but even the Lincoln Center website lists Kayhan Kalhor first.  But after a slightly negative review of Brooklyn Rider at the Washington Post, maybe it’s better this way as Evan Tucker only had great things to say about Kalhor:

Brooklyn Rider also performed four pieces that its violinist Colin Jacobsen wrote or arranged to include the legendary Iranian musician Kayhan Kalhor. After mere seconds from Kalhor’s kamancheh – an Iranian viol- one realized what Brooklyn Rider lacks. The moment Kalhor’s bow crossed the strings, the synagogue was transformed from a trendy venue into a musical shrine. Whenever Kalhor was spotlighted, Jacobsen’s music changed from ethno-kitsch to profound rumination.

Midway through the concert, Kalhor gave as extraordinary an improvisation as any music lover could wish to hear. All it took was one instrument, one man, and one melody extracted from one chord to uncover thousands of possibilities constructed from simple means.

A musician this brilliant should not have to play second fiddle – or, in this case, second kamancheh. Asking Kayhan Kalhor to play with Brooklyn Rider is like asking W.C. Handy to play with Blues Traveler. Both Brooklyn Rider and Blues Traveler are enjoyable groups that popularize great musical traditions. One immediately hears how distant their music is from greatness, however, when confronted with the real thing.

Continue reading “Kayhan Kalhor and the Persian kamancheh at Tully Scope”

Sunday Spotlight on the Non-Western Cello: “What If the Cello had Originated in Azerbaijan?”

Chaganeh player in Azerbaijan
Chaganeh player in Azerbaijan

For the Silk Road Ensemble musicians, hearing the ethereal voice of Azerbaijani mugham singer Alim Qasimov put their years of conservatory training into serious question.  As they delved into the mugham, they each wondered, “If this is how music should be played what have I been doing all these years?”

The quote above is from the liner notes to Kor Arab (otherwise known as Kor Ərəbin Mahnısı) which is track ten on the Silk Road Project CD, Silk Road Journeys: Beyond the Horizon.  The music was written by Fikret Amirov and the lyrics by Hüsayn Cavid.

Since I spent some time thinking about the origins of bowed string playing a couple of days ago I knew that I really wanted to say something about this instrument which I had just discovered while writing the post about origins.

The chaganeh is one of the few examples of world bowed strings that really closely matches the physical set-up of a cello and I was just thrilled to see a picture of it at the Wikipedia entry for kamancheh as I was writing the post mentioned above.  The kamancheh itself is an upright bowed spike fiddle as is the chaganeh, but as you can see from the photo above, the spike of the chaganeh is long enough, and the body of the instrument is big enough, that a musician can sit in a chair and play it upright and held between the legs.

As noted in the Wikipedia entry, the instrument is said to come from Azerbaijan, but with the little time I’ve had to look it up, I have come across other references stating the chaganeh originated in Iran.  Until I know more about the instrument I’ll simply say it’s of Central Asian origins.

The only video clip I’ve been able to find is this:

As you can hear, the range and timbre are very similar to that of the kamancheh and other spike fiddles of Central Asia and as you can see in the photo from which the above photo was extracted, it seems to be used as part of the standard art ensemble (Mugham) of Azerbaijan.  Continue reading “Sunday Spotlight on the Non-Western Cello: “What If the Cello had Originated in Azerbaijan?””

Origins of Bowed Stringed Instruments

Sambuugiin Pürevjav of Altai Khairkhan playing a morin khuur near Centre Georges Pompidou in 2005.

The Wikipedia entry for the Byzantine lyra states this about its history:

The first recorded reference to the bowed lyra was in the 9th century by the Persian geographer Ibn Khurradadhbih (d. 911); in his lexicographical discussion of instruments he cited the lyra (lūrā) as the typical instrument of the Byzantines along with the urghun (organ), shilyani (probably a type of harp or lyre) and the salandj (probably a bagpipe)[5]. The lyra spread widely via the Byzantine trade routes that linked the three continents; in the 11th and 12th centuries European writers use the terms fiddle and lira interchangeably when referring to bowed instruments[6]. In the meantime, the rabāb, the bowed string instrument of the Arabic world, was introduced to Western Europe possibly through the Iberian Peninsula and both instruments spread widely throughout Europe giving birth to various European bowed instruments such as the medieval rebec, the Scandinavian and Icelandic talharpa, and the Celticcrwth. A notable example is the Italian lira da braccio[6], a 15th-century bowedstring instrument which is considered by many as the predecessor of the contemporary violin[2][7].

While it’s never a good idea to take Wikipedia as the final say about any topic, it’s usually a great starting point for research.  Being adequately sourced helps, obviously.   The entry for the Chinese erhu states that:

The erhu can be traced back to instruments introduced into China more than a thousand years ago. It is believed to have evolved from the xiqin (), which was described as a foreign, two-stringed lute in Yue Shu (樂書, yuèshū, lit. book of music), an encyclopedic work on music written by music theorist Chen Yang in the Northern Song Dynasty. The xiqin is believed to have originated from the Xi people of Central Asia, and have come to China in the 10th century.

Bowed strings seemed to have originated as a whole in the Middle East and/or Central Asia–regions of the world that share a lot of overlapping cultural ties–and then spread West and East into Europe and Asia.

Meaning that there are bowed string traditions in the world that predate the Western traditions by a few centuries.  The irony being that after the Cairo Congress in 1932 (as well as the subsequent follow ups) the formal re-introduction of Western bowed strings have resulted in the replacement of many of the native instruments with European violins, violas, cellos and basses. Continue reading “Origins of Bowed Stringed Instruments”