Saturday, July 29, 2017

Ali Paris Delights with Virtuoso Command of the Qanun

Last night Moroccan-Palestinian musicians Ali Paris returned to the Old First Presbyterian Church for the second of three concerts he has planned for the Old First Concerts series. His instrument is the qanun, an Arabic instrument of the zither family that uses an elaborate 79-tone tuning system. Individual strings are tuned diatonically but are then subjected to microtonal displacement through a series of levers that stop the string at closely separated distances in a manner similar to the chromatic stopping of the strings of a pedal harp:

photograph by Ozan Yarman, designer of the above instrument, provided to Wikimedia Commons and released into the public domain

The name of the instrument comes from the Greek κανών (canon), an ancient instrument that inspired Harry Partch to build his Harmonic Canon instruments, which also involve microtonal tuning.

Paris’ command of his instrument was impressive, to say the least, all the more so because his repertoire was strictly melodic. He explained to the audience that harmony does not figure in Arabic music. All performance is in unison, including his singing along to his own instrumental accompaniment. Nevertheless, he displayed a keen sense of embellishment; and there was something thoroughly absorbing in the matching of his vocal embellishment to his instrumental technique. In most of his selections he was joined by Briana Di Mara playing a violin with the strings tuned G-D-G-D (a scordatura technique that was explored by Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber in the seventeenth century). That tuning facilitated her following Paris’ melodic lines, although problems with the amplification equipment tended to mute her success in matching his pitches.

The only harmonies of the evening came from David McLean’s flamenco technique on his guitar. The objective of the program seems to have been to explore the origins of flamenco as we now know it, origins that depended heavily on the cultural diversity of the Iberian peninsula under Moorish occupation. McLean was joined by flamenco dancer Kerensa DeMars and, later in the program, flamenco singer Clara Rodriguez. Along with Sage Baggott’s drumming, this amounted to a heady “stew” of cross-cultural influences.

Unfortunately, Paris’ efforts to explain some of those influences did not register very well. He, too, had to contend with amplification problems; and his technique of speaking into a microphone could do with some training. He probably would have done better in a more intimate space in which his voice could be heard without electronic assistance. However, the turnout for last night’s concerts was one of the largest that Old First has seen this season; so it is clear that working in a smaller space would have led to considerable disappointment among many. The preferable path would be for Paris to pay a bit more attention to basic showmanship in order that his impressive musical showmanship be better served.

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