Saturday, June 13, 2020

O1C in Cyberspace: Ali Paris

Last night Old First Concerts (O1C) presented the second of the four solo concerts planned for this month through live streaming. The soloist was Ali Paris performing on the qanun, an Arabic instrument of the zither family. Like pianist Sarah Cahill, who was last week’s soloist, Paris has become a frequent visitor to O1C, having given a series of three concerts in July of 2017.

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

The qanun is a complex instrument, which uses an elaborate 79-tone tuning system. The strings themselves are tuned diatonically, but each string has a lever that enables microtonal displacement. Perhaps the greatest advantage of watching Paris live-streamed through YouTube was that the listener could enjoy a better view of the instrument itself and Paris’ own adept technique of performance, almost all of which involved rich polyphony.

That said, it was difficult to avoid a sense of sameness that permeated the 75 minutes of Paris’ performance, presented without an intermission. At Old First Church he had previously given engaging background information about both the instrument and the music he was playing. Last night there was less of an effort to draw his audience into his space, so to speak, perhaps because he could not make eye contact with that audience. The one nod to familiarity came with a fascinating arrangement of “Autumn Leaves,” in which Paris accompanied his singing in Arabic. Given that the original words to the song were written in French for music by a Hungarian composer, the tune was well suited to another cross-cultural interpretation.

Most problematic was the streaming itself. I am fortunate enough to have a variety of different ways to received high-bandwidth signals from YouTube, but what you receive is always limited by what is given to you. My conjecture is that Paris’ performance was delivered through a weaker modem than the one provided for Cahill last week. Most serious were the breaks in the audio signal. To the extent that Paris’ performances were distinguished by the acoustic environment they created, the disruption of that environment due to “technical difficulties” was a significant problem. We are clearly still a considerable distance from an idealized plug-and-play solution.

Hopefully, the O1C production team will be able to give a bit more commitment to technical support in preparation for next week’s concert.

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