Alim Qasimov Ensemble
Kronos Quartet and Alim Qasimov Ensemble
The pieces that Kronos and the Qasimov Ensemble perform together are drawn from the repertoire of Azerbaijani ashiqs – oral-tradition singer-songwriters whose song texts portray, often with wry humor and searing irony, the power of love and the pain of separation.
The song arrangements developed in two separate stages. First, Alim Qasimov arranged the original melodies and texts, traditionally performed by a solo ashiq, for vocal duo accompanied by his four-piece ensemble. Then, arranger Jacob Garchik transcribed the Qasimov Ensemble’s performance of the songs and arranged them for Kronos.
During a week-long rehearsal period in San Francisco in the summer of 2008, the two groups put their arrangements together. The challenge of these rehearsals was not only to polish the collective sound, but to meld two different approaches to music-making: on the one hand, extemporization and spontaneous improvisation rooted in the process of oral transmission, and on the other, notation-based performance shaped by a musical score. The search for common ground between these musical antipodes proved illuminating for members of both ensembles, who presented the world premiere performance of these arrangements at the Barbican in September 2008, which can be heard in part on Kronos’ 2009 album Floodplain and the 2010 album Rainbow: Music Of Central Asia Vol. 8.
When Ken Hunt first introduced me to the amazing voice of Alim Qasimov 15 years ago, I was magnetized. His voice drew me so close that it has become part of my own inner singing. Since that night, it has been my hope that Kronos could one day be able to perform with a singer of such passion and mastery. With the addition of Fargana Qasimova to this ecstatic musical landscape, things could not be more perfect. For Kronos, this is a dream come true.
Since childhood, I’ve seen people performing mugham with kamancha, tar, and daf. The tar opens up the world of mugham and expresses its mood and character. So does the kamancha. These instruments are alive. They breathe.
When I started my own ensemble, I began to think that it would be interesting to add more rhythm. If you look at photos from 70 years ago, you also see gosha naghara and balaban. I wanted to use those instruments. A lot of people told me it wasn’t a good idea. But I had a feeling that I wanted it this way. Now I’m working with young musicians in my ensemble. Then my daughter, Fargana, joined me; she became a part of my art. With this our ensemble is extended even further, with the addition of the Kronos Quartet.
Imagine something that’s dead and motionless. You can’t sing it. All you can do is wrap it up and throw it away. But spiritual music is able to touch people’s souls. It’s not dead material. This music should be brought to life and make us think why it touches our soul and speaks to us.
To make it come alive and breathe, it has to be sung. To make this happen you should burn; you should sacrifice yourself. Imagine that there is another world up in the heavens: when I sing, my feelings come into contact with that world. God doesn’t allow just anyone to bring something to life. It’s like a burden. I took it on, so I carry it, and after me someone else will take it on his shoulders, and so on. It’s a world with its own spiritual problems and spiritual nourishment.
Thank God Fargana is passing on this tradition. In the future I don’t know to whom among my kin this talent will be transmitted. My responsibility is to pass on this tradition and knowledge.
Köhlen Atim (My spirited horse)
Peyman Ettik (I gave my word)
Mehriban Olaq (Let’s be kind)
Getme, Getme (Don’t leave, don’t leave)
Qashlarin Kamandir (Your eyebrows are bow-like)
These vibrant performances of five songs from Azerbaijan fuse multiple layers—both old and new—of composition, arrangement, and improvisation. In each case, the oldest layer is a strophic song composed during the mid-20th century, when Azerbaijan, like other Soviet republics, cultivated an active tradition of popular songwriting that blended local and European musical instruments and styles. Though the composers of four of the five songs are known, their works became a part of oral musical tradition, with the result that performers came up with their own arrangements. For “Getme, Getme” and “Qashlarin Kamandir,” Alim Qasimov’s arrangements include, in addition to the original strophic melody and lyrics, improvised vocal and instrumental interludes featuring couplets from classical Azerbaijani poetry (ghazals) performed in the style of mugham, the art music tradition of Azerbaijan.
The Alim Qasimov Ensemble recorded performances of these arrangements and sent them to Kronos arranger Jacob Garchik, who built on Qasimov’s elaborations in scoring the songs for quartet. Garchik’s scores not only skillfully meld the four Western and four Azerbaijani instruments into an integral octet that accompanies the singers, but the scores also depart from the script provided by the songs to offer short compositions for Kronos—instrumental intermezzos that evoke the signature styles of other composers who have represented the East: the lush harmonic textures of Rimsky-Korsakov; the brooding modal melodies of Bartók; the motoric ostinato patterns of Philip Glass.
In the end, of course, it is not only a score that melds together different musical instruments and traditions but the empathy that develops among the music’s performers. Speaking of the Alim Qasimov Ensemble, David Harrington said, “They’re tremendously generous musicians and people, and you really feel that in playing with them.” The ebullient results of the Kronos-Qasimov collaboration confirm that the feeling expressed by Harrington is surely mutual.
Program note by Theodore Levin, adapted from liner notes to Rainbow: Music of Central Asia, Vol. 8 (Smithsonian Folkways).
“ There was high emotion from the start, as furious arm gestures matched his high, compelling voice for a story of love, pain and non-communication. ”
- Robin Denselow, The Guardian
“ His voice...pierced like a dart, high and etherial, and then interwove with Fargana's as if intoxicated with unrequited longing. ”
- Simon Broughton, Evening Standard
These arrangements by Alim Qasimov, with string quartet parts arranged by Jacob Garchik, were commissioned for the Kronos Quartet and the Alim Qasimov Ensemble by the Aga Khan Music Initiative, a program of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, and the Columbia Foundation. Recordings are available on Rainbow: Music of Central Asia, Vol. 8.
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