The serene Goodson Chapel at Duke University’s Divinity School hosted a confluence of diverse musical, spiritual, and cultural ideas when the duo of Kayhan Kalhor, a master in the world of classical Persian music, and Erdal Erzincan, one of contemporary Turkey’s folk music heroes, performed there Friday night. The Durham appearance of two improvisatory virtuosi from the other side of the world highlighted live, improvised music as a conduit for spiritual and cultural exchange. In this case, the performance enlightened as it entertained.

Kalhor, a world-renowned virtuoso of the kamancheh, and Erzincan, one of Turkey’s most famous folk musicians and an internationally known soloist and accompanist on the lute-like baglama, sat cross-legged on the chapel’s low dais for the hour-long performance. Seated on an ornate cushion, Erzincan picked a few tuning notes before the duo began the first section in what would become an hour-long, multipart meditation on traditional themes.
Kalhor’s instrument – a small, vertically held spike fiddle – has four strings that can be plucked to produce a spidery plink or bowed for an eerie, woody tone. The baglama falls somewhere between guitar and mandolin in size, with a teardrop-shaped wooden body tapering to a long neck on which a varying number of strings may be stretched. Its articulation when first plucked is sharper than that of an acoustic guitar; its resonance is enhanced with a shimmering afterglow similar to the sitar’s serpentine timbre.

The performers share more than internationally renowned status; Persian and Turkish music both feature improvisation, similar instruments, and a traditional system of modes in their history. A mystical branch of Islam known as Sufism also informs both cultures’ attitudes that music serves as a contemplative and spiritual experience.

Except for listeners straining to get a better view of the artists and their instruments on the low platform, the audience was still as Erzincan launched into a delicate, mid-tempo ostinato of jangly arpeggios rooted in tension-rich, open-ended intervals and anchored with a turn-like concluding figure. Kalhor’s kamancheh entered a moment later with a barely-perceptible murmur that abruptly soared into an ascending solo line over Erzincan’s gauzy accompaniment. With the confident air of a star tenor and the piercing earnestness of an imam’s call to prayer, the kamancheh’s sound emanated an expressiveness in Kalhor’s hands that brought a perceptible awe over the audience of expectant devotees and curious novices.

Kalhor and Erzincan fluctuated between accompanying one another and seamlessly moving into uncannily coordinated tutti sections; the bright chime of Erzincan’s lithe picking and Kalhor’s low bowings combine to create an otherworldly resonance. A new motive, built on the pattern of a scale descending in thirds, was heralded by the addition of Erzincan thumping gently against the baglama’s body with his hand. The tempo stayed relaxed through a melismatic veil of technical improvisation. Kalhor launched into a feverish pattern alternating virtuosic, violin-like playing in the high register with thick, low double-stops; soon, the momentum and volume subsided. For a wide-open moment, the two musicians traded off quiet, quick repetitions – it represented the cool entropy of a transition to another flight of ideas. Erzincan then played, bending notes in a series of quickly plucked figures that cascaded into a cadenza whose graceful intensity ranged from the sound of leaves rustling to a devilish hailstorm.

The closing section and coda pushed both tempo and technical action with rhythmic thumping and agile twists and turns from the kamancheh. The duo finish with a shorter, driving section in which Kalhor added a few moments of mournful chanting. The audience did not appear prepared for the performance to end; Kalhor and Erzincan emerged twice from backstage to respond to a continued standing ovation, but only with bows and modest smiles.

Kalhor and Erzincan’s instrumental interpretations of canonical motives demonstrate how both artists have rejuvenated tradition by emphasizing its spiritual and artistic importance to the contemporary world. Besides their extensive work in performance and improvisation, Kalhor has composed pieces for Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project, and Erzincan heads a school for baglama players in Turkey.

To some, this performance as a spiritual and cultural shared experience felt familiar. To others, the notion that these digressions on sacred music could be legitimate may seem almost heretical to some members of Western religions – Sunday services don’t usually include a rendition of Amazing Grace with a ten-minute-long harmonic excursus or scat solo from the congregation’s own Mahalia Jackson. But by creating variation, musicians like Kalhor and Erzincan are performing a vital function: they continually reinvent tradition with the spiritual resonance of their improvisational trips into chaos and back to truth.

*We are pleased to welcome Alexandra Jones to CVNC – for her bio, please see About Us.