Smithsonian Institution
Spring 2010: Featuring Music of Central Asia



The online, multimedia magazine of Smithsonian Folkways


Chronicle of a Collaboration

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In sections where the quartet plays alone, Prutsman assigned each of the pitches he heard on the Casio to a particular instrument—what composers and arrangers call "voicing." "I voiced it according to what I thought would be most natural for the quartet," said Prutsman. "I also marked articulation, dynamics, slurs, and phrases. Most of the time, people don't do that, but I've found that it's always helpful as a guidepost to the quartet." During rehearsals, the quartet re-arranged of some of Prutsman's markings based on their experience of working with the rubâb and percussion. Traditional Afghan meters and rhythms in the piece presented another challenge for Prutsman and Kronos. Prutsman explained, "There are lots of groupings of seven, but where are the strong beats in those groupings? Oftentimes, strong accents don't correspond with down beats. We spent a lot of time getting comfortable with the rhythmic units."

Homayun Sakhi composed "Rangin Kaman" as a way to represent "all the peoples and regions of Afghanistan and connect them to other parts of the world." Sakhi elaborated, "There are influences from both classical and folk music. The folk music comes from Herat, Mazar-i Sharif, Kandahar, and other places; it's music that's performed by Hazaras, Pashtuns, Uzbeks—I tried to bring together a little bit from each region and people of Afghanistan."

"Homayun is a great band leader," said David Harrington. "He knew exactly what he wanted from us; he knew every rhythm that he wanted the tabla to play, and basically, he taught everybody. He has the whole score completely imprinted in his mind, so in one sense, there's nothing left to chance. But Homayun is very open to changes that arise from the experience of working together. For example, in one place I suggested using a practice mute to achieve a different timbre on the violin. He loved the sound when he heard it, and it got worked into the piece. As Homayun got to know us better, he refined the writing through a lot of little changes like that. In the end, ‘Rangin Kaman' was literally tailor-made for Kronos."

Homayun Sakhi added his own assessment of the artistic collaboration. "Working with Kronos, I realized that through music you can cross not only boundaries between different regions of Afghanistan, but even bigger boundaries, such as between East and West. When we play together, the music really connects well and we all get a lot of pleasure from it." In this impromptu critique, Homayun Sakhi may have inadvertently provided as good an answer as any to the question of how to measure the artistic success of collaborative music-making. If a piece "connects well," as Sakhi put it, and if performers with the keen musical sensitivity of Kronos Quartet and Homayun Sakhi enjoy performing it, there's a good chance that it has something to say.

David Harrington echoed Sakhi's critique. "If we're involved in a piece of music and I get a recording of a performance and can't stop listening to it and, when I wake up in the morning, the music is part of my consciousness, then I know it's something I'm really happy with." The riveting performance of "Rangin Kaman" on Rainbow makes a strong case for this piece, and for the prodigious talent of its young Afghan-American composer, Homayun Sakhi.

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Map of Central Asia. Click to enlarge.

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The pair of hand-played, tunable drums is the principal percussion instrument in North Indian classical music, also used since the middle of the 19th century in the Kabuli art music tradition. The bayan ("left") is a metal kettle drum whose pitch is modulated by pressure from the heel of the hand on the drum skin. The tabla or dahina ("right") is a wooden drum whose skin can be tuned to a precise pitch.

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The tar is a double-chested plucked lute used in urban music from the Caucasus and Iran. In Azerbaijan, the tar is widely considered the national instrument. Iranian and Azeri tars are distinguished by number of strings, quantity and position of frets, playing position, and type of plectrum. The skin-like cover of the resonating chamber is traditionally made from the pericardial membrane that surrounds the heart of a cow.

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The balaban is a cylindrical oboe made from apricot, mulberry, or nut wood played with a large double reed that produces a soft, breathy, and often mournful sound.