Kinan Azmeh & Brooklyn Rider. Photo:

Starlighter: Kinan Azmeh, Brooklyn Rider and friends

A new Chamber Music recording

Written by:
Michael McDonagh
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Where is music going, and where, for that matter, is history going ? Was the ground taken by the “Panzer ” division of The New Vienna School ( Die Neue Wiener Schule ) which the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) and his composer-disciples Anton Webern (1883-1945), and Alban Berg ( (1885-1935) started merely a beachhead, and not the musico-cultural “Putsch” which they thought would stop history in its tracks because they they were its living end? But is that war over and done? Or is its progeny — the anything goes postmodernist school– the one that will bulldoze history because everything now is just as “good” as everything else? These are just a few of the questions which the Brooklyn Rider String Quartet and their Syrian clarinetist-composer friend Kinan Azmeh; Swiss percussionist; and Russian multi instrumentalist-composer www.lyvoa com ( aka Lev Zhurbin ), ask by virtue of their vastly different backgrounds — on three continents; the wide range of music they play, and the simple fact that none of them were born and/or bred in Mitteleuropa, like Schoenberg who wrote music which opened doors to sounds hitherto unheard, as in his setting of German poet Stefan George’s words “Ich fuhle Luft von der Anderem Planeten …” –“I Feel the Air From Other Planets” in his String Quartet # 2 (1907-08). But will Brooklyn Rider and their sound, which is worlds away from the plush post–romantic one which Schoenberg explored in that quartet, and in his only real hit — the 1899 string sextet “Verklarte Nacht” –stand up to the quality and messianic ambition of his school? Who knows? But Brooklyn Rider is in, and clearly of our time.

Azmeh’s clarinet string quintet “In The Element ” ( 2017-18 ) doesn’t sound anything like the two pinnacles of the clarinet string quintet repertoire — Mozart’s A major K. 551 (1789) one, and Brahms’ B Minor Op. 111 (1891) one. But it does show how Azmeh has absorbed the musical character and expressive force of the European classical tradition into his own music which foregrounds strong melodies, clear part-writing, complex rhythmic and harmonic structures, startling virtuosity, and the ecstatic sadness which runs through much of his best work. Azmeh and Brooklyn Rider give a sonorous and propulsive reading here, though Kunzli’s loud, even abrasive percussion work in movement one “Run”, which was obviously recorded separately from the quartet, tends to overwhelm it. His work in its two subsequent movements “Rain”, and ” Grounded “, however, is unobtrusive, even delicate. But let’s not forget that lots of twentieth and twenty-first century music has been driven by a percussive approach to rhythm, whether it’s written for traditional percussive forces like piano — think Bartok, and Prokofiev — or the proverbial battery of percussion, because rhythm, as the minimalists “discovered”, is music’s principal motor. Azmeh and Brooklyn Rider’s new account of “In The Element” is a good place to start for those new to it, though I think Azmeh’s live on camera performance with the Apple Hill Quartet, for whom he wrote it, on is even more powerful because anything live, generally, but not always, trumps anything recorded.

Azmeh wrote his “Dabke on Martense Street”( 2022 ) for Brooklyn Rider during what appears to have been the last year of our overwrought and over publicized “plandemic” which he says altered his sense of “the shrinking of the real world “outside his Brooklyn home on Martense Street which he says ” brought a pleasant surprise; an exponential expansion of my imaginary world.” And the lockup ? — how could it be a lockdown when it cancelled freedom of movement and freedom of speech ? — may have been a blessing in.disguise which forced Azmeh to confront the central European string quartet tradition as well as the musical culture of his native Syria vis-a-vis the dabke dance which is the main event in Arabian weddings in the Levant and other Middle Eastern countries. His take on its 6-beat 6-note rhythm exploits the necessity for rhythmic exactitude in its performance as well as the freedom given to the dancers, the dabke musicians, which always includes a drummer and Brooklyn Rider whose parts can add ( extend ) and/or subtract from this basic musical “set” because it can go one way or many ways at once. Azmeh’s take on it is mercurial, surprising, and even melancholy. His dabke also reminds me of what Stravinsky did with the “primitive” stamping dances and songs he stole from parts of “pagan” Russia, and “reconstituted” in his great over the top folkloric ballet “Noces” (1917/1923 ). Azmeh achieves similar effects here, and his metric shifts, from 2/4 to 5/4; 6/4 to 3/4; and 11/8 to 4/4, always threaten to bring the house down, but don’t because his metronome marking of 110 quarter note beats to a minute — which he indicates as alternately  “steady tempo”, and “adlib “– means you have to “do it this way”, and “you’re free to do it another way ” gives the performers a degree of interpretive freedom still largely untapped in “mainstream” western classical music, though the best and most imaginative composers have been doing this for many years, and even decades. And let’s not forget that set limits and ambiguity are just two sides of the same coin. I’ve heard many remarkable “new music” string quartets since I began listening to, and writing about live performances by, and other Bay Area quartets, and Azmeh’s quartet is easily one of the freshest, and most moving ones I’ve encountered,

It’s hard to know what to make of Lev “Ljova” Zhurbin’s “Everywhere is Falling Everywhere ” (2011) which he says was inspired by the thirteenth century CE Sufi poet Rumi’s poem “The New Rule” which Philip Glass set for baritone, and his www.philipglassemble,and which appeared as one of the songs in his 1998 music theatre piece with Robert Wilson “Monsters of Grace.where Glass got the worldly / otherworldly states at the heart of the poem. But Ljova’s “interpretation” strikes me as the worst kind of the anything goes postmodern “school” because it jumps from a “classic” late nineteenth century, or early twentieth century string quartet sound, to modal excursions, snatches of klezmer music, and frantic unison writing for Brooklyn Rider. Or maybe we’re supposed to take Ljova’s artistic” intent” at face value?  Who knows? It’s virtuosic alright, but to what end?

Colin Jacobsen’s “Starlighter “(2019), which he wrote for Azmeh and Brooklyn Rider is virtuosic, but never showy because each musical gesture seems to have been conceived in terms of its structure and expressive purpose. And it doesn’t hurt that Jacobsen is keenly aware of nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first century music history and practice. He also seems to quote and/or reference the style of The New Vienna School — especially, but not only, in the ponticello ( on the bridge ) passages he’s written for Brooklyn Rider. Jacobsen has given Azmeh a bigger, and more assertive role here which he plays movingly, and with apparent relish.

END    23.viii-3.ix.23    C 2023   MICHAEL MCDONAGH

My MICHAEL MCDONAGH @ michaelmcdonagh5104 CHANNEL has my first two short films –1. ALEX NORTH VIVA ZAPATA! 2010, and 2. SIGHT UNSEEN which my German actor friend Hermann Eppert, and our mutual Vienna-born actress friend, and I shot in 2013 @, Berlin.


I’m in the process of producing and performing in a two -part private cello home concert of the JS BACH Cello Suite # 2 ( with my text SPEAKING TERMS ), and the PHILIP GLASS Songs and Poems for Solo Cello ( with my texts LOVE’S A MESS ) with a fantastic Uzbeki-born local cellist whom I’ve worked with before.Please see my friend Michael Sheridan’s INTERVIEW WITH MICHAEL MCDONAGH SPEAKING TERMS which details my thinking on our first take on the Bach Cello Ste # 2.

I’m in the process of realizing my performance poem ” for Mahmoud Darwish ”  — which is in my original ENGLISH and in an ARABIC translation done by my Arabic translator friend Ayad Kholaifat’s which I hope to do as an online production.

My third fine art book of my poems with my San Francisco-based painter friend ALL KINDS OF WEATHER (2016) is still available for purchase ONLY from where it’s made. It even includes my poem portrait of Azmeh — “sketch “, as well as my poem portraits of Ada and Alex Katz, and my wedding poem portrait of actress Sophia Holman and her film editor husband Nick Ellsberg ” all your sorrows will vanish “.

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