Scottish Ensemble with Continental Drift at Summerhall Edinburgh takes the difficult task of bringing the two widely different musical disciplines of East and West together, and along the way allowing us as an audience to sample a little of the classical musical traditions and instruments of each.
Any such project is of course going to have many problems in programming, and the most obvious one has to be the problem of choosing the music from 1,000 years or more of both regions. Other considerations are finding a way to combine modal and harmonic musical traditions as well as the obvious on stage difference of a written music tradition versus an improvised one. It should then come as no surprise to anyone that the musical meeting ground of “Continental Drift” is in a “safe space” between the two regions, a sort of neutral meeting ground to highlight the different and contrasting elements of both. Continental Drift was never going to be an avant garde musical experiment, and for someone like myself (and probably many more people in the audience) far more familiar with Western musical styles and traditions, this gentle introduction to a little of the music and some of the instruments from the vast repertoire that is Eastern music was needed.
To attempt anything like this though, you firstly need one vital component – skilled musicians in both styles, and that we had in abundance here with the members of Scottish Ensemble Jonathan Morton (SE artistic director and violin), Daniel Pioro (violin), Jane Atkins (viola), Alison Lawrance (cello) and James Manson (double bass) with three exceptional guest musicians, Keyvan Chemirani, Bijan Chemirani and Sokratis Sinopoulos. Not forgetting too, Tom Foster on harpsichord (always one of my favourite musical instrumental sounds) Together, the programme for this show took us on an exploration of the connections between the music of Baroque Europe and the Eastern musical traditions. Interestingly though, our programme started at the early Western music of the 12th and 14th centuries and here the relationships between the two traditions were perhaps the most obvious as they pre-date much of what was to become formalised Western musical tradition.
At the heart of the selection of this music though, are three core building blocks of music anywhere in the world – Rhythm, Melody and Harmony. Out of these three, rhythm is perhaps the most instinctive to us all, as we seem as children to be forever tapping out rhythms on anything that we can find to make a noise (often to the distraction of our parents), and it is here that Keyvan’s playing on the traditional Iranian drum, the zarb, displays so well the rhythm of Eastern music. Just as important here though is one of tradition, and here, Keyvan is following in the musical teachings and legacy of his father (Djamchid). Keyvan with his brother Bijan we are also introduced to other instruments of the region. If there was a definite musical bridge between the two musical styles here, then that was probably the talents of Sokratis Sinopoulos playing the lyra, a stringed instrument with many names in many countries and unchanged for almost 1,000 years.
Watching and listening to everyone performing here, there were times when Western and Eastern musicians looked more comfortable with their own musical timings and phrasings, but that has to be expected when a lifetime of music immerses you in one tradition. Also, this was a very “fresh” performance from everyone as there was limited time for everyone to get together prior to this performance. The result was not rushed, everyone here is an exceptional and professional musician, and the mergence of both musical styles in such a short time period was impressive.
It is too often said that Western musicians need their music written down and that Eastern musicians simply do not need it. Continental Drift so obviously proves this statement wrong as often, watching Keyvan Chemirani, Bijan Chemirani and Sokratis Sinopoulos play together I was reminded of the improvised way that Jazz musicians so often work, illustrating another strand of similarity between two musical cultures. I also have no doubt that the individual musicians of Scottish Ensemble are easily adaptable to improvisation without written music when required. What a written music tradition allows is a single reference point for everyone to know exactly where they are at a given moment, and if you are playing in an orchestra where you perhaps have no visual sight of many of the other musicians, this is vital.
Hopefully Scottish Ensemble and Keyvan Chemirani, Bijan Chemirani and Sokratis Sinopoulos will find the time to come together again and create completely new music and musical structures that will take us all in new directions.
Review by Tom King