“Ice Tree” – Kelly Thoma’s ensemble
Instruments: (right to left)
Cretan Lyra – Kelly Thoma
Hurdy Gurdy – Efrén López Sanz
Bendirs – Miriam Encinas Laffitte
Persian Ney – Meira Segal
My favorite sort of music is generally that produced by small acoustic ensembles. Especially when interestingly combined traditional instruments from various cultures are woven into an unusual sound texture. This particular ensemble blends sound textures from around the Mediterranean and into ancient Iran.
I started playing violin — Irish fiddle really — about fifteen years ago, more or less from scratch, when I happened across a no-pressure weekly adult school for traditional music in downtown Montreal. The premise was simple. Adult dogs can learn new tricks if they simply apply themselves within a community of supportive strivers and good musician/teachers, starting slow and building up. The school’s method completely bypassed reading sheet music although the latter was provided eventually for those who cared. Learning by ear, as it is called, right away removes the abstract element of mental computation and leaves one free to immediately dive into one’s senses, which carried immediate appeal for me. But I’d long been attracted by the evocative sounds of bowed instrumetal music in general from all over the world. It was on a trip to the island of Crete that I first noticed a Cretan lyra in a shop window in the outskirts of the town of Heraklio, and was instantly allured by its graceful unfamiliar curves and small stature. I had previously associated the term ‘lyre’ with non-bowed stringed instruments and so was a bit confused by this thing and needed to hear it! The shop was closed for the day — something not all that irregular in Crete — but I noticed a tiny index card someone had stuck there mentioning a summer school of sorts for traditional music up in the hills. Long story short, I tracked the place down and got to see one in action. The school was run by an expat called Ross Daly and his leading student was Kelly Thoma, whose playing was indeed enchanting…
Cretan Lyra: No one could tell me how old these Cretan instruments were, but it was known at least to have been played as far back as the 19th century on this mountainous large island. As you can see it is a lap violin, held vertically and bowed horizontally. There are normally three main strings directly struck by the bow. Kelly’s instrument has been customized, however. A row of ten sympathetic strings have been added which are situated slightly beneath the main strings. They vibrate in sympathetic harmonics without being bowed directly, according to the notes being fingered above. This mechanism produces a lovely haunting sound, and it is a very common feature throughout the Eurasian landmass, being best known perhaps in the instruments of India. I love the stately flowing quality of the lyra as the lead instrument in this piece, and am especially charmed by the short melodic breaks (refrains) which first occurs about 1:20 in.
Hurdy Gurdy: Next over to the left is the hurdy gurdy, an instrument born in medieval France. It is also a bowed instrument at its core, but the way the sound is produced is completely different. The player rotates a lever which causes an internal wooden wheel coated with resin (like a bow) to scrape across various internal strings. Which strings are struck, and when, is governed by wooden keys which the musician presses to stop the strings at various lengths. If all this sounds complicated, it is! And also kind of ingenious. Was all this rigamarole endured to relieve musicians of having to use a bow? You can pierce this riddle by viewing this brief video which takes one on a tour inside the hurdy gurdy. (Worth it!)
Bendirs: Bendirs are frame drums (meaning the drum head playing surface is much wider than the ‘depth’ of the drum given by the wooden shell) indigenous to northern Africa. Frame drums are usually played with hands and fingers rather than sticks — my favorite sort. Although many varieties of them extend east past Arab cultures into Iran, Turkey, and central Asia. The drum heads are usually stretched goat skins, parched by the Saharan heat, but I have also come across camel skin frame drums which yield a booming low bass thud. Moroccan, Tunsian, and Syrian bendirs are distinguished by one to three thin strings of nylon, animal hair or thread attached closely behind the under surface of the drum head to the circular wooden rims. These vibrate and give a buzz sound somewhat like a modern snare drum in a western drum kit, which employs metal wires. The musician is using two different sizes to get two complimentary resonant tones.
Ney: Finally on the far left we have the Persian ney. Neys are flutes made of cane reed — not bamboo — which occur in oasis swamps all across the middle East. There is a particular lore of ney building which stipulates that the optimal sound is produed when neys are cut from precisely nine lengths or segments of cane. This means that different pitches of the flute demand that the craftsman locate just the right length of reed having nine sections. Still… that’s not the end of it. Neys are among the most difficult kinds of flutes to play in the world. Their technique demands that the entire mouthpiece be enclosed by the mouth at an angle and then a space between tongue and teeth be maintained for forcing one’s breath through with the right force and angle of attack. The sound is spectacularly breathy and expressive when played by a master. The Persian poet Rumi praised neys as having the sound of spiritual fire. I own a few and suck at it, but I can do better with the Arabic variants which are played slightly differently and do not have to be shoved inside the mouth. You can hear the ney in this piece having a short solo around 3:20.
(Excerpt from Rumi’s poem Mathnavi concerning the ney.)
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