Stave Sessions, presented by the Celebrity Series of Boston, is dedicated to sharing a diverse array of top-level musicians in a relaxed concert format. On Saturday, March 24, 2019, The Stave Sessions presented neo-Sufi singer Arooj Aftab and percussion trio Tigue on a double bill at 160 Massachusetts Avenue, Berklee College of Music’s new malleable performance venue. The hanging industrial lights and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the street scene below set the stage for both sets’ eclectic programs.
Arooj Aftab and guitarist Gyan Riley opened the concert with her signature style of feathery soft melismas inspired by traditional Persian music practices and Sufi poetry. Riley’s buttery soft sensitivity paired with his keen sense of timing and clarity shined forth, solidifying the framework of the piece as Aftab floated overtop, waxing and waning in complete freedom, as if her voice were an ocean wave cascading and suspending through each musical line.
Aftab shared some works from her upcoming album and Bird Underwater, in which she keeps similar vocal lines communicating the essence of Sufi poetry while juxtaposing it with more active electronic looping in the guitar part. At this point, Riley displayed a full range of deft agility, balancing impeccable moto perpetuo lines with subtle hints of timbral distortion and blending classical and metal sensibilities into the foreground and background of the piece. The triadic motion of the Riley’s guitar oscillated in the air, tossing and turning through inversion loops and layered repetition, while Aftab’s vocal lines remained modal and ethereal, holding on to the rich tradition of her training in Persian classical music. Her voice’s naiveté softened the overall complexity of the accompaniment. While her songs stand firmly in the twenty-first century, Aftab’s blend of western and eastern scales are native to both cultures. It would have been so easy to use the scales in a kitschy, appropriated manner, but there is a true essence of neo-Sufi music that emanates from every ornament and suspension in Aftab’s voice, a balance that is not easily achieved.
Tigue took to the stage in their hipster jumpsuits and block prints, ready to slay the meatiest of percussion pieces with a devil-may-care swagger. Members Matt Evans, Amy Garapic, and Carson Moody opened the second half of the concert with an exhilarating piece full of metric modulations and relentless 16th notes, nailing every moment of unison with machine-like precision. Throughout the piece, the players controlled even the most minute details of hand and stick placement on the drums, creating magical moments of minimalism at its best.
In This New Forest, Garapic donned an enchanting kalimba stocked full of contact microphones. Upon striking the pegs, not only did the kalimba exude its most beautiful, music-boxesque twang, but it also triggered electronic patches that created a peaceful cross between new-age jazz and EDM, shuttering back-and-forth between clave rhythms. Beautiful Tomorrow, a collaboration with composer Elori Kramer, the group explored the vast question of humanism in a changing technological world. Dropping seeds into a bowl with astonishing rhythm and synchronicity, Garapic and Moody literally used the fruits of the natural world to create the central pulse of the piece. The subtle electronics augmented the analogue sounds occurring naturally from the performers, the bowl of seeds turning into a rain stick, a metronome, and a way of connecting with one another on a metaphysical level.
The concert closed with Lea Bertucci’s Massive Dissolution, an exploration of militarized sound, from drum corps patterns to imitations of machine guns and sirens. The piece contained stunning moments of assault on the senses as all three players rolled on triangles of different pitches in tandem with a fire alarm bell, a din which elicited the hair of one’s neck to stand on end. While the piece contained moments of brilliance such as these, it went too far in others, in which the performers were to play with metals on top of the drumheads. Inevitably, these metals fell off the drumheads due to vibration and the commitment of the performers, and it greatly diminished the effectiveness of what otherwise would have been an interesting use of percussion timbre. With an entropy of falling percussion instruments, the piece lost a great deal of impact, while other moments held the audience at the edge of their seats.
Both groups brought elements of thoughtfulness about the world we live in while still delivering music of rigor and delight. The wispy vocals of Aftab wafting through Riley’s virtuosic command of the guitar, followed by Tigue’s technical brilliance and character made the closing evening of Stave Sessions one of reflection on the past and the future of our world.