LIVE: Amir ElSaffar’s Rivers of Sound Orchestra @ Troy Music Hall, 04/27/2022
When it comes to the famed acoustics at Troy Music Hall, I thought I’d seen it all. When only about 20 people bought tickets for trumpeter Dave Douglas’ appearance with pianist Frank Woeste some years back, the Hall put the entire audience onstage with Douglas’ quartet. A delighted Douglas went on to play the best show I’ve ever seen him do, playing off-mic for most of the show because amplification wasn’t necessary anymore. That was the high-water mark until Amir ElSaffar’s Rivers of Sound Orchestra came to town.
I’d heard on my way into the Hall that there would be “musicians in the audience” during the show. As I settled into my seat, I noticed that there was a musician in each one of the second-floor boxes, with more standing in the back balcony. ElSaffar then came onstage and introduced “Emergence”, the piece the Orchestra would be playing that evening, and explained how it was conceived during the time when he and the Orchestra were doing Zoom concerts during the height of Covid. (This show was originally booked two years ago – another event eaten by the pandemic.)
ElSaffar explained that the performance was inspired by the acoustics of The Hall, and the best way to experience the music was to find “a place of quiet and calm” and simply “experience” the music as it flowed through the Hall. “Okay…” I thought. ElSaffar left the stage as a few Orchestra members came on stage, including guitarist Miles Okazaki, bassist Carlo De Rosa, and Professor Rajna Swaminathan, who sat cross-legged right on the edge of center stage, her mrudangam leaning on her right leg.
Suddenly, a clear male voice began to vocalize as if The Hall was a mosque. It was ElSaffar, singing in the balcony behind us. Before I could get my eyes on him, another voice sang from one of the boxes – simple, beautiful, and spiritual. Swaminathan “answered” those songs with a song of her own, softly playing the double-ended percussion instrument that has brought her international acclaim. As the vocals continued, we heard a harmony that could have been from more vocals but was actually from the woodwinds and strings in the boxes. ElSaffar played one note on his trumpet and the Orchestra picked up on it – first mirroring it, and then harmonizing on it.
Unless you were Linda Blair’s character in The Exorcist, watching this music in the current group configuration was impossible. As such, I took ElSaffar’s advice, closed my eyes, and listened to the composition unfold like a stained-glass window being built piece by piece. The trance-like aspects of the work sank into my head, dropping my pulse rate like a rock. The colors and layers ElSaffar and the Orchestra created were absolutely heavenly. I opened my eyes occasionally and saw more musicians had either stepped on stage from the wings or had come down from the balcony.
Eventually, the focus switched to the stage as the bulk of the Orchestra made it down from the balcony. Okazaki shifted the piece’s direction with a single repeated guitar figure, which Swaminathan and De Rosa picked up immediately, as did pianist John Escreet and drummer Nasheet Waits. This music wasn’t avant-garde, because there literally wasn’t a “garde” to stand in opposition. Gorgeous harmonies mixed with dizzying cacophony as the piece wound through the string section, which included two ouds and a buzuq. (If you’ve never heard of the last instrument, check out the “Cheese Shop” sketch on Monty Python’s Flying Circus.) Charting every aspect of the piece must have been like drawing a map of L.A. by hand.
The instrumentation on this piece was literally massive, from the hammered dulcimer ElSaffar played when he wasn’t tooting his horn, to the massive bass saxophone played by John D. Parran. It takes a big outfit to build a big piece, and everyone contributed to the timeless beauty ElSaffar had composed. You could hear everything, from the isolation of a musician trying to hear everyone playing on the Zoom feed, to the people around the world living through the chaos of the pandemic. “Emergence” was as powerful and dynamic as the orchestra playing it, and with the Hall itself acting as an instrument (or, at the least, an art-deco megaphone), the entire experience was completely unprecedented. I thought I’d seen it all. I guess now I have – until something even more amazing comes along, of course.