I already know that Amir ElSaffar’s Rivers of Sound performance at NYU Skirball this Saturday will be my favorite show of 2018.
Yes, that’s a bold prediction considering it’s only the beginning of February. But I’ve been following the work of ElSaffar, an Iraqi-American composer-multi-instrumentalist, and his 17-person orchestra over the past three years in NYC as they’ve developed and defined their sound. Each time I see them, they are better than the last—and every single one of their performances tops my list of the most chilling musical experiences of my life to date.
With Rivers of Sound, ElSaffar has brought together masterful musicians from the Iraqi maqam tradition dating back to the 14th century to the most modern fringes of American jazz, creating an ensemble that bridges cultures and styles. The resulting sound is lush and dense. Drums, horns, violins, and even vibraphones recall ElSaffar’s classical and jazz upbringing in Chicago, but it’s their conversation with the Middle Eastern microtonal melodies and instruments—ElSaffar is a virtuoso on the santoor (hammered dulcimer)—that feels familiar in a new and eerie way, like you are recalling your most ancient self.
Not Two, the first full composition for the Rivers of Sound ensemble, was released on vinyl just last year, and this will be only the fourth time it has been performed in New York. Better yet, this is the first time the work will be performed in full, start to finish. The highest achievement in maqam music is for both artist and audience to collectively reach a state of tarab or “musical ecstasy”—and I can attest that ElSaffar and his orchestra mates are achievers of the highest kind.
Why You Should Go: For an unforgettable, trance-inducing performance.
Amir ElSaffar Rivers of Sound
NYU Skirball, 566 LaGuardia Place (between West 3rd Street and Washington Square), Greenwich Village
Saturday, February 10