Part of the fun of working for online media is the opportunity to share things that words or pictures can’t convey. Many times as I sat in my chair in the percussion section of UCSB’s Middle East Ensemble, I’d wish that people could hear the kinds of things I was hearing. I’ve written about that ensemble regularly, as well as other music acts, but it always seemed to me no matter how much I said about the music, it couldn’t come close to what I wanted people to know.
When I joined the Ensemble in 2004, I was doing it mostly out of curiosity. I had just interviewed Ensemble Director Scott Marcus for a story in the Goleta Valley Voice and wanted to know what it was about Middle Eastern music that would make someone want to devote his life to it.
I found out soon enough: the rhythmic phrases, the strange and cool instruments, the swinging time signatures, the balance between rigid structure and pure improvisation — they were all weird to me in the beginning, but the more I listened, the more I got. Three years later the melodies – dissonant at first to my Western music-trained ears — are the tunes I hum to myself when I’m doing housework, or walking down the street.
And if that wasn’t enough, the people were cool and fun to hang out with, a big bonus when you spend hours playing with them in rehearsal every week. They turn what can be a daunting three-hour practice into a happy gathering, and at times, a flat-out party. Ask anyone else in the group, it’s likely you’ll get the same answer.
Probably the best part (aside from hanging out with all the good folks in the ensemble), is the opportunity to play with world-class musicians, like John Bilezikjian. Bilezikjian plays the oud, an 11-stringed fretless short-necked lute, and he plays it with the kind of virtuosity and soul that makes your heart want to leap out of your chest. At the same time, says Marcus, it’s not the typical way ouds are played: Traditionally Middle Eastern music is monophonic — all melody and no harmony. Bilezikjian, however, incorporates harmonics into his songs. And yet it’s all seamless, hanging comfortably between the familiar and the strange. Like Marcus says, the man’s got tremendous chops.
What you’re listening to: John Bilezikjian, rehearsing with the ensemble. He’s playing the oud, and singing. Talking in the background at the beginning is Scott Marcus. Will McClintock is playing the dumbek, a goblet-shaped hand drum, and the tambourines are being played by Shirley Force and Rob Wallace.
This Saturday, Bilezikjian plays with the UCSB Middle East Ensemble, for a night of “mostly Armenian music.” Armenian singer George Baghdoyan will also be performing. The show is dedicated to one of the Ensemble’s own, Sarkis Tchejeyian, a community member and promoter of Middle Eastern culture and outreach, who died 10 years ago. Come if you can; the show is at 8 p.m. at UCSB’s Lotte Lehman concert hall. Call 893-2064 for tickets.
Sound recording by Will McClintock