Musicologists could spend years puzzling out the sonic connections between Corsica and Iran, but for Kiya Tabassian it’s all about intuition. When the founder of Montreal’s acclaimed ensemble Constantinople first heard the Mediterranean island’s distinctive harmony singing, he was profoundly moved, and knew immediately that it was something he’d have to explore further.
“There is no direct link,” the Tehran-born Tabassian explains, on the line from his home. “But, intuitively, this music talks to me, so there must be some reason for that. I think the fact that it’s a modal music is the main common point with Persian music. There’s also some similarity with the Persian way of singing. You can hear the similarities.”
Some might argue that the differences are even more profound, beginning with the fact that Corsica has been Catholic for hundreds of years while Iran, of course, is a predominantly Muslim state. It’s also true that, until very recently, harmony singing has been almost unknown in Persian music, whereas the Corsican choral tradition features an intricately interwoven array of voices.
Still, any notion that the two styles shouldn’t go together has been effortlessly exploded by the ongoing creative collaboration between Tabassian’s trio and the four singers of Corsica’s Barbara Furtuna. Even more remarkable is that their meeting is more of an organic fusion than a cultural collision: few things sound more natural than the blend of Constantinople’s setar, viola da gamba, and Middle Eastern percussion with Corsican singing.
“I don’t want to make a collage in my music,” asserts Tabassian, refuting the cut-and-paste aesthetic that typifies many cross-cultural undertakings. “We want to go deep enough that we arrive at a point where you can’t see, really, which colour is beside which colour. We want to present the whole tableau, the whole painting or piece of art.…That’s what we are looking for in our projects, and I think with this program we’ve really achieved that point.”
The program in question—which here will be presented jointly by Early Music Vancouver and Caravan World Rhythms—is called Canti di a Terra. And unified though it might sound, it’s actually more diverse than the above description indicates. In addition to Persian classical music and Corsican singing, Constantinople and Barbara Furtuna will tackle 14th-century music from Italy, a set of variations from the 16th-century French composer Marin Marais, mystical texts by Sufi visionaries Rumi and Hafez, and even some freshly penned works from both sides of the collaboration.
“Corsican culture is a very old and rooted culture, but the Corsican people are people that are looking forward,” says Tabassian. “For example, Barbara Furtuna, they are very much interested in creating new pieces. Even if they’re very well-rooted in their tradition, they want to create new pieces with new lyrics, new ways of singing, new sounds.”
Tabassian and his collaborators in Constantinople clearly share that openness. In that light, Canti di a Terra offers both a brilliant blend of ancient and unusual sounds, and a musical experience that’s entirely unprecedented.