WASHINGTON, D.C. — With his eyes closed, engrossed in the music, and sweat dripping down his face, the Washington D.C.-based musician Kamyar Arsani sang the words: “You are Nothing but a God,” as he performed at the Rhizome near the Takoma Park Metro station in Northwest Washington, D.C.
The show displayed tremendous diversity, with Arsani’s Persian music accompanied by a set of minimalist music by Takoma Park musician Jason Mullinax and headliner Martin Bisi’s noise rock.
Arsani’s music hails from a rich tradition of Sufi mystics. He took a bare-bones approach to his set, with two instruments, his voice, and the daf. The daf, a large, handheld frame drum with metal ingots attached, is an ancient instrument, its roots stretching back hundreds of years. Arsani paid tribute to this heritage while also giving the instrument a modern touch. Arsani’s first set, a collection of original compositions, showcased the new, while his second set, an adaptation of a poem by the 13th-century Sufi poet Rumi, featured the old.
The Iranian-born Arsani began the performance singing in English, before switching to Farsi. He used dynamics, masterfully switching from bombastic, impassioned sections to subdued, quiet moments, when his voice became only a whisper.
“I saw people getting shot, screaming ‘freedom’ in Farsi, and just getting shot like it was no big deal, but it was a big deal for me,” said Arsani. “When I play my instruments that’s one of my first thoughts, is ‘How can I speak to that energy? How can I channel the feelings that those people went through?’”
Layers of looped percussion and electronic synth sounds dominated Jason Mullinax’s show, his first live performance in three years. The musician and drum instructor borrowed heavily from the minimalist music of artists like composer Steve Reich for a continuous 30-minute performance. His meditative style contrasted greatly with the jazz-fusion music of his recorded output.
“I firmly believe that recorded music and live music can be interdependent. You can record something, and you don’t have to play it live, or you can play it live, and you don’t necessarily have to record it,” said Mullinax. “I’m not necessarily playing songs off the record, but the spirits there.”
He began his set using wind-up toy robots, which looked like something you would find in a kitschy antique store, to set up an ostinato on a set of miniature toy xylophones. Mullinax moved to a set of Casio synths to add depth to the accompaniment of his robots. With the basic structure in place, Mullinax, used a full-sized xylophone to add several melody lines. For a change of tone color, he added small accents from a set of meditation chimes to the loops.
“I’m just getting older,” said Mullinax on why he moved toward ambient music. “When I was in my 20s, everything had to be loud and fast and aggressive; as I get older, I appreciate things that are more mellow. You can still be intense without being loud and heavy with it.”
Headliner Martin Bisi has made a large impact on the music world. His recording studio, BC studio, has become a legendary place in recent years, spawning the documentary “Sound and Chaos: The story of BC Studio” and a tribute album, “BC 35,” which features Bisi himself and some of the artists he has recorded.
As a producer, Bisi helped create Herbie Hancock’s seminal 1983 hit “Rockit,” which helped define the emerging genre of hip-hop. He worked with Afrika Bambatta, one of the first hip-hop DJs, and his work with Sonic Youth and other bands helped define the sound of NYC noise rock.
Bisi’s performance at the Rhizome reflected his noise-rock roots. Like Mullinax, his trio performed an uninterrupted set of music, something that Bisi said he did to avoid the often-awkward transitions between songs. Bisi’s music was a mix of improvised sections, and sections that were through-composed. The music reflected this unique approach, going from atmospheric sections defined by feedback and abstract drones to sections featuring more-conventional hard-rock guitar riffs.
Bisi even created a loop out of his vocal line, making a cascade of his voice, repeated over and over again, for his band to jam over. Drummer Dave Miller joined in on the action, creating a loop by scratching his cowbell with his drumstick, before going back to his frenetic, syncopated drum parts. Bassist Ernest Jones kept the music grounded in reality with his steady playing.
“There are moments in the material even tonight that I found slightly, almost embarrassingly, poppy,” said Bisi. “But when they’re framed with noise and improv, suddenly you’re like ‘Oh, that’s weird. I thought I was listening to weirdo ambient music.’”