I’m Learning Middle Eastern Music the Wrong Way
If it weren’t for colonization, I would be studying my own culture’s music. And would probably have more success as an artist. So I took my Bachelors of Music degree and set out on my next journey: to learn the musical tradition of my own people.
On March 21, 2019, Google released their first AI powered doodle to celebrate the birthday of J.S. Bach. The AI was charged with the task of recreating a Bach harmonization of any given melody through analyzing over 300 Bach chorales. A learned musician might scoff at this idea on the premise that this is now how you learn music. But in the arrogant scoffs toward the machine’s ignorance, the musical elite forget the magic of what happened. Something which had no way to learn Bach previously, now has the ability to create art.
Do all the results sound like Bach? No, it still wasn’t the “right” way to learn and technology doesn’t have the capacity to learn functional Baroque harmony yet. But the machine knew its goal and every so often, it got close.
I spent my whole day on that machine–testing its abilities with a wide array of melodies. I spent hours exploring how the AI handled themes from Die Kunst Der Fuge and comparing its results to my own melodies. I witnessed a machine become a composer at its first opening of opportunity. Technology, which never had the option to compose in the style of Bach before, made its first steps into creating art in a style of its choosing.
I relate more to this AI than I do to theorists and academics who laud pedigree, process, and a more perfect pedagogy. I too am collecting information about an artform I cannot learn “correctly” and am creating new, more “incorrect” art by learning through whatever bits and pieces I may find.
Moving Away From Classical Music
I was never fond of the New Music scene (or whatever semblance of a scene it may have). I already discussed the racial violence and orientalism/otherism Middle Eastern and North African, along with Black and other PoC, musicians face. I create music in a hostile atmosphere which will never give my voice the home it deserves.
I started to realize in college that I was limiting myself and my potential by staying in the classical field. Instead of wasting my time educating others on the basics of inequality, I could instead collaborate with like-minded artists to create artwork that best expresses what we want to share.
I needed to be around individuals who challenged me to be better, and surrounding myself by musicians who don’t know how racism works or how to even communicate with a person of color wasn’t doing it. I needed to find artists I can work with outside the realm of Classical music.
As the realization that Classical music has and always will be racist in its core sat in, I admit that I felt weak. My love for Classical music was one-sided. If I wanted a future as a musician, I couldn’t be loyal to that one genre. I realized that my relationship with the field was abusive. I gave it all I could, and was spat on in return.
I discovered that, if it weren’t for colonization, I would be studying my own culture’s music. And would probably have more success as an artist. So I took my Bachelors of Music degree and set out on my next journey: to learn the musical tradition of my own people.
Reconnecting with My Culture
I am one of the lucky immigrant children. We still had family in Lebanon who we would visit. We stayed connected to our roots. While I’m not fluent in Arabic, nor can I read it well, I at least know the basics and can hold a conversation. Barring the language barrier, I managed to learn the basics of oud in Lebanon, and heard a concert there.
But my ability to research Middle Eastern traditional music is limited. I was the only artist in the family, everyone else being working class folks who only knew baladi. There were songs I grew up with, sung by Fairouz and Umm Kulthum. I knew the Rahbani brothers, but didn’t know the names of any other composers. After all, it’s the singers we talk about in conversation, rarely the composers.
And while I was connected to people through my family, I cannot say that I feel welcome or comfortable speaking to everyone. Lebanon, like anywhere else, has a spectrum of beliefs between leftist, liberal, and conservative. And these beliefs also tend to vary depending on the region. Navigating those beliefs while growing up in a different culture means that I’m not as able to connect as quickly and easily as I would like to others in my community. Navigating issues like homophobia, language barriers, and religious differences in a manner that is safe is necessary before building community.
As I said in my previous article, colonization takes a culture’s beliefs and indoctrinates the populace so that the colonizer’s beliefs replace those of the colonized. My family didn’t know a lot about our own culture and subscribed to the belief that Western classical music was a higher form than their own music. They knew we had a classical tradition, but couldn’t help me get closer to what it was.
I started off a lot like that Bach AI. I was broke, needed to work as much as possible to stay afloat, and didn’t have any connections. I knew what the right way to learn was. I wanted to find a teacher or go study at a summer institute or even a school. But those options weren’t available to me.
But I also wasn’t going to let colonization win. I needed to learn however I could.
I didn’t have the lesson plan or the pedagogy. But I had a few hundred songs, a few singers, and the internet. Like the doodle, I also started with a tiny sample of a much larger, broader style. I spent hours, days, and months studying these scores. I found a website called maqamworld and I compared all the music I could find to these maqamat.
I spent all my free time, gathering these bits and pieces, trying to recreate this style like an AI.
I did all the research I could, but it cannot be understated how limited that time was. As soon as I graduated, I struggled to find a job. I looked around for freelance work and took whatever jobs I could.
I battled mental illness, and it didn’t really go away. A year after graduation, I talked to a psychiatrist and found out that my post-grad depression was actually PTSD. Taking care of my mental illness is itself a job.
I worked on my credit ratings and applied for a dozen credit cards. Lacking any jobs or credit, I had to use a new credit card to buy a used car. It wasn’t a lot, and I had a plan to pay it off before the 0% APR plan expired. But then I got in a car accident. And after that I was forced to leave an abusive job.
In this entire mess, I was constantly shifting between 2-3 jobs. Now I’m glad I found some stability, but a freelance workload is still not easy. Occasionally, I would add a retail job here and there.
(Some might also argue that composition is not a job, but my mental illness doesn’t care. Labor is labor, and my spoons are spent.)
All of this is to say that I’m chronically exhausted. And not just exhausted but stressed from poverty. After working more hours than full time, I still am barely paying my bills, barely covering my debts, and have almost nothing to spend for myself. And on top of all that, I still have PTSD, which means that I need to work at about half of what I’m doing now to stay healthy.
I’m sharing this information because it is a huge deterrent to learning things the right way. It means that not only can I not afford a teacher, but I can’t afford to take time off to see people’s workshops, to meet and network, to go to concerts, or do almost anything a composer does to build a career. I manage to sneak these things in when I can, but it’s very limiting.
The effects of poverty are exacerbated by my language. I would be able to learn Middle Eastern music theory much more easily if I knew Arabic. But I don’t know it well enough to study books and resources, so I’m stuck with maqamworld – which is an amazing first step, but doesn’t get you to where five terms of Western music theory would.
While colonization kept my family from knowing and believing in their culture, it kept me from being able to finance an education of my own heritage, and deprived me of the very tongue needed to speak and understand my culture. All of these limitations made learning my culture’s music properly impossible.
Feeding the AI
LGBT+ composers of color might be pretty discouraged by now. If it’s not poverty, it’s sexism, if it’s not sexism, it’s homophobia, if not homophobia, racism. And I haven’t even touched on the unique issues transgender and non-binary PoC face. Or how the field is also uncaring to disabled people or that everyone’s ignoring some serious fatphobia. For minorities who face oppression from many angles, being a musician can be deadly.
But our work is not futile. We just have to find a different path. We need to carefully think about the people who recommend us a “correct” path and recognize when those are unavailable to us. Classical music is designed to keep QPOC out, so following a traditional route means we walk right into its trap.
But we still run into the problem that learning however we can will result in something that doesn’t quite make the mark.
And that’s okay.
After I fed my AI on all the Middle Eastern music I can find, I set out to compose a piece free of unwanted Western influence. I failed with that goal, but with whatever knowledge I could, I created a piece that’s not quite traditional Middle Eastern music, but it’s also not classical either.
These conditions led me to create a piece I’m most proud of: Decolonized Arabesques.
Sure, the piece has influences from both traditions, but that doesn’t make it part of those traditions. Instead, my work came out with something entirely different. Just like the Bach AI as it gathered its own style trying to become Bach, I found a personal style trying to reject what I learned and strive for a pre-colonized ideal of what my music should be.
It still hurts, and will always hurt, that I will never be able to shake the violence Western culture has done to my culture and my discovery of it. But just because I speak English does not mean that I can’t speak about my culture. Just because I’m in the U.S. does not mean I’m not Lebanese, and just because my music resembles a Western style does not mean that it is not 100% Middle Eastern.
Every composer has a personal voice, and the voices of minorities with a colonial scar on their sound are capable of creating amazing, new, and awe-inspiring music. We just need the support of our colleagues from all walks of life. The fringes of New Music, visual artists who love to collaborate, our friends and family back home, multi-media artists and curators. It is time we recognize that we are people free of a social order instead of begging for acceptance from classical musicians who can never love us for who we are.