Tag: Arab-American

Sounds Heard: Mohammed Fairouz—Sumeida’s Song

Sumeida’s Song was completed in 2008, when composer Mohammed Fairouz was only 22 years old. Taking inspiration from Tawfiq al-Hakim’s play Song of Death, the opera follows Alwan (Mischa Bouvier) as he returns from Cairo to his hometown in Upper Egypt. Rather than fulfilling an ancestral blood-feud, Alwan rejects violence but ends up paying a terrible price for his efforts to bring enlightenment to the village, in a plot that echoes another Middle Eastern Passion.

For a first opera, Fairouz’s work is a brilliant synthesis of Western opera and Arab musical traditions—specifically, the microtonal inflections typical of Arabic maqam which Fairouz allows to take hold in the second scene onward. Written for operatic voices and Western symphonic instruments, Fairouz’s command of traditional operatic craft would be astonishing for a composer twice his age—and at times, the work sounds almost Straussian in its textured web of motifs; imaginative and rigorous and expressive yet very far removed from any sound world that might be considered even vaguely Arabic.

One reason for this is doubtless because much of the development in Sumeida’s Song takes place within the characters’ minds, hence the intensely psychological, almost expressionist tone developed in the final arias. Another reason is that Fairouz often reserves his Arabic inflections for moments of urgency and crisis, giving his use of quarter tones a specific and musical significance. Those looking for a glib and obvious film-score, Arab-American fusion will be disappointed by this work, which casts Fairouz squarely as a serious composer of concert music in the Western tradition more than a crossover phenomenon.

Fairouz’s orchestration likewise stems from traditional 19th-century technique but is always peppered with arresting timbres and subtly shifting textures that support the drama in myriad creative ways. The first scene begins with Alwan’s mother and aunt anxiously awaiting his arrival by train, with the shrill and sudden screech of the train whistle expressing volumes. Fairouz understands that colorful sounds have an associative and expressive capacity, and his use of the orchestra—though largely traditional—reveals a composer intent on making every sound contribute to the overall psychological drama.

The opera’s libretto is perhaps not its strongest suit, largely expository and at times clunky and ill-suited to Fairouz’s vastly more natural vocal writing. And at times, I found myself wondering if the composer had shown too much concern for avoiding identifiable Arabic influence—sidestepping one kind of compositional danger only to embrace a musical blend in which classical tradition, performance technique, and orchestration threaten to smother the Arabic elements for a good amount of the score. Yet Sumeida’s Song comes off as a compelling musical drama nonetheless, a statement of tragedy and hope that speaks to a universal aspiration: that humans might one day turn away from a legacy of violence.

Several of Fairouz’s recent compositions have received a lot of attention in part because of their timeliness and thematic relation to recent uprisings in the Arab world, but this opera in particular addresses ideas and emotions that have relevance far beyond the events of the Arab Spring. Expertly recorded and mixed by Bridge Records, the disc features fine performances from all four singers as well as a taut and finely detailed account of the score by the Mimesis Ensemble under Scott Dunn. Bridge has released several new operas in recent years, including works by Tod Machover, Bill Bolcom, and John Musto, and Sumeida’s Song proves that Mohammed Fairouz is a composer whose sensitive musicianship and personal vision suggests that he is likely to claim a similar niche in the operatic world.

Mohammed Fairouz: Cross-Cultural Counterpoint

For people who subscribe to the seemingly irreversible cynicism of our age, music does not have the power to change the world; after all, nothing does. But composer Mohammed Fairouz retains an optimistic outlook as he aspires to create music that carries a larger social meaning. And he has managed to garner an extraordinary array of performances for his deeply charged music all over the country—from over 100 art songs to a nearly 80-minute symphony for orchestra, soloists, and a nearly 100-voice chorus. This is no small feat for someone who is only 26-years old. While at first he attributes such a seemingly endless chain of auspicious premieres to the domino effect of musicians talking to other musicians, he soon acknowledges that the larger purposes behind his music are helping to fuel all the attention it has been getting. According to Fairouz, “Composers who have something very urgent to say have a way of connecting with performers in a very immediate way and with audiences.”

The urgent message that comes across in Fairouz’s music is one of inclusivity and a broadening of cultural horizons. An important source for his music has been his own Arab heritage—he grew up hearing legendary singers Umm Kulthum and Fairuz (no relation) alongside Mozart and Beethoven. He even describes Schubert—with whom he deeply identifies—as an “Arabic composer” because of Schubert’s devotion to the primacy of the melodic line, also a hallmark of Middle Eastern music. But the American-born Fairouz would contend that his aesthetics are more symptomatic of the multicultural society we now live in. Of course, the absorption of multiple traditions has been part and parcel of music making for a century. And in fact, one of Fairouz’s teachers was Gunther Schuller, who famously crossed the barriers between classical music and jazz more than 60 years ago. But in earlier times, creating such music was a political act that attempted to erode socio-cultural barriers as much as stylistic ones, whereas nowadays similar musical mélanges occur because that’s what the world now sounds like, or as Fairouz puts it:

We really don’t have the choice to not live in a cosmopolitan world. For my generation […] being part of the cosmopolis—being an integral voice in the choir—is much more attractive because we’re living in a world where you can get from point A to point B in less than 24 hours. […] I would not have been possible in a different world and a different atmosphere and that informs everything. Mahler had to convert to Catholicism in order to take the job at the Vienna State Opera. That’s really weird, right? We’re getting past that. And culturally and compositionally our scene is reflecting that more and more; it’s reflecting something more inclusive and interesting. […]The optimism of the 21st century is that we’re leading to a more cosmopolitan place where these borders are slowly being dissolved, both musical borders and physical borders.

By while Fairouz is well aware that his compositional path is an inevitable by-product of the zeitgeist, he is still very much engaged with the underlying socio-political agenda for such an aesthetic position. Four Critical Modes, for the unlikely duo of violin and saxophone, is a musical response to cultural stereotyping and misperceptions about identity. Whereas Tahrir, his extremely powerful clarinet concerto for David Krakauer, seamlessly blends Arabic and Jewish traditions and is named after the famous square in Egypt that has been a catalyst for the democracy movement in the Middle East.

When I’m writing in contrapuntal forms, that’s usually because of the analogy those forms have to social meanings. One of my great mentors, Edward Said, borrowed the term counterpoint from music and applied it to critical thought in politics and in society as a way for cultures to exist in a tapestry of counterpoint without any culture giving up its individual sense of beauty or raison d’être but contributing to the greater whole. There’s a way of borrowing that back into music. […] When we get past slogans and we actually engage the dialectic we come into a place where we have a much more inclusive and genuine representation of what the world is.

Yet despite his music’s aesthetic currency, he goes about creating it in a very old-fashioned way. His apartment is littered with handwritten scores and an army of carefully sharpened pencils. But somehow even that comes back to its multicultural inspirations.

I really believe in working in manuscript because it gives me a physical, hands -on connection to the music I’m writing. As someone from an Arabic background, once upon a time calligraphy was the most treasured of all the arts in the Arab world. I feel like I’m connecting to that spirit when I’m taking pencil to manuscript paper and carving out these really pretty figures. It has nothing to do with the content of the music: the sound that you’re generating, but I like to enjoy the process of writing and part of the enjoyment is this calligraphic drawing.

However he makes his music, he’s doing the right thing. Over the past two years, violinist Rachel Barton Pine, clarinetist David Krakauer, the Borromeo String Quartet, Imani Winds, Cygnus Ensemble, Seattle Chamber Players, the Knights, counter)induction, and the Two River Ensemble have all premiered new works by him. In November 2011, Sono Luminus released the first all-Mohammed Fairouz CD; Naxos is currently working on the next one. And the performances keep coming, including an opera (his second) and another symphony (his fourth). But there are projects that he will not take on. Originally the topic of his second opera was the trial of Nazi Holocaust organizer Josef Eichmann, based on the account of Hannah Arendt. But as Fairouz got deeper into the project, he had to stop. “Reading the accounts of the Eichmann trials and what the victims had suffered was so beyond horrific,” he recalls. “I could not make this man sing. For heaven’s sake, why would I make this man sing? I did not want to immortalize him in any way.”

Mohammed Fairouz takes what he does very seriously. He is deeply respectful of his historical precedents, while forging his own path. It is a balancing act that all 21st century composers must navigate.