Tag: multicultural

Saad Haddad: It’s Not Going to Be Exact

Saad Haddad

Most first rehearsals of a new piece for orchestra begin one of two ways. The conductor either spot checks various potentially tricky places in the score or attempts a full run-through until something goes awry, which makes everyone stop to focus on what made everyone stop. But guest conductor Steven Schick did not do either of these things back in November when he began rehearsing with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra for a performance of Saad Haddad’s Kaman Fantasy (one of five pieces by emerging composers performed during the 2015 Milwaukee Symphony Composer’s Institute). Instead, Schick asked the string section to play a pitch that was halfway between E and Eb. It took a while for them to find the pitch, but once they did, he then asked them to begin to play the piece. Kaman Fantasy was like nothing else on that program; indeed, it was like few things ever performed by orchestras.

Even during this first somewhat tentative reading, a magical and extremely beautiful microtonally tinged tune emerged amid various melodic fragments chock full of swirling embellishments in the strings and winds. Although the sounds were clearly being made by members of a symphony orchestra reading from parts on their stands, what they played sounded uncannily like the orally transmitted large ensemble music of North Africa and the Middle East.

When we spoke to Haddad in New York City in early March, the 23-year-old composer reflected on the Arabic music ensembles that served as a model for Kaman Fantasy. “There are like 10 to 12 violins and they’re all playing the same line in a different way, with different embellishments and slightly different bowings—sometimes completely different bowings,” he explained. “There’s no [sheet] music at all involved; it’s all done by ear. I’ve never heard a string section sound like that in any tradition and, of course, not in the Western tradition … but I was trying to do that kind of thing in an orchestra piece. The problem with working with Western musicians; you want them to be not exact, but to do that you have to show them something exact on the page and then warn them—be careful, it’s not going to be exact, that’s how it should be. But once you get the musicians to be on board with that, then you can create something really unique and really special in an orchestral environment in which it’s usually really difficult to do anything outside the box.”

Born, raised, and compositionally trained in Southern California, Haddad had never previously written anything like that for an orchestra. But his incorporation of Arabic aesthetics into contemporary Western performance practices in this eleven-minute 2015 composition was something he had been pursuing on a smaller scale in his music since 2012. In fact, Kaman Fantasy began as a duo for violin and piano in which the violin simulates the sonorities of the traditional silk-stringed spiked fiddle common throughout the Islamic world (an instrument called kemençe in Turkey and called kamancheh in Iran and throughout the Caucasus). And, encouraged from being able to make such a synthesis work on an orchestral scale, it is something which has continued to inform his subsequent forays into composing for large ensembles: Manarah for two digitally processed antiphonal trumpets and orchestra, which the American Composers Orchestra will premiere at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall on April 1, 2016; and Takht, which the New Julliard Ensemble will premiere at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall on April 21. However, Haddad was quick to point out that he still thinks of himself as a beginner and even somewhat of an outsider when it comes to having a deep knowledge of Arabic musical traditions.

“I’m an American for sure,” he admitted. “I’ve never even gone to the Middle East … so I’m not going to pretend that I know everything there is. I have a lot to learn. The only thing I hope I can contribute is that I can really showcase the beauty of the culture and the beauty of the music. There’s a lot of stuff in it that’s really cool.”

While he is currently pursuing a master’s degree at Juilliard under the tutelage of John Corigliano, Haddad has yet to find a parallel mentor who can offer him a deeper knowledge of the arcana of maqam, the complex Arabic modal system. Most of his knowledge of this music has come from surfing websites and carefully studying YouTube videos of the iconic Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum, whose 1975 funeral attracted more than four million mourners. Although his grandparents were huge fans of Kulthum and Farid el-Atrache, a popular singer-songwriter originally from Syria, Haddad never had any direct exposure to this music in his formative years.

“I never thought I was going to use this music until a few years ago,” he acknowledged. “When I was growing up, I was listening to a lot of Bee Gees and ‘80s music because my mom was really into that stuff. And then I listened to Mozart and Beethoven and all the big classical giants.”

Once he started creating his own music, he initially followed a path typical of many young American composers. He wrote a Michael Jackson-inspired composition scored for a post BoaC All Stars-type ensemble of soprano sax, electric guitar, keyboard, and drum-set, a few short orchestra pieces, and two lovely settings of poems by William Blake for unaccompanied chorus. He even dabbled in film music under the auspices of the John Williams Scoring Stage at USC, which instilled in him a deft command of musical narrative that would later inform other kinds of collaboratively created work, such as his Nekavim, a very effective dance score for two percussionists and live electronics created for choreography by Sean Howe. But an epiphany while he was back at home over the summer only a few years ago is ultimately what led to his current compositional direction. It began with something completely mundane: his mother asking him to transfer his family’s home movies off of aging videocassettes. As he explained:

We had like 200 twenty-year-old home videos and you can’t burn them like CDs; you have to watch the whole thing. So I’m sitting there watching … and see all my older relatives twenty years younger and I started getting really connected to it. So I thought, “Why don’t I write a piece using this material?” I went in with ProTools and tried to take the snippets that I liked. I had no idea what I would do with them; I was just making a catalog of interesting sounds from my childhood. And then I thought, “If I’m going to use my family as an influence, I ought to use their music, too.”

The resultant piece, Mai for string quartet and live electronics (2013), would serve as a blueprint for everything he has composed since then.

The microtones and all the embellishments that are really typical with Arabic music are really easy to get with a string quartet, especially when you’re working with them. So I worked with the Argus Quartet on this and we played it a few times at USC. Then it won a BMI Award the next year, and it was kind of a confirmation for me. So I started to explore this even more.

But Haddad is not at all dogmatic in his transfer of Arabic music theory to pieces that are designed to be interpreted by musicians trained in Western classical music and performed for its usual audiences. For example, while the microtonal gradations that occur in traditional Arabic music are extremely subtle, Haddad is content with limiting himself to quartertones.

Splitting the scale into 24 notes is the easiest way to think about it without going into it so in-depth. If you’re asking a bunch of players to do it, you have to tell them to play this quartertone, because if they’re all playing different shades of it, it doesn’t sound like what you want. It sounds like a cluster or it sounds like it’s wrong. How do you make it sound like it belongs? That kind of approximation, I think, does a big thing for it; you still have the feeling that it belongs to the maqam when you’re using quartertones. … There are certain things you can do that make it easier for an orchestra. Have the microtones in first or second position in each of the strings. Have them a little lower so you can really hear them; if they’re really high up, sometimes it sounds like a wrong note. “How do I make it idiomatic for the orchestra?” is something I’m always thinking.

The way that Saad Haddad has forged a balance between being practical and a desire to take risks is almost as seamless as his balancing of Western classical and Middle Eastern musical traditions. It is particularly surprising considering that he has come to such realizations while still a student. But even here, Haddad balances a duality: a desire to always be a student but never to be held back by thinking like one.

It’s only in name that I feel like I’m a student right now. No matter how old you are, you’re always learning things. You’re always going to be a student. But I’ve never said, “I’m a student, so I need to act like a student.” The more that you think you’re a student, you’re going to be writing “student music.” You need to think outside that kind of shell and say, “What do I want to do?” and don’t worry about anything else.

Pursuing Diversity: New Voices, New Sounds

Street Crowd

Street Crowd

Conversations about diversity are happening everywhere these days. The changing face of America is increasingly bringing what used to be a dodged or back-burnered dialogue to the forefront of the national debate. The visibility of this issue has grown in recent years due to highly publicized police incidents, national grass-roots protest and advocacy movements, and the resignation of university presidents. Talking about diversity can be difficult and potentially fear provoking, and can often leave people feeling defensive, shamed, or angry. But the discussion is happening. In a recent @musochat Twitter conversation, Gahlord Dewald led a fearless and poignant exchange about diversity in new music. Without presuming to have any answers, I want to expand the dialogue and rearticulate the pressing need for us to cultivate an atmosphere of active diversity in our music and projects. Not just because we should but also because the studies are clear: people thrive when surrounded by others who are different.

Diversity Is Good

As discussed in two recent articles—”Diversity Makes You Brighter” in The New York Times and “How Diversity Makes us Smarter” in Scientific American—studies routinely prove that groups that are infused with a diversity of cultures, thoughts, and disciplinary backgrounds outperform homogenous groups every time. The conclusions overwhelmingly suggest that surrounding ourselves with a diversity of people will help to make us smarter and more creative. I believe this paradigm transfers beautifully to music making and always has.

Race, Gender, and More

When we hear the word “diversity” most of us jump immediately to race. No doubt, supporting racial diversity is a serious and important issue—and many would place it at the top of the list. However, I just spent three years chairing a committee at my university to create a new cultural engagement curriculum to address historic patterns of inequity even more broadly and to help develop skills for living and growing in an increasingly more diverse world.

This goes beyond the color of our skin. We have massive work to do in areas concerning gender, sexual identity, and more. I think this is a brilliant opportunity for us all to grow. When it comes to music, we can continue to work to address these systemic issues in genuine and thoughtful ways and we will have better art for it.

But in our discipline, we can find the beauty of diversity in many other places, too.


Culture is distinct from race. Scandinavians raised in Nebraska see the world differently than those who grew up in Oslo. Asians from Idaho (me) are very different than those from China. In America, we often have cultural traditions rooting us elsewhere, and while those are often diluted over time due to assimilation over generations, these are important distinctions that I think should be highlighted, no matter how small.

Musically, this increasing interactivity means we have the whole of the world at our artistic disposal. An obvious music example from history is the effect Javanese Gamelan had on Parisian composers at the World’s Fair of 1889. Western European Art music instantly evolved upon encountering this ensemble.

The standard assembly of Western orchestral (or jazz/rock, for that matter) instruments is actually quite limited. If we open up our timbral palette to include the whole of the folk music tools and traditions of the world, think of the possibilities. I wonder what would happen if it became standard for guitarists to study the oud and violinists learned the huqin. Part of the study of these instruments would also involve understanding the intricacies of instrumental or vocal techniques, traditional melodies, and the delicate nuances of phrasing and style. But admittedly this is hard. For example, our challenge might involve finding a competent kora player and taking the time and energy to educate ourselves in writing for this instrument.

The diversity of styles and traditions across the world’s music offers rich possibilities. Tremendous precedent can be found all over music history. Think of what classical Indian music did for minimalism (not to mention the Beatles), or what Dizzy Gillespie’s interest in Cuban music did for early bebop and Latin jazz, Hungarian folk song for Bartók, Turkish music for Beethoven, and mariachi for Johnny Cash.

art palette


We can all think of a huge body of work that fits neatly in the genre boxes and helps to define a style, aesthetic, or a cultural population. Yet bending genre lines and borrowing from other styles has resulted in some of history’s most innovative work and most of my favorite music of today.

George Gershwin famously crossed from Tin Pan Alley and the “secular” popular song world to the “sacred” concert hall stage without losing his identifiably unique voice. His concert works are genre bending and I would argue that his opera Porgy and Bess is a seminal work of the 20th century and was created as a direct result of embracing diverse source materials—African American spirituals, popular swing, and European opera.

Miles Davis made a career of genre mixing by constantly searching for and borrowing ideas from those around him. In just a few examples, Kind of Blue (1959) uses a modal language that reminds us of Debussy, Sketches of Spain (1960) merges flamenco and jazz, and his groundbreaking work Bitches Brew (1970) explored the intersections between jazz, rock, and funk.

Examples of genre blurring and bending are everywhere, and while certainly not always successful, they are often key to musical innovation and creative momentum. Blues and boogie-woogie combined with country and gospel to create early rock and roll. Nirvana and Pearl Jam grew the 1990s grunge style by combining elements of punk, hard rock, and pop. Duke Ellington used his jazz vocabulary with Western European form in his elaborate suites and sacred concerts. The potential here is outstanding as we even have rock operas and such artists as Béla Fleck merging bluegrass with jazz, classical, and other world music.

Some of my favorite musicians working today are poised between genres or have created their own. One of my favorite composers, John Hollenbeck, writes for large jazz-based ensemble, the string quartet Brooklyn Rider commissions music from diverse composers from outside the classical academy (including Vijay Iyer and Ethan Iverson), and the vocal group Roomful of Teeth utilizes a wide range of vocal traditions and styles from all over the world to find a wonderful and unique sounds.

We musicians and composers can deliberately pursue a diversity of genre, sound, and thought. As an example from my own work, this past season the Universal Language Project commissioned Brazilian jazz musician Jovino Santos Neto to write a piece that merges his Latin jazz language with Brazilian folk music and the style and instrumentation of Stravinsky’s L’Historie du soldat.

In this way, we can create something new that is simultaneously intentional and unexpected.

Multidisciplinary Collaboration

Music and dance have been intimately tied from the beginning. Oddly, most musicians go through years of conservatory and academic training without any deliberate dance collaboration. Our Western European art music tradition is rooted in the baroque dance suite, and it would be inaccurate to tell the story of the evolution of jazz without talking about the music’s role in social dance.

One of the most obvious examples of collaboration is the amazing work of Stravinsky and Nijinsky. We simply would not have Le Sacre du printemps without this partnership and the confluence of these diverse artistic backgrounds.

Of course, the collaboration between music and other art forms music goes beyond dance. Think of the great partnerships involving lyricists and musicians—George and Ira, Rodgers and Hammerstein. And, while not directly collaborating, the mixing of words and music gave us Wilde and Strauss, and Shakespeare with everybody. A great diversity of multidisciplinary collaboration is possible between music and the other arts including film, theater, spoken word, dance, painting, and sculpture. We can go beyond the arts, too. John Luther Adams collaborated with science and the Earth itself for his instillation The Place Where You Go Listen, which makes audible real-time data from our planet and its weather patterns.

I wonder where else we could go.

Audience and Venue

Our medium is one of performance, and it is intimately and symbiotically dependent on our audiences. Throughout history, music has always been shaped by the intended audience—Haydn had Esterházy, Mozart had Emperor Joseph, Ellington had the Cotton Club, and Dylan had the Monterey Jazz Festival. Our music will sound different if it is intended for academia or a bar stage—and this is a good thing. Different audiences encourage us to create different music. We can learn and grow, and we are stronger for it.

It is, however, going to be up to us to figure out how to create access for all. It is a good thing to be actively courting a different and more diverse audience and to find a way to help bring them along in the artistic process. I get great encouragement from non-traditional audiences and feel that this is one of the key components of what music will be in the 21st century. The problem for us to solve is that it can be very hard to meet our expenses when we try and work outside established norms.

Finally, space matters. The choice of concert location and venue is paramount to encouraging a different interaction with audience. Experiencing a string quartet’s performance in my living room is vastly different than a jazz club, or a church, or in Carnegie Hall. We clearly understand this, as efforts to bring music to “where the people are” are well underway, but we can find ways to improve the experience for all involved and make it more sustainable while observing the utmost respect for the music.

The Win-Win

Pursuing diversity in music is a winning proposition. All of the factors I mentioned above (and there are undoubtedly more) are important in growing new and good music. I am certain that actively, overtly, and happily building diversity into our projects will continue to result in innovative works and better music.

I do realize the built-in inherited privileges and acknowledge the obstacles in our path. I see that our fear of the unknown and the pragmatic difficulty of pulling new ideas together can often cause us to take the easy road. Ultimately, however, we should explore without fear and remember, as Alban Berg quipped to George Gershwin, “Music is music.”

Hafez Modirzadeh: Crossing The Bridge

Video presentation and photography by Molly Sheridan
The approach to improvisation that the recently deceased Ornette Coleman pioneered in the late 1950s and early 1960s was one of music’s seismic shifts. Though Coleman was certainly not the only person to break away from the underpinning of chord progressions, the title of Coleman’s 1960 Atlantic double quartet album, Free Jazz, and his musical philosophy of “harmolodics,” gave the new music a name as well as a raison d’etre. There’s a transformation of similar significance happening in improvised music right now involving the embrace of a greater intervallic palette. Bay Area-based composer, saxophonist, and musical theorist Hafez Modirzadeh, a great admirer of Coleman, has been one of the key architects of this intervallic expansion.

A hand drawn chart of musical intervals in the chromodal system.

Hafez Modirzadeh’s Chromodal Spiral

Of course, jazz soloists have played pitches outside of conventional 12-tone equal temperament from the very beginning. And later on, many of the non-keyboard playing advocates of free jazz purposefully eschewed the piano—Coleman in particular—not only to avoid being influenced by possible chordal underpinnings but also to avoid a fixed tuning. By the 1960s, some iconoclastic musicians—such as Don Ellis, Emil Richards, and Joe Maneri—began taking a more systemic approach to improvising microtonally. In the early 1990s, even one of the most prominent free jazz pianists, Marilyn Crispell, found a way around her instrument’s de facto pitch limitations, recording a series of sprawling duets on retuned pianos with Georg Graewe. But whereas each of those instances was somewhat anomalous, a more inclusive attitude about pitch seems to be one of the defining qualities of a great deal of recent improvisationally oriented music, whether it’s the Middle Eastern-infused suites of Amir ElSaffar, the untempered multicultural tapestries of Bill Cole, the spectral octet of Steve Lehman, or the sonic explorations of Modirzadeh. Modirzadeh has even coined a harmolodic-sounding word for his approach, chromodal, though he is leery of terminology getting in the way of possibility.

A hand drawn diagram showing a lattice of chormodal intervallic relationships.

Hafez Modirzadeh’s Chromodal Star Map

“It’s better sometimes when there are no names because then you can’t own it,” he explained when we met with him at the aptly named Pioneer Works, a performance space in a converted warehouse near the Brooklyn waterfront. “When an idea becomes an ideology it gets dangerous. … You get in a position where you have to call it something; you put a flag in there because you’re doing something that sounds different nor unusual—that horrible word new. … But as Ornette said, ‘It’s just an invention; we’re a creation.’”

For Modirzadeh, who for a time was a key sideman in the revolutionary big band led by the late Fred Ho, being open to a wider range of pitches, and exploring them on his saxophone, is also an important political statement.

All the [saxophone’s] materials come up from the Congo, from the lifeblood of the African peoples. The zinc and copper that goes into the brass, the rubber, the cork, the reed—so much were taken from what they called the Belgian Congo. … Chromodality is a way of looking at the spectrum of relationships in the universe… It helps me understand where I’m going to place tones when I practice, not to counter things so much as to complement them. Working [with] these twelve—what they call—half-steps, or semitones, is very problematic because it dominates and in the rest of the world not everyone is working in this system. The particular system of chromaticism really took hold during the peak of the age of colonialism. That same mindset that calls something a semitone happened to also call someone a semi-human being. So when someone says to me, ‘Oh, you play quarter steps.’ If I try to explain it in quantitative terms, like three-quarter tones, I think. ‘We’re tones. Are you a three-quarter human being?’ We’re all different heights, but we’re all whole human.

But unlike most of the other improvisatory pitch pioneers, Modirzadeh does not avoid using a piano. Instead, he carries around a tuning wrench which he wields like a weapon in the quest to effect intervallic change.

“The piano is this sacred cow that has to be sacrificed,” he declares. “When the piano comes into it, everything gets quantified. In a way it’s beautiful geometry and infinite symmetry, but if you tweak a few tones, then you’ve punctured that circle. With every puncturing there’s some blood, but you’re into the human experience of being incomplete.”

The cover of the CD Post-Chromodal Out! which is an abstract painting.

Post-Chromodal Out!
(PI Recordings #44, 2012)

As you might imagine, showing up at venues and sticking a wrench inside their pianos does not always ingratiate Modirzadeh with the management, but he is undeterred and has managed to convince many of today’s most forward-thinking musicians to accompany him on his quest. For his groundbreaking 2012 album Post-Chromodal Out!, he was joined by ElSaffar, bassist Ken Filiano, and percussionist royal hartigan, as well as Vijay Iyer on the retuned piano, which elicited from him some of his most inspired solos. On Modirzadeh’s latest release, In Convergence Liberation (2014), he worked with a group of traditional Iranian musicians as well as Argentine-Mexican vocalist Mili Bermejo and the string quartet ETHEL. Still, no matter how many high-profile collaborators Modirzadeh has been able to bring on board, he knows that what he is doing is far removed from the commercial mainstream and he has no problem with that.

The cover of the CD In Convergence Liberation which is a diagram of converging angles and spirals.

In Convergence Liberation
(PI Recordings #55, 2014)

“You can tell when it’s about the money and you can tell when it is the money,” he opined. “It helps when it’s not about the money; working with the sound itself and the friendships—that’s the money. The musicians that lend themselves to these ideas I’m trying to work out have ideas of their own, so it becomes like a collective. Ultimately I’m not comfortable with side men—side people—being part of projects; it’s a common mission. It’s not a question of ownership—that would be about the money; it’s about a larger picture. It’s joyful. It keeps you alive and connected. … For all of us who begin on this path, these things become a bridge to get somewhere. You don’t live on or under the bridge; you just cross it.”

Aakash Mittal and Hafez Modirzadeh facing each other playing alto saxophones.

Hafez Modirzadeh (right) playing with Aakash Mittal