Tag: studying music

I’m Learning Middle Eastern Music the Wrong Way

An historic drawing of a group of five Aleppo musicians performing on (from left to right) a daff, a saz, a ney, a kamancheh, and a pair of naqqāra


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 create music in a hostile atmosphere which will never give my voice the home it deserves.

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.

Classical music has and always will be racist in its core.

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.

A score sample showing a melody transcribed into Western staff notation.

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.

My ability to research Middle Eastern traditional music is limited.

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.

A reproduction of an image from a 1994 manuscript featuring a drawing of the musician Sadiq Ali Khan performing on a rebab as well as two other annotated drawings of a rebab with extensive text, in Arabic.

Initial Research

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.

My Limitations

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.

An historic photo of 3 Aleppo musicians performing (from left to right) on some sort of not completely identfiable frame drum, an oud, and a ney

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.

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.

The voices of minorities with a colonial scar on their sound are capable of creating amazing, new, and awe-inspiring music.

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.

The Magic That Happens in a Week

When I first arrived at the Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier for a campus visit, I was just in time for the electronic music showcase. I’d had a long flight and a drive through unfamiliar country. I was a little weary, and a little wary. I’d been to a lot of electronic showcases and fixed-media installations over the course of looking for a grad school. They’d started bleeding into each other. And none of them made me feel like my voice had any place in the programs I was visiting.

The works didn’t feel like student works. They were furious searches for answers to burning questions.

VCFA’s was something special, though. The works didn’t feel like student works. They were furious searches for answers to burning questions. In that sense then, they were student works – in the sincerest form of the word. I heard delicate soundscapes, interwoven with rotating samples of the composer’s family. I heard brutalist musique concrète. The whole thing closed with a meditative improvisation among some of the faculty. Jazz pianist Diane Moser performed in an emotional feedback loop as her sound was manipulated by Mike Early and John Mallia. It was unlike anything I’d heard before. And woven throughout this exploration of electronic art music was something else—there were snippets of video game music. There were synthesizer pieces from the ‘70s that students had pulled out of mothballs and retooled. There were straight-up techno dance pieces. And in the context of that breadth, a realization emerged – every single piece I heard that night was exactly what the composer wanted it to be. Nobody was following the dictate of an overbearing tutor or trying to impress a department head. They were following their muse, guided by folks who were equipping them to do it better every time. And the program was richer for it, in breadth and in depth. At a school that had room for me, even the musical styles that felt like a barrier to me were beautiful, because the only people composing in that space were the ones who were truly called into it.

VCFA operates in week-long residencies, followed by six months of one-on-one mentoring with a faculty member. Because there’s so little time spent together, they go out of their way to make the most of it. Every minute is accounted for, between the lectures, workshops, showcases, and concerts. My visit was only for a couple of nights, but it felt like I was there for at least two weeks. The breadth of the lectures bore out the promise of the electronics showcase. I caught the film music showcase and an ensemble concert. After that concert, I stayed up talking with one of the student composers I’d met. As we talked and I packed, I realized we’d carried our conversation on until 5 in the morning, and it was time for my cab to take me to the airport. I flew home, with something like two dozen new Facebook friends in tow.

A group of VCFA students standing inside one of the buildings there.

These are some of those friends…

Those Facebook friends turned out to mean a great deal in the coming months. Even though I was on the fence about attending, I was welcomed into the community and talking to students daily. When the time came to make an admission decision, I had two offers on the table. The assistant program director called me – not to sell me on it, but to talk through my creative and financial anxieties.

She, in turn, put me in touch with the faculty chair at the time, Rick Baitz. Rick talked to me for over an hour while he was stuck in New York traffic and I was stuck in Austin traffic. His advice was enthusiastic, if cryptically Zen. “Well, I think you should come. Unless you don’t want to come. But then you probably shouldn’t be listening to me. Listen to yourself.”

In the end, I wound up listening to him. It was one of the most positive life changes I’ve ever made. Frankly, it still is. My time at VCFA is very much a going concern and a part of my daily life. I still collaborate with my VCFA fellows. I still work with them, and occasionally work for them. And two years after graduating, I still fly to Vermont every six months and take a long drive to be part of every residency.

Vermont College of Fine Arts plays up the “low residency” aspect of the program. You study remotely with a grad advisor for six months, and then you reconvene on campus for a week-long combination of a conference and a festival. But the real value of the school isn’t in the semester format. It’s in the magic that happens in that one week.

Because there’s so little time spent together, they go out of their way to make the most of it.

The residencies start to bleed together in my mind. They’re separated by time, and yet they’re timeless, and oddly recursive. As I walk through this week, most of the examples I think of are from the most recent residency, August 2018. It is the freshest one in my mind. But as I reach through my memories to think of all the things that the program can be—and has been, for me—I have reached for a few memories from earlier residencies stood out for me. The guest presenters and visiting performers change from residency to residency, and at least one priceless, life-changing memory seems to emerge from each one.

That first evening I experienced there may have been the best introduction to the program I could have hoped for. I quickly found that the genre-agnostic approach I encountered was de rigueur for the program at large. It bore out in the lectures, as well. Andy Jaffe is the man who wrote the book on jazz harmony—quite literally. His pet topic is recontextualization through reharmonization. He’s the kind of speaker who, even if you can barely keep up with him, will leave you with a tiny piece of insight that you can apply anywhere. In a flash, he will immediately deepen your understanding and broaden your view. Andy insists repeatedly that there’s nothing mystical about jazz harmony. One of his core assertions is incredibly simple—the more tones you have in your chord, the more common tones you have to propel you wherever you want to go. If you’re a newcomer to the world of jazz—or even unengaged completely—that’s a tiny, but powerful idea. You can hang onto it, take it home, and mull it over as you work on your own music for six months. And Andy’s approach to harmony starts quietly bleeding into student work as they progress through the program.

An impromptu jam session involving VCFA students and faculty (including Andy Jaffe at the piano) as well as visiting musicians (including violinist Fung Chern Hwei)

An impromptu jam session involving VCFA students and faculty (including Andy Jaffe at the piano) as well as visiting musicians (including violinist Fung Chern Hwei)

John Fitz Rogers speaks adeptly about principles of orchestration. This semester, his lecture is about controlling dynamic intensity artfully, by baking it into the structure of the piece itself rather than giving each part a dynamic marking. As he sifts through 300 years’ worth of examples, he casually opens windows of insight into a bottomless wealth of expertise. Even his basic thesis is one that is simultaneously core to orchestration and yet wildly underappreciated.

A trio of working media composers offer practical advice that is rooted in their years of first-hand experience.

A trio of working media composers hold court to a steadily growing cadre of starry-eyed film-scoring hopefuls. Their advice is practical, rooted in their years of first-hand experience. Rick Baitz gives a survey course in conveying story information musically. He uses Little Miss Sunshine as an example of how you can lead a viewer to intuit things about your characters without needing to make them speak. In other years he’s shown a tense, ambiguous scene from a horror movie. A character is in a stranger’s home, looking for information on a serial killer. He’s either in grave danger, or he’s become hilariously paranoid. Rick shows us the original, and then uses several rescored versions to illustrate how much weight a good score can pull in setting the emotional tone of a scene. Horror is rich with emotional potential, and thrives on the discomfort of ambiguity. An expert composer can tip the scale on way or another to tip off a canny viewer, or to misdirect and surprise at a crucial moment.

Ravi Krishnaswami gives canny lectures in music business and deciphering client needs. He also holds a workshop each semester during which students are asked to score an ad, integrating sound design into the music itself. Sometimes he deliberately gives the assignment out last-minute, for the sake of verisimilitude. This semester, Don DiNicola talked about the importance of collaboration in an age that increasingly demands musicians do everything themselves. People came away deeply moved, almost exuberant. DiNicola himself has been a music supervisor for television studios for years. His insight into navigating through various stakeholders and getting paid is almost as incisive as his musical instincts.

The VCFA community listens to a talk by the members of the Sirius Quartet at VCFA's Alumni Hall during the summer 2018 residency (Photo by Jay Ericson, courtesy VCFA)

The VCFA community listens to a talk by the members of the Sirius Quartet at VCFA’s Alumni Hall during the summer 2018 residency (Photo by Jay Ericson, courtesy VCFA)

Professors sit in on each other’s lectures as well, despite their time being at a premium. The collegial atmosphere is shaped profoundly by their curiosity and camaraderie, and by the cross-pollination of ideas. You’ll see the classically oriented professors sitting in on a lecture about the Futurists, given by a singer-songwriter with a wild new music streak. You’ll see the jazz cats turn up at the film scoring lectures with fresh insights about the way harmonic motion is driving a scene. That boundless insistence on the permeable nature of what we do is at the heart of the program.

Some of my classmates were fresh out of college. Some had recently retired.

Similar convergences occur among the students. Some of my classmates were fresh out of college. Some had recently retired. One is a heart surgeon who had trimmed his hours to focus more on his lifelong music obsession. An avant-garde jazz composer from Chicago takes an evening away from lectures to listen to a discussion about her work on Swedish Public Radio. One of my childhood heroes in television scoring is here, trying to rediscover his own voice after years of being asked by studios to sound like other composers. And all of these people are thrown together. They encourage each other through difficult masterclass sessions. They learn each other’s songs for the weekend showcase. They gossip about John Zorn and recommend TV shows to each other at lunch.

Garrett Steele sitting on a piano bench next to Margie Halloran who is playing the piano and singing with Torrey Richards playing guitar to their right.

I join another VCFA alum Margie Halloran for one of her songs along with Torrey Richards on guitar during the Singer-Songwriter Showcase

Evenings are for showcases and concerts of student work. In addition to the electronic showcase, there are nights for film music and songwriting. All of those styles bleed into the ensemble concerts—ostensibly the meat of the residency experience. Groups like Talujon, Sirius Quartet, and loadbang offer feedback and insight for several days before delivering their performances. They impart idiosyncratic notation tricks for their instruments. They give practical career advice. A common theme in their feedback is that it’s a performer’s market when it comes to new pieces. The performers here are all strong enough that they can play anything you throw at them. But they’re also honest enough to say, “If you want someone to actually play this thing beyond these walls, you need to tweak this, this, and this to make it manageable.”

Sometimes ensembles take student work with them. My own percussion quartet was programmed by Michael Lipsey for his percussion students at Queens College. And even if the music doesn’t travel, the relationships do. Students from Florida couch-surf with students from California. Session musicians from New York make time to grab drinks when students from Texas come to visit.

David Cossin make some edits on his part as Michael Lipsey looks on at a rehearsal of Talujon during VCFA's summer 2018 music composition residency (Photo by Jay Ericson, courtesy VCFA)

David Cossin make some edits on his part as Michael Lipsey looks on at a rehearsal of Talujon during VCFA’s summer 2018 music composition residency (Photo by Jay Ericson, courtesy VCFA)

Those relationships are fostered by the evenings after the concert. The on-campus café supplies enough wine to get the conversation going, and before too long everyone wanders down the hill from the campus to the bars downtown. It’s in one of those bars that I won a minute of recording time from a Julliard instructor in a bet. Here I get lightly berated by a conservatory head for not being familiar enough with Biggie. Here a visiting music journalist breathlessly enthuses about a ‘50s pop singer from Hong Kong that I need to hear.

The professor renowned for orchestration can go on a tangent about Led Zeppelin.

Beyond encouraging breadth within the program, VCFA encourages people to explore their own full richness. The professor renowned for orchestration can go on a tangent about Led Zeppelin. A songwriting student can do a multi-movement piece for brass quintet. And the people on the periphery of each of these moments get to experience people who are living in holistic fulfillment of their best artistic selves.

VCFA is a swirling vortex of bizarre, beautiful convergences, built on the idea that it’s all music. Maybe, in the end, everything is.

A photo of the 2016 VCFA graduating class in music composition during graduation all holding their diplomas.

At the end of every residency there is a graduation ceremony for the people who have attended five residencies and have completed all of their work toward the degree. During the ceremony. For each of the graduates, one of the faculty members offers a personal statement and ceremony attendees also get to listen to recorded excerpts of each of the graduate’s musical compositions.