Mohammed Fairouz: An Interview

The present season will include at least five premieres including those of
his Opera Sumeida’s Song as well as his Third Symphony,
an ambitious work for large forces looking at the possibilities of peace in the
Middle East, setting texts in Aramaic, Arabic and Hebrew. We spoke via Skype on
August 23, 2010.

TM: Let’s talk about your piece for the Zamir Chorale, which began as
an oratorio.

MF: That piece has now taken the form of a symphony, which is my third
symphony. It shares a lot of thematic similarities with my first two
symphonies, but it is also very, very different. It is an evening-long work for
chorus and orchestra, which will bring together the Zamir Chorale and the
Northeastern University Choral Society. There is a children’s chorus in the piece, there is a large orchestra, and a couple of soloists. The
mezzo-soprano solo will be sung by Lynn Torgove, and the baritone solo will be
sung by Dana Whiteside, both prominent Boston singers with a presence on the
oratorio scene. The piece will be premiered at Sanders Theater in Cambridge, on
April 10, 2011. I am nearing the final stages of completing the work.

TM: Could you say a little about how the commission for this work came

MF: I teach at Northeastern, and the commission came through Northeastern
University, though before I started working there. The commission was the
vision of Joshua Jacobson, who is the conductor and artistic director of the
Zamir Chorale, and one of the foremost authorities on Jewish choral music. He
ran the idea by Denis Sullivan, who is the head of the Middle East Studies
Department at Northeastern, and who has strong connections to the Arab world.
The Middle East Studies Department decided to commission the work. It is
entirely set in Middle Eastern languages, and uses the poetry and liturgy of
the ancient and modern Middle East as its point of departure.

TM: So there will be text in Arabic and Hebrew. What other languages are you
working with?

MF: The first movement is a grand choral-solo-orchestral setting of the
Kaddish, which is in Aramaic. It is an ancient prayer, a doxology, praising
God, which acquired the connotation over the years of being a prayer for the
dead. The second movement is in Arabic, a setting of Mahmoud Darwish’s
poem from his epic called State of Siege. It is a very intimate second
movement, set as a lullaby. The principal clarinetist in the orchestra plays in
the style of ancient Middle Eastern writing — maqam-based composition,
and the soloist sings a lullaby for her son who dies, presumably in the
conflict in the Middle East. After that, there is a return to Aramaic, with an
interlude for the men’s voices of the chorus, who sing the Oseh Shalom,
which is from the Kaddish. It is a call for piece, which is set for a minyan, a
quorum of Jewish men. There have to be at least ten Jewish men who come
together to pray — it’s a very formal concept, and very
traditional. They sing Oseh Shalom — He who makes peace in high
places, may he make peace for us and for all Israel
. This text has a
significance for the drama of the whole piece, which I will explain when I come
to talk about the last movement.

Then we have a third movement, which is a setting for orchestra and solo
violin, this time. The solo violinist will be the legendary violinist James
Buswell, whom I have admired for a long time, and whom I have worked with over
the last several years. This movement will be crafted for him. Lynn Torgove
will sing the words of Fadwa Tuqan, a Palestinian poet, in Arabic. She was
called the poetess of Palestine, an important figure both in feminist
literature and in Arabic poetry in the twentieth century. She died in 2006. Her
poem deals with the sense of loss and dispossession. After the third movement,
the childrens’ choir comes in, and sings an interlude on the words of the
Oseh Shalom. This time we hear the children, the first time we heard the men.
Then the finale, a grand setting of Memorial Day for the War Dead by
the great Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, which is in modern Hebrew. That movement
is over a half-hour long in itself, and is the grand finale of this piece, for
chorus, children’s choir, soloists, orchestra — all of the forces
put together. There are various nuances to Amichai’s poem, but basically
it ends on an ambiguous note, saying that behind all this perhaps some great
happiness is hiding, and that brings the epilogue, which is setting for the
men, the women, the children, for everyone, of the Oseh Shalom. Finally, I add
the words to the conclusion of this text which some Jewish groups have been
adding since the 1970s — “and for all the nations of the
world”, and these words are repeated almost hypnotically as the piece
comes to a close. This brings closure, as we are praying not only for the
tribe, but for all the nations of the world.

TM: In a certain sense there are few pieces in the repertoire which one
could think of as addressing this subject matter. I can think of the Britten
War Requiem, the Dona Nobis Pacem by Ralph Vaughan Williams.
Do you have a sense of where this piece will fit in terms of those

MF: I am thinking in terms of two models. Of course the War Requiem
has been looming over me during the composition of this piece, and it is a
wonderful model. Right from the very beginning I thought to myself that the
War Requiem was such a timely piece, but it has such artistic value
that it merits repeated performances, and it lives on very strongly in the
repertoire. Of course being Mohammed Fairouz, and having the connections that I
do to the Middle East, and seeing the tragedy of this conflict, I am uniquely
situated to write this big timely piece. One has to imbue the work with the
artistic integrity that Britten brought to the War Requiem, because to
write a timely piece might create a statement for the here and now —
there’s nothing more pressing and desperately needing of attention than
the Middle East, in my estimation — it’s an absolute disaster and a
tragedy — rather than the ages. It’s also important to note that
the piece is a choral symphony, and it has the connotations of that very first
choral symphony by Beethoven. Schiller’s words Alle Menschen werden
are being realized in this choral symphony, aimed at the
contemporary Middle East. The ability of choirs to be ideal communities of
people that come together, and bring their voices together…


TM: Please say a little, for people who are not from Boston, about the
choral tradition in the Boston area. Not only is there the Zamir Chorale, but
Boston has a centuries-old tradition of excellent choral singing, perhaps the
oldest ensemble being the Handel and Haydn Society, but in addition there are
the Cecilia Society, the Cantata Singers and others. Sanders Theater has been a
venue for many of these groups. You are in a good place to be writing a choral

MF: Boston is a great town, and of course Joshua Jacobson is one of the
great choral conductors, and studied with another great conductor, Lorna Cooke
de Varon, at the New England Conservatory, which is where I went to school.
David Hoose is a great conductor, who works with the Cantata Singers, and who
conducted my Requiem Mass, a long a cappella work, in New York City a
few years ago, and did it carefully and beautifully. There’s the Boston
Children’s Chorus, a unique choir with a social vision and mission. There
are of course the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and the Handel and Haydn Society.
There are many choral societies, and a great choral tradition.

TM: Please say a little about the musical idioms that you use, since
Americans in general are probably familiar neither with classical Arabic music
nor with Jewish music. They may have heard klezmer, possibly, and it’s
less likely that they will have heard Umm Kulthum.

MF: Maqam is Arabic, and is essentially a system of modes. I used maqam
extensively in my opera Sumeida’s Song. That work is slated for
premiere three days after my Third Symphony. The symphony will
premiere in Boston on April 10, and the opera in New York City on April 13. The
idea of the maqam, which is central to Arabic music, is that it is microtonally
inflected. We sometimes say quarter-tones, but they are not exactly
quarter-tones, but inflections, for example, in the maqam Bayati, which is the
mode that I use most extensively in Sumeida’s Song. It is also
the mode that I use, together with the maqams Rast and Sikah (each of the
maqams has a name, a descriptive name) in my Third Symphony, I use it
in Tahwidah, my songs for voice and clarinet, I use it in my
Fragments from Ibn Khafajah, which is a song cycle.

I am in a sense straddling worlds, because I am Western-trained, and I use
the maqam. But I use it with counterpoint, and I use it with harmony, and I use
it with the symphony orchestra, which with some effort and skill, can be made
to sound not much like a symphony orchestra — it can sound like an Arabic
takht, the orchestra that accompanies belly dancers, that accompanied
Umm Kulthum. The use of the mode, the use of orchestration, the idea of writing
music which is essentially heterophonic — what fascinates me about Arabic
music is the fact that without counterpoint, without harmony, this tradition
has existed for thousands and thousands of years, putting all of its effort and
concentration into the melodic line. That inspires me constantly to refine my
melodic line. But I use all the Western aspects as well. There is a huge
four-voice fugue for chorus and orchestra in the finale of my Third
. I use sonata form, rather than the model that Umm Kulthum uses,
for example, where you have a subject, and then a diversion, and then she
diverts from the diversion, and there’s a further diversion from the
diversion of the diversion — two hours later you are at the end of the
evening, and you are not sure where you began. I use motivic development and
traditional forms as well to unify my drama. The way that I use Arabic music is
an interesting synthesis.

TM: We are at a time where the tensions and conflicts are presently daily,
not just in the Middle East, but in our politics in the United States, in
discussions about where Islamic centers can or cannot be located —
it’s hard to believe that in the twenty-first century we have come to
this. Hopefully this is something that will help to raise consciousness in this
area. Do you have motion towards a New York premiere for the Third Symphony?

MF: All I can say at this point is that we are in negotiations with a major
New York orchestra to premiere the work in New York with the Zamir Chorale.
Zamir is looking at a tour schedule for the Middle East for Fall of 2011, and
we have performances that are scheduled for Cairo, at the Opera House, and four
cities across Israel, including Tel Aviv, and in Jordan, probably, if security
allows us in the Palestinian territories — Joshua Jacobson has a vision
to take this to Ramallah, where there is a wonderful cultural center. I applaud
the courage of his vision.

TM: Perhaps you could also talk about some other recent works.

MF: The Cygnus Ensemble, under the leadership of the guitarist William
Anderson, commissioned me to write a piece, which they wanted to premiere at
Bargemusic, which overlooks Lower Manhattan. For that project I chose these
wonderful texts by Ibn Khafajah, which are homo-erotic Arabic love songs from
the Middle Ages in Arab Andalusia. They are so innocent and at the same time so
subversive, because they comment on religion, they comment on politics —
but it’s a song cycle of love songs. I was able to make a strong
commentary with something that is innocent and tender, which speaks to the
humanity of these people.

TM: Anyone who looks at The Thousand and One Nights will be amazed to see
how much of it is poetry — it flows back and forth between narrative and
poetry. It’s easy to forget that both our Western music and poetry have
very strong roots in the interactions in Spain between Arab and Jewish and
Christian poets.

MF: Another example of that is a song cycle of mine called
Rubaiyat. It’s two songs, but three rubaiyats. The
rubaiyat is a wonderful form — it’s a quatrain, but the way that
Omar Khayyam uses that form lends itself to musical puns and games. The Arabs
regarded poetry as the highest art, and I have always been in awe of the great
poets. I have set a lot of text — I have eight song cycles which are
being presented in concerts this year. I love poetry, I love literature. It
inspires a lot of my musical creation.

TM: Thinking about Arabic, and the Third Symphony, people who are familiar
with medieval Spain may know that there was a period of convivencia, of
co-existence of Islam, Judaism and Christianity, but may nevertheless be
unaware that many of the important works of the Jewish writers of the Middle
Ages were written in Arabic.

MF: I discovered as I was setting the Fragments of Ibn Khafajah
that the poet (1058-1138) had Jewish roots. His first name was Ishaq, or Isaac,
a characteristically Jewish name.

Of course, there are all these connections. I am in constant awe of the
poets that I am working with in the Third Symphony. The oldest text
here, the Kaddish, is thousands of years old, and the newest text, the Darwish
is ten years old, and the Amichai is hardly thirty years old. This poetry, this
music, these prayers… this civilization which can create poetry on this
dazzling level… isn’t it poignant that I am writing a piece
desperately calling for them to stop tearing themselves apart?

The Hebrew text of the Amichai has so many internal rhythms and rhymes which
are eminently musical, and so many layers. He says “Memorial Day for the
War Dead, add now the grief of all your losses to their grief.”
That’s an invitation to counterpoint if there ever was one. Later he says
“Memorial Day, holiday which combines holiday and sacrifice and mourning
on one day, for easy, convenient memory”. I remember spending a sleepless
night thinking “what does he mean by this?” , and then I thought
“Of course, “holiday” is Independence Day in Israel.
“Sacrifice” is the memorial day for the Holocaust.
“Mourning” is Yom Hazikaron, the memorial for the war dead.”
Since Independence Day runs back-to-back with Memorial Day for the War Dead,
and days in Israel are evening to evening, dusk to dusk, the two melt into each
other. And Memorial Day for the Holocaust is barely a week apart from those two
days. The loaded sense of history in a small land is mind-boggling. When you
read the text that says “a flag loses contact with reality, and flies
off”, which I set as a fugue, and the culmination is “everything in
three languages — Hebrew, Arabic and Death”. That sounds horribly
heavy-handed in English, but in Hebrew – “Ivrit, Aravit, Umavet”
there’s something creepy that just doesn’t translate. I will be
immersing people in ninety minutes of Aramaic, Arabic, Hebrew, and no English
— they are going into a foreign land. Most Americans will be going into a
foreign land for an evening when they listen to this piece.

TM: Millions of Americans are familiar with the text of the Hebrew Bible,
but what they usually don’t realize is how many fewer words it takes to
say those things in Hebrew, how lapidary the language is, and how explicit you
must be in English with things that can be implied in Hebrew.

MF: The heavy cultural significance of everything – there is so much vital
stuff that is lost in translation.

To turn to a few purely instrumental works that I have been working on, they
seem to speak that universal language of music, but they speak it, I speak it,
in a strong Middle Eastern dialect, and in a sense my wind quintet, which I
just completed, as part of the Legacy commissioning project of the Imani Winds,
reflects that. I heard the reading, and was impressed that the Middle Eastern
colloquialisms came out in a very subtle way. Even when the music is not using
Arab idioms, and not using maqam…the clarinetist in that group, Mariam
Adam, is an Arab-American, and she plays with that her blood — she is an
incredible artist, and so I wrote a big passage for her at the end of the
quintet which she played the hell out of, even when they were reading —
as though she were speaking my language.

TM: Any final thoughts about upcoming projects?

MF: On September 18, a few days after the Borromeo Quartet releases a disc
with my Lamentation and Satire, their violinist and cellist Nicholas
Kitchen and Yeesun Kim, who are partners in life and in music, will be
premiering a double concerto that was commissioned for them by Ensemble 212.
That program will also feature my first and second symphonies. The double
concerto is based on a wonderful book by Jacqueline Rose, States of
, which chronicles aspects of the Middle East, aspects of
psychology, aspects of her thoughts about Israel as a contemporary Jew. I am
delighted that their conductor, Yoon Jae Lee, has taken the initiative to put
together a very complex piece. I am looking forward to that.

There are two other projects which are in the pipeline. One is with the dear
and spectacular mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey, for whom I am composing a song
cycle on the subject of Alma Mahler, and the other with the wonderful
Arab-American conductor, Fawzi Haimor, who just took the post as assistant
conductor at the Alabama Symphony. Fawzi is an ambitious and incredibly
talented young Maestro (I encourage all to keep and eye on him). He is
presenting my Second Symphony in Alabama, together with a symposium on
Middle Eastern music, engaging the Alabama Youth Symphony Orchestra, so that we
can educate young people about our heritage, about contemporary music in
general, and I am delighted about those two projects.

image_description=Mohammed Fairouz
product_title=Mohammed Fairouz: An Interview
product_by=Interviewed by Tom Moore
product_id=Above: Mohammed Fairouz

All photos courtesy of Mohammed Fairouz