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Mohammed Fairouz
12 Sep 2010

Mohammed Fairouz: An Interview

As one of the most sought after composers of the young generation, Mohammed Fairouz has many commissions and a substantial body of work, and maintains a busy performance schedule.

Mohammed Fairouz: An Interview

Interviewed by Tom Moore

Above: Mohammed Fairouz

All photos courtesy of Mohammed Fairouz


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 about?

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 predecessors?

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 Brüder 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 symphony.

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 Symphony. 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 Fantasy, 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.

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