Sunday, May 26, 2024

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All I want for Christmas is Arab art music: Clarion Concerts presents Amir ElSaffar with Hamid al Saadi

And what's most surprising, once you've arrived there, is that the maqam figures into not only Islamic religious practice, but also the liturgy of certain Jewish and Christian traditions. That could make it the most universal music you've rarely heard of.

Pine Plains, N.Y. — During the month of December, it’s good to keep some music at the ready for getting “Jingle Bell Rock” out of your head following a bout of holiday gift-buying. But ridding one’s mind of unwanted holiday music isn’t easy. It requires something bold and bracing, like Berg’s Wozzeck or bebop jazz or something completely novel that you know little about — something, perhaps, exactly like the maqam, the system of melodic modes forming the basis of Arab art music. And your timing is perfect, because Clarion Concerts’ Leaf Peeper Concert Series is presenting Iraqi-American composer, jazz trumpeter, vocalist and santur player Amir ElSaffar in a virtual concert that will stream from clarionconcerts.org Saturday, Dec. 5, at 5 p.m.

But Arab art music has far more to offer than the power to rid your mind of numbers like “All I Want for Christmas Is You” (which is perfectly ducky the first 99 times through). It also has the power to instantly transport you to the land of Scheherazade and the Arabian Nights. And what’s most surprising, once you’ve arrived there, is that the maqam figures into not only Islamic religious practice, but also the liturgy of certain Jewish and Christian traditions. That could make it the most universal music you’ve rarely heard of.

Amir ElSaffar leads five different ensembles, two of which focus on jazz and the others on more traditional Middle Eastern repertoire. When he’s not playing jazz, Mr. ElSaffar specializes in sacred music of the Iraqi maqam, which he performs Saturday on santur in collaboration with singer Hamid al Saadi and three other musicians: Dena El Saffar on joza, Tim Moore on percussion and George Ziadeh on oud. And when they strike up the band, you’ll know you’re not in Kansas anymore. For one thing, you’ll notice that some of their instruments have unpronounceable names. For another, those instruments produce conspicuously exotic timbres that are relatively uncommon in Western music. But what is most recognizably characteristic of Arab art music — what really defines it — are its melodic modes. A melody from Baghdad grabs your attention with a decidedly Eastern tang that you’re unlikely to mistake for Vienna fare. But the thrill of unrecognition is one of the chief rewards of traveling to exotic places.

Does the maqam have a place in American music? Absolutely. In fact, the maqam is more American than a lot of American music by virtue of its strong affinity for what is perhaps the most authentically American form of music: jazz. Both musics are performed semi-improvisationally. Both allow a soloist to express personal sentiments within a predefined structure. Both make use of distinctive and relatively unconventional melodic modes. And both occupy the vast musical universe of Amir ElSaffar.

 

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The reference to Mariah Carey’s Christmas song is a joke. But Ms. Carey’s famously overelaborate melisma (her singing style) sounds an awful lot like what melismatic vocalizations must have sounded like thousands of years ago in the Cradle of Civilization of ancient Mesopotamia. Some things never go out of style.

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