Music Interviews
3:58 pm
Wed February 15, 2012

Three Poetic Traditions Inspire A Mideast Symphony

For his third symphony, the 26-year-old American composer Mohammed Fairouz decided to incorporate text in three languages. Poems and Prayers, which had its debut Thursday in New York, features passages in Arabic, Hebrew and Aramaic.

The symphony was commissioned by Northeastern University, where Fairouz teaches. The idea was to write something exploring the conflicts in the Middle East, so for inspiration, Fairouz delved into the region's poetry — both ancient and modern.

"In reading the poetry, I started to develop an idea of synthesizing these poems, as well as some of the ancient liturgies of the Middle East, to form what the title of the symphony implies: poems and prayers," Fairouz says. "And the symphony is scored for chorus, orchestra, solo vocalists, solo instrumentalists — so there's a variety of ways in which these texts can be articulated."

NPR's Mary Louise Kelly speaks with Fairouz about assembling the symphony and the stories behind some of the movements.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Now, time for music and something you don't hear very often, a symphony featuring text in Arabic, Hebrew and even Aramaic.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KELLY: This is the third symphony from 26-year-old American composer Mohammed Fairouz. It's called "Poems and Prayers." It debuted just this past Thursday in New York City.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KELLY: The symphony was commissioned by Northeastern University where Fairouz teaches. The idea was write something exploring the conflicts in the Middle East. So for inspiration, he delved into the poetry of the region, both ancient and modern.

MOHAMMED FAIROUZ: In reading the poetry, I really started to develop an idea of synthesizing these poems, as well as some of the ancient liturgies of the Middle East, to form, you know, what the title of the symphony implies, "Poems and Prayers." And the symphony is scored for chorus, orchestra, solo vocalists, solo instrumentalists, so there's a variety of ways in which these texts can be articulated.

KELLY: Let me ask you specifically about some of the music and how you broke it down. There are two different sections that are striking, both women's voices. You have a woman's voice with a solo clarinet, and then in a different part, a woman's voice with a solo violin. I understand that both of those portray very moving stories. Tell me about those two moments.

FAIROUZ: Well, the woman's voice with the solo clarinet is the second movement, the lullaby movement of the symphony. And that's a text by Mahmoud Darwish, the great Palestinian poet. And in a way, the mezzosoprano sings into the clarinet, saying, if you'll not be a rain, my love, be a tree. It's very classical Arabic poetry. And then at the last moment, this poetry takes a switch, takes a turn, and Mahmoud Darwish breaks out of meter and he says, this is what a woman said to her son at his funeral.

So I saw in the voice of the clarinet the dead son of the woman. And I saw the woman singing to the clarinet, and the clarinet being a voice but not a human voice, no longer a voice that could echo her with words and be present.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FAIROUZ: And then in the last moments of that movement, the clarinet does what only a clarinet can do, which is this decrescendo, this dying away. And her voice and his voice come together as one and just sort of die away into nothingness.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KELLY: And then tell me about this other moment where we hear the solo violin.

FAIROUZ: It's called "Night Fantasy," and it's the poetry of Fadwa Tuqan. She was called the poetess of Palestine. That movement is about her despondence of not being able to save her people, her country, her family through her words. This is a movement that is much more despondent, much more defiant.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NIGHT FANTASY")

FAIROUZ: She says (foreign language spoken), and the word yom in Arabic means day. And I set that with a descending interval.

(Singing in foreign language) - like this, and then we have the final movement, a huge setting of Yehuda Amichai, memorial day for the war dead. The amichai, the Israeli poem, begins with Yom Hazikaron.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FAIROUZ: (Foreign language spoken) in Hebrew, which means memorial day. And yom, of course, is a common thread. It's common in Aramaic, it's common in Hebrew, it's common in Arabic. So when I said it in the Hebrew, I said it with the same descending interval...

(Singing in foreign language)

KELLY: I'm speaking with composer Mohammed Fairouz. His third symphony debuted Thursday night at Columbia University's Miller Theater. It's called "Poems and Prayers." I wonder whether your soloists or the symphony as a whole, how challenging they found this music. And were you working with primarily American musicians who might not have been familiar with these sources and with some of the techniques that this music required?

FAIROUZ: Yes. The mezzo did need some coaching on the Arabic, read through the Arabic for me, Mohammed, and the - but in general, the music was reacted to very intuitively. And I think that this is partially because the musical and literary traditions are really ingrained with us as Americans. I mean, it's become a part of our popular culture. The Middle East is so present, not always in the most positive way, but certainly, it's present. So I think that people react to the music and to the languages much more quickly than we might expect.

KELLY: I'm wondering, I know you have Arab-American roots, family roots in the Middle East, but you're a lifelong New Yorker. Text that you're drawing on here are in Hebrew, in Arabic, in Aramaic. You must have done a tremendous amount of research. Did you learn anything about these cultures that you didn't know that surprised you?

FAIROUZ: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I learned the haggish(ph) from memory, which a nice Arab boy, you wouldn't expect (unintelligible).

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FAIROUZ: I learned (foreign language spoken).

KELLY: Yeah. Your accent sounded pretty good. You clearly have been working on it. What are your political ambitions for the work, you know, this effort to bring Arabic and Jewish voices together here. What are you hoping to spark?

FAIROUZ: Well, I don't have political ambitions as much as I have humanitarian ambitions. The humanistic element of bringing these cultures together, synthesizing them, providing the music just as evidence of our common ground - and of course, you know, I'm 26 years old, so there's a lot of starry-eyed optimism here. But for the time being, I value it. I don't necessarily think that through creating these works of music that we, the composer and the performers, are changing the world necessarily. But there's an old saying that says where words fail, music begins. I would almost say where politicians have failed, artists might succeed.

KELLY: That's the composer Mohammed Fairouz. His third symphony, "Poems and Prayers," just received its debut performance at Columbia University. And you can hear excerpts from that performance on our website, nprmusic.org. Mohammed Fairouz, thank you so much and congratulations.

FAIROUZ: Thank you, Mary Louise.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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