"Everything is political," says 26-year-old composer Mohammed Fairouz in his gentle, slow voice. "And for an artist with an Arabic background you're just that much more politicised. Everything we do is controversial, we just can't avoid it."
While radical political discourses are uncommon in classical music, Fairouz's first opera, Sumeida's Song, which premiered in January at the Prototype new opera festival in New York, tackles a provocative subject: the revolts that have shaken Egypt since the beginning of the Arab Spring.
Based on Egyptian writer Tawfiq al Hakim's play, Song of Death, the opera reasserts a promise that the play's actor Alwan made when he was expected to carry out a murder as revenge in a blood feud: I will not kill.
"The responses to this statement have been extremely violent everywhere," says Fairouz, referring to various reactions to calls to pacifism throughout history. "This opera could take place anywhere."
To convey the universality of this clash between violence and peace, Fairouz avoided making clear references in the opera, instead weaving western classical music to the structure of maqam (the melodic conventions commonly found in Arabic music) without overly Orientalising the melody.
"I wasn't going to have a belly dancer," half-jokes the composer, who knew Edward Said and was deeply influenced by the intellectual's writings on Orientalism. "It's an expectation that people have that we have to state our identity clearly and live up to others' misinformed idea of what our identity is," he continues, referring to Said's groundbreaking writings about the distorted depictions of the Orient in the West.
Fairouz believes that as an Arab-American artist, his duty is to pose vital questions about politics and identity. "The world is becoming a very small place and we're all colliding with one another almost constantly," he says.
"We can either learn more about one another, take the opportunity to grow and become a more diverse species or we can rip each other apart. It's important to cross those divides so that we get to know one another and get to live harmoniously. I believe that artists everywhere need to be a voice of their society and for freedom of expression, a voice that is critical asking for society to be better."
For his political engagement, seriousness of purpose and innovative melding of the Eastern and western classical traditions, Fairouz has been hailed as one of the leading composers of his generation. He has been described as "an expert in vocal writing" by The New Yorker, a "post-millennial Schubert" by Gramophone, "an important new artistic voice" by The New York Times and "one of the most talented composers of his generation" by BBC World News.
The young and prolific artist has created more than 40 genre-spanning compositions - from symphonies to opera, chamber music to electronic music. His repertoire has been widely performed at prestigious venues including Carnegie Hall, the Lincoln Center, Boston Symphony Hall and the Kennedy Center. He has won numerous awards including the Tourjée Alumni Award from the New England Conservatory, the Malcolm Morse Memorial Award, and the NEC Honors award. In 2008, he was honoured with a national citation from the embassy of the UAE in Washington for outstanding achievement in artistry and scholarship. Fairouz is often invited to host lectures and workshops at universities and conservatories.
His obsession with sound began during his childhood, when Fairouz played the piano, read poetry and listened to Umm Kulthum, Fairuz, Mozart and Beethoven. Born in New York, he moved to London at an early age with his father, a Palestinian doctor who had studied in Egypt and lived across the Middle East, where he worked for the World Health Organisation. At age seven Fairouz read an Oscar Wilde poem and used it as inspiration for a piece. At each lesson, he played his compositions instead of the homework he had been assigned, much to his teacher's dismay. Throughout his youth Fairouz continued to read voraciously, learning about the authors and poets of the Middle East and familiarising himself with philosophy and theory.
As a teenager he moved back to New York and attended the New England Conservatory and the Curtis Institute, studying with luminaries such as György Ligeti and Richard Danielpour. His mentor was pioneer composer Gunther Schuller, the creator of the "Third Stream", which bridged the gap - musically and socially - between jazz and classical music. Fairouz was very inspired by this radical approach and, encouraged by Said, crafted his own distinctive voice, subtly integrating Arabic rhythms and instruments into classical compositions. His music truly defies rigid notions of identity and genre and breaks the artistic and sociocultural boundaries defined by tradition. It reflects the contemporary world in all its complexity and grittiness.
"I really don't believe that the music of the dead white European men is very important to me," says Fairouz. "It's not really a vital part of who I am as much as, for example, the cities of New York or London where you hear all sorts of music from all sorts of walks of life, in the subway, in a taxi, in the street. In my music you will hear the sounds of modern realities, of people existing today. Brown, white, Jewish, male, female, gay, straight, male, female, whatever - it doesn't matter anymore. It's what's exciting about today's cosmopolitanism and what's so scary to so many people - but we can overcome this fear through music."
In Fairouz's striking Third Symphony, written for a large orchestra, a mezzo-soprano and a baritone, he brings together prayers with poetry, creating a narrative of shared loss, hope and reconciliation. Another piece inspired by Mahmoud Darwish is the beautiful Tahwida (Lullaby), based on the Palestinian poet's epic poem A State of Siege and written for a soprano and violin. Refugee Blues is a melancholy melody based on the poem of that name by WH Auden, written in 1939.
Say this city has ten million souls,
Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes:
Yet there's no place for us, my dear, yet there's no place for us
Auden's lament seems to embody the paradox of contemporary life; isolation or freedom? Exile or exploration? Speaking directly to this tension, Fairouz transforms his own position as an outsider into a potent creative tool, calling for positive change with orchestrated words and sounds.
Shirine Saad is a New York-based editor and writer.