Feature The Al Farabi Concerto series is taking contemporary Arab music to the world.
Arab contemporary music is thriving. You may not know about it yet, but you soon will. That's the message of the Al Farabi Concerto series, an initiative designed to showcase the talents of Middle Eastern composers. For many years, organisers argue, the Arab contemporary music scene has been characterised by under-exposure and under-representation. Significantly, many of the composers have been alienated internationally.
Determined to redress this imbalance, Oliver Butterworth, professor of music at London's Trinity College and director of Musicstage, began researching the works of contemporary Arab composers and came across many exceptionally gifted individuals in the Middle East. These composers were invited to promote their music alongside that of their western counterparts in London's most prestigious concert venues; opening up new lines of cultural dialogue between the Middle East and the West.
Taking its name from the Islamic philosopher and scholar, Abu Nasr al Farabi (870-950 AD), who wrote a major treatise on music and taught in Baghdad, Cairo and Damascus, the series aims to travel from London to festivals in major European cities - Paris, Berlin, Copenhagen, Amsterdam - and then, from this year, to the homelands of the composers in the Middle East. In the coming months, the English Chamber Orchestra will travel to Syria and Jordan to perform works by the Lebanese composer Boghos Gelalian, the Jordanian Fouad Fakhouri and the Syrians Zaid Jabri and Dia Succari. In March, the Royal Oman Symphony Orchestra will make their London debut at the Barbican.
The first two concerts in the London series presented works from Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon and Syria, while the most recent featured UK premieres from the Palestinian composer Samir Odeh-Tamimi, the Moroccan Ahmed Essyad and the Egyptian Amr Okba. Sitting in on rehearsals at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall, housed in the Southbank Centre, I watch the magic unfold. The darkened auditorium is filled with musicians, stage hands and technicians, rushing around in preparation for tonight's performance. Sheets of music are piled high in the corner of the stage, lights flicker, sounds break out sporadically as instruments are tuned and re-tuned. The hall is alive with energy and anticipation.
The opening piece, entitled Hutáf Al-Arwáh (The Cry of the Spirits), uses a large ensemble to create a violent and achingly persistent mass of sound. Written by the Israeli-Palestinian Samir Odeh-Tamimi, the work exudes the spirit of Sufi ritual, drawing heavily on percussion and resulting in an intense and forceful composition. Having performed with many Arabian ensembles, Odeh-Tamimi moved to Germany to study musicology. It was here that the émigré composer gained a more pronounced sense of his cultural roots, which he combined with a passion for European music. The titles of his works often allude to traditional Arab contexts as well as to the difficult situation in his homeland.
Odeh-Tamimi's work is featured alongside that of the British composer Tansy Davies. Inspired by the structural principles found in the natural world and her passion for the work of the architect Zaha Hadid, Davies produces work that is contemporary and inhabits the same urban landscape as the musical genres of industrial techno and electronica. In Iris, the piece selected for the Al Farabi series, she explores the idea of the bridge as a transformation from one state to another. "Iris, the winged goddess of the rainbow, was the bridge between the heavens and the earth, delivering messages," Davies explains. "Another figure linking worlds is the shaman, who travels between lower and higher realms of the subconscious to perform his work. The saxophone soloist in Iris is the shaman: one who walks between the worlds," she says.
The idea of passing something on and travelling through realms is also explored in the work of Egypt's Amr Okba. Message, his piece for the series, begins by creating a distant, haunting sound using three string instruments, before introducing an off-stage trumpet and a hidden piano that both play on questions of origin. The effect is startling; the music comes at you from every angle and the audience is brought to a trance-like state.
"This is an incredibly valuable project," Okba says of the Al Farabi series. "I believe that music can play a major role in closing the huge gulf between people. We don't understand each other and all forms of art can work to bridge that divide. Westerners don't know a lot about our culture and we don't know a lot about theirs, so people that come to Europe from the East have a duty to share information and to engage in this cultural communication. It is my pleasure to introduce aspects of my culture through my music."
Okba pays testament to the quality of the selected composers. In 1999, he was awarded Egypt's Rome Prize. In 2003, he won a prestigious scholarship to continue his doctorate studies at the University of Music and Art in Vienna, and in 2008, he was awarded an Austrian state scholarship for composition. His work has been performed globally by the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, Mozarteum Orchestra of Salzburg, Cairo Symphony Orchastra, Wiener College Ensemble and OENM Ensemble. Inclusion in the Al Farabi Concerto series has allowed him to collaborate with the UK's most acclaimed orchestras, soloists and conductors. "Working with them has been fantastic," he tells me. "The musicians here are some of the best in the world."
His fellow composer Ahmed Essyad is similarly no stranger to international prizes, either. The Moroccan's distinguished career to date has included being composer in residence at the Strasbourg Conservatoire and guest composer at the US-based La Musica Festival. He has been awarded France's Grand Prix National de la Musique and has been an Officier des Arts et des Lettres for several years. In 2007 he was awarded the René Dumenil Prize for composition at the Académie des Beaux Arts de l'Institut de France.
As part of the Al Farabi series, he is showcasing a song cycle for solo soprano, narrator and instrumental septet, entitled Voix Interdites (Forbidden Voices). "These voices express secret things," he tells me. "Thoughts which are difficult to put into words, or which are half-forgotten. They express the suffering of the great 10th-century Sufi mystic Hussein Mansour al Hallaj. The cycle is punctuated with three songs in Arabic, which are extracts from his poetry. The high soprano voice sings of forbidden thoughts, floating beyond the pain inflicted on the poet. It reaches us across the ages and is not temporally bound," he says.