Review: Amir ElSaffar’s 17-piece Rivers of Sound ensemble makes spellbinding international premiere in Abu Dhabi
Tissues at the ready, culture vultures — May 3 will mark the final concert in New York University Abu Dhabi Art Centre’s influential, incendiary, game-changing inaugural season of performances.
It’s been an incredible run — the last eight months have welcomed acts as diverse as modern classical trailblazers Kronos Quartet, vintage Malian Afro-pop band Les Ambassadeurs and Balkans brass crew Fanfare Ciocărlia onto the Saadiyat Island campus.
This dynamic arc closes with the second of two performances from trumpeter, santur player and singer Amir ElSaffar. Tuesday’s season-closer will see the Iraqi-American talent perform alongside both his traditional Middle Eastern Alwan Ensemble, and a western string quartet — but an earlier appearance on April 30 framed ElSaffar’s talents in very different sonic surroundings.
Performing outdoors, ElSaffar presented the international premiere of his ambitious Rivers of Sound Large Ensemble, a genre-blending 17-piece group combining both jazz and Arab instruments, here presented as 16 players, with an oboist reportedly held up for visa-related reasons.
Whatever, even without that missing sonic six per cent, it’s an almighty river, full of twists and turns, peaks and troughs — and gushing waterfalls of sound.
Blending scales from the Iraqi maqam tradition with jazz ornamentation, melodies and rhythms intersect, criss-crossing musical lines dancing like brushstrokes across a broad canvas. Often strings and ouds pluck out a bedrock of repetitive figures, while a row of brass soar overhead, and an engine room of an extended rhythm section drives at the back.
An offshoot of the continuing Two Rivers project, presented as a dense, suite-like work running to more than 100 minutes in length, ElSaffar strolls the stage directing his musicians, signalling solos and changes, playing the role of both composer, conductor and star.
Refrains build and fall, textured timbres churn, trancelike waves swell and crest. The rivers motif is fitting — there’s something liquid about these breaking waves of sound, a liquidity to these cascading drops of simple repeating melodic fragments.
With such a large ensemble, silence has more power to shock than excess — and often the music strips back to a few-note bass drone and windswept drumming, backing soloists before dropping out altogether. ElSaffar’s own a cappella moment — midway through My Son, My Son — saw him bending notes to wrestle Arabic quarter-tones out of his conventional trumpet.
At the height of the loudest, brashest, most atonal cataclysm, ElSaffar strolled the stage grinning, waving his arms at the brass encouragingly as if to say “yes, play more crazy, please.”
Performed only three times before, and never outside the US, there was in ElSaffar’s own words nowhere more fitting to premiere the work globally than “in the heart of the Arab world”.
While a long summer break awaits, there’s already torchlight in the distance, with NYUAD’s second season programme set to be announced later this month. I, frankly, cannot wait.
Amir ElSaffar’s Alwan Ensemble and Ashwaq Ensemble perform indoors at The Arts Center’s Black Box on April 3 at 8pm. For limited free tickets, visit www.nyuad-artscenter.org. Standby tickets also available on the door.