Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 November 2019

Why the Al Farabi Concerto wants to add a new string to its bow

A classical violinist from the UK founded Al Farabi Concerto to raise awareness of Middle Eastern artistes, but now it needs a new home.

Bushra El-Turk
Bushra El-Turk

One of the founding fathers of music scholarships is the ninth-century Islamic philosopher Abu Nasr Al Farabi. Known as the “Second Teacher”, after Aristotle, he dedicated part of his knowledge to music, developing musical notation, instruments and recognising its philosophical influences.

Centuries on, a project in his name is fighting to bring recognition to the talented work of Arab composers and musicians.

The Al Farabi Concerto was founded in the UK in 2005 by Oliver Butterworth, a classical violinist who studied at the Royal Academy of Music and enjoyed a prestigious career, including time with the English Chamber Orchestra and the London Schools Symphony Orchestra.

As artistic director, Butterworth has been building bridges between musical talent in the Middle East and influencers, venues and institutions in the West.

In 2004, Butterworth helped organise a Turkish festival where he met Jordanian composer Saed Haddad who made him aware of the difficulties facing aspiring composers in the region.

Curious, Butterworth set himself a personal mission to travel around the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, to research and learn more about this underrepresented pool of talent.

“I realised they all have functioning music schools, conservatories and orchestras,” says Butterworth.

“There is a very healthy new music scene and wonderful young composers out there. I think it is fair to say that sometimes in terms of performance they are not as experienced as their western counterparts, but in terms of composition and talent there is absolutely masses there.”

Butterworth discovered that usually, the performances in the countries he visited would rarely, if ever, be by home-grown talent.

It became clear that one way of gaining recognition for this new generation of composers in their home countries would be to see them acknowledged internationally, despite the difficulties in staging performances of new works around the world.

“It’s pretty hard having new music wherever you are. It’s pretty hard here [in London]. You ask the Philharmonia for some new music and they’ve had enough. They find it loses audiences and so they play very conservative music – not just the Philharmonia, all of them do,” says Butterworth.

The retired violinist hopes to use the project to bridge the gap between western assumptions about the Middle East and the reality.

He set up the Al Farabi Concerto as a series of London concerts, presenting music by gifted contemporary composers from the Middle East and North Africa. Soon, Butterworth was organising concerts across the world, including a night of works by the award-winning Syrian composer Zaid Jabri at the Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre.

It was a big success, prompting positive reviews in the media. The Guardian in the UK wrote “Al Farabi Concerto is that rare thing – a concert series that matters”.

Realising the potential scale of the project, Butterworth looked to gain more support and linked up with Brunel University in London. The Al Farabi Concerto evolved into the Brunel Institute for Contemporary Middle Eastern Music (BICMEM) in 2011. Butterworth joined forces with Professor Peter Wiegold, music and theatre division lead at Brunel University London and director of the Institute of Composing, allowing the project to find a new lease of life.

The extra funding and people-resources allowed them to make more connections, approach more sponsors, put on more concerts and build a professional website to house the archive Butterworth had been collecting.

The BICMEM hosted an extensive web archive of composers and their works.

Bushra El Turk, the British-Lebanese composer whose music has been widely performed internationally, says Butterworth has broken important ground but that there is still a need for greater recognition of Arab composers in their own countries and across the globe.

“Unfortunately the way things are when you commission Arab composers or Arab artists in general is they fall under a box: ‘Oh they are Arab so they should go on an Arabic festival’ ... there are a lot of prominent composers out there and they are not as widely recognised and they are not in the history books,” says El Turk, who cites composers such as Egyptian-American Halim El Dabh, who was an early pioneer of electronic music but is not as well recognised for his work in this area as French musicians. In the UK, cuts to the arts are getting deeper and during last summer, Brunel was no longer able to continue its support of the project. Wiegold says Brunel’s music department wants to create a broad landscape for its students but after seven years is now having to let go of the project.

“The world is shrinking and it is important [the students] understand how music works in different cultures, looking at the stories and the practice,” he says.

He adds, “there has never been an organisation that curated and archived the exciting and innovative music now emerging from across the Middle East. [It is] music that is both international and draws on the rich musical cultures from there – which are very different from one another, Syria from Egypt, for example”.

He says: “Brunel created the Institute with these purposes and funded it for seven years, but, as with many research projects then has to let this find its own life.”

Butterworth hopes to find a new home for the project, which is now known as its original name, Al Farabi Concerto. Although conversations are under way with some big-name institutions, Butterworth is focused on making sure a future partnership strikes the best deal for the project.

“It needs to be alive, continuously added to and it needs to be taken out and performed. It needs to be spread and not just an academic research base. We are talking about contemporary music and young composers. I’m discovering them continuously, it doesn’t stop,” he says.

Speaking over the phone, El Turk sympathised with the isolated position the Al Farabi Concerto now finds itself in.

“[Butterworth] was on the cusp of it and then suddenly [for the project] to be taken away from being part of an established institution, you lose the limbs on which to really operate well.

“Through being with Brunel, at the time he forged some very important partnerships,” she says, recalling how instrumental the BICMEM was in getting Arab composers commissioned regularly at the Royal Opera House and at the European Festival.

“He saw there was a need and he’s still evidently very passionate about it. It’s his baby and he wants to do this and he wants to get Arabic composers recognised in their own countries as well,” says El Turk.

It may have just been thanks to a chance conversation more than a decade ago that Butterworth, a violinist from Yorkshire in the north of England, found this passion for supporting music from across the Middle East. Despite this bump in the road, it seems Butterworth’s passion is far from fading.

Updated: August 6, 2017 12:16 PM