Mohammed Fairouz: Cross-Cultural Counterpoint

For people who subscribe to the seemingly irreversible cynicism of our age, music does not have the power to change the world; after all, nothing does. But composer Mohammed Fairouz retains an optimistic outlook as he aspires to create music that carries a larger social meaning. And he has managed to garner an extraordinary array of performances for his deeply charged music all over the country—from over 100 art songs to a nearly 80-minute symphony for orchestra, soloists, and a nearly 100-voice chorus. This is no small feat for someone who is only 26-years old. While at first he attributes such a seemingly endless chain of auspicious premieres to the domino effect of musicians talking to other musicians, he soon acknowledges that the larger purposes behind his music are helping to fuel all the attention it has been getting. According to Fairouz, “Composers who have something very urgent to say have a way of connecting with performers in a very immediate way and with audiences.”

The urgent message that comes across in Fairouz’s music is one of inclusivity and a broadening of cultural horizons. An important source for his music has been his own Arab heritage—he grew up hearing legendary singers Umm Kulthum and Fairuz (no relation) alongside Mozart and Beethoven. He even describes Schubert—with whom he deeply identifies—as an “Arabic composer” because of Schubert’s devotion to the primacy of the melodic line, also a hallmark of Middle Eastern music. But the American-born Fairouz would contend that his aesthetics are more symptomatic of the multicultural society we now live in. Of course, the absorption of multiple traditions has been part and parcel of music making for a century. And in fact, one of Fairouz’s teachers was Gunther Schuller, who famously crossed the barriers between classical music and jazz more than 60 years ago. But in earlier times, creating such music was a political act that attempted to erode socio-cultural barriers as much as stylistic ones, whereas nowadays similar musical mélanges occur because that’s what the world now sounds like, or as Fairouz puts it:

We really don’t have the choice to not live in a cosmopolitan world. For my generation […] being part of the cosmopolis—being an integral voice in the choir—is much more attractive because we’re living in a world where you can get from point A to point B in less than 24 hours. […] I would not have been possible in a different world and a different atmosphere and that informs everything. Mahler had to convert to Catholicism in order to take the job at the Vienna State Opera. That’s really weird, right? We’re getting past that. And culturally and compositionally our scene is reflecting that more and more; it’s reflecting something more inclusive and interesting. […]The optimism of the 21st century is that we’re leading to a more cosmopolitan place where these borders are slowly being dissolved, both musical borders and physical borders.

By while Fairouz is well aware that his compositional path is an inevitable by-product of the zeitgeist, he is still very much engaged with the underlying socio-political agenda for such an aesthetic position. Four Critical Modes, for the unlikely duo of violin and saxophone, is a musical response to cultural stereotyping and misperceptions about identity. Whereas Tahrir, his extremely powerful clarinet concerto for David Krakauer, seamlessly blends Arabic and Jewish traditions and is named after the famous square in Egypt that has been a catalyst for the democracy movement in the Middle East.

When I’m writing in contrapuntal forms, that’s usually because of the analogy those forms have to social meanings. One of my great mentors, Edward Said, borrowed the term counterpoint from music and applied it to critical thought in politics and in society as a way for cultures to exist in a tapestry of counterpoint without any culture giving up its individual sense of beauty or raison d’être but contributing to the greater whole. There’s a way of borrowing that back into music. […] When we get past slogans and we actually engage the dialectic we come into a place where we have a much more inclusive and genuine representation of what the world is.

Yet despite his music’s aesthetic currency, he goes about creating it in a very old-fashioned way. His apartment is littered with handwritten scores and an army of carefully sharpened pencils. But somehow even that comes back to its multicultural inspirations.

I really believe in working in manuscript because it gives me a physical, hands -on connection to the music I’m writing. As someone from an Arabic background, once upon a time calligraphy was the most treasured of all the arts in the Arab world. I feel like I’m connecting to that spirit when I’m taking pencil to manuscript paper and carving out these really pretty figures. It has nothing to do with the content of the music: the sound that you’re generating, but I like to enjoy the process of writing and part of the enjoyment is this calligraphic drawing.

However he makes his music, he’s doing the right thing. Over the past two years, violinist Rachel Barton Pine, clarinetist David Krakauer, the Borromeo String Quartet, Imani Winds, Cygnus Ensemble, Seattle Chamber Players, the Knights, counter)induction, and the Two River Ensemble have all premiered new works by him. In November 2011, Sono Luminus released the first all-Mohammed Fairouz CD; Naxos is currently working on the next one. And the performances keep coming, including an opera (his second) and another symphony (his fourth). But there are projects that he will not take on. Originally the topic of his second opera was the trial of Nazi Holocaust organizer Josef Eichmann, based on the account of Hannah Arendt. But as Fairouz got deeper into the project, he had to stop. “Reading the accounts of the Eichmann trials and what the victims had suffered was so beyond horrific,” he recalls. “I could not make this man sing. For heaven’s sake, why would I make this man sing? I did not want to immortalize him in any way.”

Mohammed Fairouz takes what he does very seriously. He is deeply respectful of his historical precedents, while forging his own path. It is a balancing act that all 21st century composers must navigate.

3 thoughts on “Mohammed Fairouz: Cross-Cultural Counterpoint

  1. Wang Jie

    Absolutely thrilling that Frank not only pays attention to such noteworthy artistic approach, but puts it into such brilliant writing! Cross-culture could open doors to “inter-culture” and even “trans-culture”. The ability to transcend cultural differences and the imagination to speak to all human beings seem to be the unstoppable future.

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  2. Michael Robinson

    Reading this article brought to mind the transformative effect Arabic classical music had on myself back in 1994. I had attended a Kronos String Quartet concert held at a Los Angeles church, and the highlight of the program was a work by Ali Jihad Racy that featured percussionist Souhail Kaspar. Several days after the performance, I was incensed by an uninformed and ethnocentric review in the local paper that dismissed Racy’s piece. I had learned from the program notes that Racy was a UCLA professor originally from Lebanon, and decided to phone his office to repudiate the erroneous item in the paper. Racy greatly appreciated my gesture of support, and invited me to be a guest at the weekly rehearsals of the Near East Ensemble he directed. Hearing the splendid timbres and tunings of this tradition up-close was overwhelming, and in combination with some transcribed scales and tunings Racy gave me, I began using different tunings in my music for the first time; a practice that continues to the present, including a current composition that revolves around using variant tunings for each of the three parts. In 1997, I had the pleasure of inviting Kaspar, who was born in Syria, to join with keyboardist Ray Manzarek for a memorable evening of improvisation based on Indian ragas at the House of Blues in Los Angeles. In 2002, I wrote in a article published by The Idea (New Delhi): “Perhaps it is pure fantasy, but I hope that the way I have brought together musical influences from South Asia, the Middle East, and the West anticipates a world where people in these regions, and elsewhere, coexist peacefully with an elevated living standard for all, care for the precious balance and cleanliness of nature, and a focus on creative, beneficial pursuits.” Personally, my cultural heritage is Jewish, descended from Russia, Hungary and Poland, and I admire Fairhouz for his enlightened views and music.

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  3. Pingback: How Much Do Young Musicians REALLY Know About What They Play? | Classical 101 - WOSU Public Media

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