NY-based Arab-American composer Mohammed Fairouz had a few minutes to discuss his opera debut Sumedia’s Song (which you can purchase here on on the bottom link) and some very special New York premieres of his works, including New York Festival of Song’s commissioned premiere of A Prayer For The New Year on Dec. 4th at Merkin Hall, as well as some other recently performed pieces.
CM: Can you please talk about Sumedia’s Song? This is your first opera?
Mohammed: Sumeida’s Song is my first opera and I wrote most of it when I was fresh out of my teens. It’s based on a play from the 1950s by the great Arabic playwright Tawfiq al Hakim called Song of Death, which I adapted to create my opera. It struck me as an incredibly timely story since in the 2010’s, as I delivered Sumeida’s Song, a similar vibe was being emanated from Cairo and other corners of the Arab world that would eventually lead to the Arab Spring.
The entire first scene of Sumeida’s Song is filled with the anxiety that change is coming to the small village in Upper Egypt where it is clearly not welcome. The two women on stage are filled with trepidation as they await the return of their relative, a 19-year-old boy named Alwan, who spent the last 17 years in Cairo, the big city. They expect him to, upon returning, avenge his father’s death by killing the man who they believe murdered his father but there are all sorts of doubts. It’s revealed that he eventually ran away from the butcher shop where he was delivered by his aunt to be housed as an infant, to join the venerated Al-Azhar University, one of the oldest institutions of higher learning in the world and still a formidable force on Cairo’s political and social scene today.
The young man who returns and refuses to kill or to continue any cycle of violence becomes emblematic of a desire to change his society. But attempting to change the fabric of a society has its price and Alwan dies at the hands of his own family.
The opera just came out on Bridge Records and receives its staged premiere at the PROTOTYPE Festival being produced by HERE and Beth Morrison Projects in NYC, January 2013.
CM: You have been very busy with some more premieres this past month of Audenesque and A Source of Light. Did you compose these pieces all at the same time?
Mohammed: In fact I composed Audenesque, A Source of Light, The Named Angels and A Prayer to the New Year in pretty much the same breath. Audenesque is my second collaboration with the great poet Seamus Heaney. Poets and Writers Magazine described me as being “obsessed with text” and I guess Audenesque is the clearest example of that obsession. It’s a piece for mezzo soprano and chamber orchestra that I started talking with Kate Lindsey about some years ago. The idea was to set W.H. Auden’s monumental In Memory of W.B. Yeats to music and then, when Seamus Heaney introduced me to his poem Audenesque which is a response to Joseph Brodsky’s death in the form of Auden’s elegy for Yeats, I knew that I had to set the two poems (Auden’s and Heaney’s) in the same work.
Auden famously said that “Art is our chief means of breaking bread with the dead” and In Memory of W.B. Yeats is a great example of such a work of art. It opened the way for Joseph Brodsky, with his known admiration for Auden, to adapt the form of Auden’s poem in his Verses on the Death of T.S Eliot. When Brodsky himself died in the dead of winter on January 28th 1996 at his New York City apartment it moved Seamus Heaney to call the same day that had claimed both Yeats and Brodsky a “Double-crossed and death-marched date” in a masterful poem that adapts Auden’s four-beat quatrain to memorialize Brodsky. Seamus and I first spoke about his poem when we were discussing poetry for a different collaboration, my choral work called “Anything Can Happen”, and it became clear to me that setting his poem with Auden’s in a cyclical form would present an irresistible arch of influence; a conversation linking Yeats, Eliot, Brodsky and Heaney. I decided to set Auden’s elegy as a cycle of three songs, followed by a fourth, Heaney’s tribute.
A Source of Light is written for male voices and Cantus just gave its premiere and a series of performances in the Twin Cities. It’s a choral cycle that sets texts by the odd couple of Sir Isaac Newton and Charles Bukowski. Like Audenesque, A Source of Light is a meditation on artistic influence as it moves down the generations. First I started off by setting fragments from letters by Newton, including his famous comment about “seeing further by standing on ye shoulders of giants,” The Bukowski setting addresses the stories (and sordid issues) of both predecessors and contemporaries, among them Mozart, Van Gogh, Tolstoy, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Salinger, Mailer, Burroughs, and Ginsberg, as “heroes you can be grateful for / and admire from afar / as you wake up / from your ordinary dreams / each morning.”
The Named Angels is my most ambitious string quartet. Commissioned and written for the Borromeo String Quartet, it takes as its point of departure, those angels that are named and recognized in the Islamic, Christian and Jewish traditions: Michael, Israfel, Gabriel and Azrael. Each of the four movements represents a character portrait of a specific Angel. The quartet also covertly explores the concept of each member of the string quartet being an individual angel. Even though The Named Angels does not explicitly set text, poems by Edgar Allen Poe about the angels are set as songs without words within the lines that are played by the strings.
For example, the final movement of The Named Angels, called Israfel’s Spell is inspired by Edgar Allen Poe’s rendition of Israfel. At the opening of the poem “Israfel”, Poe quotes a particularly musical passage of the Quran: “And the angel Israfel, whose heartstrings are a lute, and who has the sweetest voice of all God’s creatures.” This informs the first lines of the poem that, in turn, gave me the title for this movement:
In Heaven a spirit doth dwell
“Whose heartstrings are a lute”
None sing so wildly well
As the angel Israfel,
And the giddy stars (so legends tell),
Ceasing their hymns, attend the spell
Of his voice, all mute.
Finally, A Prayer to the New Year is my latest song cycle. Commissioned by the New York Festival of Song, it sets the text of Fadwa Tuqan in Arabic for a quartet of soprano, mezzo soprano, cello and piano.
Fadwa Tuqan has taken her place as one of the most important poets of the 20th century and one of the most beloved Arab poets of all time. A legend in her own time, schoolchildren across the Arab world memorized her verse as soon as it was published. She embodied a politically turbulent time and expressions of loss and dispossession became emblematic of much of her poetry. Fadwa Tuqan introduced me to A Prayer to the New Year two years before her death in 2003. The poem has stuck with me for the better part of a decade. It’s one of Tuqan’s most simple, beautiful and lyrical works.
Some of Tuqan’s work can be terribly bitter but in all of the tumult and turmoil, A Prayer to the New Year expresses hope and aspiration with the same defiance and passion as her darkest poems. The work opens with the clamorous sounding of bells that my teta (Arabic for grandmother) described to me as resounding through the air from Jerusalem to Nablus (Tuqan’s hometown) to Bethlehem at Christmas-time and into the New Year. The first song ends with a repeated question of what is to come and hopeful anticipation for the best.
The second song is filled with an excited, exultant sense of the power of love while the third, showcasing the darker mezzo-soprano sound, repeats the plea for love as it hints at the devastation of the surrounding world.
The final song is a prayer to be raised on the wings of angels from the darkest depths to the heights of joy. It answers the questions of the first song with resounding affirmation, piercing light and, above all, defiance in the face of despair.
A Prayer to the New Year premieres with the soprano Corinne Winters, Steven Blier on the piano, the cellist Jay Campbell and my dear friend, the mezzo soprano Sasha Cooke at Merkin Hall on December 4th 2012.
I completed all these works right after finishing my fourth symphony. It’s a dialogue with Art Spiegelman on living in a post 9/11 world. It premieres at Carnegie Hall on March 26th 2013. So it’s been busy times!
CM: Can you talk about “New York Minutes”, the piece you wrote for Sybarite 5, and “Bargemusic”, the piece for Beth Levin?
Mohammed: Both works have a lot to do with my city. They take their inspiration from various locales in NYC and they’re not the only two works of mine to do that. I mean, just being involved heavily with Auden’s poetry has helped me to re-imagine the city in my music (like I did in “Refugee Blues”). And of course, “In the Shadow of No Towers” is about a cataclysm in the life of the city that shook the world. New York, from the gilded elegance of Madison Square Park at night to the grit of the Grand Concourse in the heat of day, it’s a major source of inspiration for me.
Mohammed Fairouz: For Egypt (Rachel Barton Pine, violin; Mohammed: “‘For Egypt’ is part of a larger work that I composed during the recent Egyptian Revolution. It’s the centerpiece of my Solo Violin Sonata that was commissioned by and written for Rachel Barton Pine. This slow lament is a direct reaction to the uncertainty that I saw coming in Egypt as well as a commentary on Hosni Mubarak’s murder of protesters at Tahrir Square.”)
CM: Your first attempt at a composition was something in “an Oscar Wilde setting”? Was this meant to be an opera of some sort?
Mohammed: No! It was actually a little art song that I wrote when I was 7. I thought that I had created something really amazing at the time so I excitedly showed it to anyone who would look/listen. Needless to say, it was not a masterpiece but I guess everyone thought it was adorable enough to encourage me.
I just turned 27 and after having written a few hundred art songs and now working on my 14th song cycle (called Pierrot Lunaire), as well as a percussion concerto and a new orchestral piece, I can confidently say that I feel like I’m getting the hang of it!
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