Composition master class links Arab musical heritage to governing central powers

A composition master class held on 30 April, within the frame of the Cairo Contemporary Music Days, turns its focus to music and humanity as a whole

Published on Tuesday 3 May 2011 in Ahram Online

Cairo Contemporary Music Days which kicked off on 28 April and will continue until 3 May, includes a number of educational activities such as: composition master classes, percussion and guitar master classes and a course on the modern technique of singing. Under the instruction of professional musicians who are also performing during the festival, master classes could offer a good chance to learn techniques used by music academics.

A composition master class was held on Saturday, 30 April at Ewart Memorial Hall part of the downtown campus of the American University in Cairo (AUC). The class was headed by Spanish composer and conductor José María Sánchez-Verdú who’s Madrigale were later performed by Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart. His “Gramma – Gardens of Writing”, a Chamber opera, was performed on Monday and will have another showing on Tuesday at Ewart Hall.

Sánchez-Verdú studied in Spain and Germany where he would later work as a conductor with several contemporary music ensembles.

The composition master class was attended by a very small circle of musicians and eventually turned into a two hour discussion, focusing on several crucial issues in today’s classical music world. Tarek Ali Hassan, an Egyptian composer, musician, writer and philosopher as well as the first chairman of the new Cairo Opera House from 1989 to 1991, added valuable insights to Saturday’s discussion.

Sánchez-Verdú explained his interest in contemporary music and the rich musical heritage of the Arabs, noting his fondness for the sound of the oud especially. Tarek Ali Hassan pointed to the nai (a kind of a wooden flute) as being one of the most expressive instruments in the Arab music tradition due to its very original sound.

“You can hear many emotions in the nai: grieving, anxiety, meditative… and they all express the soul of the player. That’s the peculiar quality of this instrument,” Hassan stated.

Further discussion shed light on Arabic music’s extremely rich rhythmic and decorative elements. Hassan acknowledged the unprecedented wealth that Arabic music offers, but pointed to its monophonic (single melodic line) character which lacked counterpoint and other polyphonic (multiple melodic lines sounded together) elements.

“I am worried about monophony,” Hassan emphasised. Believing that music is strongly linked – running parallel in fact – to all human evolution, he linked polyphony to major social and historical shifts in Europe, pointing specifically to the post-Renaissance music in relation to the weakening papal rule. In this vain, Hassan proposed a theory which links monophony with the governing central powers, arguing that polyphony could freely develop in pluralistic societies which are based on the harmonious coexistence of a variety of views. Essentially, societies living in a matrix of inputs and accepting the multiplicity of thoughts are fertile for the development of polyphony.

This theory shifted the conversation’s focus to how the hegemony of one central dictatorial rule not only stresses the control but, if music mirrors social development, tends to preserve monophony.

Sánchez-Verdú suggested that in today’s Western music this phenomenon might vary from culture to culture, stressing that some composers still use monophony in their compositions. Hassan, however, perceives this to be “a purposeful reaction against harmony and counterpoint and possibly a response against formal structures.”

Contemporary music, according to the Spanish composer, explores new horizons and new ways of using sounds and voices. “In contemporary music, this creates a possibility for creating something new and different,” he stressed, pointing to two types of composers: those who are very important but do not suggest anything new and those who are innovative and who brake the framework or introduce new ones.

Sánchez-Verdú’s claimed that Mozart, one of Western music’s most prolific composers, depended on already known forms and musical elements without introducing anything new to the world of music. This was met with disagreement as Hassan stressed Mozart’s contribution to humanity as so rich that any forceful research for novelty, in his case, would be secondary.

Moreover “in operas, Mozart breaks many frames. His power of inspiration was enormous,” Hassan argued. “He broke a more fundamental thing which is the rhythm of life, he saw human beings as real characters in dramas presented in the operas. As such he is also one of the precursors of thoughts presented by Freud and Carl Jung.”

Further discussion gave rise to the concept of ‘frame breaking’ which according to Hassan is among the fundamental measures of contemporary music. “Some breaking of frames comes from the obsession of doing so, while the quality of others is so unprecedented that the composer’s vision transcends those frames.”

The focus shortly returned to more technical matters when Sánchez-Verdú explained his approach to music and specific sounds. “I want to produce completely different sounds with traditional instruments. We can create new colours, by using those instruments.” He emphasised that this technique is not new to music history, as “Monteverdi, an Italian composer, was the first to introduce pizzicato [plucking the strings of the instrument], something which shocked his 16th century audience.”

He continued, explaining that many sounds within his compositions might be heard as noise, although in fact he is using traditional instruments to generate a new timbre. “Every day, we walk though noises, pitches and structures. It is important to offer something different and new. Music draws a lot from today’s experimentation with sounds.”

As the discussion moved from contemporary music, to history, sociology, philosophy and the human experience at large, participants of the master class were offered a very enriching and informative experience. And while drifting from the more technical objectives of the composition master class, the conversation perhaps widened the horizons of some and left them with a great deal to think about.

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