Heir apparent

The period 28 April-3 May saw the first roundof the Cairo Contemporary Music Days (CCMD) festival, organised by the European-Egyptian Contemporary Society (EECMS) with Sherif El Razzaz, who presents them the event as the true heir of the Alexandria Contemporary Music Biennale of 2009, which was held in collaboration with the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, and inspired creation of EECMS as well as further expansion.

Published on 5 May 2011 in Al Ahram Weekly

The CCMD did not take shape until Razzaz presented the project to the new Ministry of Culture. According to El Razzaz, previous attempts to move it forward were delayed by the former ministry repeatedly failing to make a concrete response. The aim of the EECMS is to develop a network of contemporary composer; the CCMD provides musicians from Europe and the Arab countries with an opportunity to present their compositions. The Cairo initiative took place at a range of venues belonging to the American University in Cairo’s Department of Performing and Visual Arts.

Spain was the Mediterranean guest of the festival while the guest of honor was Catalan Contemporary Music, while special emphasis was placed on Saed Haddad (b.1972), a Jordanian composer who studied music in Amman and composition in Jerusalem and London. Currently residing in Germany, Haddad’s music has been performed around Europe on the most prestigious stages and by the renowned ensembles. His Love Requiem, a composition which explores love, exile and nostalgia as presented in pre-Islamic and modern Arab poetry, was performed on 30 April by the Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart, an ensemble of eight opera soloists whose voices range from soprano coloratura to basso profondo. The same ensemble also presented works by other Mediterranean composers: Giacinto Scelsi, Jose Maria Sachez-Verdu, Evdokja Danajloska, Andreas Dohmen and Salvatore Sciarrino. The soloists used their exceptional timbres to express the most unusual sounds. Many compositions included seemingly unconventional, contemporary, approaches to vocal abilities where even a loud exhaling sound is a valid colour. The picturesque elements were especially apparent in Sachez-Verdu’s Madrigale : one pictured a butterfly being trapped in a spider web and eaten. Through the sounds created by the singers, one could hear the butterfly flap its delicate wings, and the soft lament accompanying its struggle for life. Words replaced by sounds produced through soft whistling, hissing, breathing, the unusual articulation of vowels and consonants.

Another composition by Sachez-Verdu, Chamber Opera: Gramma-Gardens of Writing, was presented on 2 and 3 May. The opera is based on fragments from Plato’s Phaedrus, texts from Homer, Augustinus, Ovid, Hugh of Saint Victor, the Gospel of John, and Dante’s Divine Comedy. The programme notes explain that “Sachez-Verdu’s Gardens talk about written words and their capacity to both preserve and destroy that which they purport to help remember.” It is a non-linear philosophic and social reflection about writing in history, set in six different gardens. The opera is based on soloists and a set of ensembles: two string quartets were seated on both sides of the stage, two percussion sets and a bigger ensemble including brass and woodwinds on stage. The ensemble also included a saxophone and an accordion. All instruments used were familiar to the listeners, yet their use was rooted in a contemporary understanding of sounds in which the composer not only reaches new vocal possibilities but also plays with new tones which can be produced by traditional instruments, such as for example an intentional bouncing and squeaking of the bows in string instruments. The sounds meet without colliding, forming an interesting and a well structured composition.

Contemporary music, including all compositions presented during the Cairo Contemporary Music Days, is a new experience to most Egyptian audiences. This sphere of music has not been explored in Egypt where listeners favor mostly pre-20th century classical music. It is important to introduce new forms to our as yet limited understanding of the music world. Possibly, in time, contemporary music performances will gain a larger following. Cairo Contemporary Music Days included a number of master classes on such subjects as composition, percussion and modern singing; the guitar master class was headed by Alex Garrobe, who also held a guitar recital on 28 April. The percussion master class gathered a small group of students around Slagwerg Den Haag, a percussion ensemble from the Hague which had given a successful performance a day earlier. Among the attendees were beginners exploring basic rhythmic patterns as well as students from the conservatory who benefited from technical directions given to them by the ensemble members. The composition master class and conducted by Sanchez-Verdu included five participants, among them Tarek Ali Hassan, the renowned Egyptian composer, musician, philosopher and painter, first head of the new Cairo Opera House (1989-1992), and Ahmad Madkour (Ahmad Abdallah), the Egyptian composer whose White Shroud was performed by the ensemble Conjunt Instrumental BCN216 on 1 May.

As it turned out, the composition master class did not touch on the detailed technicalities of musical composition but was an interesting discussion on many topics related to the history of music. Tarek Ali Hassan elaborated on how musical elements are entwined with the historical, social and philosophical development of humanity. Hassan proposed a theory of the development of Western polyphony (multiple melodic lines), which started flourishing in post-Renaissance Europe, when papal rule-representing central power-had weakened considerately. Without undermining the Arab musical heritage, rich in beautiful melodies and profound decorative elements, Hassan suggests that monophony (the single melodic line approach known to Arabic music) is a natural musical status quo in societies governed by a singular, central power (as was the case in pre-Renaissance Europe). Other insights enriched the listeners with much fascinating information. One was looking forward to a round table discussion headed by Hassan and scheduled for 1 May, which did not take place due to there being no audience to attend it.

Cairo Contemporary Music Days is one of the most valuable musical projects to happen in Egypt in past years. El Razzaz’s initiative presents yet another important form of classical music and gives many Egyptian and Arab contemporary composers the opportunity to find a platform where their works can be presented to a wide audience both locally and internationally. Contemporary music might not seem the most appealing, especially to the younger generation of Egyptians and beginners in the classical music field, yet for many academics and musicians, the festival is a wonderful chance to contribute to an otherwise completely ignored music sector. Master classes and discussions are additional elements of great educational value, very much needed in Egypt. This initiative only needs to be developed. Festival organisers have definitely learned some important lessons from this year’s experience, in terms of timing and reaching the target groups. Contemporary music will require hard work to attract listeners.

Not only were many young Egyptians still residing spiritually in Tahrir, holding onto revolutionary priorities (as was the case on 1 May), but the long weekend and spring academic break all, in addition, worked against the project. Over the last weeks, many venues-and especially those presenting classical music-suffered a drop in audience numbers, which is only natural and a temporary phenomenon considering current events. However, the lack of academics and musicians among the audience can be a disappointment; it will hopefully be compensated by better attendance in the future. Contemporary Music Days is worth the effort, and we are all looking forward to Cairo Contemporary Music Days 2012, when hopefully many institutions will extend their help to assure that this valuable initiative gains the number of participants and listeners it deserves.


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