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Interview with Mohammed Fairouz

img  Tobias Fischer

It is often claimed that music is a universal language. Unfortunately, all too few composers tap into its immense potential. Instead, there seems to be a movement towards an even stronger niche-building, border-raising and stylistic segregation. For Mohammed Fairouz, meanwhile, the communication aspect of sound, its ability to provide for a diversified vocabulary far more precise than words, has always taken precedence in his writing: "I've often said that I express myself through music because I'm not talented enough with words to be a great poet!", he tells me in our interview, tongue in cheek, "But in all seriousness, I speak six languages and dream fairly consistently in three. Music is the common glue that binds me together. I am comfortable saying that music is my first language. Music is an extraordinarily clear way of communicating. Having said that, it naturally bypasses the phonology, syntax and semantics of languages for its own set of foundations. This makes musical communication much more immediate and, I believe, primal." It is his unique ability to put these ideals into action that has made him one of the most widely performed composers of his generation. Literary and poetic sources form a fruitful source of inspiration for his works, both enriching and questioning, delineating and expanding them. This process is perhaps most clearly audible in his third symphony (Poems and Prayers) as well as his fourth symphony, which openly references Art Spiegelman's comic book In the Shadow of No Towers and is based on discussions with the author about its underlying topic of the 9-11 twin tower attacks. As specific as these issues may be, they never serve as a cheap hook for the music. Instead, they lead the listener deeper into Fairouz's perspective on our current post-9-11-reality, its emotional impact, political implications and ongoing daily relevance. Words may be able to pinpoint these topics as well. But only music has the power to heal the wounds inflicted.

In this interview with Mohammed Fairouz, we speak about his take on music as a language, the relationship between words and sound and the process of integrating these concepts into his fourth symphony.

How important were some of your teachers for forming your own language in music? What was studying with someone like György Ligeti like? 
Ligeti was an extremely astute lover of languages and I can safely say that I learned something very unique from my studies and interactions with many great composers. Teaching musical composition is a tricky thing. Of course you can't instill creative energy in a student no matter how much you might like to do that. You can, however, teach them the craft of musical composition. Beyond that, I learned about my teachers' unique approaches to their craft by observing their work and learning from example. 

I also studied with Gunther Schuller and I learned a lot from him by observing his involvement with jazz. Nowadays, the cross-pollination of cultural currents in music (especially between cultures perceived to be in conflict such as the “Middle East” and the “West”) is a hot issue but in Gunther's day his involvement in jazz was at least equally provocative. The cultural divide between jazz and classical music was not just a matter of mixing musical styles. In the 1940s and 1950s it was a mixing of “high” and “low” art, a mixing of “classes” and a mixing of race. So it may not seems like a big deal to us these days but in Gunther's day a white, classically trained horn player of German background jamming with Miles Davis was a musical and cultural statement. That was just one inspirational lesson I learned gleaning from the experiences of a teacher. 

The title of your recently released fourth symphony contains an open reference to the eponymous book by Art Spiegelman. Why did you feel so strongly about In the Shadow of No Towers and what makes it stand out from other 9-11 literature from your perspective? 
Well, first of all, In the Shadow of No Towers is a comic book. That makes it stand out from the bulk of 9-11 literature just as Speigelman's other masterpiece, Maus, stands out from the majority of Holocaust literature for the same reason. The comic book is one of a very small number of truly American art-forms and it stood out to me for this purpose as well. My symphony is scored for wind ensemble, an essentially American medium, rather than orchestra which is essentially a European medium. Wind Ensemble also has a history of not being taken too seriously in so-called “serious art-music” just as comic books have been underestimated. Maus was the first comic book to win a Pulitzer Prize and, before that, people would not have imagined that subjects like the Holocaust (or 9-11) could be so powerfully dealt with in this medium. So I saw a happy marriage between these two largely overlooked genres.
Also, I should say that I'm not a very visual person. My understanding of the great works of visual art and sculpture is pretty pitiful compared to the number of poems or plays that I know,as the beautiful expression has it, by heart. I've always been hugely text-driven and this informs all of my music so the nature of comic books are appealing to me because the text gives me an entryway into the visual elements of the form. 

If I understood correctly, leading up to you writing the music, there were discussions with Spiegelman. What were they about? 
Yes. I was in touch with Art throughout the process of composing the piece. We had several visits and I was able to send him recordings of rehearsals as the piece was being composed. He was also generous enough to react to the music and inform my perspective on the symphony.  We happily found that the two of us are equally obsessed with structure in our works and the socio-political ramifications of those structures. Art gave me access to his mind through our discussions and I was able to find what made him tick when it came to In the Shadow of No Towers. My symphonic reaction to his comic book hugely benefited from this. 

According to the press release, the symphony "explores the unfolding of a post-9-11 reality". Can you tell me a bit about what this reality was like for you personally?
The post-9-11 reality has touched us all in a very real way. The terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon were a manifestation of a larger issue regarding the United States and its dealings in the world. US foreign policy in the Middle East has been disastrous for decades and, in the decade following the 9-11 attacks, has taken a turn for the worse. We are still feeling the economic consequences of the U.S. invasion of Iraq to disarm weapons of mass destruction that did not exist. The Iraqi people are feeling the human consequences on a much deeper level. 

What's the role of the arts in this regard?
A few weeks ago, I spent quite a bit of time reading the transcripts of statements by 40 foreign ministers at the Geneva II conference on Syria (yes I'm masochistic like that). Some statements certainly stood out (Japan, Saudi Arabia and Germany) but all of them focused on the geopolitical and socioeconomic interests of their individual states. They can't be faulted for that. After all, they are foreign ministers and that is their job. But that doesn't change the fact that there are over 200,000 people dead in Syria as of now and over 10 million displaced with the real possibility of those horrific figures rising drastically if the people of Syria are not immediately given access to serious humanitarian aid. 

If it's the job of foreign ministers to emphasize the diplomatic interests of their respective nations on the World Stage then it is the clear duty of the artist to focus on the human side of things. In order to kill people, you have to be desensitized to their culture; you have to be able to dehumanize someone in order to make an object of war out of them. It is much more difficult to dehumanize someone if you are moved by their poetry, art, music and their contribution to the common heritage of mankind. 

We are at a vital point in our history as a species. Our technological advances of the past 100 years have brought us closer together than we've been in the millions of years that preceded the last century. For the first time in human history, you could read this interview in New York City and have sushi in Tokyo less than 24 hours later. Our cultural progress towards a cosmopolitan and inclusive human race where cultures exist in counterpoint has not matched our technological pace. So the role of the artist is more important in this crepuscular time than it has ever been before. If we, as JFK said, “set the artist free” to do his or her work in society enhancing the similarities of our common humanity then we stand a chance at the greatest renaissance we've ever known. If we fail, and our technology will continue to drive us into inevitably closer quarters, we will tear each other limb from limb. 

How do you see the relationship between words and music, especially if you're actually incorporating lyrics in the work?
The text always comes first. The music follows. When I set text to music, I try to live in the atmosphere of the text and the narrative of the poetry. Ideally the words do not get in the way of the music and, when I work on a text setting, I'm sure to do everything I can to not allow my music to get in the way of the text. In the end, text and music can join together into one of the most incredible storytelling experiences we can generate as human beings. 

Also, the amount of vocal music that I've written should be an indication of my deep love for the human voice. One of the privileges of setting text for me is working with the words I am so passionate about but an equally great privilege is that I get to write for the human voice. The human voice is our greatest instrument. It is the one instrument that is not a mechanical or electronic machine but something that has been perfected by nature and continues to evolve in nature. The human voice is also the only instrument that is shared as a tool of musical expression in every single human culture on our planet. 

A moving essay of yours was entitled "A return to language", suggesting we aren't actually using language at all at the moment or at least not enough. How can music help us speak again? 
It's just sad that philology (literally “love of language”) is one of the least sexy disciplines in the world today. I was arguing for a return to philology ... a return to language. I believe in the value of committing a repertory of poetry and literature to memory. There's a lot of talk dismissing this approach as “rote” but I have no doubt that it gives us a greater command of the literary canon. Memorizing poetry has allowed me to access it creatively on a deep level. Conversely there is no controversy surrounding the memorization of music. A pianist is expected to memorize their recital program and, in music, it is taken for granted that this gives him/her the flexibility, access and command to render a fuller, more creative interpretation of the music. 

Another vital thing is that music teaches us to listen. Many of our problems, from the U.S. Congress shutting down the government to the ongoing Syrian catastrophe are caused by a crisis in human communication and understanding. This crisis is fueled by a deterioration of language on a basic level: our inability to talk to one another on the one hand and our inability to listen on the other. 

How much space for beauty is there still in language in the age of twitter and sms communication?
I think that Twitter and text messages can be a beautiful thing and a very eloquent way of communicating. People are talking a lot about the lost art of letter writing and, while I love taking the time to sit down and compose a well thought out letter, I also believe that constructing a great tweet (within the constraints of 140 characters) can also be a time-consuming thoughtful art. I can't say whether we'll still be using Twitter or text messages as a form of communication in a few years or decades from now but I know that some great tweets will last ... just think of some of the twitter activity that came out of Tahrir Square during the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. They had the power to topple a government! So, of course there's a lot of space for beauty in language in the digital age. It's about the quality of the language we use rather than the form we use to convey it. 

You once said that "as a composer of Arabic heritage working in a traditionally “western” medium, I would not have been possible a hundred years ago." Why, then, did you and do you choose to express yourself within this traditionally western medium?
I don't see art, music or culture as belonging to a particular tradition or group of people. What I was expressing is the fact that we are living in a more inclusive period as musicians and human beings than ever before. In the past, currents that were not “Western” were kept out of the concert hall. People in positions of artistic leadership are discovering that this is no longer sustainable and that “classical” music needs to become more diverse in order to remain relevant. The audiences for symphonic music are also becoming more diverse and, while it may have worked to cater exclusively to the white European male at one point in time, the concert halls today need to become more of a reflection of society as a whole. We have come a long way in this direction but we still have a long way to go. 

There are as many elements of maquam (Arabic modes) in my music as there are “Western” forms. I don't see a conflict there. We need to widen our field of vision as we head relentlessly into a totally cosmopolitan age in which the narrow distinctions, categories and provincialism of the past will be rendered irrelevant.

Mohammed Fairouz interview by Tobias Fischer
Photos by Samantha West

Homepage: Mohammed Fairouz
Homepage: Naxos Records