From the Editors
Every two years, the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music in Palestine organizes a nationwide music competition covering many musical categories and age groups. This is the only competition of its kind at the “national” level, and has been attracting new talent and motivating music students since 1999. This year’s competition was held in March 2012 at the conservatory’s campuses in Jerusalem, Ramallah, and Gaza (linked via video conferencing). A recently formed ensemble called the “Awan Quartet” snatched the first prize of 2000 dollars in the Group Performance category with an original composition called “Nahawand.”
Tareq Abboushi, a Palestinian musician, composer, and alumnus of the conservatory now based in New York City, served on the competition’s jury. “Deciding the first position was not hard at all,” said Abboushi. “All the members of the jury were in agreement: Awan was head and shoulders above the other bands in that category.”
The Awan (literally meaning “the moment” or “the right time” in Arabic) Quartet consists of four young Palestinian musicians, the oldest one of whom is twenty-one years old: Akram Abdulfattah on violin, Luay Abbasi on oud, Ghadi Abu Semaan on piano, and Maen Ghoul on percussion.
[Live recording of the group performance category, March 2012.]
Several factors played in their favor. For a start, they had an original composition. Their performance was excellent as far as technique; they were all experienced players. Their intonation was excellent, despite the combination of the violin and oud on one hand and the piano as a Western instrument on the other. But more importantly, “they clearly enjoyed playing together, and all of them made an equal contribution to the performance,” adds Abboushi.
The quartet members all met at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance in West Jerusalem, after having studied music at various other schools. While at the Academy, Abdulfattah studied violin with the well-respected Palestinian oud and violin teacher Kamil Shajrawi. The idea to form the ensemble came after a student recital at the Academy, where Abdulfattah and Abbasi teamed up with Ghadi Abou Semaan to perform a piece composed for an ensemble with a piano by Turkish composer Mehmet Resat Aysu.
[A student recital at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance with Akram Abdulfattah on violin, Louay Abbasi on oud, Ghadi
Abou Semaan on the piano, performing the “Samai Kurd” by Mehmet Resat Aysu, composed for an ensemble with a piano]
The recital was well received, and proved to the three of them that using the piano in an Arabic ensemble was a feasible idea. They were looking to add a fourth instrument, an upright bass. They found a bass player from Bethlehem whom they really liked, but after much debate, they finally decided not to team up with him because he had a Bethlehem residency (identity card) and that made the logistics of rehearsing and performing together prohibitively hard. The three musicians finally settled on percussionist Maen Ghoul, who was an East Jerusalem resident, and the Awan Quartet was complete.
As for their musical direction, violinist Akram Abdulfattah explains: “Our goal was to create Arabic music, and perform that music at a high standard of technical excellence throughout the Arab world as Palestinians. This is an Arab/Palestinian musical project.” For ethnic Palestinians living in Israel and the West Bank or Gaza, the desire to learn, perform, conserve, and transmit their musical legacy is understandable and often acquires a social and political dimension.
But instead of being an ensemble of traditional Arabic instruments faithfully replicating the repertoire of the Golden Age of Arabic music (1930s to 1950s), they decided to compose new material, and use a very unusual instrumental lineup. The traditional Arabic Takht (chamber group) is comprised of a violin, an oud, a nay, a qanun, and a percussion instrument such as the riq. But in Awan’s lineup, besides the missing nay, the qanun’s spot is filled by the piano.
The use of the piano in Arabic music is very limited because it creates many challenges. First, the piano cannot play quartertones, a fundamental part of Arabic music scales and modes (Maqams). The piano also uses equal-tempered tuning, while the Arabic scales do not. The next challenge is dealing with harmony, or chords. The piano is the harmonic instrument par excellence, while harmony is rarely used in traditional Arabic music. Finally, there is the question of volume; the piano can be very loud and can easily drown other delicate instruments like the oud.
In the “Nahawand” performance, the pianist Ghadi Abu-Semaan dealt with these challenges very elegantly. He used harmony sparingly, so as not to disturb the Arabic character of the composition, while gently blending in a foreign sound and texture. The melody did not have to be confined to Arabic scales that were playable on a piano (without any quartertones). Instead, Abu-Semaan played the notes that he could, and avoided the ones that he could not, leaving them to the violin and the oud. This is a difficult technique that only the most seasoned Arabic piano players like Ziad Rahbani can deliver smoothly.
“Ghadi is no ordinary piano player,” explains Abdulfattah. “His ear is Eastern, not Western. He grew up listening to Arabic music, and also plays the oud. For a long time he’s been playing Arabic music on the piano and trying to find the best approach [to deliver it faithfully].”
The “Nahawand” composition is loosely based on the Samai, a very popular instrumental form that came into the classical Arabic repertoire from Turkish (Ottoman) court music in the late nineteenth century. The Samai is based on a 10/8 rhythm and has a well-defined structure consisting of four verses, each followed by a repeating refrain.
“I was very interested in the Rondo form in general, which is a composition in which a principal theme or refrain comes back after every verse or couplet,” explains Abdulfattah. “In the Nahawand composition, we kept going back to the refrain, but with every repetition I felt like gradually changing the melody and rhythm, because I, as a listener, get quickly bored of hearing the same exact melody repeated multiple times over the course of a composition.”
Composing a Samai is a demanding task that usually comes late in a composer’s career and promises to immortalize his or her name if the piece proves to be popular. Abdulfattah composed “Nahawand” when he was nineteen years old. It can be best described as an irregular or “broken” Samai.
The piece starts with a verse, introduces the refrain and then the second and the third verses, followed by the refrain that keeps incrementally changing its structure and adding new rhythmic syncopations. By the end of the third refrain, the form crumbles and gives way to a fast and furious fourth verse featuring the piano, all the way to a climactic end. In keeping with the Samai form,the fourth verse of “Nahawand” is based on an odd rhythm, one different from the rest of the piece. But to add to the piece’s originality, the rhythm it used is an original (so far unnamed) 9/8 rhythm, also composed by Abdulfattah.
Abdulfattah explains that his approach to composing this piece was vocal, even though it was an instrumental piece. “I feel that the composed melody is the most important factor and takes precedence over adhering to the rhythm prescribed by the classical form.” This is why the verses include irregularities in the rhythm to accommodate the musical phrases that he wanted to convey. “As long as each phrase is expressive and convincing, even if it breaks the form’s rhythm, I would still use it and readapt the rhythm to accommodate it.”
The fourth verse is by far the most interesting one, because it shows the quartet’s bold vision and artistry at its best. In that section they seamlessly combine Arabic and Western instruments, melodic music and harmonic music, and a classical Arabic feel with a Western classical music feel. The result is a hybrid genre commonly called fusion. But while many fusion attempts fail because they sound too awkward, contrived, or formulaic, the fusion in “Nahawand” doesn’t exhibit any tension between its Eastern and Western components and doesn't at all sound like a deliberate attempt at creating fusion. Instead, it sounds like an attempt to compose beautiful music, albeit with an unusual mix of ingredients.
The choice to base the composition on a classical form proves Abdulfattah’s proficiency in, and loyalty to, the classical Arabic repertoire. At the same time, deciding to break the venerated Samai form in his first public composition quickly reveals his impatience with the established repertoire as it stands and his eagerness to move forward and innovate. That decision was a gamble that could have gone bad had the result not been so interesting and well executed.
When asked which musician conceived what part, Abdulfattah explains that his approach to arrangement is collaborative. “I compose the main melody, then we develop it together. But we don't notate the development in detail; only the main melody is notated. In a live performance we never read from musical scores, in order to preserve the Arabic quality of the music.“
Indeed, in Arabic music only the raw melody or skeleton is notated, and the ornamentation and the intricate details of the melody performed on each instrument are left to the performer. “I worry more about the main idea, and leave the door open for everybody to contribute and develop their part. No one monopolizes control. When it comes to harmony on the piano and how to approach it, Ghadi asks for our input as listeners, but ultimately he is the one responsible for the piano part.”
For an ensemble whose goals are to compose and perform music within the Arabic tradition, the result was unexpectedly innovative. Yet the classical Arabic feel is very present in “Nahawand,” as it would have been with a traditional Takht ensemble playing a regular Samai. The Awan members have clearly been immersed in the Arabic musical tradition, which comes through in their music. When this innovation is put in the historical context of the change that Arabic music underwent in the twentieth century, it feels more normal than not.
As Tareq Abboushi put it, “You have to remember that Arabic music is not static, and what we consider classical Arabic music today (music from the 1930s to the 1950s) was very innovative relative to what came before it. All the major composers and singers from that period introduced new instruments, new rhythms, and new arrangements. [Legendary Egyptian composer] Muhammad Abdelwahab broke all the norms of his period with his compositions.”
The Awan Quartet certainly broke some norms and took a risk with “Nahawand.” But that risk paid off with a beautiful and daring piece that forges new territory. Like their Golden Age predecessors, Awan innovated within the tradition and contributed their exciting version of contemporary classical Arabic music. As for their future plans, Abdulfattah was very upbeat: “We have other original compositions, and we are currently are looking for sponsorships or grants in ordeer to record our first CD, hopefully this year.”
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