A Showcase for New Music from the Islamic World – The New Yorker

Music in its most basic form—vocalization—saturates Islamic society: the
muezzin’s call to Friday prayer and the melodious recitation of the
Quran are experiences with musical as well as devotional dimensions.
Musical expression beyond these parameters, however, can be
controversial or even dangerous is some parts of the Islamic world.
Extremist factions in Afghanistan, Mali, and ISIS-controlled Iraq, for
example, have demanded the burning of musical instruments and called for the
elimination of musical instruction; music-making thrives in Iran, but
with numerous restrictions and limitations. (Such intensity is not
exclusively Islamic; the Calvinists of Switzerland weren’t wild about
instrumental music, either.) For composers from Muslim-majority
countries, however, music is simply the stuff of life, shaped over
centuries by amazingly vibrant and diverse local traditions. As the
Iranian musician Arash Yazdani, one of several young composers featured
in a concert presented by MATA, at the
DiMenna Center for Classical Music, on July 8th, put it, “what I can
immediately associate with religion, even to this day, is singing.”

MATA, which for twenty years has been a vital force in identifying and
promoting some of the most talented young composers in America and
beyond, is using the program to kick off a three-year biannual concert
series, “New Music from the Islamic World.” This first installment, “The
Tyranny of Separation,” takes its title from a lyric by the celebrated
fourteenth-century Persian poet Hafez, but it is colored by the
political conditions of today: the separation of refugees from their
families in the war-torn Middle East, and the formal disconnect, owing
to President Trump’s travel ban, between Americans and the residents of
Syria and Iran, and other countries. As Todd Tarantino, who is curating
the concert, wrote in an e-mail, “there is no recourse or appeal that
could change the circumstances—to hearken back to Hafez, the nightingale
cannot return to the garden.”

These composers are facing challenges unknown to their American and
European counterparts. Idin Samimi Mofakham, from Iran, earned a
master’s degree in music theory and composition from the Yerevan State
Conservatory in Armenia, but, because of the sanctions against his
country, he hasn’t been able to return to complete his doctorate. Shergo
Dakouri, raised in Amuda, a predominantly Kurdish town on the
Syria-Turkey border, but educated at the Royal College of Music in
Stockholm, currently works for an N.G.O. in Amuda that conducts
development projects in agriculture, electricity, water use, and media
access. (Let us remember that the poet Goethe, in Weimar, built roads
and managed mines.) But in their compositional concerns, they resemble
their Western coevals more closely, as they attempt to synthesize the
current trends of European modernism—the computer-driven “spectral”
analysis of sound, and the development of extreme sounds from ordinary
instruments—with their own personal voice.

The concert offers a mix of instrumental and vocal works. Yazdani’s
“Aphorism,” commissioned by a Swiss ensemble, is the most Westernized in
its austerely modernist cast; any Middle Eastern influences would be
difficult, if not impossible, to detect. In “Beyatî,” Dakouri, whose aim
is “to try to preserve that which is beautiful in my culture in a time
of chaos and conflict,” colors his keening, Kurdish folk-inspired tunes
with Western contrapuntal devices and microtonal harmony. Pieces by Zaid
Jabri, from Syria (“Beata Pacifici,” a memorial to the pro-Palestinian
activist Rachel Corrie), and by Aida Shirazi, a composer from Iran who
is taking her doctorate at the University of California at Davis
(“Lullaby for Shattered Angels,” for the Debussyan combination of flute,
viola, and harp), are affecting and well-made. For many young American
composers, acquiring the elements of classical craft have become
irrelevant, but these Middle Eastern composers are holding them dear.

Perhaps Mofkaham’s approach is the most intriguing. In such works as his
opera “At the Waters of Lethe,” he creates fantastical soundscapes,
which, while based in the traditional music of Iran, employ extended
instrumental techniques, and a plangent vocal lyricism, that are Western
in their derivation; the work heard on this concert, “Homage à Abolhasan
Saba,” a mournful miniature for violin and cello, is a gentler example
of this style. Its elegiac embrace of ambiguity, technical
sophistication, and gritty elegance made me reminiscent for the films of
Abbas Kiarostami.

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