Arab Avantgarde Music (Part 3)

Music, Music Theory No Comments

In part 2 we started a series of mental exercises the goal of which was to establish the rules for how to have a discussion about avantgarde music in the Arab context. In this post we will contemplate two more mental exercises and draw conclusions from them that will bring us closer to that discussion. Read the rest…

Arab Avantgarde Music (Part 2)

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The first part of this series offered a few questions that require answers in order to be able to have a discussion about Arab avantgarde music. The questions have to do with the term avantgarde in general, with the terms Arab and Arabic, and with possible conversations that could be had based on the answers we choose to the questions raised.

I emphasized choose because there is a measure of arbitrariness and/or subjective judgment in answering these questions. This post begins the process of answering these questions. Read the rest…

Arab Avantgarde Music. (Part 1)

Arabic Music, Free Improv, Fusion, Music Theory 1 Comment

Having received a call for submissions for essays on Arab avantgarde, I thought this one was just down my alley..

Thinking about the subject, the questions that seem the most urgent to answer are not about the Arab avantgarde music movement itself just yet, but rather questions about how to have a discussion about Arab avantgarde music. In fact, the questions touch on some of the vague aspects of the term not necessarily in relation to Arab avantgarde.

Read the rest…

Simon Shaheen and the Art of Silences and Suspences in Taqasim

Arabic Music, Music, Oud, Taqasim No Comments

Can the sound of the passing time, thousands of years of culture, history, and stories of people and places, journeys, dreams, loves, conflicts, can all those be told in music? Can they be told in one piece of music? Can they be told in one piece of music that lasts a few minutes (seven minutes and six seconds to be precise)?

In the third track (maqam bayyati) of Shaheen and Racy’s “Taqasim”, this is accomplished.

I got this CD almost 15 years ago. Since then, I have listened to it more than any other. We are blessed that we live in a time when recording is possible. When we read accounts of the beauty of someone’s music, we can try to imagine. But how can one imagine music that is unimaginably powerful.

In Taqasim, especially in the third, 7 minutes (and 5000 years) long track, a lot is packed. Simon’s, melodies, tone, and technique, even after 15 years of listening (and knowing the thing by heart), continue to be exciting. New details emerging with each listening. As if the performers secretly rerecord it anew every week or so.

So what makes it work so well? I have repeatedly dwelt on that. Over the years the answers change.

At first, I thought it was technique (isn’t that all we think about when we’re young?). Then it was the melodies. Then it was the recording quality and clarity combined with melodies and technique.

As, despite our best efforts to the contrary, we mature, our ears do too.

It is now clear to me, that he who wants to master the sounds, must also master the silences between them. The music of “Taqasim” stays alive and relevant, because the performers breathed their life into it. The variations in dynamics, pulse, pick technique are at times subtle and at others startling, but they are always natural. The melodies are at times lyrical and at others anxious, and pained. But they are always immediate.

Instrumental music is music where the listener gets to fill in the lyrics, silently, and then revise and re-revise. Millennia can thus be distilled into minutes, and countless stories find home in a jewel case.

How many maqams are there?

Arabic Music, Music Theory No Comments

This question is not only one that a new comer to Arabic music would ask. It is also valid when asked by an Arabic music theorist. There are three main reasons for that:

  1. Simplification of the definition of maqam therefore not recognizing some of the characteristics that distinguish different maqams sharing the same scale. As a result, many maqams that share the a scale are now considered one maqam.
  2. Maqams that are no longer in use are omitted from theory books.
  3. Not recognizing intonation details rendering several different maqams as identical. Read the rest…

New Blog Feature: Lists

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Since I have a tendency to write articles in lists, I have added a list navigator to the blog. If you want to read the entire list to which an article belongs, just choose the list name and all the articles in the lists will appear before you with the first article on top. This makes perfect sense, and is a response to a suggestion from several readers. Thank you.

I’ve also reorganized the categories a little. That’s an on going effort. I want the blog to be informative. To be successful at that, the information has to be organized in such a way that it is easy to find stuff.

How we teach maqams

Arabic Music, Taqasim No Comments

One thing that I am extremely disappointed with is the general weakness in academic resources on Arabic music theory. Don’t get me wrong, I have about 3 shelves full of Arabic music theory books. There is no shortage of books. In fact, if you have only one book you will feel good. They all talk with confidence about the topic and you will feel that the book you hold is actually The Truth, the final word, the definitive resource, your key to the gates of musical heaven.. It’s got everything. They even got rhythms, and cheap photocopy quality pictures of Al-Hambra palace or some random Arabesque ornaments(what does that have to do with it anyway).

Until you open the next book.. The cheap photocopies won’t bother you much. But the maqam information.. As if they’re talking about an entirely different civilization.

How can we make matters worse? As if we already had a true and well researched and documented way to teach maqams that is too complicated, now many music schools are going for simpler ways to teach maqams. In other words, if you are tired of learning Arabic music theory using the traditional “rigorous” and “complex” approach, you now have a choice. You can study diet-maqams. I have one book of diet-maqams.

I am venting because as I am working on my book, I had a few questions about a maqam. I opened six different theory books and got.. Four different answers. Two never really addressed the maqam in any serious detail. So I am referring to the repertoire. Analyzing 19th and early 20th century compositions trying to fish for details.

Also annoying is the fact that it is evident that these books were written by people who actually never read a music theory book. That’s fair enough. It’s an oral tradition. But if you’re going to write a text book, you’ve got to think pedagogy before cheap photocopies of palaces and ornaments.

How we die

Music No Comments

A completed piece of music, like a completed sculpture, painting, building, or any artwork for that matter, is a message. We lay it bare, before the public in a jewel case, a tape, a bound opus, or in the heavy air of a concert hall. We lay it bare and walk away from it: we have said our piece. Now it’s in the ears of the beholder to understand it, like it, appreciate, hate, or be annoyed by it (or possibly all of the above). Read the rest…

Pictures of the restored Nahat

Oud 1 Comment

Well. Do you remember the abused Nahat oud with the floor grade linoleum decoration glued on using epoxy?

Here’s a picture to remind you. Read the rest…

The true and definitive story of the birth of music..

Free Improv, Improvisation, Music, Taqasim No Comments

Some thousands of years ago someone hit a stick against a piece of wood, deliberately, not for the purpose of making a tool or for hunting or farming. S/He did it for the purpose of hearing the sound of it. Music was born.

How did music start? Why do we play music? What was the first music like? Was it invented by a child or an adult? Was it invented in daytime or nighttime? Was it improvised or composed? Why do we still improvise? Where is music going? Why are there so many different kinds of music? Read the rest…

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