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Cultural Diplomacy

Polymath composer MOHAMMED FAIROUZ has a new work opening this month at Washington National Opera.
by Joshua Rosenblum. Photographs by Kevin Thomas Garcia. 

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Photographs by Kevin Thomas Garcia
Grooming by Melissa Matto
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The composer in his Manhattan studio

MOHAMMED FAIROUZ THINKS we need to integrate. This impulse shows up not only in his music but in every aspect of his thinking, writing and speech-making. It’s not even clear that he thinks of himself primarily as a composer. 

“I’m a composer, I’m a journalist, I’m an analyst,” he says. “I’ve come to terms with the fact that when you give a national-security talk, you’re doing something that is a little more involved than straight-up music composition.” Fairouz has written for Foreign Policy and has contributed to The New York Times and On Being (an online journal/public-radio podcast), among others. He has also spoken at the Aspen Ideas Festival. (“I did my talk on the Iran deal recently, and it went well,” he says modestly.) Our wide-ranging conversation in August was only twenty percent about his music, but as he pointed out, it’s all interconnected, “like a hyperloop.”

In terms of “straight-up music composition,” Fairouz, thirty-one, has been spectacularly successful for someone of his age—or any age. One of the most frequently commissioned and performed composers of his generation (his new opera, The Dictator’s Wife, has its premiere this month at Washington National Opera), he is booked through 2020 with commissions for new pieces. (His Fifth Symphony will have its premiere that year at the Abu Dhabi Festival.) In 2015, his CD Follow, Poet was released on Deutsche Grammophon, making him the youngest composer ever to have an entire disc on that prestigious label devoted to his music. He has even made an appearance in New York magazine’s Approval Matrix, in the highbrow/brilliant quadrant. (“Yeah, that was lovely,” he admits.)

In some of his pieces, Fairouz almost seems as much a global ambassador for world peace as he is a composer. His vast and deeply moving Third Symphony, subtitled Poems and Prayers, comes to mind. A multilingual exploration, in Hebrew, Arabic and Aramaic, of human commonality amid the trauma of war, the work gives the impression that it could help bring an end to strife in the Middle East if enough people heard it. It’s not a stretch to put it in a category with Britten’s War Requiem

FAIROUZ, AN AMERICAN OF ARAB DESCENT, isn’t having any of this easy idealism. “I’m not really a pacifist,” he says—which is somewhat shocking, until he explains. “I think that’s naïve. If you really want to bring about world peace, you don’t do it with a symphony,” he says. “I believe we could end the bloodshed in the Palestinian–Israeli dispute, but reaching that point is not always so direct. I think it takes some serious introspection. Machiavelli’s teachings in The Prince are that if we must choose between being feared and loved, we must choose to be feared. But maybe now it’s necessary to consider the possibility that Machiavelli was wrong, and sometimes it may be safer to be loved than to be feared. But it takes rigor—you can’t just say, well, let’s just stop the fighting. You have to say, ‘Is this approach that we’re taking working? Is it making us safer?’ And I think we could ask the same question in the U.S. today.”

Fairouz just happens to be, not so coincidentally, working with journalist/novelist David Ignatius on an opera about Machiavelli, entitled The New Prince,which will have its premiere in March at Dutch National Opera. Ahead of that, however, is the premiere at Washington National Opera of The Dictator’s Wife, with a libretto by Mohammed Hanif, based on Hanif’s one-woman play of the same title. The hour-long piece is part of WNO’s American Opera Initiative, which each year commissions a new one-hour opera and three twenty-minute operas, all in the interest of launching young composers and librettists. The program has generated operas such as D. J. Sparr’s Approaching Ali and Huang Ruo’s An American Soldier, the latter to be presented in a full-length version in St. Louis in 2018.  

Francesca Zambello, the artistic director of WNO, commissioned The Dictator’s Wife. Speaking by phone in August a few days after a workshop of the piece at Glimmerglass (where Zambello is artistic and general director), she says of Fairouz, “I find that his music is very emotional and transporting. I think it illuminates character and text. I find it sometimes very hypnotic, although this score is more evocative, in that I’m drawn in to the characters through the musical language. And for opera, to me, that’s one of the key things—capturing character through music.”

Fairouz says of The Dictator’s Wife, “I don’t really call it an opera. I’m not sure what I call it. Maybe it’s best to just call it a play, a sung play, a lyric-theater piece, an operetta, a musical? Operas, for me, are written for large casts of people, with big forces and orchestra. For me it’s a medium that requires you to paint on the largest possible canvas using the largest possible brush. It’s just the most universal art form.”

Fairouz is just getting warmed up. “And people make very exclusivistic arguments about opera. There’s a lot of articles out there about the Dubai Opera House [opened in August 2016], and some of them are really racist. Norman Lebrecht, of all people, wrote something called ‘Why are the Arabs building opera houses?’” (Lebrecht used this headline in his blog to reference an article by Elisabeth Braw in The Economist.) “He said this, and I thought to myself, first of all, at its inception point, the arts in that part of the world—the Rub’ Al Khali, the ‘empty quarter’—the poetry and the literature were always a recited performance tradition. And for the Bedouin tribes, the storytelling, the recitation of poetry and song, that narrative was vital to keeping their identities alive, so don’t act like it’s something new here. But the thing is that, gratefully, nobody with a brain ever listened to that argument.” Fairouz expands eloquently on this subject in an article in The National, Abu Dhabi Media’s English-language publication.  

Fairouz, unsurprisingly, isn’t much interested in categorizing his own musical style. Several admiring critics (including this one) have made the possibly too-facile claim that Fairouz typically combines traditional Middle Eastern elements with Western contemporary classical music. That last term, in particular, seems to rankle a bit.

“Well, of course I’m contemporary. I’m here, but I don’t want to say, ‘Okay, just so you know it, I’m alive.’ But then the classical part is completely dead, and that’s a tradition that I don’t necessarily like. I just say, ‘I’m a composer—I make music.’ It’s obscene to try to monopolize with terms like that.Of all the aspects of human genius to try to monopolize, music is maybe the most perverse, because music is so natural. I’ve never run into a civilization that doesn’t have it.”

Okay, how about Middle Eastern versus Western? “Look, I’ll tell you that I feel my studies with Gunther Schuller are not any more meaningful than my studies with Sheikh Habboush. They are both part of my richness. I’m grateful for both. But I have to say that I’m very excited about the future.” Once again, he pivots seamlessly from the specific (his own musical style) to the universal (geopolitics and cultural analysis). “Dubai has 202 different nationalities living in the city. It’s the most cosmopolitan city on earth. And I see the future. It’s not just the tallest buildings in the world, but I see a culture of cosmopolitan, integrated future. The scary thing about today is whether the West elects to be a part of that future or not. Or whether it chooses to remove itself. Because it feels that it was always more self-reliant and doesn’t want to integrate with the rest of the world.” So there’s a long way to go—even for Fairouz himself, as he readily admits.

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Rachel Calloway and Edwin Vega in the Prototype Festival presentation of Sumeida’s Song at Here Arts Center in Manhattan, 2013
© Jill Steinberg

“I PRIDE MYSELF ON BEING this really worldly cosmopolitan guy, and I went to Curtis, and I studied Arabic music with great maqam masters,” he says, referring to the system of melodic modes used in traditional Arabic music. “So I feel like I have command of all of this, and I sat down one day to work on a scene from Bhutto [another forthcoming Fairouz opera with a libretto by Hanif, about Benazir Bhutto, the former Prime Minister of Pakistan, who was assassinated], and I had the ectara [a one-stringed Indian musical instrument] and the sitar and the tabla, and I sat down, and I didn’t even know where to start. Now, think about that—I am traveled, I went to all this conservatory study, grad and under, and I come out, and how pathetic is it that I sit down at the piano, and I don’t know the first thing about any of those instruments? Those aren’t obscure instruments. Those are instruments that are at the center of a vast tradition. So what I’m trying to do now is set up a system for a global conservatory that debunks theory, that ditches all of that B.S. that we study in the Norton Anthology of Western Music, which starts with the Greeks, skips over a few thousand years, and then suddenly you’re at Monteverdi, or Hildegard. It’s not going to work anymore. It’s the twenty-first century, it is shameful, it shamed me, and it is shameful for anybody to come out of a conservatory and not know anything about this tradition that means something to hundreds of millions of people, when we can get from one place to anywhere else on this planet in way less than twenty-four hours.” 

This spell of self-deprecation notwithstanding, all of Fairouz’s considerable worldliness and sophistication is ever-present in his music. Yet every once in a while, he will burst out into some great melody, something that is simply gorgeous. Two prominent examples occur in the third and fourth songs of his Audenesque cycle. Another is the iteration for soprano chorus of “Oseh shalom bimromav,” from the Jewish Kaddish prayer that Fairouz incorporates throughout Poems and Prayers. When I mention this, he says, “Well, yeah, why would that be contradictory to sophistication? You know, Bernstein had no problem doing that. There’s a long history of this. It’s about appropriateness. We’re no longer living in the age of the professional Ph.D. composer.” spacer 

Joshua Rosenblum , a composer, conductor and pianist, teaches Composing for Musical Theater at Yale University. 

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