East Meets West Meets Jazz at Present Music Saturday
If a prevailing wind blows in art music these days, it has something to do with cultural crossover. You can hear it in Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project and you can hear it Saturday’s Present Music concert in the music of guest artist Amir ElSaffar.
ElSaffar grew up in Chicago. He played guitar in a rock band and studied classical trumpet. As he made his was through a trumpet performance degree at DePaul University, he leaned more and more toward jazz. Upon graduation, in 2000, he moved to New York and took up the life of a jazz trumpeter.
“In New York, there are so many jazz scenes,” ElSaffar said, after a Present Music rehearsal Thursday night. “I was drawn to musicians who were the first generation born here, like Vijay Iyer. That’s where I found my niche, where non-Western traditions influenced jazz practices. I like the in-between places.”
In 2002, he took up a six-month musical odyssey to Morocco and Tunisia as well as Iraq, where he stayed with relatives in Baghdad. (He arrived exactly one year before the U.S. invasion). He spent several months working with Baghdad masters.
“I found a completely different type of Arabic music than I expected,” he said.
Iraqi maqam turns out to be more restrained than the over-the-top, virtuoso improvising he’d heard in Egyptian and Turkish versions.
“It’s a semi-improvisational style, very structured but open to individual interpretations,” ElSaffar said.
Iraqi maqam is based on a body of songs, with words, that all maqam musicians know. The song ElSaffar and Present Music took up Thursday opened with a long melody followed by two shorter ones. ElSaffar had written it out in 17/8 time. He played the santoor, a hammered dulcimer, and sang. The seven present music players (two violins, viola, cello, soprano sax, clarinet) read identical parts, except for routine transpositions.
ElSaffar instructed his players to quiet down and play relatively straight while he sang, and to improvise more floridly when he didn’t. The improvisation was to remain within a fairly narrow band of ornamentation, rather than stray in elaborate developmental flights of the type common in jazz. It’s “ornamented heterophony,” where everyone plays basically the same thing with various flourishes. The idea is that small individual variations collectively amount to big changes.
“In Iraqi maqam,” ElSaffar told the musicians, “the idea is to be full of emotion but not melodramatic about it. In general, if you feel something, go for it.”
They played the first line six times and the second and third twice each. (Those numbers can vary performance to performance.) The Present Music ensemble took to this music instinctively. ElSaffar was pleased and a little surprised at how quickly they got it.
“I just wanted to make sure that the 17/8 wouldn’t be a problem,” he said. “Obviously, it’s a piece of cake for you guys.”
Iraqi music does not have the counterpoint, triads and harmonic motion, (typically from the tonic (I) to the dominant (V) and back, characteristic of Western music. But you’ll hear a little of that blending in with Iraqi music Saturday.
“This is the first time I’ve ever done that,” ElSaffar said. “I’ve been to Azerbaijan, where they’ve done some really interesting, successful things with integrating native music with symphony orchestras. And if you go to an Egyptian movie, you’ll hear ‘Arab’ music by Egyptian composers that sounds like the score from Lawrence of Arabia. That’s inspired me to get off my purist track.
“It’s becoming a normal thing now to mix things. Everybody’s mixed up, and that’s good.”
This Present Music concert will begin at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 8, in the Turner Hall Ballroom. Tickets are $30, $20 and $10 (half-price for students). The Pabst Theater box office, 414-286-3663, is handling tickets. For further information, visit the Present Music website.
The Program: Kamran Ince’s Istathenople, Betty Olivero’s Six Yiddish Songs and Dances, and maqam works arranged for Present Music’s Ensemble by Amir ElSaffar. ElSafaar’s group, Safaafir, will also perform a maqam set. That group comprises Amir ElSaffar; his sister Dena ElSaffar, who plays joza, a traditional spike fiddle, as well as violin and viola; and percussionist Tim Moore. The band Ethnicity will play for the post-concert party.