About this Recording
8.559744 - FAIROUZ, M.: Native Informant / Tahwidah / Chorale Fantasy / Posh / For Victims / Jebel Lebnan (Hughes, Kravitz, Barton Pine, Krakauer, Thompson)

Mohammed Fairouz (b. 1985)
Tahwidah • Chorale Fantasy • Native Informant • Posh • For Victims • Jebel Lebnan


Mental labor links together the political and the ideological, attempting to uncouple them. Mohammed Fairouz picks up the challenge and expands it to music. Musical labor, seemingly effortless.
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

The title of the my violin sonata, Native Informant, is meant ironically: warding off the stereotypical tensions of “East vs West” and the reductive representation of an entire complex culture as “exotic”, my ideal in all of these works is to project a passionate concern for social justice. This concern embodies many personalities in the chamber music on this recording, from the weeping father of Posh to the mother singing a lullaby to her dead son in Tahwidah, the speaker recalling his cantor grandfather in Song of the Victims, the lamentation centerpiece of Native Informant for the men and women who lost their lives resisting oppression in the Egyptian Revolution, and the chronicling of destruction, death and rebirth in Jebel Lebnan.

Tahwidah is the Arabic word for “Lullaby”. The first idea for this little song came from discussions I had with Mahmoud Darwish about setting some fragments from his epic poem, A State of Siege, to music. This never materialized and Tahwidah, written in late 2008 was my first reaction to the poet’s death that year. The lullaby is scored for soprano and clarinet and represents a nocturnal image of a woman singing to her love. The poem seems unusual for Darwish in that it is metered and resembles the sixth-century form of ghazal. It is not until the last lines of the poem that Darwish breaks out of the meter and reveals that the woman has been singing to her son at his funeral.

Chorale Fantasy was written in response to the Borromeo String Quartet’s initiative to commission a set of chorale preludes. This short work lives in the world between maqam (Arabic modes) and gentle counterpoint. It opens with a short introduction leading to a violin line with unheard lyrics against an insisting drone. It then builds into a whirling dance reaching a vocal climax and returns at the end to the gentleness of the opening. All of the parts of Chorale Fantasy are written within the singing range of the human voice. The work is affectionately dedicated to the Borromeo Quartet.

The challenge of writing a big work for an instrument like the violin is party due to the amazing baggage that comes with the instrument. Like the guitar, the violin holds an important position across genres and cultures. Native Informant is a five-movement response to a commission from Rachel Barton Pine.

The first movement, Lyric Sketch, is an art song with secret lyrics. It begins with the violin playing an imitation of a piano intro and then the entrance of the “voice”. The “song” is complete with a vocal-like high note and ends with a short outro. Rounds, the second movement, is a vigorous Arabic round dance. This fast and flashy movement brings Arabic fiddling into the picture (the violin has a long history in Arabic folk-music). It is music of abandon.

The third movement, For Egypt, begins with a descent from the heights of the violin’s range right down to the bottom. It is a lamentation of both intimate sadness and outright grief at the loss of civilian life in the 2011–12 Egyptian Revolution. The fourth movement is, by contrast, just plain fun. This Scherzo captures the retro spirit of New York’s cabaret music that is so dear to me. Although there are no explicit musical quotes in the movement, overtones of Porter, Gershwin and Blitzstein dominate much of the movement. Its cuteness offsets the tragedy of the third movement and prepares for the rebirth signified by the last movement. The finale, Lullaby of the ex-Soldat, is a tribute to the immense history contained within Rachel’s instrument. I was aware, while writing this piece, that I was writing for an instrument that jammed with Brahms and had a long history before that. We also discovered that while I was working on the Sonata, Rachel became pregnant. So the last movement is dedicated to her daughter Sylvia Michelle Pine, in celebration of birth and renewal.

Posh is my tenth song cycle and one of my shortest. I selected three poems by Wayne Koestenbaum after picking his mind about works from his collection, Best-Selling Jewish Porn Films. The result is a cycle of three short songs for baritenor and piano. Wayne has provided the following note to accompany the cycle:

“The three poems together don’t tell a story, but they suggest a covert bildungsroman, or a growth from a wordless baby, in Ballad, who lacks the ‘proper aural sifting mechanism’ but who from his perch of pampered incompetence can look forward to a sad future of ‘Rachmaninoff and road rage’—to a mournful and erotically hapless adolescent in Blue Sea Songs, who is in search of Ned Rorem sea songs that only exist in dreams—to the more openly introspective narrator of Posh, whose weeping father brings to mind the self-slaughtered Walter Benjamin, and who declaims, at the cycle’s end, that the tenor repertoire ‘expired’ in 1942, as if the damages of the Holocaust and WWII included the death of opera. To this morbid subtext, Fairouz adds, throughout the cycle, a dash of wit, playfulness, and lability, with rapid changes in emotion, spasms of self-display, and quicksilver shifts in harmony and color, with detours whose affects range from the plushly lyrical to the spikily acerbic. Irony, in his settings, is everywhere, but so is tenderness, as if the ghost of Poulenc were to speak, or sing, again, to remind us of what the future (embodied in Fairouz’s gift) still promises.”

For Victims is a dramatic scene for baritone and string quartet based on two poems by David Shapiro: For Victims and The Dead Will Not Praise You. The work was commissioned by American Opera Projects and David brought together these two texts for this piece. The first text (that comes back at the end) is a memorial to the victims of Nazi atrocities who perished in the Holocaust. The second, The Dead Will Not Praise You, is a specific memory of the Cantor Berele Chagy, David’s grandfather. In an interview, David mentions the personal connection he has to the subject matter of his poem: “Even in my own family, the facts of murdered aunts were kept from me for decades. But my father and mother made their lives around and against racism, bigotry, and hatred. All too banal, spread out in history like a fable? No, a powerful musician like Mohammed works the hardest to show that art produces truths like a Holocaust museum, filled with almost hopeless music, not the false Romance of Wagner, but a new kind of structure that must be heard after Auschwitz.”

Jebel Lebnan literally translates as “Mount Lebanon”. This work for wind quintet was commissioned by the Imani Winds and musically chronicles events from the Lebanese Civil War (1975–1990) and their effect on the current face of Lebanon.

The first movement, Bashir’s March, refers to Bashir Gemayel, leader of the Lebanese Phalange Party held responsible for the massacres at the Sabra and Shatilla Refugee Camps. The movement is marked “intense and relentless with no compassion or tenderness” and opens with a wild scream in the clarinet and piccolo. The movement continues on a downward and conflicted spiral symbolic of violence until it collapses. Following this movement is an interlude for solo flute called Nay (the Arabic word for flute). This interlude is the free song of an Arabic flute heard in the night from the distance of the mountains. This leads to a funeral march Ariel’s Song, which is a slow and heartfelt lamentation on the wanton loss of life (the war resulted in an estimated 150,000 to 230,000 civilian fatalities with many more people displaced). Following this funeral march is something of a reawakening. This is a celebration of the resilience of the Lebanese people as spring follows winter (I have always been amazed by the capacity of the Lebanese to go clubbing in Beirut while the city is being bombarded). The final movement, called Mar Charbel’s Dabkeh, is an Arabic round dance. This is mostly lyrical music and embodies the concepts of simple song and melody so cherished in the Arab World. It invokes the spirit of Mar Charbel, Lebanon’s Patron Saint.

Mohammed Fairouz

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