Tuesday, October 27, 2015

EarShot Columbus Symphony: Composer Spotlight - Saad Haddad

Composer Saad Haddad (b. 1992), a first-generation Arab-American, writes music influenced by the disparate qualities inherent between Arab and American cultures. As a 21st century composer he explores the relationship between traditional instruments and current advances in technology. His composition Kaman Fantasy is no exception and was selected for the American Composers Orchestra's EarShot – Columbus Symphony New Music Readings. The piece will be performed in Columbus Symphony’s Happy Hour Concerts Series, Thursday, October 29, 2015 at the Ohio Theater.

Saad was kind enough to answer a few questions for SoundAdvice.

Composer Saad Haddad
American Composers Orchestra: What was your reaction to hearing Kaman Fantasy had been selected for the EarShot – Columbus Symphony New Music Readings?
Saad Haddad: First shock. Then shock. Then probably more shock. And then a sudden realization that I had hundreds of pages of parts that I needed to start engraving shortly after receiving the news! But now that all the work on my end is done, I feel nothing but gratitude for the support I've had from the American Composers Orchestra, the EarShot Readings, and the Columbus Symphony. I can't wait to come to Columbus and meet everyone that made these readings possible!

ACO: Your music focuses on incorporating Arabic musical tradition in a Western classical context. Would you say your music, specifically Kaman Fantasy, highlights the contrast between the two musical traditions (Arabic and Western) or are you trying to show their similarities? Have you found any areas where Arabic and Western musical traditions simply don't work together?
SH: To answer your first question I would say yes and yes. One main difference is that my music is fully notated - every pitch, every dynamic, every nuance I want conveyed is all built in the written music. In an Arabic orchestra, the music is traditionally taught by ear directly by the lead instrumentalist, singer, or composer, which is often interpreted further and embellished by the musicians themselves. In Kaman Fantasy, one way I attempted to bridge this aspect of the traditions is by notating bursts of highly decorated gestures that are meant to be played asynchronously within the same moment of a phrase, so that each musician can have his or her own slight variation in time while adhering to its general feeling. Another difference is the idea of form, or structure, between the two traditions. A piece's length in traditional Arabic music is often dictated by the audience, with listeners often clapping and exclaiming praise if they want certain sections to repeat. While this music often contains sections of refrain and improvisation, my work is thorough-composed without repeats and contains no moments of improvisation.

One way I'm trying to show how the traditions are similar is in the performance practice of the instruments themselves. In Kaman Fantasy, in particular, the strings are the main focus ('kaman' means violin) and in both Western and Arabic music, they often play the most important role in evoking melody as well as taking up sonic space for other instruments (i.e., flutes and trumpets in Western music or the nay and oud in Arabic music) to fill in the texture. In terms of performance practice, I supplement traditional Arab violin techniques like bowing, vibrato, and microtonal inflection within the realm of established Western violin practice and apply those principles to the rest of the strings.

Another similarity I intend to convey is in the realm of rhythm, especially in terms of complex irregular meters, that Western and Arabic music share. For example, there are moments in the middle of my work where the entire orchestra is playing in a 7/8+3/4 dance-like meter that doesn't seem to find its footing until the orchestra is back to a strong downbeat where the meter becomes more simple.  

The most important way these traditions differ, and perhaps are incompatible from one another is the idea of tarab, or musical ecstasy. For me, tarab is the most moving aspect of Arabic music tradition, and according to ethnomusicologist Dr. A.J. Racy, "may not have an exact equivalent in Western languages." In general, a state of tarab can be reached when a listener (or the performer) has emotionally charged, sometimes physical reactions to certain moments in a performance, often eliciting intense feelings of joy or sorrow. It's a concept that's difficult to explain yet very perceptible once this music is experienced live.

ACO: What do you hope to learn or improve upon at the EarShot – Columbus Symphony New Music Readings? Is there anything in particular you feel needs improvement in Kaman Fantasy?
SH: I'm excited to hear if there are any improvements I can make to the notation specifically pertaining to the gestures that involve influences from the Arabic music tradition. This is the first time I'm experimenting with these ideas in an orchestral context and I'm eager to learn what works, what doesn't, and what I can do more of next time around. An opportunity like this to work with a professional orchestra like the Columbus Symphony doesn't come all too often and I hope to get as much input as I can from the musicians, conductor and fellow composers!

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