Music on winding paths

Arabesques are tendril ornaments as found in painting or architecture. The term is used to describe both the surface-filling, natural acanthus tendrils of the Renaissance and the stylised leaf tendril ornaments in Islamic art. A number of arabesques can also be found in music, works that form tendril-like ornaments. A special edition of an arabesque is the one by Samuel Hazo, as the title has a double meaning.

Strictly speaking, the title should be given like this: Arab-esque, because the composition is based on Arabic music. Samuel Hazo’s roots lie in the Orient: his composition is nothing less than a tour de force through the sounds of the Middle East for modern wind orchestra. With delicately melting solo passages, full-sounding ensemble tone, fiery rhythms and frenetic percussion, it exploits all the possibilities of the wind orchestra.

The composer himself writes in this work: “Both sets of my grandparents immigrated to the United States; my mother’s parents were Lebanese, my father’s mother was Lebanese and his father was Assyrian. Sometimes when you compose, the song comes from your heart, sometimes from your head, and sometimes (as in this case) it’s in your blood. I hadn’t heard any complete Arabic pieces for wind orchestra, and I knew about the deep and rich musical qualities of that culture … so I figured a piece like this might as well come from me. (Besides, my mother kept asking if I would ever write a “proper” composition).”

Arabesque” is based on the mystical sounds of Middle Eastern music and is composed in three parts. “Taqasim” (tah’-zeem), “Dabka” (dupp-keh) and “Choral”. The introductory flute cadenza is notated in notes, but is meant to sound like an Arabic taqasim or improvisation. Similar to jazz improvisation, the soloist is to play freely in the scales and modes of the genre. In this case, the flute plays in bi-tonal harmonic minor scales and even bends a note to capture the microtonality (quarter tones) of music from that part of the world. Unlike jazz, however, the chord or bass accompaniment changes very little in taqasim. It is almost always at the beginning of a piece of music and is meant to set the musical and emotional tone.

The second part, the dabka, is a traditional Arabic row dance performed at celebrations, mostly weddings. Its drum beat, played by a dumbek or durbake hand drum, is distinctive. Although rhythmically simple, it is infectious and captures the attention of the listener, who taps his toes. The final section, the chorale, is a recapitulation of earlier mystical themes in the composition, interwoven with a grand, sparkling conclusion.

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