MOHAMMED FAIROUZ: ‘Critical Models’ = Litany for double bass and wind quartet, Four Critical Models for alto saxophone and violin, Piano Miniatures 1-6, Lamentation and Satire for string quartet, Three Novelettes for piano and alto saxophone, Airs for solo guitar; various soloists and ensembles – Sono Luminus DSL-92146 (Distr. by Naxos), 59:10 **:
I was not familiar with Mohammed Fairouz or his music, until now. I found his bio and a visit to his website very interesting. He is a young composer of Middle Eastern heritage with an impressive background, including training at the Royal Academy of Music in London. He seems like a person with very eclectic tastes and a desire to learn much about a wide variety of musical cultures and idioms; having studied everything from Arabic modalities and native instrumental music to minimalism to indie rock. This brief, but none the less interesting, collection of some of Fairouz’s chamber music reveals this same eclecticism. However, I found the music to be of varying interest level.
The set opens strongly with Litany for solo double bass and wind quartet. Based on the sounds of the Azan (an Arabic call to prayer as is heard in mosques), this is a very short (under five minutes) but pensive-sounding work intended to evoke the feelings of the Azan and the image of people assembling for their daily prayer. It is a very pretty work and I was wishing it was developed more or longer; though an actual Azan (or Azaan) varies in length and tone across varying sects within Islam.
Four Critical Models for saxophone and violin takes its name from what the composer explains as “two catchwords and two interventions”. The first movement, Catchword: A Modernist’s Dilemma, refers to a quote from Milton Babbitt about the “unlikely survival of serious music”. Babbitt was known to be a bit of a progressive and iconoclast who distrusted traditional classical music and this movement seeks to poke fun at the “over-complexity and density” of much modern music. The second movement, Intervention: Une Musique Informelle, is a reflection on a quote from Theodore Adorno on the difficulty of trying to invent modern forms that meet traditional structures and criteria. The third (or second “catchword”), An Oriental(ist) Model, refers to a quote from sociologist (and of British royalty) Evelyn Baring in her essay on the conditions in modern Egypt. The last movement (second “intervention”), A Dialectical Synthesis, refers to an essay by author Edward Said on “Orientalism Now”. Here’s the situation with Four Critical Models as a listening experience. As a reflection on four different aspects – perhaps – of Fairouz’s own identity and experiences mirrored in the thoughts and writings of others, I get it. The movements contain sounds from the abstractly “annoying” to the ethereal to the overtly “Arabic” sounding to the quite abstract and a bit microtonal. It just did not do a lot for me as a whole, but credit saxophonist Michael Couper and violinist Rayoung Ahn for very good performances in this really odd pairing.
Fairouz’s Piano Miniatures 1-6 sounds like it came from a totally different composer. The composer acknowledges the nocturnal quality of the set and even owing inspiration to the Hanon exercises for a jumping off point. The tonal language is familiar; even film score like and pretty (even the number five, whose melody stems from a twelve tone source). This is not a super sophisticated piece but it is enjoyable to listen to and pianist Katie Reiner does a very nice job. Similarly, Lamentations and Satire, for string quartet is a pensive and interesting work; though much more serious than the piano pieces. Fairouz comments that the sadness of the first half and the overtly dissonant sarcasm of the “satire” is a “grim commentary on the contemporary Middle East”. This is one of the stronger works in this collection and leaves a powerful impression and the Lydian String Quartet—with a reputation for performing modern music well—plays with conviction.
The Three Novelettes for alto saxophone and piano is structured like a three- movement sonata. The central movement, in particular; Serenade, is very fine with nice interplay between the instruments and some soaring – though disconcerting – melodies. The final Dance Montage is, apparently, in homage to theatre composers and does sound, in passing, like some typical dance scenes. The piece as a whole works well without one needing to know the derivation of the movements. Couper and Ahn play very well here, too.
The four-movement work Airs, for solo guitar, is another work that sounds quite apart from the others and is pleasant enough. As the composer points out in his booklet notes, he loves the sound of the guitar and its middle eastern relative, the oud. Airs evokes a blend of what Fairouz says is Dowland on one hand and Andalusia on the other. I like the sound of both classical and eastern guitar and this piece is a very nice addition to the repertory. It is a pleasant work that challenges the player and the listener just enough and I think it is a very nice work.
I believe that Mohammed Fairouz is a talented composer and, clearly, many professional ensembles agree. I would love to hear more of his music – especially larger works – to fully figure out where he is going stylistically. My problem with this collection is what I found to be inconsistency. There is a pleasing but raw quality to some of the works, like the Miniatures or Three Novelettes and there is the wild, almost incoherent, nature of something like Four Critical Models. However, if Fairouz wrote more works like the Litany or Lamentations and Satire, I’m all in. I am anxious to see what develops from this promising new voice as his style becomes a bit more defined.
The unifying purpose of Bach, Beethoven, Mendelssohn…