As we passed the three-year anniversary of the war in Iraq, a gaggle of organizations and departments at Duke marked the occasion by sponsoring concerts featuring music from the Middle East.* The first, under the aegis of the Mallarmé Chamber Players, took place last Sunday and featured compositions by Iranian, Lebanese and Israeli musicians. The second, the subject of this review, consisted of music by Iraqi oud player Rahim AlHaj and the Ciompi Quartet. The message of both concerts: Make Music Not War.
In 1991, after the first Gulf War, Rahim AlHaj was forced to leave Iraq because of his political activism against the Saddam Hussein regime. First living in Jordan and Syria, he finally moved to Albuquerque, NM, as a political refugee. AlHaj plays and composes for the oud, the Arabic parent of the European lute. His experiences in exile and his adoption of a new home have inspired him to compose in a composite Iraqi and Western style. The first part of his program consisted of solo pieces for oud, all inspired by his anguish and dreams for his native land, with such evocative titles as "Second Baghdad," "Dreams" and "Dance of the Palms." His music is improvised and based on the Arabic maqam, or modal, system combined with Western tonal and triadic harmony in a strophic song-like structure that can be easily apprehended by Western audiences. In the second half of the concert, his compositions had been arranged for string quartet and oud but still bore referential titles to the war and reminiscences of his life in Baghdad. AlHaj prefaced all of his pieces with remarks from the stage that – while sometimes humorous and always delivered with a smile – bore witness to his emotional strain and identification with the suffering of his people. Interestingly, most of them were composed before the current war, attesting to the long legacy of misery in Iraq.
Perhaps because of their repetitive and strophic nature, AlHaj's solo pieces cried out for lyrics, and we had the sense that he, at least, was driven by some hidden text. His performance was less virtuosic than is customary in the pure traditional music for the oud, where rapid, rhythmically complex execution is an important part of the style. And his selection of modes was closer to the Western major and minor than many maqams, which employ quartertones as well. Perhaps this was because of AlHaj's desire to cater to western ears, but a mix including some traditional maqams would have made the program more interesting.
In fact, the combined works with the Ciompi Quartet often sounded more Middle Eastern than the solo compositions. AlHaj had composed three of the four combined works. The fourth – actually the first in the second half of the program – was composed by Duke graduate composition student Caroline Mallonée. In all four pieces, the Quartet played from notated parts while AlHaj improvised around them (although within a fixed number of measures so that everyone could stay together).
If AlHaj's compositions can be called fusion, Mallonée's "Mirage" was more like oil and water. The piece involved short sections alternately for the quartet and the oud, East and West hardly ever playing at the same time. When they did, the quartet was instructed to play fortissimo, totally drowning out the oud. Moreover, the music for the quartet was atonal and aliatoric, while AlHaj performed traditional maqams on the oud. Since AlHaj imbued all of his works with semantic and symbolic meaning, by extension we might infer from "Mirage" that there could never be a mutually understandable language between the Middle East and the West.
The three AlHaj pieces had been arranged for oud and string quartet by Patrick Posey and Kate "Catherine" Jean Harlow. How those arrangements actually relate to AlHaj's original conception is difficult for us to know, but for the most part, the fusion worked quite well. Once again, the three arrangements bore emotive titles relating to the great human suffering over war in Iraq: "Warm Voices," "Chant," and "Sunset of the City." Musically, the Quartet assumed the role of the traditional Middle Eastern orchestra in its capacity as accompaniment for an instrumental or vocal soloist. Their parts involved everything from plucking in imitation of the oud itself to out-and out-canonic counterpoint. According to the Ciompi's violist Jonathan Bagg, one of the most difficult aspects of the music was following the complex system of repeated phrases.
For the time being, Rahim AlHaj will continue to make his home in Albuquerque.
*Duke Performances, the Duke Human Rights Initiative, Office of the Provost for International Affairs, Center for the Study of Muslim Networks, Ethnomusicology Working Group, Asian & African Languages and Literature, the Evans Israel residency Program, the John Hope Franklin Center, the Department of Religion and the Center for Jewish Studies.