Clarion is delighted to present a concert of classical Iraqi Maqam music performed by the eminent American musician Amir ElSaffar and his ensemble. Amir is well known in the United States as a jazz and classical trumpeter and master of the santur, the classic Middle Eastern percussion instrument, a precursor of both the harpsichord and piano and sometimes described as the Persian hammer dulcimer. In our concert, Amir is joined by Dena ElSaffar playing the joza, a spike fiddle; also, George Ziadeh plays the oud, the Arab lute similar in form to western lutes but without frets; the fourth member of the group is Tim Moore on percussion instruments such as the riqq (tambourine), the tabla and the goblet-shaped doumbek or dumbug. The fifth and vital member of the ensemble is the reciter (singer) Hamid al-Saadi.
To untutored western ears, Middle Eastern music maybe most recognizable from the quarter notes embedded in otherwise familiar harmonic scales. Equally important, and unmistakable, is its polyrhythmic nature. Needless to say, as with Western music, there are complexities and subtleties in traditional Arab music, obvious not just to the connoisseur but to people broadly.
Maqam is a storied artistic tradition, consisting of a musical and vocal system, and a vast repertoire based on modes (scales), melodic fragments, improvisation and ornamentation. Each scale has a distinctive Arabic name (think of Dorian, Lydian and other modes of the Western tradition). They are playable on the piano except, of course, when they contain quartertones.
Maqam melodies are combinations of 4- or 5-note mini scales called jinn (pl. ajinas) with the melody arising from the choice of ajinas and the emphasis given to certain notes. There are said to be 56 melodies in the Iraqi Maqam but improvisation and emphasis makes for a huge number of possibilities. But, in addition, one must not fail to grasp the vital role of the human voice in Maqam, drawing as it does on the richness of Middle Eastern secular and religious culture, mainly Muslim, but also Jewish and Christian.
Amir ElSaffar is an expert trumpeter with a classical background who is conversant in the language of contemporary jazz, but has also created techniques to play microtones and ornaments idiomatic to Arabic music that are not typically heard on the trumpet. He is also known as a purveyor of the centuries old, now endangered, Iraqi maqam tradition, which he performs actively as a vocalist and santur player. As a composer, ElSaffar has used the subtle microtones found in maqam to create an innovative approach to harmony and melody, and has received commissions to compose for jazz ensembles, traditional Middle Eastern ensembles, chamber orchestras, string quartets, and contemporary music ensembles, as well as dance troupes. He currently leads five critically-acclaimed groups: The 17-piece Rivers of Sound Orchestra;Two Rivers, which combines the musical languages and instrumentation of Iraqi maqam and contemporary jazz; the Amir ElSaffar Quintet, performing ElSaffar’s microtonal compositions with standard jazz instrumentation.
Through his powerful and highly ornamented voice, and in his comprehensive knowledge of the intricate details of the music and poetry of Iraq, generations and layers of the maqam tradition resonate through Hamid al-Saadi’s magnificent presence on stage. The only person in his generation to have memorized and mastered all 56 maqamat from the Baghdadi repertoire, Al-Saadi is one of the few vocalists who is keeping the maqam alive today, at a time when so many elements of this profound tradition are in danger of extinction.
Born in Iraq in 1958, Hamid al-Saadi’s artistic, musical and scholarly journey with the Iraqi maqam began from childhood, inspired by his avid love of the Iraqi and Baghdadi culture, the Arabic language, music and poetry. He studied, practiced, and performed the maqam until he became one of the more renowned and highly acclaimed musicians and scholars in this subject. He learned the art of singing and performing the Iraqi maqam from the legendary Yusuf Omar (1918-1987), who pronounced Al-Saadi as his successor. Muhammed Al-Gubbenchi (1901-1989) who taught Omar and was probably the most influential maqam reciter in history, said that he considered Al-Saadi to be the “ideal link to pass on the maqam to future generations.”
Dena El Saffar is a multi-instrumentalist, composer, teacher and recording artist who has performed throughout the US as well as in the Middle East and Latin America. Born and raised in a musical family in Chicago, she learned about her Iraqi heritage through stories, music and recipes. She began violin lessons at the age of 6. At the age of 17, after winning several concerto competitions and touring Europe with a youth orchestra, she traveled to Iraq and became inspired to learn the Iraqi music traditions. While completing a Viola Performance degree at the IU Jacobs School of Music, she founded Salaam in order to focus on music of the Arab World. El Saffar plays several traditional Middle Eastern instruments – ‘oud, and joza – as well as violin and viola. She has a long list of recording projects with well-known American musicians such as Krista Detor, Slats Klug, Moira Smiley and Michael White. She has toured and performed with countless ensembles including Youssou N’Dour, Rivers of Sound Orchestra, the National Arab Orchestra, and Iraqi Maqam ensemble Safaafir. When she is not busy performing or teaching, Dena enjoys hiking in the woods and spending time with her family.
Tim Moore grew up in the Midwest, and began playing drums at the age of 11. A natural percussionist, he began performing with different groups early on, gaining experience in a variety of genres including jazz, blues, salsa and rock. After earning a computer science degree from Indiana University in 1989, he worked on the East and West Coasts as a computer programmer, but in 1993 he left that world in order to devote himself to music. In his quest to become a better, more diverse musician, he began learning rhythms and instruments from around the world, eventually bringing his focus to Middle Eastern percussion. He has studied Arabic percussion with Wessam Ayoub, Sattar Al Saadi, Lateef Al ‘Abeedi, N. Scott Robinson, and Mohammed Khalil Salih. Tim plays the dumbek, riqq, naqqarat, bendir, tabl and zanbur, as well as drum set, bass and guitar. Tim is married to Dena El Saffar, and enjoys spending his free time with their two children, Jamil and Layla.
George Ziadeh was born and raised in Birzeit, Palestine, and pursued music from a young age. In 1986 he moved to the United States, where he studied ‘oud with Simon Shaheen and classical singing and voice with Youssef Kassab, with whom he has toured extensively across the country. George has performed and lectured with such ensembles and institutions as the University of Chicago’s Middle East Music Ensemble with Issa Boulos, the University of Colorado (Boulder), Alwan for the Arts, the United Nations (invited by Kofi Annan), and annually at the Columbia University Department of Ethnomusicology. In 2008, George was a featured solo and ensemble performer in the “Brooklyn Maqam” Festival of Arab Music. From 1995 to 1997 George taught at the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music in Ramallah and at Birzeit University. George is considered an authority in maqam and Arab classical repertoire.
J. Henry Fair uses visual media to tell stories about people and things that affect people. He is based in New York City and Berlin, but travels constantly. Whether it’s portraits or environmental issues, he strives to create imagery that gives viewers new insights into the subject.
Speaking about his “Industrial Scars” series, Roberta Smith, chief art critic of The New York Times said “The vivid color photographs of J Henry Fair lead an uneasy double life as potent records of environmental pollution and as ersatz evocations of abstract painting…information and form work together, to devastating effect.”
His third book, the first in his series on coasts, looks at the natural and the man-made, with an eye to the impacts of the climate crisis and ocean rise, and received much laudatory press.
Windowpane Audio, founded in 2015 by pianist and composer Ryan McCullough, is a Kingston-based audio engineering firm specializing in Classical music and field/location recording, mixing and mastering, electro-acoustic solutions for live performance, and audio equipment modifications for discerning ears. WPA has recorded for Albany and PARMA labels, and will be making inaugural releases in 2020 through its own in-house label, "False Azure," featuring piano music by American composer Dante De Silva. McCullough trained as a pianist at the Colburn Conservatory and Glenn Gould School with renowned pedagogue John Perry, and holds additional degrees in music from Humboldt State University, the University of Southern California, and Cornell University.
Originally constructed in 1915, The Stissing Center is a non-profit performance venue in Pine Plains and the entire Hudson Valley community. It is a beacon of cultural vibrance and civic pride. Currently open virtually via website and YouTube with the innovative Stissing Summer Variety Show, The Chair Series, and LIVE! from The Stissing Center! TSC features arts, music, voice, drama, dance, and the spoken word. Something for everyone at The Stissing Center.
Clarion Concerts has been bringing live classical chamber music to the Hudson Valley and Berkshires region for decades and we can only do that with your help. Won’t you please consider making a donation to our organization? We are an entirely volunteer-run non-profit so ALL of your donations go directly to paying musicians, concert hall fees and to our educational programs in area schools. While we suggest a $20 donation to enjoy this concert, any amount will be welcome. Thanks so much and enjoy the concert!
We thank the following foundations, businesses and individuals for their generous support of this concert. It wouldn’t have been possible without them.
* In memory of Josh Lipton