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Arabian Concerto

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Marcel Khalifé
Program note originally written for the following performance:
Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra Tue., Feb. 24, 2009, 7:30 PM
Marcel Khalifé's Arabian Concerto was premiered at the Inaugural Concert of the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra on October 30, 2008.

Preface to the Composer's Statement on the Arabian Concerto

Oud performances offer a glimpse not only of the Arab soul, but also the Western past. Grove Online describes the oud, or 'Ud, as "the direct ancestor of the Western lute." Those instruments and the troubadours who played them graced the princely courts of Europe, and fittingly so, since the oud is sometimes called "the sultan or emir of musical instruments." It is the principal musical instrument of the Arab world, and its influence has reached cultures as varied as Turkey, Armenia, Greece, Azerbaijan, Mauritania,and Tajikistan. Most usually the oud is strung with five paired strings, tuned in unison, and a bass string. However, some instruments have as many as 13 strings.

The bouzuq or buzuq is a long-necked, fretted lute. In its traditional form, the body is carved from a single piece of wood, and is assembled with wooden pegs. More modern instruments have mechanical pegs and bodies constructed of ribs. It is typically used as a solo instrument.

The qanoun, or kanun, is, according to some sources, descended from the harps of ancient Egypt. (The word means "law" in Arabic, and of course in English it has morphed into "canon.") It is a plucked box zither or psaltery with a trapezoid-shaped sound board, resembling a dulcimer. The 81 strings are stretched in groups of three, and small brass levers adjust pitch.

The ney dates back to antiquity. It is an open-ended flute made of cane, with nine joints, and is blown obliquely. The breathing technique is called "bilabial blowing," with both lips used independently. Changes of octaves and microtones are achieved by breathing, angling the instrument, or both. It is considered one of the most difficult Arabic instruments to master.

The req or riq, is a small wooden tambourine. The surface is of goat or fish skin, and the frame is often inlaid with mother of pearl. There are five sets of two pairs of brass cymbals, spaced around the frame, which allows the instrument to produce a rich variety of sounds.

Together these instruments—four melodic, one percussion—constitute a takht, the classic ensemble of most Arabic music. Featured singly and as an ensemble, in conjunction with the orchestra, the composition is in some ways similar to the tradition of the sinfonia concertante familiar to audiences of Western symphonic music.

The Arabian Concerto does not follow the three-movement form so frequently encountered in symphonic literature, but is in one extended movement.

Sources used in this Preface include Grove Online and

A Statement from the Composer

This musical score, Arabian Concerto, inhabits its own time: a time of incipience and genesis—a musical time of the Arab East. And yet, in its Eastern temporality, it comprises a matrix of multiple temporalities that are dialectically enmeshed, having traversed a history of melting and melding. To dismantle it into its constituent elements is to disintegrate its mosaic portrait, so richly fed by diverse tributaries: the spirituality of the Old East, the heritage of Byzantium's ecclesiastical outpouring, the magical touches of Persia's music, the melancholy of ancient Iraq whose repository is the maqam, the rhythm of the Arabian desert, the ecstasy of the Turkish bashraf, the virile sonority of mountain songs, the ornate coloratura of Aleppo, and the breeze that blows from the lost Andalusian paradise.

Arabian Concerto resonates with an uninterrupted dialog with the musical time of the East, imitating many of its sonorities, delving in its details, slipping into its labyrinthine pathways, searching for a deep mystery.

Music has no homeland. It is the sole common language of humanity that has the potential to make up for the miscommunication that plagues communities of disparate tongues, bent upon mutual oppression. Ultimately, music does not lend itself to a Manichean division into Eastern and Western because it is a single language, enunciated with different accents. More aptly, one ought to speak of music's East and music's West, for music itself is space and time, and of the twain, it is the center, the heart.

We seek universality as a human partnership among various musical languages, traditions, and creative resources, as a moment of intersection and intermingling of cultures, the moment at which an esthetical chemistry is born. Thus has come this musical score, overflowing with an abstract, symphonic, cultured content, towards a beautiful adventure—a groundbreaking adventure—towards universalism, armed and prepared to overcome any unyielding element.

This score is a re-working of local material, a tradition that we jealously guard against dissipation and banality. We harvest its expressive treasures upon which we employ the methods of modern musical artifice. This score plunges the East and its seductive beauty into world music, expressing the East, that historical, cultural self, in a human musical language restoring it to a place in the world that has been hitherto vacant, and enabling it to address the world and its elevated esthetical sensibility.

Here is a multiple, fertile musical time, resistant to stereotyping or bracketing. It is an unending dialogue between the self and the self, the self and the other.

Marcel Khalifé