Composer Mohammed Fairouz blends Hebrew and Arabic in "Poems and Prayers"

by Jay Gabler, Minnesota Public Radio
August 8, 2014

Just 28 years old, Mohammed Fairouz is an acclaimed and widely-performed composer. Having been raised as a world traveller, Fairouz — in the words of his official biography — "integrates Middle-Eastern modes into Western structures, to deeply expressive effect."

Poems and Prayers — a new recording of Fairouz's Tahrir and third symphony Poems and Prayers by Neal Stulberg conducting the UCLA Philharmonia, Chorale, and University Chorus with soloists Sasha Cooke (mezzo-soprano), David Krakauer (clarinet), and David Kravitz (baritone) — caught the ear of Classical MPR's Mindy Ratner, and she spoke with Fairouz by phone.

Mindy Ratner: Poems and Prayers feels like a meditation in a way on a conflict that has lasted for — well, for what feels like forever — between Israelis and Palestinians, and I found it fascinating the texts you chose and how you treated them. Could you talk about that?

Mohammed Fairouz: Well, the texts of Poems and Prayers's a foundation of poems and prayers, absolutely. And the texts are simply poems and prayers. They are the prayers of the Middle East, the poetry of the Middle East, ranging back thousands of years. The oldest text being the Kaddish and the newest being poetry of Fadwa Tuqan and Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian poets; and Yehudi Amichai, sort of Israel's national poet. And I had a very personal connection to each one of the poems and each one of the poets.

In fact, I was very fortunate to have interacted with the poets, Mahmoud Darwish specifically. We had a plan to work together. And he was coming to New York. I read this poem of his on a bus ride from Beirut to Damascus and was struck by it because it was so unusual — it was metric, it was metered, it almost read like [an] ancient form of love poetry. It's nothing like what Mahmoud Darwish is known for, which is this avant garde opening up of poetic language.

[It's] revealed in the last line of the poem, in this very Mahlerian gesture, this is what a woman said to her son at his funeral. And he breaks out of the meter and it's very shocking. And I was struck by it and I contacted him and I said, I need to set this. He said we'll talk when I get to New York for the Edward Said memorial lecture — this was in 2006. He came to the U.S. to be treated for his heart condition in Houston and he passed away, unfortunately. We never got the chance to sit down over it.

At the time I was working on my first opera and I interrupted it immediately and I started to compose this setting of this poem before I even had the concept for Poems and Prayers. It sort of was my first reaction to the poet's death. All the way from that to Amichai, who, you know, this Memorial Day for the War Dead is an iconic poem in Israeli society. And not one I would have wanted — I mean, one that I've been quite intimidated by. It's sort of like setting Leaves of Grass or something. And I really relied heavily on Yehudi Amichai's widow and her encouragement to me to set that poem.

You did something really interesting at the end of that last movement. The Kaddish text, which begins Poems and Prayers, is in its entirety and then you come back to it after its first poem and then you come back to it again. And then you come back to it one last time at the end of the piece...after the Amichai poem, but the text isn't quite the same.

No. The Oseh Shalom portion of the Kaddish, which ends the Kaddish, is interesting because it's the one part of the Kaddish that's in Hebrew, not in Aramaic. And it simply reads: "He who makes peace in high places, make peace for us on Earth and for all the tribe of Israel.

To which we say Amen. But then at the end — it's marvelous.

It comes back persistently, but at the end it's the most inclusive thing because it's what reformed Jews in America have been doing since at least the 60s: adding words which mean, and for all the nations of the world. So that you're praying for peace, not only for the tribe but for the entire world.

An observation about Poems and Prayers: your background is an Arabic background. My background is a Jewish background. And I think as I was listening to it, I was sort of wondering how you'd treat the Hebrew text. And you treated it in the most loving way.

Well, the Hebrew text was the real reason for why the texts of Poems and Prayers needed to be in the original language. Because the translations of the Amichai are beautiful in English but they don't do justice to what he accomplished in Hebrew. Memorial Day for the War Dead, "add now the grief of all your losses to their grief" is sort of clunky. In the Hebrew, even if you're not a Hebrew speaker: "yom zikaron lemete hamilkhama: Iasim gam evel kol avedanekha al evel avedanam..." You have that internal sense of rhyming, that beautiful musical poetry, and all the Middle Eastern texts have that. It's so much about the sound of the language, the way that the languages interact.

The way that Fadwa Tuqan, her poem in Arabic ends, "how can I write in this day in this night." She says "fi hathal yowm, fi hathal yowm," in this day, and then Yehudi Amichai begins his poem Memorial Day "yom zikaron..." You see the similarity between the Arabic and the Hebrew. But that's the key, you see. That's the key.

I know of the conflict — and this is not to whitewash the Arab-Israeli conflict. I know that it's bitter, and I know that it's a terrible fight. It's a family fight, and oftentime family fights are the most bitter and terrible. But it has lasted just over 60 years, going on 70 years. I know that that seems like an awfully long time, but the truth of the matter is that that's just a blip in our history together.

I mean, the Arabs and Jews, after all, are family. And we have shared our space, our language, our culture for thousands of years. We have evidence — not only me and David Krakauer, but going back thousands of years — we have evidence of our shared cultural heritage, from our literature to our music...all the way down to our food [and] the way we dress. I mean, this is a family fight. But in the larger scheme of things, it's a small blip in our history.

comments powered by Disqus

On Now

Listen to the Stream
  • Symphony No. 8 8:03 Ludwig van Beethoven
    Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra
    Roberto Abbado
    Buy Now
  • Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 in B-flat 7:42 Johann Sebastian Bach
    Boston Baroque
    Martin Pearlman
    Buy Now
Other MPR Radio Streams
Choral Stream
MPR News
Radio Heartland

You can now listen to Classical and Choral Music on your iOS (iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad) or Android device.

Classical Notes Blog

Read more