The Operating System and Liminal Lab


On September 10th, 2004, I was one of a capacity crowd in Cooper Union’s hallowed Great Hall for “Ephemera vs. The Apocalypse,” transfixed by a still-visibly-shaken Art Spiegelman – who had just completed his groundbreaking and controversial In the Shadow of No Towers. In the Shadow has since been described as a representation of Spiegelman’s personal holocaust, a contemporary counterpoint to the family history and political exegesis of his Maus series.  It has always stayed with me that he was allowed to smoke during the lecture to calm his nerves, something I’d never seen before (or since) in post-1980’s NYC. [Click for a transcript of the lecture here]
In the Shadow of No Towers follows Spiegelman’s personal experience of trauma following the 9/11 attacks near his home, which then we watch as they blur for him – as for so many of us – in the period that followed with the more lasting, if subtler, trauma caused by the climate of fear and media manipulation that so quickly grew up around the ruins. 

What Spiegelman made and did exists at that magic place where what he leaves behind evokes for any audience not only the content but the sensory experience of being there — by exploding and challenging the page / composition we lose time, as he did… and it only begins there, as the document ends up serving as a folio of sorts for both contemporary and archival imagery that referentially rounds out this palimpsest of perception and emotion . He explains that he “wasn’t thinking about books,” that rather he “was thinking about ephemera…. about putting down what I saw and felt, and what I saw and felt had a lot to do, very quickly, with a political machine that had run amok.”
Nearly 10 years later, visionary young composer Mohammed Fairouz breathes new life into In the Shadow of No Towers, with the debut of his Fourth Symphony — an innovative, project that grew out of conversations with Spiegelman himself, and then gained fiscal support via a commission from the nonprofit organization Reach Out Kansas Inc.  The piece, to be performed by the acclaimed KU Wind Ensemble (directed by Paul W. Popiel), has its premiere this coming tuesday at Carnegie Hall, on a program that also includes Philip Glass’s Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra.
The music itself is tremendous but perhaps what is most exciting about this piece is what it represents as a exploration of dialogue across and between disciplines — about the translation of human emotion along the spectrum of the senses.

Composer Mohammed Fairouz. Photo: Samantha West

Composer Mohammed Fairouz. Photo: Samantha West

To hear Fairouz speak to his process of developing a sonic landscape that best represents not only Spiegelman’s personal and psychological narrative but so too its visualization on the page is immensely satisfying, and should leave one eager to see what’s next on his musical agenda.
Take for example the second movement, where to “mimic the use of grayscale” as depicted by Spiegelman, Fairouz chose to use “just the percussion and the double bass, not all the colors of the wind ensemble like you hear in the beginning,” creating a soundscape that is both limited like the graphic palette but also attentive to the psychological landscape it meant to represent — he uses coins to create discomfort, noise, so that “what you hear is, literally, the scraping of metal and steel.” Fairouz explains that furthermore, this mournful movement “dealt with issues of self-representation,” capturing the “poignant and conflicted sentiment [he] felt in the aftermath as a New Yorker and an American of Arabic heritage.”
In the third movement, Fairouz represents the political polarity Spiegelman captures as the “United Blue Zone” and “United Red Zone” of the United States by composing for two wind ensembles playing against and off each other — riffing satirically via exaggerated, “grotesquely Souzaesque” gestures off the traditional, patriotic sound of this uniquely American concert form.
The final movement of the work, Anniversaries, opens with an anxiety-provoking ticking that persists throughout the movement. Comments Fairouz, “This is music that is unable to mourn, instead concerning itself with the passage of time and the commemorations of each anniversary. Throughout the movement the music grows louder and louder and the memory of the towers come to loom far larger than life. With each anniversary, there is both a fading of the true memory and an enlargement of mythic status.”
Not able to make it to Carnegie?  Be soothed: Native Informant, a new all-Fairouz CD is being released on Naxos also on 3/26 with an amazing lineup that includes the Borromeo String QuartetRachel Barton PineImani WindsDavid Krakauer, and more.

Says Fairouz, “The title of the my violin sonata, Native Informant, is meant ironically: warding off the stereotypical tensions of “East vs West” and the reductive representation of an entire complex culture as ‘exotic,’ my ideal in all of these works is to project a passionate concern for social justice. This concern embodies many personalities in the chamber music on this disk, from the weeping father of Posh to the mother singing a lullaby to her dead son in Tahwidah, the speaker recalling his cantor grandfather in Song of the Victims, the lamentation centerpiece of my violin sonata for the men and women who lost their lives resisting oppression in the Egyptian Revolution, and the chronicling of destruction, death and rebirth in Jebel Lebnan.”
The ability to not only have but deliver on concepts like this, on these interdisciplinary conversations is so incredibly essential to the arts — perhaps now more than ever, in a global age of information and translation — making Fairouz composer is someone to keep on your radar. Exit Strata is proud to be able to introduce you to him and this important work.

A B O U T   M O H A M M E D   F A I R O U Z

Mohammed Fairouz, born in 1985, is one of the most frequently performed, commissioned, and recorded composers of his generation. Hailed by The New York Times as “an important new artistic voice” and by BBC News as “one of the most talented composers of his generation,” Fairouz melds Middle-Eastern modes and Western structures to deeply expressive effect. His large-scale works, including four symphonies and an opera, engage major geopolitical and philosophical themes with persuasive craft and a marked seriousness of purpose. His solo and chamber music attains an “intoxicating intimacy,” according to New York’s WQXR.

A truly cosmopolitan voice, Fairouz had a transatlantic upbringing. By his early teens, the Arab-American composer had traveled across five continents, immersing himself in the musical life of his surroundings. Prominent advocates of his instrumental music include the Borromeo and Lydian String Quartets, the Imani Winds, The Knights Chamber Orchestra, Metropolis Ensemble, violinists Rachel Barton Pine and James Buswell, clarinetist David Krakauer, and conductors Gunther Schuller, Fawzi Haimor, and Yoon Jae Lee.

He has been recognized as an “expert in vocal writing” by the New Yorker magazineand as a “post-millennial Schubert” by Gramophone Magazine. Among the eminent singers that have promoted his wealth of vocal music are Kate Lindsey, Sasha Cooke, Lucy Shelton, D’Anna Fortunato, David Kravitz and Randall Scarlata.

Commissions have come from the Borromeo Quartet, Imani Winds, New York Festival of Song, Da Capo Chamber Players, New Juilliard Ensemble, Cantus Vocal Ensemble, Cygnus Ensemble, Counter)induction, Alea III, Musicians for Harmony, and many others. Recordings of his music are available on the Naxos, Bridge, Dorian Sono Luminus, Cedille, Albany, GM/Living Archive, and GPR labels.

Mohammed Fairouz is the subject of a documentary by BBC World Service TV, has been featured on NPR’s All Things Consideredand BBC/PRI’s The World, and has been profiled in Symphony, Strings, New Music Box, and the Houston Chronicle, among others.

His principal teachers in composition have included György Ligeti, Gunther Schuller, and Richard Danielpour, with studies at the Curtis Institute and New England Conservatory. His works are published by Peermusic Classical. He lives in New York City.

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