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Decolonized Arabesques

For Saxophone, Viola, Double Bass, and Piano

In Two Movements:

  1. Samai’i
  2. Contrapunctus
Recording by Daniel Whitworth on Saxophone, Nathaniel Sattler on Viola, Emmett Jackson on Bass, and Ethan Valentin on Piano.
Dedicated to Ahed Tamimi, without permission.

Program Notes

Over the past couple months, I read Jean Said Makdisi’s Teta, Mother, and Me, a memoir which explores her family’s ancestry across Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. Its history is rich with the untold stories of Arab women through periods of constant change through ever-growing globalism, and with it, colonialism. The book itself is filled with nostalgia, a sense of longing for a place now gone, one taken away from us. 

A general misconception about immigrants in the U.S. is that we prefer to live here, but our situations are much more complicated. We would live in our home countries if we could, but because of economics restraints in our home, constant threats of war, and an uncertainty on the treatment of minorities in the Middle East, all issues which trace back to colonialism and Arab nation’s relationship with the west, we are forced away from our homeland, to contribute to the economy of our oppressors. 

Decolonized Arabesques reflects the constant attempts of immigrants to reach back to a homeland ripped away from us. The piece is personal in that it uses Arab history as its tool for expression, but the main idea is something I believe any immigrant can connect to. 

The piece takes exoticism and turns it on its head. The Eastern is the standard and the Western is the ethnic. The first movement is a Sama’i which is an Arabic ABCBDB form. Traditionally, the piece is in 10/8 time, but the second to last section changes to 3/4, this is where the supposed peak of the piece is, but I put a little twist to that peak. The movement is in a few maqamat (Arabic scales), mainly centered around Bayati. 

The second movement uses the popular Arabic tune, Qaduka al-Mayyas and puts it through a series of canons, ending in a fugue. At the coda, the theme is segmented and played at different tempi, maqamat, and inversions before coming to major close. 

One of my favorite aspects of this piece is that the scales, or maqamat, depend on quarter tones present in Middle Eastern theory, which of course the piano cannot play. I started by embracing this difference, like the difference between a 2nd generation immigrant and their culture. Being born and raised in the U.S. includes privileges that our parents don’t have, but it also means we have much less access to our culture, and that we don’t speak our native languages. The place I heard Arabic was in the home, and sometimes on weekends. How was I supposed to be fluent in a language that way? On top of that, resources to teach me Lebanese Arabic are sparse and formal Arabic is not enough for someone who wants to connect with Arab people and to learn the language with dialects that range from Morocco to Iraq. 

By writing Decolonized Arabesques, I am taking back what has been used for years as a display of exoticism and taking it back to its formal, classical roots. Oriental Music is Middle Eastern classical music, and is as valuable as European Classical music. 

When western composers travel the world, taking little bits of our culture to include as an exotic flair to their standards, they are saying “our music is real music, everyone else’s is for show” — our orientalism is presented as primitive, either having some super magical powers to be feared, or has some weird connection with nature, or as straight up barbaric. 

This piece is my attempt to take back what is ours. 


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