Thursday, April 4, 2013

Aromas of Quelques Fleurs

Composer and member of Musiqa’s Artistic Board, Karim Al-Zand spoke to Musiqa about his latest composition titled Quelques Fleurs.

Does Quelques Fleurs have a special meaning to you, other than the translation? Why or why not?
The title, “a few flowers,” has two references. It refers to the various movements of the work, each one based on a particular flower. It’s also the brand name of the first mass marketed perfume, which appeared in 1912, and was purportedly formulated, with the essence of hundreds of different flowers.

How did you approach Quelques Fleurs?
I tried to convey in musical terms the character of each flower, in particular my associations with the scent of the flower.

What are your most significant inspirations, pertaining to composing music?
My inspirations are often extra-musical, as is the case in this piece. I have compositions that are inspired by art of various kinds, literature, dance and so forth. There are some purely musical inspirations as well, such as folk music, jazz and other works in the Western classical tradition.

What is the music of Quelques Fleurs inspired by?

Quelques Fleurs is inspired by the fragrance of flowers. Connections between sound and smell have long been a feature of both poetry and science. The vocabulary of the perfumer also relies on musical analogy: a fragrance is formed by a “chord” of three scents—a “top note,” a “middle (or heart) note,” and a “bass note.” The perfume reputedly combined 300 different floral and other scents in its formulation. My piece contains four: Rose, Lavender, Jasmine and Orange Blossom.

How would you describe the music of Quelques Fleurs?

To convey the immersive quality of the flowers’ aroma, each movement is a kind of musical “static study.” The first uses a reiterated rhythmic pattern (an ostinato); the second cycles through a harmonic progression (a passacaglia); the third employs an unchanging collection of notes (a mode); and the fourth maintains constant motion by repeating a few short motives (a moto perpetuo). The piece was written for the Beausejour Trio (Wesley Ferreira, clarinet; Julia MacLaine, cello; Stephen Runge, piano) who presented its premiere in July 2010.

 As previously described, Al-Zand’s inspiration for Quelques Fleurs is drawn from the scent of four specific flowers, Jasmine being the most “heady of floral scents,” he says. 

“[Jasmine] thrives in Texas: there are several jasmine shrubs and vines around the Rice University campus,” said Al-Zand. “As you pass one of the flowering plants in the spring, the smell is intoxicating, almost overpowering in strength. I think of the third movement as an atmospheric nocturne (jasmine blooms only at night), which tries to capture a gradual envelopment by the potent bouquet.”

For Al-Zand, the smell of roses is redolent. He stated that it reminds him of “confectionery, especially the Middle Eastern sweets” he enjoyed as a child. Many of them use perfumed rose water in their recipes.

Aside from the fragrance of flowers, Al-Zand’s music is inspired by Arabic poetry. The subjects of some of his pieces speak to his middle-eastern heritage as well.

“My father’s LP records of Arabic music playing in our living room,” Al-Zand said. “Though we never really knew what the words meant, my siblings and I would occasionally join in with a catchy song. I recall only tiny snippets from these tunes. I quote one memorable fragment in the first movement, “Attar of Rose.” The movement represents a kind of perfumed nostalgia, a fragrant musical trace.”

The Boston Globe has called Al-Zand’s music “strong and startlingly lovely”. His music has been successful throughout Canada, the U.S., and abroad. Al-Zand is the recipient of several national awards, including the Sackler Composition Prize and the ArtSong Prize.

Quelques Fleurs will be featured in Musiqa’s Word Play on Saturday, April 6 at 7:30 p.m. at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts in Zilkha Hall. 

Thank you, Karim, for taking the time to speak to Musiqa about Quelques Fleurs.

Written by Mia. M. Smith 

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Mystery of the Sphinx, Musiqa's Latest One-Act Play


Anthony Brandt took some time out of his busy schedule to chat with Musiqa about his latest musical composition, which is featured in Sphinx, a play directed by Leslie Swackhamer.

Artistic Director and co-founder of Musiqa, Anthony Brandt composed the music for Sphinx, a one-act play by 2012 Blackburn prizewinner Jennifer Haley. The play is a first-time collaboration for Musiqa with Haley. 

Sphinx explores the relationship of a couple during different periods in their life. The play shows the couple's relationship evolving over time from their late teenage years to their mid 60's. The first scene displays the conflict and insecurities of the couple’s frayed bond. Joshua Estrada and Jen Lucy, who happen to be married, play the main characters.

Sphinx explores the eternal mystery between a man and a woman through the riddle of Oedipus: “What goes on four legs in the morning, on two legs at noon, and on three legs in the evening?” In Greek mythology, the Sphinx sat outside of Thebes and asked this riddle of all travelers who passed by. If the traveler failed to solve the riddle, the Sphinx would kill the traveler. If the traveler answered the riddle correctly, the Sphinx would destroy herself. Oedipus solved the riddle, and the Sphinx destroyed herself.

Sphinx was a really interesting thought experiment writing it, because theater music is often mood music,” said Brandt. Haley and Brandt wanted the music to be a character in the play. Brandt thought carefully about the story’s meaning and wanted the music to tell the story of the play as well. His concept was that overture is the sexual attraction between the main characters of the play, and it dissolves in the course of the piece, as they get older. 

“It keeps trying to put itself back together again, and it’s always there,” said Brandt. “The beginning of the music has an unusual 6-5-4 pattern. At the very end, when the characters wonder ‘are we meant to be together or not?’ the pattern reverses to 4-5-6.” This was Brandt’s way of “leaving it all hanging.” The music creates an emotional response. The couple wonders if they should stay together by denying who they are, or come together by becoming who they are meant to be. This is an active search throughout the play.

“The jazz music wants to flow, but the characters are in conflict. The music tries to sustain the tension until the end. It never cadences until the final question is answered,” Brandt said.

The world premiere of Sphinx debuts on April 6 at 7:30 p.m. at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts in Zilkha Hall.

The featured composers, artists and works include:
Rob Smith: Las Pilas
Karim Al-Zand, Quelques Fleurs
Roshanne Etezady, Mother-of-Pearl
JacobTV, Garden of Love

The featured artists include:
Tali Morgulis, piano
Johnny Salinas, saxophone
Barrett Sills, cello
Yung-Hsiang Wang, violin
Ivo van der Werff, viola
Michael Webster, clarinet.

Thank you, Anthony, for speaking with Musiqa about your latest work. 

Written by Mia M. Smith