Mohammed Fairouz’s Chamber Works Defy Categorization
Critical Models: Chamber Works of Mohammed Fairouz, the composer’s debut collection, came out on Sono Luminus last year. WQXR did a little piece on it: they didn’t really get it. The album title is something of a misnomer: while there is considerable rigor in Fairouz’s work, he also happens to be one of the great wits in contemporary composition. But his wit is biting and edgy, sometimes caustic, qualities that elevate even the most obvious pieces here (and there are a couple) above the frivolity that defines so much of what’s considered “indie classical.” The rest of the album, a remarkably diverse collection of works for wind quartet and bass, violin-and-sax duo, solo piano, guitar and string quartet, imaginatively and utterly unpredictably blends postminimalism, neoromanticism, bracing atonalities and occasional satire. In places, it’s harrowing; elsewhere, it can be hilarious.
The opening composition, Litany, performed by bassist James Orleans and a wind quartet of Claire Cutting on oboe, Jonathan Engle on flute, Vasko Dukovski on clarinet and Thomas Fleming on bassoon could easily be titled “Pensively Apprehensively.” A sense of longing pervades as the ensemble strolls plaintively with chilly, fanfare-ish counterpoint and a rondo of sorts; it ends unresolved. The title’s Critical Models are violin/sax duos, two questions,each followed by a response. The first, Catchword: A Modernist’s ‘Dilemma,’ employs a bustling, anxious semi-conversation between Michael Couper’s alto sax and Rayoung Ahn’s violin to illustrate a Milton Babbitt quote about the struggle for serious music’s survival. If this is to be taken at face value, it will. Its rejoinder employs tersely quavery microtonal intricacies and a stillness-vs-animation tension, inspired by something Theodore Adorno once opined. A satirical faux-bellydance theme with actually quite lovely violin, Catchword: An Oriental Model illustrates a hideous anti-Arab screed by British Victorian playboy imperialist Evelyn, Lord Cromer; its vividly optimistic response, inspired by Edward Said, has Couper playing the voice of reason via mystical, airy microtones, and when Ahn gets the picture, she grabs it with both hands.
Pianist Katie Reimer plays six delicious miniatures with a potently precise understatement: she clearly also gets this material. The first is an uneasy, distantly Ravel-esque etude of sorts; the second, a creepy phantasmagorical march; a bustling, ragtimish variation on that theme; an exercise in creepy faux operatics; an obvious but irresistible exercise in descending progressions; and a minimalist, spacious nocturne.
The Lydian String Quartet play a diptych, Lamentation and Satire. The first part builds from mingling, dissociative funereal voices to a rather macabre crescendo, followed by austere, brooding solo viola and foreboding cello passages. The second seems to be a cruel parody of funereal music, with sarcastic rustles, a snide martial passage and a predictable if still quite moving solo cello passage to end it. Reimer and Couper than team up for Three Novelettes: the first, Cadenzas, cleverly interpolates satirical motifs within a moody architecture; the second, Serenade, has to be the saddest serenade ever written and is the most haunting work on the album; and a simply hilarious Dance Montage that has to be heard to be appreciated.
The album concludes with four works for solo classical guitar, played with deadpan clarity by Maarten Stragier. Baroque rhythms and tropes get twisted up in modern tonalities, tongue-in-cheek staccato stomps alternate with skeletal Italianate melody; the suite ends with a slowly spacious work that Fairouz calls a toccata, with seemingly snide, offhand references to both Bach and Elizabethan guitar music. Eclectic to the extreme and very successfully so, it’s an accurate portrait of where Fairouz is right now. Unsurprisingly, his latest project has him branching out into opera: last week, his first, Sumeida’s Song, based on a classic Tawfiq El Hakim play, debuted at Carnegie Hall. It’s something of an understatement to say that he’s a composer to keep your eye on.
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