Musical Notes Inspired by the East

Composer Gity Razaz (Photo by Rahima Nasa for Voices of NY)

Composer Gity Razaz (Photo by Rahima Nasa for Voices of NY)

“It’s really not a common thing for a first-generation immigrant to venture out into the arts,” said Iranian-American Gity Razaz, whose composition “The Metamorphosis of Narcissus” will be performed at a concert sponsored by the American Composers Orchestra tomorrow night, April 1, at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall.

The concert, inspired by Middle Eastern and Indian influences, features composers ranging in age from 23 to 45, all of them either first-generation or second-generation American.

The ACO distinguishes itself from other orchestras through its commitment to the creation and performance of music by American composers. Tomorrow’s concert is part of the ACO’s “Orchestra Underground” series – so named because of its “subversive” nature and its presentation at the subterranean Zankel Hall – which celebrates diverse influences, from instrument choice to interdisciplinary collaborations, on contemporary composers. Some of the works to be performed were commissioned by the ACO.

Razaz immigrated to the U.S. with her family as a teenager more than a decade ago, but her interest in music started when she was growing up in Iran. She recalls being mesmerized when she was 7 years old after hearing someone play the piano. Since then, Razaz has been performing and creating her own music.

Voices of NY spoke with Razaz and other composers about their work some days before the concert.

Her piece for the ACO showcase was inspired by the painting of the same name by Salvador Dalí. In the piece, Razaz riffs on surrealist techniques of using the outline of one image to create something entirely different and reflects on each stage of Narcissus’s metamorphosis. She explains that her piece doesn’t expressly showcase the traditional melodies found in Persian music but touches on her heritage through its dramatic and emotional qualities for which Persian music is known.

“The influence of my culture and traditional Persian music is more subconscious than literal in my compositions,” Razaz explained. Much like how Persian music is almost always used to accompany poetry and writing, Razaz imagines her music accompanying the story of Narcissus.

For Saad Haddad, the influence of his music appears more apparent. In “Manarah” (“beacon” in Arabic), which will be premiering at Carnegie Hall tomorrow, Haddad is not shy about embracing the musical traditions of Arab musicians. His music combines his American and Arab heritages with acoustic and electroacoustic mediums.

Haddad, who is the youngest composer in the showcase, vividly traced the spark that led to his interest in music which came after doing a class assignment about Mozart when he was 7. He started to learn how to play instruments like the piano and clarinet, but he knew early on that he wanted to compose his own pieces.

“Mozart wrote his first piece when he was 5 and I remembering thinking ‘well I’m already two years behind,’” said Haddad with a chuckle.

Composer Saad Haddad (Photo by Rahima Nasa for Voices of NY)

Composer Saad Haddad (Photo by Rahima Nasa for Voices of NY)

Haddad recalls that it was initially difficult for him to explain his interest in music to his family. But after he started listening to traditional Middle Eastern music from the 1920s to 1960s, including the work of famed Egyptian singer Oum Kalthoum, he found a way for music to connect him with his family, whose roots can be traced back to Beirut and Amman.

His piece for the ACO concert is centered around two trumpets in the orchestra that call back and forth to each other. Haddad then processes the trumpets’ music live through the computer to evoke the sounds of Middle Eastern scales.

Similarly to Haddad, Indian-American Reena Esmail melds the musical traditions of her roots with digital innovations of the West in her piece titled “Avartan,” which will also be premiering. She works with Hindustani musical idioms and its distinct rhythmic cycles called avartans. Additionally, her piece is accompanied by a film by Neeraj Jain about the cultural contexts of perception. Much like Razaz’s piece, it also holds deeper connotations.

“It is about first impressions. Who is the person in each successive portrait? What might their story be? And how much of that first impression is actually true?” Esmail said.

Mehmet Ali Sanlikol, a Grammy-nominated composer, also explores the use of rhythmic cycles in his own Turkish heritage. He draws his inspiration for “Harabat – The Intoxicated,” another world premiere, from Ottoman musical traditions. The multilingual piece will also feature a poem by the late Sufi dervish, Edib Harabi. The continually repeated musical rhythms are meant to reflect the way Sufi dervishes repeat rhythmic phrases during their worship.

Baritone Steven LaBrie will performing Matthias Pintscher’s songs from Solomon’s Garden. Pintscher is a conductor who hails from North Rhine-Westpahlia, Germany, whose composition is notable for the way the Hebrew language shapes the rhythmic and gestural patterns.

Tickets for the ACO’s “Orchestra Underground: Eastern Wind” can be purchased at or at the Carnegie Hall Box Office on 154 West 57th St.

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