Selected program notes and processes
for chamber orchestra
Manchester Camerata approached Bushra El-Turk to write a new work as part of the Manchester Mahler cycle, but also to contribute to their 2009-10 season-theme of “Exchanges". In both the orchestra’s on-stage and off-stage work, they are exploring relationships between the music and ideas of different cultures. Bushra El-Turk’s British/Lebanese background seemed ideal for this purpose. The orchestra were impressed by the diverse influences on her musical imagination, as well as her ability to make connections with the wider Arts. Tonight we will hear Mosaic; a short piece in one movement, written for the same orchestral forces as Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. It begins as an almost inaudible scurry of high note-clusters in the strings which form into a frenzied sound-scape. From this emerge fragmented blurs of quasi-Byzantine Orthodox chant. The chant-fragments are passed around the orchestra with increasing intensity, until they are suddenly silenced by low note-clusters in the strings. Harmonies then develop as the chant is shadowed, including harmonies from Mahler's Song of the Earth. The music gradually rises in tension, until a muted string-octet plays as one expressive voice. But this lucid moment is quickly obscured by crunching, fatalistic dissonances.
Bushra El-Turk writes: We are a mosaic of identities, in life and in death. Creed, class, race and politics are part of identity. Taking inspiration from The Song of the Earth, Mosaic expresses the same sense of 'otherness' and 'rootless-ness' which Mahler found in ancient Chinese poetry. My piece explores fragmented identities through bursts of quasi-Byzantine chant which gradually become more prominent. In Mosaic I reflect on how borders can be blurred, yet still differences can be immense. To quote Milan Kundera: “It takes so infinitely little for someone to find himself on the other side of the border, where everything - love, convictions, faith, history - no longer has meaning. The whole mystery of human life resides in the fact that it is spent in immediate proximity with that border, and even in direct contact with that border, that it is separated from it, not only by kilometres but by barely a millimetre."
for flute and piano
This marionette bites the strings to free himself from the constraints and doctrines of society, religious authority and all those who impose their beliefs on him for control. This piece depicts this struggle against these doctrines by the three 'Nos' one says in Lebanese, 'hu'u', 'tut' and 'la'' which is incorporated in the different contexts of the piece.
TA'ATTALAT LOUGHATUL KALAMI (2006)
(speech broke down)
for cello and piano
Duration: 5 minutes
This piece was commissioned by the singing 'cellist Cordelia Weil. It is based on Ahmad Shawki's poem to Zahleh (my home town in Lebanon) and coincidently premiered on the first day of the Summer 2006 conflict in Lebanon.
EATING CLOUDS (2006)
for String Quartet
Duration: 10 minutes
Eating Clouds is a baby's view from a moving carry-cot. How it might familiarize the clouds and abstract shapes and prints of everyday objects into one of the most basic and essential human needs and desires. It is comprised of three movements.
First movement is based on the note sequence B flat-E flat-B-A (of which the equivalent German designations constitute the initials of my first name)
Second movement contains two strata: long lines that gradually metamorphose into various chords in the lower stratum and natural harmonics in the stratosphere. It is tutti glissandi which means all strings glide gradually just before their next note.
Third movement is highly chromatic and scuttery. It is based on a min. 2nd above and below a fundamental note.
for flute, violin and piano
Duration: 4 minutes
When Tala/Arab Media Watch invited me to compose a piece of music based on how I perceived the ethereal, I questioned the concept of how a person reaches to attain or experience joy, that ideal state or emotion beyond one's self, our common goal,
and then I asked myself, would that same hand find the facility, at the same level, to reach a total opposite emotion? What about the spectrum of emotions that goes from joy to sadness - the various sensations: from goose-bumps to exalting rapture that 'makes the body jump to the sky'...These polarised sensations are what I express in this piece. Is it stormy or is it just excited, stable/unstable, is it a frown or an upside down smile? It doesn't matter, as it is about reaching beyond the self...
so I leave you with Gibran's summary on joy and sorrow, that joy and sorrow stem from the same place.
LE FANTOME DE REBECCA GRIFFITHS (2006)
for Wind, Brass and Percussion
Fascinated by the insane and the paranormal, I wanted to capture the spirit of the City by encapsulating one of the demented spirits - Rebecca Griffiths.
"Liverpool Street Station was once the site of the first hospital of the star of Bethlehem, an asylum for the insane. The area was haunted by the screams of Rebecca Griffiths, around the time of 1780 and 1812, who was buried without the coin she compulsively held onto when locked away there. She also has the habit of exciting other inmates by peering through their cell windows". - report from the British Paranormal Database.
It is part of the 'Hidden Cities' project, commissioned by the City of London Festival where seven composers were asked to write a piece based on a building that once had been and all of them were linked by Mai Fukasawa.
THE NUT CASE OF SONGS
Les Chevaux de Bois (2006)
Tournez, tournez, bon chevaux de bois,
Turn, turn, good horses of wood,
Tournez cent tours, tounez mille tours.
turn a hundred turns, turn a thousand turns,
Tournez souvent et tournez toujours,
turn often and turn always,
Tournez, tournez au son des hautbois.
turn, turn to the sound of the oboes.
Tournez, tournez, chevaux de leur coeur,
Turn, turn, horses of their hearts,
Tandis qu'autour de tous vos tournois
while all around your turning
Clignote l'oeil du filou sournois.
squints the sly pickpocket's eye--
Tournez au son du piston vainqueur!
turn to the sound of the victorious cornet.
C'est étonnant comme ça vous soûle,
It is astonishing how it intoxicates you
D'aller ainsi dans ce cirque bête,
to go around this way in a stupid circle,
Rien dans le ventre et mal dans la tête,
nothing in your tummy and an ache in your head,
Du mal en masse et du bien en foule;
very sick and having lots of fun.
Tournez, tournez! Le ciel en velours
Turn, turn! The velvet sky
D'astres en or se vêt lentement,
is slowly clothed with golden stars.
L'Eglise tinte un glas tristement.
The church bell tolls sadly.
Tournez au son joyeux des tambours, tournez.
Turn, to the happy sound of drums. Turn.
Based on a poem by Paul Verlaine. The hobby-horse is the wooden horse of the merry-go-round. Those "chevaux de bois" to which Verlaine dedicates one of his most sinister poems, makes the roundabout a symbol of the obsessiveness with which men nail themselves to the cross of their own destinies, inspiring me to write a song that could have been a lullaby, hence predominantly in 6/8 which is marred by a representation of something hypnotic and demonic, especially picking up onto the waltz, a dance that traditionally goes round and round, which you often hear on carousels. .
LA SOURIS COUINE (2006)
(lack of words by composer)
This piece was inspired by a newspaper article I read on October 31st, 2005 about scientists' findings that the utterances of the male mice are actually songs. Here is an excerpt from the article:
"In the literature, there's a hierarchy of different definitions for what qualifies as a song, but there are usually two main properties," says lead author Timothy E. Holy, Ph.D., assistant professor of neurobiology and anatomy. "One is that there should be some syllabic diversity—recognizably distinct categories of sound, instead of just one sound repeated over and over. And there should be some temporal regularity—motifs and themes that recur from time to time, like the melodic hook in a catchy tune." The new study shows that mouse song has both qualities, although Holy notes that the ability of lab mice to craft motifs and themes isn't quite on a par with that of master songsmiths like birds.
So, I based this piece is based on just the three words, 'La Souris Couine' and play on these words over a repeating Hungarian-like folk tune in the piano.
TIK TAK (2006)
(words by Gregoire Haddad)
Tik tak tik tak
Tik tak takki
Tik tak tik tak
Tik tak takki
Ou sitteen sitteen
Arb3a ou 3eshreen
Tik tak tik tak tik tak tik tak
Extra requirement: Metronome (preferably an old mechanical one) to represent the clock.
This piece is highly rhythmic with minimal motivic elements. The words are based on a children's poem by a Lebanese bishop called Gregoire Heddad.
YOU'D BETTER LEARN YOUR ALPHABET, DEAR (2006)
(from The Nut Case of Songs)
(words by composer)
You'd better learn your alphabet, dear
And your numbers too
Or something strange will happen, dear
As strange as it is true
You'll grow a tail and long, long ears
And the ocean will run dry
A bit of fur and two large teeth,
A rhino from the sky.
You'd better learn your alphabet, dear
Or things will get all wonky
Also forgot to mention that you'll turn into a donkey.
Duration: 1 minute
Soprano and Piano
This is a children's song. Irony is that all these absurd things will happen to this child while the mother's sings on monotones a major 2nd above the tonal centre until a descending demonic augmented fourth. This shows a sense of nonchalance in the mother's attitude towards her child but also quite an evil tone. The dance (Bolero, I think) is also used to soften the blow of the scary words she sings to the child.
Mannequin Losses (2013)
Originally written for a workshop with the Belgian Hermes Ensemble, Mannequin Losses was inspired by a Fernando Pessoa poem entitled, ‘I heard it told that once in Persia’. The text conjures a picture of ongoing brutal war and plotting by indifferent dictators, seen much like a game of chess. If my work does not directly represent the poem, its mixture of aggressive gestures economically arranged derives in some sense from it. Having written very complex pieces prior to this, in process and product, I wanted this piece to be stripped down. It is a short, obsessed study exploring how far I can go in a composition’s development with only 5 notes and, predominately in the same order.
Taqsim aala Taqsim (2013)
Originally commissioned by the cellist Maria Zachariadou, this piece is based on a taqsim by the violinist Abu Ahmed Ali. A taqsim is a solo instrumental improvisation within the Arabic maqam system. The aim of the piece is to use the transcription as a musical prop that contributes towards an original work, maintaining the essence of a taqsim while deconstructing it with the inclusion of Western elements.