Observations: 5 July, 2012; Day Five; Duhok, Iraq
I’m in a mosaic of Turkish and Kurdish music, most of which I hear in the back of taxis. It would be terribly awful pop music to me if it didn’t sound so exotic. Iraqi music videos are hysterically bad and remind me of American shampoo commercials. The students are really unbelievably appreciative of every single thing I say or do — its weird! They thank me at the end of every sentence I speak, and even in between if I happen to pause momentarily. Their appetite for information is fierce, especially in composition; they’ve hardly heard anything at all from the last 50 years in music outside of their own country except for, oddly, Yanni and Kenny-G (the “Thomas Kincaids of music”). So it is, I suppose, kind of like people from behind the iron curtain after the end of the Cold War just nutty about absorbing anything new. They line up at the door for “lessons” of any kind and politely ask just to sit in the room while I work with other students.
Yesterday in class I played a recording of one of my own compositions: a piece written for, and performed by, Leo Saguiguit on soprano saxophone. A student later asked me for a saxophone lesson. I said I didn’t play saxophone. He didn’t mind, he still wanted a saxophone lesson. Small crowds gather around me when I’m in trivial conversations with other students in the hallway (and it is worth noting that few even understand English).
I’ve reported examples of the foregoing in previous entries and yet these things are so primary and consistent to my daily experiences here that I am compelled to write them again. It is a morale boost, but I’m too jaded from the general world of apathy to believe this kind of enthusiasm could ever be found anywhere else. Unfortunately, the food really sucks, really. I don’t know how they could be this inept with cuisine. Of the last fourteen meals I have had, thirteen have been chicken, rice, flatbread, and tomato soup. I miss the french fries at the Heidelberg in Columbia now. Ketchup sounds tasty.
They are the most cordial people you can imagine and quite the model for how we all should treat each other. Strange, I think few people would have expected Kurds and other Iraqis to be anything like this. They drive like mad and, as my well-travelled roommate Paul Rockower has speculated, do so because their nascent automobile culture developed in the span of only a handful of years from a bicycle culture where one just rides, straight and boldly, toward one’s goal, swerving only at the last instant if necessary to avoid any obstacles. It honestly looks like bumper cars out in the streets only they are very considerate to never come any closer than an inch or two from any other car at high or low speeds. I have seen not a trace of animosity from any of these people toward anyone at all, even their fellow drivers.
It is fun, it is funny, it is a pleasure to be in northern Iraq and I wish you were here. I am being only mildly facetious in saying that you should plan your next vacation in beautiful Duhok! Everyone you meet will invite you to their home where, I understand, if you compliment anything in their house, they will insist that you take it home with you packed neatly in a box. The students have taken me out a couple of times in the evenings and refuse to allow me to pay for anything.
Quite by accident I’ve found myself in an idyllic academic environment and I hope these students might find themselves someday in American Universities so that they can demonstrate the true elegance of engagement with learning as it can be. Here, they haven’t the slightest idea what reasonable facilities, or even daily meals, are. And yet it is working, really, just fine, so long as there are teachers.
Fruit of Effort: 7 July, 2012; Day Six; Duhok, Iraq
I have two especially hard-working students in my composition class; Mohammed Zeki and Jumaah Fawzi Hashem. We have a 30-minute one-on-one meeting almost every other day and the focus of these two students on what I tell them is laser- sharp. It would seem to a passive observer that I was relating the most esoteric of compositional secrets to them during our sessions, and they take vigilant notes.
By the next morning each recommendation I made the previous day has been integrated into their compositions and the fruit of this work was displayed today in the top string orchestra rehearsal as director Marc Thayer generously allowed me to have one hour of the orchestra’s rehearsal time to read these brand new works.
An original work by Mohammed Zeki cleverly incorporates some of the traditional conventions of Kurdish music into a compelling dance in 6/8 that transforms into what one might call a funky rhythmic bacchanal for the closing section. We worked closely on detail and the result was a pleasure for all to hear and, often most important to the message of music, an engaging experience for the players. The orchestra displayed a genuine sympathy to realizing the piece of music they read and heard for the very first time.
Idiomatic writing for musical instruments is the rhetorical key to revealing content, and a high mark was hit with Mohammed’s composition. Not less important to the success of encouraging a composer is the reaction of not only the players, but the audience, which today was the members of the Academy’s second string orchestra and American Voices string faculty. Mohammed was thrilled to hear his work and I suspect that he may have not heard much of his music played before this afternoon. A success has been achieved and I predict this has secured the certain continuation of Mohammed’s efforts to attain ever-higher quality in future compositions.
Jumaah Hashem’s work, “For Someone” (an English title although he speaks hardly a word of English), displayed a deep expressivity in its rich but generally soft and sensitive counterpoint. A vague feeling of Barber’s Adagio lurks within the ever-unfolding stepwise lines that move in a quasi-archaic modal fabric.
It required continual admonishment on my part as conductor to prevent the orchestra from succumbing to the temptation of the implied crescendo of the work as a whole. But its power resides in resisting this temptation and we managed to achieve this by the final full take. One is moved inside as if something needed to surge and release, but could not find its outlet. Jumaah’s music displays a deep expressivity that often touches, momentarily, the profound. What is yet more impressive is that his dedication is such that he writes each revision of the score, and finally each part, by his own hand—a lost art in the age of computer notation.
These two composers are only the first of a total of ten composers I am teaching here. They have arrived, in only one week, at the finish line with completed scores, parts, and a realization of their efforts with a string orchestra. There remain eight more composers who have been moved by hearing today the actual results that are possible. I believe we will produce ten new works by ten young composers in this American Voices program in Duhok Iraq—we have, after all, yet another week to go.