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Classical IPR in conversation with Riad Abdel-Gawad

Riad Abdel-Gawad is a composer and violinist. He also attended Interlochen Arts Camp in the early 1980s and was a member of the World Youth Symphony Orchestra.

His new album "Words of Peace" features his original compositions that are in the traditional Arabic musical style.

Abdel-Gawad spoke with Classical IPR about the new album and shared several excerpts from it. He even brought his violin to demonstrate some of the musical concepts heard in the album.

Listen to the entire conversation with music below. 

Duncan Lively at KCLU provided engineering support.

A transcript of the interview appears below. The interview has been edited for content and clarity

On his musical training

I grew up in the United States - I was born in Cairo but we left when I was an infant. My academic training was at Harvard, and I spent a year studying with Frederic Rzewski, a great American pianist and composer based in Brussels. Throughout that time, I also made trips to Cairo, [where] I sought out [a teacher of] authentic Egyptian traditional music. His name is Abdo Dagher, and he is a composer of a new style of music that's based on the Sufi chant and the Sufi style of performance. I took an apartment near him so that I could be close to his school. A lot of musicians in the Middle East or what we call West Asian or North African musical culture assert themselves to be autodidactic or self-taught, which Abdo Dagher was. He created a unique following, and many great professional Egyptian musicians who studied with him performed with him.

On his time as a camper at Interlochen

I was a camper for one summer at Interlochen, and I was in the [World Youth Symphony Orchestra]. It was a great experience to be able to meet with and interact socially with musicians from all over the country and all over the world. Plus, just having a great experiences of multiple concerts [on a single day]. Being able to listen to all that great music really impacted me as a person. It was great being able to get out outdoors.

I remember the finale concert [Les Preludes] and playing Respighi, and playing with [so] many musicians coming together. It’s just an electrifying experience. I guess “ecstatic” is the word I would use for that.

Credit Carelle Homsy

On the message of the album “Words of Peace”

It's really a social critique of humanity. I'm trying to push back against racism and push back against injustices in the world.

One track on the album is “All People – Regarding their Origin – Originate in Equality.” The text was by Ali Ibn Abi Talib, who was one of the companions of Prophet Muhammad (alayhi s-salām). During the opening of the Islamic era, Islam made great efforts to reduce the amount of slavery in the world.  Pushing back against racism is not a new idea.

The message in the first track (“The World is a Beautiful Place”) this is the world is a beautiful place, except there's a lot of corruption going on. And we're destroying our planet, so this is pushback against the climate crisis.

On the featured instruments heard on the album

You'll hear the qanun, which is sort of like a flattened out piano, but you're plucking strings that are kind of like open, like on a table. There is the nay, which is a bamboo flute that is seven-thousand-year-old instrument - you'll see on the pharaonic walls. There's also the oud, which is the lute - notice how the two words are very, very close together [in pronunciation]. The oud is plucked and almost like played like a guitar.

On the harmonies heard in Arabic music

The very signature tone in Arabic music in Western terminology is called the quarter tone, and in Arabic terminology we call it sīkāh.  This sīkāh is a principle tone. It's as important as all the other tones. . . If you're not used to it, it would be quote-unquote considered “out of tune.” It's just the way of looking at it, too. Because why can't we include other tones in our repertoire? Let's be inclusive of other tonalities.

On the Taqāsīm 

The musical form in “Prayer for Peace” is a taqsīm, but it's expanding the original form of the taqāsīm. “Taqāsīm” in Arabic means to literally to divvy up the music. It's an [improvisation], or, like in classical music, a cadenza. It’s a place where musicians can show off their virtuosity but also show their deepness. They kind of bare their soul and show their spirit. You'll hear a section, and it will maybe abruptly stop, and then another musical phrase will come quickly after that.

The taqāsīm comes from sacred Sufi chant. The chant has been embedded into this taqsīm.

On using musical drones

In a taqāsīm, you'll have a background accompaniment which gives you what we call a drone in Western music terminology, and qarar in Arabic. This fundamental tone, this qarar, is being played in the background, and that's sort of the tonality that you're in. It’s very important that the musicians who are accompanying you play that tone in a very delicate way and a very beautiful way, because it gives you the musical landscape.

On “Adam and Eve: The Global Starters”  

We opened the story [on the album] with “Adam and Eve: The Global Starters.” It says, “In the beginning, it was that we became to life as two persons, Adam and Eve, Adam and Eve, who were the global starters for starting billions of persons.” These two persons came from a primordial clay. The parable is that we're only here for a short amount of time, so we should do good while on Earth.

On the songstress Amal Ibrahim

I like to give the singer credit for her participation in the creation of this album. Particularly in Arabic music and jazz and a lot of traditions, the interpretation of the musician is really important. [Amal Ibrahim] is a professor of voice. She improvises, and she plays around with the melody and just has a great time with the written score. She is such a high-level singer and musician, so that's why I say “songstress,” because she really helped create the melody, too.

On vocal ornamentation in Arabic music

In Arabic music, there's a lot of room for error in terms of interpretation, especially with the ornaments. For example, in classical music, you have baroque authentic players who have a whole book of ornaments that you're supposed to play in certain situations. Well, that's very similar to Arabic music, where there are certain ornaments that really should be played and performed.

Credit Bahia Shehab

On the album artwork

One artist is the Egyptian artist Carelle Homsy. The cover is a woman picking cotton and another woman in the background. It’s very colorful and very beautiful, showing the Egyptian countryside.

In the inner sleeve is another really great artist. Her name is Bahia Shehab, and her artwork is called “A Thousand Times No.” It’s graffiti art. It has a representation of the famous blue bra of a woman who is violently [assaulted] during the protests of the Egyptian revolution of 2011 that went viral.

On educating Americans about Islamic culture

I grew up in the United States, but in American culture, we're not really familiar with Islamic culture. There are these great foundations like the Doris Duke Foundation, and they're trying to do projects that educate the American public about Islamic culture. I also have a nonprofit called Midan Elmusica, and its [goals are] bringing people together and also edifying and educating people about Islamic culture. I think the more we understand Islamic culture, the better we can live in the world in peace with everybody. 

Dr. Amanda Sewell is IPR's music director.