Each of the three movements of my Violin Concerto takes its inspiration from an aspect of life in Al-Andalus, the legendary medieval Arab emirate. The legacy of Al-Andalus is cherished in the modern Arab World as a period of intellectual and creative flowering. The three movements recount the events chronologically and the result of engaging the richness of this period is one of my most consistently optimistic works.
During the 2003 invasion of Iraq, there were reports of American troops fighting at the Ibn Firnas Airport north of Baghdad but few Americans knew who Ibn Firnas was or why there was an airport named for him. Among Arabs, the story of Ibn Firnas is a famous one taught in schools and recounted from generation to generation. Abbas Ibn-Firnas was a poet, philosopher and inventor who, in the mid-800s, became the first human being to scientifically attempt flight. The first movement of my concerto, Ibn-Firnas’ Flight, celebrates this momentous event.
Mu’min Ibn Said, the court poet of Cordoba, usually critical of Ibn-Firnas, described how he “flew faster than the pheonix in his flight when he dressed his body in the feathers of a vulture”. Every aspect of this movement speaks of flight in some way: the music is fast and relentless with the violin soaring above fluttering figures in the orchestra. The movement is engineered at roughly 11 minutes, the reported duration of Ibn-Firnas’ flight. The tone is kinetic and filled with adrenalin: the rushes of excitement that one can only imagine from being airborne for the first time. The triumphant melodies of the movement are a testament to my awe of Ibn-Firnas’ nerve and audacity and my admiration for his fulfillment of our human desire to take wing and fly roughly a thousand years before the Wright Brothers.
The second movement, The Ring of Doves, provides a tender contrast to the first. Ibn-Hazm is known in the Arab World as a leading philosopher of jurisprudence and most of his 400 or so texts are documents of legal philosophy. But of the 40 works that survive, one stands out: a treatise on love beautifully titled The Ring of Doves. Written in 1082, it is Ibn-Hazm’s only work of literature and it’s sensual writing inspired the amorous tone of this second movement. The sweet maquam-inspired melodies are mirrored by an intimate orchestration. Descriptions of the intertwining of bodies are translated into serpentine instrumental duets.
Dancing Boy, the final movement, takes Ibn-Kharuf’s homoerotic poem from the year 1205 that describes a virtuosic young dancer as its point of departure. This has been a favorite poem of mine for many years and is a standard classic taught to Arab schoolchildren so it was a real joy to bring Ibn-Kharuf’s lithe, suggestive, boy to life with an wink.
After a brief invitation to the dance, the music turns to a full-fledged Dabkeh: the most famous of Arabic dance forms with its simple weaving melodies and driving moderate rhythm omnipresent in the Arab World from the Atlantic ocean in the west to the Indian Ocean in the east. The music engages the energy and sexuality of the poem: at times orgasmic and at times lighthearted. Each musical section “sets” a stanza of the poem with the violin playing the unsung lyrics in celebration of Ibn-Kharuf’s eternal Dancing Boy:
As his movements twist and wind
He plays havoc with my mind,
Lightly tossing off his dress
To be robed in loveliness.
Now he writhes with supple ease
Like a bough before the breeze,
Gambols now as a gazelle
In its covert on the fell.
Now retreat, and now advance:
How the reason he enchants,
And upon the feelings plays
As does Fortune with our days.
Now he lithely screws his feet
Till upon his head they meet,
As the tempered sword will bend
Till its handle grasps its end.