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The Um Kulthum/Shostakovich experience

MusicPosted by Makram Aboul Hosn Sun, March 10, 2019 11:35:30

Two years ago, I realized I was going to perform Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony. My love for Shostakovich’s work made me find the score and immediately begin listening to the symphony in order to understand it well before we began rehearsals. I made it a point to listen to a recording of the symphony from beginning to end. The first movement alone is over 20 minutes long, it gradually and slowly moves from deep meditative states to violent eruptive climaxes. I won’t talk about the other movements here, because the 1st is already plenty to digest. Yes, that’s the word: digest.

After my first listening, I met with a colleague and I remember I told him that the 1st movement is so complicated and linear. I think what I meant by ‘linear’ is that I couldn’t hear any related themes or repetitions of previous materials. Just a continuous stream of ideas. But, that was the first listening. After many other sessions, I began to notice things, and what at first seemed like a stream of unconnected events slowly began to make sense in my mind and I could find themes that were coming back in different ways, until finally I noticed that the whole thing is actually a lot simpler than I could have ever imagined! It’s all constructed on two themes… But, it was simply too much to handle on first listening.

Last week, I played an Um Kulthum song with a great singer: Abdel-Karim Al Sha’ar. We played the song “Fatt al Mi’ad”, which is one of Um Kulthum’s most known songs and one that is full of musical tricks that make it difficult but very enjoyable to play. A few weeks before our first rehearsal, I made it a point to listen to the whole song (about an hour long) without interruption as I did with Shostakovich. Same thing happened. I didn’t understand much and I was overwhelmed and worried about how I was going to memorize a whole hour’s worth of music. The more I listened, however, the simpler it got. I started to notice the almost exact repetitions of sections and I began to memorize the words and melodies. Then that one-hour monumental recording became less and less intimidating and I was able to perceive a sequence. Finally, one of the musicians had notated the parts and the whole thing was only about six pages long! When I finally listened to the recording with the notes in my hand, the song had reached its simplest form in my head, because I could see it!

I consider my performance of these two unrelated concerts to be some of my most profound and enjoyed music experiences. During Shostakovich, I remember going through different emotional states depending on which section we had reached, I remember the Adrenaline peaks during the climaxes, the aggression during the war themes, the sentiments and the tragedies in the quiet slow sections. It was a state of ecstasy and self-abandonment. And, then the Um Kulthum concert: Same thing! Most of the time I felt that tickling sensation in my chest, it’s similar to when you see someone you like. A kind of emotional agitation combined with your attempt to keep it under control. Then during the second half of the concert, after the musicians had reached the “Saltana” phase, which the musical intoxication reached by improvising over the known material and modifying them on the spot, I felt my hear open up and it was pure joy!

So, what can I take away from these two experiences? Well, as I was having lunch with my father I told him: “You know, it’s strange. When you were a young man, Um Kulthum was popular and almost all the Arab world knew and appreciated her songs. And these were difficult songs to understand! You had musical introductions that would last up to 10 minutes, then she would come in, then a repetition followed by a new section and another repetition, and so on. Nowadays, most music does all this in about 3 minutes, which is the average length of hits. 3 minutes versus an hour.”

And there is also the quality of time which we must pay attention to. The three minute pop song feels shorter than three minutes because God forbid we take our time in developing and ask the listener to participate in the music process. No, instead we condense everything together and simplify everything to a point where you can memorize the whole song (sometimes unwillingly) in one listening. However, Shostakovich/Um Kulthum’s 20 minutes can feel a lot longer or slower, depending on the listener’s perception of it! What I mean to say is that upon first listening, Shostakovich’s 1st movement and Um Kulthum’s first part seemed a lot longer that what they really were, because you don't know what's coming next and you don't fully absorb everything that is happening each moment. The mind is usually very sharp in moments like these, very alert and active, which can feel uncomfortable. Easy to understand why people avoid "serious" music today. But, you don't grow without discomfort.

I think it’s very important to push ourselves to go back to these long processes of experiencing art, because we are becoming a generation which needs everything to happen right away, who doesn’t want or have the time/energy to invest attention and effort in a work of art (or anything else really) because there’s an abundance of easily attainable alternatives out there. This makes us unappreciative, unappreciated, and a lot of our experiences will be very superficial and meaningless. I remember those Tarkovski films where he might stay on one frame for 2 or 3 minutes with very little movement happening… my first exposure to this created a sense of boredom and agitation because I was used to all those quick cuts, explosions, constant movement, and expected outcomes in Hollywood films. Yes, we are attracted to what we can expect, and repelled by what we do not comprehend immediately. But, if you ask me, I think growth (if that is your aim) is only possible with approaching that which repels us, understanding it, and appreciating it. The last one comes automatically, the first two require effort!

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