Not Two Amir ElSaffar
AMIR ELSAFFAR'S RIVERS OF SOUND ORCHESTRA
Not Two is from Iraqi-American trumpeter, santur player, vocalist, and composer Amir ElSaffar, who has mastered disparate musical styles and created a singular approach to combining aspects of Middle Eastern music with American jazz, extending the boundaries of each tradition. Described “as a rising star-[trumpeter] and rising star-arranger,” (Downbeat Magazine), ElSaffar’s project involving Rivers of Sound Orchestra presents 17 musicians from a broad spectrum of traditions; together, the group creates an entirely new musical language that transcends established notions of style and convention. In performing Not Two, a composition by ElSaffar, each musician in the Rivers of Sound orchestra interacts with the group to create a new approach to transcultural music through the combination of improvisation and composition, the merging of musical languages, maqam and polyphony, and the novelty of the sound.
Using resonance as its governing principle, Not Two incorporates elements of maqam modal music of the Middle East with jazz and other contemporary musical practices to create a unique microtonal musical environment that moves beyond the notions of style and tradition into a realm of uninhibited musical communication.
The highest ideal in maqam music is to reach a state of tarab, or “musical ecstasy,” which results from the melting away of borders between a notion of self and other, as performers and audience revel together in the music. As pitches and rhythms become fluid, so do cultural boundaries: elements that traditionally divide musicians and genre-specific modes are re-contextualized in a fresh transcultural soundscape. Appropriately, All About Jazz described the experience as one “that flows naturally, a musical picture after another, enveloping you like a warm south wind.”
This ideal is central to the music on Not Two.
The work sees microtonal maqam melodies traverse a richly-textured bed of sound created by oud, buzuk, and santur, in combination with cello, violin, saxophones, English horn and trumpet. Also at play are multi-layered, rhythmic patterns and harmonies performed by re-tuned vibraphone, piano and guitar. The drum set, mridangam, dumbek, frame drums and double-bass provide the rhythmic foundation and subdivisions of the multiple currents.
ElSaffar also wrote the music with each musician’s sensibilities in mind, and encouraged everyone in the orchestra to consider the written scores as points of reference, beginnings from which they may improvise, vary, re-write, create their own music. This way, the music could be alive, unique to each performance, yet of a certain essence. The players bring their individual experience and understanding into the orchestra, their collective uniqueness combining to form a cohesive whole, allowing Not Two to approach something universal. As pitches and rhythms become fluid, so do cultural boundaries: elements that traditionally divide musicians and genre-specific modes are re-contextualized in a fresh transcultural soundscape.
ElSaffar has previously forged his novel approach to combining musical languages through his six-piece ensemble Two Rivers. Over the past eight years, the group has released three CD's on Pi Recordings. Not Two is a continuation of the Two Rivers concept, but projected onto a wider canvas unprecedented in scope and imagination.
Amir ElSaffar explains:
“Rivers of Sound is not concerned with “bridging” divergent cultures. In each composition, one can hear elements of maqam, polyphony, polyrhythmic structures, melisma, and groove. But these do not exist as separate entities “belonging” to any people or place.
After spending much of my life playing and composing in diverse musical worlds, I question the idea of culture. My interest is in finding sonic realms that can embrace the phenomena found in the myriad musical languages, drawing upon sensibilities and materials of various idioms, but without the limitations of a particular genre. The idea is about fluidity: sounds flow into one another, overtones interact, as we come closer to a universal human sound.
Years ago, I had the good fortune to study with Kongo Langlois Roshi, a Zen Buddhist teacher in Chicago. One day, when I shared my inner state of confusion, he replied, “When the mind becomes muddled in dualistic thinking, think ‘not two,’ and all will become clear.”
ElSaffar believes that the nature of this sound cannot be captured digitally and committed to all analog recording, with Not Two being released as a double LP. The limited possibility of making edits when recording analog brought an intense focus to the players' performance in the studio, which is as close as possible to reproducing the feel of a live performance.
ElSaffar received funding from the MAP Fund and Arab Fund for Arts and Culture to create Rivers of Sound. In 2015, the 17 members came to New York City from as far away as Qatar, Palestine, and Brussels in April for three days of rehearsal, the premiere of Not Two at the Lincoln Center, and an epic 14-hour day at Avatar Studios, where they recorded the 80-minute suite directly to tape. The album was produced by ElSaffar, engineered by Sascha Van Oertzen, mixed by John Davis at Bunker Studios, and mastered by Scott Hull at Masterdisk. All compositions on Not Two were written by ElSaffar, whose work is published by BMI.