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A Little Nile Music

Mozart with a twist from the Middle East? It's not nearly as farfetched as it may seem at first.

September 27, 1998|Mark Swed | Mark Swed is The Times' music critic

**** MOZART IN EGYPT Various soloists; Bulgarian Symphony Orchestra; Milen Natchev EMI

*** 1/2 MOZART: PIANO SONATAS AND VARIATIONS Fazil Say, piano Atlantic

*** 1/2 KAMRAN INCE: "THE FALL OF CONSTANTINOPLE" (SYMPHONY NO. 2), "REMEMBERING LYCIA," "ARCHES" Alan Feinberg, piano; Albany Symphony Orchestra; David Alan Miller, cond.; Present Music Argo


Rahsaan Roland Kirk, the wildly imaginative reed player, claimed he did something for the first time in the history of Western music when he performed "Sentimental Journey" on one saxophone and the melody from the slow movement of Dvorak's "New World" Symphony on another at the same time. You have to split the brain in two parts, he told the audience at the Village Vanguard in 1970 (a live performance recently reissued on 32 Jazz). "It's like making one part of your mind say, 'oob la di' and making the other part of your mind say, 'What does he mean?' "

Kirk may have been first, but he is hardly last. On one track of a new Mozart recording, "oob la di" is a Nubian singer performing an Arabic lullaby, while the other side of the brain is presented with a lullaby that Mozart remembered his nurse singing, here performed by a Western countertenor. What does it all mean? Plenty.

The two melodies, from disconnected cultures, sung with different kinds of vocal production, don't exactly join seamlessly. But the sensibilities are close, and the effect is startlingly beautiful. These two disembodied solo voices float in an ether, somewhere outside conventional geography or history. We can hear that they are saying the same thing in the same way with different accents, as if they embodied the very soul and essence of the human condition.

This extraordinary collaboration is part of a recent CD entitled "Mozart in Egypt," which discovers one revelatory way after another to relate Mozart with Arabic music. The concept by Hughes de Courson and Ahmed el Maghraby is not only not far-fetched but practically inevitable. Mozart loved Egypt, and the notes tell us that Egyptians love Mozart, whose music "goes from the lighthearted to the sacred in a way which is very reminiscent of the great Arab composers."

There are problems, of course, in trying to marry Mozart and Egypt. Western music takes pride in the vertical arts of harmony and counterpoint. Arabic music is linear, one event following another. The result then is what the producers describe as a "crazy diagonal."

And yet it works. There is a performance of the slow movement of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23, in which an oud (the ancestor of our lute) joins the piano in dialogue, mostly playing Mozart. Mozart sounds just fine on the oud, and its way of decorating a melodic line is not at all dissimilar to the Western approach. Best of all is hearing the piano and oud together, when one player takes the melodic line, the other harmony.

Perhaps this diagonal isn't so crazy after all but is actually the way of the Postmodern world. Indeed, in the early '70s, just around the time Kirk was experimenting with his own diagonals, Ihab Hassan, a literary theorist at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, found himself torn between his Egyptian heritage and attraction to clean, minimalist Modernism. This led him to search out a synthesis for the spirit of his time, a spirit he thought best represented by the global tastes of Robert Rauschenberg, Buckminster Fuller, John Cage and Marshall McLuhan. From this, Hassan developed some of the first theories of Postmodernism.

Such connections are not, of course, entirely new.

Mozart, as many Viennese did in his day, had a passion for Egypt. He titled an early opera (which survives only in sketch) "The Goose of Cairo." Midway through his career Mozart wrote incidental music to the drama "Thamos, King of Egypt." And at the end of his short life, he produced his Masonic opera, "The Magic Flute," which is full of Egyptian symbolism.

Today, 25 years after Hassan's first essays on Postmodernism, cultures have become interconnected like never before. But still, "Mozart in Egypt" can give a listener shivers as it demonstrates one way after another of combining 18th century music's Classicism with ancient Arabic traditions. Nothing quite prepares one for just how compelling the Symphony No. 25 can sound in 7/8 time or for how comfortably Arabic musicians on traditional instruments can jam with violin, viola, cello and clarinet in and around Mozart chamber music.

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