Mohammed Fairouz

(b. 1 November 1985)

The Arab-American composer Mohammed Fairouz is one of the most successful and well-known artistic voices of the new millennium. A firm disbeliever in music just for the sake of music, his compositions often take on deeply political or philosophical themes.

Born and raised in New York City, Fairouz’s parents are both doctors of Palestinian descent who encouraged his musical talents from an early age. By the age of seven he had already begun composing, setting Oscar Wilde’s poem “The True Knowledge” to music. This early effort reveals the beginning of a lifelong obsession with poetry and text which would prove immensely influential on his music, and ultimately fulfill Fairouz’s self-stated goal of creating music which “sparks a deeper kind of listening experience for those who encounter it and, ultimately, a deeper sort of emotional response.”

Fairouz received the bulk of his musical education while studying at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia and at New England Conservatory. During this time he was also able to travel all over the world, becoming exposed to the music on five continents, and to study with many of the preeminent living composers including György Ligeti, Gunther Schuller and Richard Danielpour. Fairouz bonded with Ligeti over their shared love of language and continues to hold deep respect for Schuller’s fusion of jazz with Classical music in the 1940s and 50s, calling it “a musical and cultural statement.”

I don't see art, music or culture as belonging to a particular tradition or group of people.

The heart of Fairouz’s music is deeply philosophical, intensely political and rooted in poetry and prose. Often the subject of his works touches on the complex and misunderstood relationship between the United States and the Arab world, or between the forces of peaceful progress and fundamentalism. His Fourth Symphony, which was completed and published on 11 September, 2015, before the composer had even turned thirty years old, is a deeply moving piece about the experience of living in New York City following the September 11 terrorist attacks. Called In the Shadow of No Towers, it is actually based on the comic book of the same name by Art Spiegelman. Fairouz decided to score the work for wind ensemble, a uniquely American format and, like the comic book, a largely disregarded one. The piece was premiered at the Stern Auditorium in Carnegie Hall and has since been recorded on Naxos.

The ballet Sadat (2013) is also in this tradition of highlighting political events through classical art forms. The work tells the life story of former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat through five scenes beginning with the 1952 Egyptian revolution and ending with Sadat’s assassination in 1981, three years after signing the Camp David Accords. Sadat was premiered by the Mimesis Ensemble at Carnegie’s Weill Hall. It also appeared on Fairouz’s 2015 album “Follow, Poet,” which was released on Deutsche Grammophon. At the age of thirty, Fairouz became the youngest composer ever to have his own dedicated album on the label.

I think memorizing poetry is absolutely vital. It gives the poetic tools that one needs to get through life.

The other work on the album is a four part song cycle entitled Audenesque (2012), which is based on the poetry of influential American poet W. H. Auden and Irish playwright and poet Seamus Heaney. Musically, the piece bears the stamp of other composers of short, “song-form” orchestral composers such as Gustav Mahler, Kurt Weill and Hanns Eisler. In addition to the two large works, the album features fragments of text read by Irish poet Paul Muldoon as well as opening with a poignant speech excerpt from John F. Kennedy, stating “when power leads man toward arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concerns, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses.”

“Follow, Poet” was the first album of Deutsche Grammophon’s new Return to Language series, and has been widely lauded by the international community, called “captivating” by The New York Times, and earning Fairouz the title of “a post-millenial Schubert” by, Gramophone. Elizabeth Sobol, CEO and president of Universal Music Classics, stated that it was a very deliberate move to feature Fairouz so prominently, remarking “there is a deep humanity and civic devotion to Mohammed’s music. For him, music isn’t an abstract art – it has a higher purpose.”

For Fairouz, this higher purpose is what all of his music strives to reach. In his own words, “I think that the concept of music for the sake of music or art for the sake of art is not only a new concept, I think it's also a pretentious concept.” Fairouz’s affinity through this form of expression, particularly through writing and setting poetry, has led him to become one of today’s premier writers for the human voice, which he calls “our greatest instrument. It is the one instrument that is not a mechanical or electronic machine but something that has been perfected by nature and continues to evolve in nature. The human voice is also the only instrument that is shared as a tool of musical expression in every single human culture on our planet.” Through his vocal works, including an opera, an oratorio, over a dozen song cycles and hundreds of songs, he has worked with many of today’s preeminent vocalists including Kate Lindsey, Sasha Cooke, Nathan Gunn, and Mellissa Hughes.

I think that music and poetry, the arts, do something that is very, very special in that they allow us access to a rarefied space, a sacred space almost.

Fairouz’s music has also been performed by ensembles such as The Imani Winds and the Borromeo String Quartet, instrumentalists including clarinetist David Krakauer and cellist Maya Beiser, and conductors such as Leonard Slatkin and Gunther Schuller. He has received commissions from the Detroi Symphony Orchestra, Aspen Music Festival, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Dutch National Opera, among others. Despite his status as a relative newcomer to the contemporary composition scene he has already created quite a name for himself and is surely an artist to watch in the coming years. 

Header image courtesy of Issue Project Room
Other images courtesy of Mohammed Fairouz and public domain

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