First performances create certain expectations, second performances create more, and third performances create even more, and when the third performance of Vol. I of Syrian clarinetist-composer Kinan Azmeh’s all in Arabic “Songs for Days to Come ” (2015) is coupled with the world premiere of Vol. II (2017) of his “Songs.. ” things got even more interesting. Does the first performance of installment two create as much excitement as the first performance of Vol. I at New York’s www.subculture.org — my piece on Azmeh’s world premiere of it is here — and if so does Vol. II extend or “complete” the discoveries he made in Vol. I ? But that’s a somewhat foolish question because music isn’t a business contract but a living breathing thing which like a shirt we wear which changes as we wear it And so how I first heard Azmeh’s first ever songs — his previous vocal writing was all scat/vocalese — in 2015 isn’t the way I heard it the second time at http://www.symphonyspace,org in 2016, or the third, in 2017, at the same venue with the same players. But Azmeh’s work, which I’ve been following closely and writing about for almost twelve years, always exhibits the twin virtues of inevitability and surprise. Surprise because his ear hears all kinds of subtleties, and inevitability because his choices always make his music go to exciting and mysterious places, and his responses to the eleven exiled Syrian poets — five in Vol.I and six in Vol. II — sound both acute and deeply personal.
Azmeh’s vocal/instrumental settings in Vol, II, which are for the same line-up as Vol. I — Syrians Azmeh, clarinet; Dima Orsho, soprano; and Kinan Abou-Afach, cello; and St. Urban’s American founder/commissioner, Lenore Davis, piano; are equally fluent, though Azmeh noted from the stage that Vol. I was more of a series of discrete songs than a thematically connected whole. They work fine as a set but don’t follow the European, and especially the nineteenth century German song cycle format like Schubert’s, which have a story-line that hooks listeners and pulls them through. Azmeh’s extensive use in Vol. I of tetrachords, which are common in jazz practice gave way to a more sophisticated use of harmonic texture and melodic rhythm in Vol. II. He also used electronics based on his processing of the voices of the poets in sections of the recorded version of Vol. I. This gave it a haunting, collage-like and dare I say it? universal effect which seemed to stretch time.
His eighteen minute Vol. I felt a bit under rehearsed here probably because of the time Hewar needed to learn and shape his new twenty-two minute Vol. II, which had an equally dark yet more expansive feel than that of Vol. I. Sound moved as emotion and emotion moved as sound and how could it not because Arabic is a language as naturally musical as Russian or Italian because of its vowel/consonant combinations. And all three languages are mercifully free of English’s completely unmusical dipthongs, like “thing”, or “spring.” The sound images in voice and ensemble were always striking, especially the series of consecutive minor intervals Azmeh played which served to ground and expand their moment. And I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that he’s very much a part of his generation — he turned forty-one in June 2017 — because he uses different kinds and weights of sound as his basic building blocks like a minimalist, and there were places where the refulgent force of his structured improvisations like “Wedding ” ( 2005 ). All of the poems here by Yamen Hussein ( 1983 — ), Firas Sulaiman ( 1969 — ), Raed Wahesh (1981 –), Abdulrahman Khallouf ( 1977 — ), Aref Hamza ( 1974 — ), and Fares al-Bahra ( 1974 ), which were printed in the program in both Arabic and in English translations, had depth and point, unlike most American poems being written today. Maybe it’s because these poets know and love their country’s long and complex history. And let’s not forget that Syria was at one point the center of Islamic civilization, and its jewel was Damascus, which at five thousand years, is the oldest continuously inhabited capital city in the world. Orsho and Azmeh grew up as childhood friends and fellow musicians there so the ending of Fares al-Bahra’s “Berlin” ( 2011 ) — ” I yearn for you one day/ Like Damascus ” must have poignant significance for them, especially when seen through the lens of the horrendous pointless proxy war being waged against their people and its storied civilization since 2011. One can only hope and pray that all ends well.