Soundtrack for a humanitarian tragedy
News coverage of the humanitarian tragedy in Syria has meant Abed Azrié's setting of the Epic of Gilgamesh has been on my playlist. Composer, singer and 'man of liberty' Abed Azrié left Syria for France in 1970 because he was unable "to work in the Arab countries in which the way people live is still conditioned by halal and haram" and today considers his country not as Syria but the Arabic language. The Epic of Gilgamesh originates from ancient Mesopotamia and is among the earliest known works of literature. It is the precursor of the great epic tradition that includes the Mahabharata and Nibelungenlied and is notable for its proto-environmentalist and feminist themes. The influence of the Epic of Gilgamesh has been identified in the work of figures ranging from psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung, poets Rainer Maria Rilke, Charles Olson and Louis Zukofsky to novelists John Gardner and Philip Roth, and the plot of an episode of Star Trek is also indebted to the poem. Western classical music inspired by the epic includes an oratorio by Bohuslav Martinů and an opera by the Serbian composer Rudolf Brucci, while a grunge theatre rock treatment has played in London, Australia and China.
In his setting Abed Azrié lets the beauty of the Arabic language speak for itself and resists the temptation to make epic gestures with his instrumental forces. His score avoids the fashionbable boxes of world, fusion, Western, Eastern, traditional and avant garde; instead it is simply music created by the eclectic combination of solo voice, oud, ney, qanon, viole de gambe, cellos, mazhar, darbouka, riqq, percussions, cymbals and harp. Recorded in 1977 the Epic of Gilgamesh was one of the first recordings to be released on a musician owned record label - Doumtak is owned by Azrié. Following the success of the Epic of Gilgamesh Abed Azrié's 1990 album Aromates was released by Nonesuch. John Adams, who records for Nonesuch, has said that the Act 1 scene with Mamoud in his opera The Death of Klinghoffer was influenced by Azrié's music, which he was listening to while composing the scene. More on that path here.
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