Attahir, "Al Fajr" by Daniel Barenboïm

Benjamin Attahir / Premieres of Al Fajr and Al Asr

What inspired the creation of this expansive work, written as a single movement but not, strictly speaking, a concertante work?

When I was offered the chance to compose a new piece for the opening season of the Boulez Saal, I assumed that Daniel Barenboim – who was behind the commission – already had a clear idea of what he wanted to present to the Berlin public, so I waited for our meeting before starting any real brainstorming. Then months went by and we still hadn’t been able to meet. The only piece of information I had was that I could not exceed 27 musicians, as the new hall was designed for chamber music and ensemble pieces, from piano Sonatas to Schubert symphonies.

When we were finally able to meet in Rome, it became clear that the maestro was intent on giving me complete creative freedom. This was more than a little unnerving for someone used to commissions that come with a strict list of specifications. I left the meeting feeling charmed by this generous person who had such complete faith in me, and simultaneously a bit lost; what could I possibly create that might be worthy of an ensemble that already carries such a strong message?

Then I recalled a simple idea that had often struck me as I awoke in my family home in Beirut to the first call of the muezzin. Literally subjugated by this magnificent chant, immoderately amplified and augmented, announcing the new day and resonating in even the innermost reaches of the city, I dreamed of one day having a chance to give it my own personal poetic and musical interpretation. It is personal in that – thanks to my diverse origins and home bases – I feel as though I exist at a crossroads of people and beliefs. In the same way, this piece of music could also serve as a meeting point of cultures (Eastern and Western) as well as religions. This first gesture would ultimately become the cornerstone of my musical edifice, this morning call to prayer, this “Al Fajr” that begins the day and means “dawn” in Arabic. It would then be intertwined with three other musical themes: a few notes of a Yiddish song, the beginning of an imagined Gregorian chant and a series of notes that spiral around one another… for these elements to eventually exchange, intermingle and shed light on one another.

Finally, I needed a being capable of symbolising this great Call, this invitation for Men to connect with one another, something that would hold enough significance. So I summoned all of my courage and suggested to Daniel Barenboim that he play the piano and lead the work, incarnating the Call of the one to the many, guiding the voyage that I wanted to write step by step. To my great surprise he generously accepted to bring this music to life, and in doing so, bring about the “dawn” of a new hall and a new ensemble.

What is your relationship with Daniel Barenboim, to whom the work is dedicated? How does one go about composing for such a well-renowned artist?

I didn’t know him personally before our meeting in Rome last November. A few years ago, however, I drafted a violin concerto with his son Michael to be directed by our mutual friend Daniel Cohen, a conductor who I had the opportunity to meet at the Lucerne Festival thanks to Pierre Boulez. Sadly, the project remains unfinished, but it did, I believe, give Daniel Barenboim a chance to hear my music.

Composing for such a pianist and conductor was at once both intimidating and inspiring. I remember turning each piano phrase every way possible before I dared commit it to paper. This “cleaned up” my writing, if you will, as I tried to force myself to distil each musical idea in the score into its simplest, clearest and most essential form.

Al Fajr evokes the dawn. This new score seems to be steeped in magic or perhaps a certain mysticism. Are there Eastern influences?

Al Fajr is the first prayer time of the Muslim day. So the beginning of the piece translates the morning call that slowly wakes a sleeping city into music. The declamatory call of the piano invites the orchestral ensemble (scored identically to Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 22) to follow and join in little by little. The trajectory of the piece is based on the following model: polyphony > responsory > heterophony > homophony. It finishes with an episode that goes beyond the constraints of time, reaching the ethereal, the spiritual. This ending is none other than the beginning of another piece, Adh Dhohr (the midday prayer), a concerto for serpent and orchestra and the second piece of a cycle (2017-2019) symbolically based on Salah, the Muslim daily prayers. The cycle is structured as follows:

Al Fajr, piano and large ensemble

Adh Dhohr, serpent and orchestra

Al ‘Asr, string quartet

Al Maghrib, violin and orchestra

Al ‘Icha, full orchestra

This is the fifth piece you have composed for a solo instrument and orchestra/ensemble. What is your fundamental vision for writing a piece in this genre?

The concertante genre has always been the touchstone of my musical vocabulary because it depicts the purely societal problem that is the individual pitted against the mass, giving it an extremely broad range of potential theatrics and interactions.  

This Autumn will be busy for you with the premiere of Al Fajr in addition to the premiere of a string quartet composed for the Arod Quartet. How challenging is it to compose a quartet? Is there anything left to be said in this musical format, which seems to be nearing perfection? What are your models for this “noble” genre? Do the references in your score to the oud and certain “vocal” lines reminiscent of Mediterranean melismata reflect an Eastern influence? 

I must admit that the string quartet genre, one that has been handed down to us by our forebears, from Haydn to Dutilleux, Ligeti and Dusapin, can be rather “paralysing” for a young composer. To alleviate my anxiety, I focused on creating the most compact and cohesive object possible. To do so, I approached the quartet as a single instrument, returning to the backbone of my writing: embellished monody, freely inspired by the music of the Near East.

What are your thoughts on the 103rd Surah on Time?

Al Asr is the afternoon prayer. I tried to translate the atmosphere at that exact moment of the day into music. Glaring light, sweltering heat, the diffraction of the air as it touches the ground; my mind was filled with images as I wrote this piece. But Al Asr is also the 103rd Surah of the Quran that speaks of Time and the future of all beings. The structure in three verses served as the foundation for this quartet, though the holy text itself is not highlighted. Poetry and allegory have always guided me in my work.

What are your upcoming projects?

I am currently working on Adh Dhorh, the second piece in the cycle I mentioned, which will premiere next January with my friend Patrick Wibart on the serpent, accompanied by the Orchestre National de Lille, conducted by Alexandre Bloch. Next I will be writing a double monologue for two women, in partnership with the Quanzhou Liyuan Theatre and the Philharmonie de Paris, in a joint work for an ensemble of Chinese musicians and a Western ensemble, with a singer and actress from Beijing Opera and Portuguese soprano Raquel Camarinha.

Looking further ahead, I am delighted to be working once again with Renaud Capuçon on a violin concerto – the fourth piece in the cycle – Al Maghrib; then I will be diving into the world of Maeterlinck with an Opera based on the Trois petits drames pour marionnettes, which I will be directing at La Monnaie in Brussels in September 2019.

Interviewed by François Dru, August 2017

 Have a look at the score of Al Fajr