Sherif El Razzaz taps into the voice of contemporary music

Ati Metwaly, Thursday 5 May 2011

Ahram Online talks to the man attempting to revive contemporary music in Cairo's classical music scene and its relevance to Egyptians now

music days

The European-Egyptian Contemporary Music Society (EECMS) was established after the success of the first Alexandria Contemporary Music Biennale 2009. The biennale was the first platform for contemporary music, giving opportunities to Egyptian and international musicians working in the field. As such, Cairo Contemporary Music Days, to be held annually, is an heir of the Alexandria initiative. The second edition of the Alexandria Contemporary Music Biennale, scheduled for last month, was cancelled in the midst of the January 25 Revolution. This led the EECMS to approach partners in Cairo to reinvigorate the project, but this time in the capital.

Ahram Online talks to Sherif El Razzaz, general manager of the EECMS and Cairo Contemporary Music Days.

Ahram Online: Two years after the great success of the first edition of Alexandria Contemporary Music Biennale… How did the initiative take form in Cairo?

Sherif El Razzaz: We spoke with our partners in Cairo. We were welcomed by project supporters who saw this is a good timing for such a festival. The American University in Cairo (AUC), being our main partner of Cairo events such as concerts, master classes and round tables, held the festival in their premises. We are also supported by many cultural institutions operating in Egypt and abroad. Everybody seemed very positive and helpful. Obviously all the changes taking place in the country, all the revolutionary energy and spirit of change, invites new ideas which are well received by many people.

AO: Did you think about any other music form? What do you achieve through presenting contemporary music in Egypt?

SR: Even though Baroque music was an option, we thought that contemporary music specifically will open additional doors. We are giving a platform for many Arab contemporary musicians to present their works through the festival and to have their compositions performed in other countries which we visit. This year we focused on Saed Haddad, Jordanian composer. Also a formation called Conjunt Instrumental BCN 216 performed a composition by Ahmed Madkour [Ahmed Abdalla] which was its world premiere. Not to forget support of Mateu Malondra who composed Capsule, a piece for a chamber formation. Its world premiere took place on 1 May in Ewart Memorial Hall [AUC Cairo]. 

AO: Egypt is in need of music festivals. Contemporary music might not be the first choice of Egyptian audiences… Why this form then?

SR: We do not always have to do something for the audience which expects forms they are already acquainted with. Variety of proposition in a country is important. In Egypt, film for instance is much more advanced than music. So, in music we should concentrate on elevating elements which are not as popular or accessible as other forms. There are many great contemporary composers in Egypt. They are the voice of the country, voice of the generation, and they deserve to be heard. We are interested in young musicians as they represent future of the country. But we also look into compositions of the older Egyptian contemporary generation. We all have to move towards new forms and listen to new – or previously marginalised – voices. Otherwise all this change taking place in the country does not serve much.

                     AO: What does contemporary music try to say to the listener in Egypt?

SR: Contemporary music which we showcase in fact refers to the previous historical heritage. It is all about human legacy, only presented in a different way. Many European countries such Spain, Germany and others often look into their own history and rephrase it in artistic – music in this case – propositions. Egypt is not dealing sufficiently with the past, which is abundantly rich and could be explored and rephrased through many contemporary artistic forms, starting with music. Maybe the new Egypt will deal more closely with all this historical accumulation.

AO: So you suggest for Egyptian – and Arab – contemporary composers to look into their historical legacies?

SR: There is a lot music can say. The beauty is that today the language a composer will use will be different. Today’s music can reach into the past in a different way that he would have done a hundred or so years ago. This is what contemporary art is about; a contemporary look at the human history and a (contemporary) way of expression. And it is not about doing weird things and creating weird music, or creating new things just for the sake of changing the form.

                   AO: What is the future of the festival?

SR: I already agreed with the department of Foreign Cultural Relations at the Ministry of Culture that the festival will be held on a yearly basis. Every second year, Cairo festival will be linked to the Alexandria Contemporary Music Biennale, meaning that every second year, two events, in Cairo and Alexandria, will be running in parallel, complementing each other.

                   AO: So the ministry strongly supports the initiative…

SR: Definitely, the project was welcomed by the new Ministry of Culture. As in fact, prior to the January Revolution, we were already approaching the ministry asking for their support for the Cairo Contemporary Music Days initiative but we were not receiving any clear answers. Everything was kept pending. The current ministry is very responsive and clear in their demands, expectations and decisions.

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