It’s a chilly night in New York City, the 36-hour-old snow yet to thaw in Central Park. Mohammed Fairouz puts down an icy drink and continues to talk, unravelling giddying monologue of literary references, political opinions and personal sleights which sound a markedly conspicuous note in the generically dim-lit lobby that surrounds him.
The Emirati composer should probably be celebrating – this particular Manhattan hotel sits just a few doors down from Carnegie Hall, where Fairouz’s latest composition received its world premiere less than an hour earlier – but something weighs heavy in the air, and on his mind. Besides, Fairouz has lost count of the number of time his work has been performed at the storied concert venue, the scene of scores of historic premieres – such as Antonín Dvořák’s landmark ninth symphony From the New World, first performed by the New York Philharmonic back in 1893.
Premiered on April 3, Fairouz’s latest work strikes a somewhat humbler tone. Entitled Piano Miniature No 19, Jabal Hafit [COR for the piece title], the fidgety, solo piano piece was written barely a week earlier, atop the Al Ain mountain of the same name. Chillingly sparse, composed largely of single notes – either left eerily to ring out or struck staccato – and punctuated by gaping silences. A piece so simple it is hard to play, and harder still to listen to – it is easy to imagine wide-open desert and rugged mountains as an inspiration.
“We were in Al Ain, we found a hotel up Jabal Hafit, this really wonderful kitschy hotel,” remembers Fairouz. “We went up and were waiting for our grilled seafood platter, and I decided to write something. It was the view – you know Al Ain is really quite amazing, especially after a few days in Dubai – at first, it’s like going up to a (different) county – but which country?
“You acclimatise. It’s like focusing a lens. There’s an internal logic to the piece, which you see in the natural environment in rock formations – this inner logic you want to capture.”
It might be the first time a piano piece has been written directly referencing an Al Ain peak – and is surely the only time such a work has been performed at Carnegie Hall. When we talk, Fairouz has been back in his adopted home city of New York barely 24 hours, returning from his third visit to the UAE in six months. The son of an Emirati diplomat, Fairouz was raised between Dubai and global postings, before settling in the USA “half his life” ago.
“It’s not about my roots, it’s not an identity – it’s something I am familiar with. I am not able to write about places I don’t know,” he says simply. “A lot of people write about everything – and there’s no way you know everything with that intimacy, the level of inquiry is lost.”
To the 32-year-old composer’s intense regret, only a handful of Fairouz’s works have been performed in his hometown. The inaugural BBC Proms Dubai, at Dubai Opera in March 2017, marked the first time one of his major orchestral compositions was performed locally, with the tone-poem Pax Universalis – a joyously uplifting, unashamedly sentimental plea for universal peace.
Yet Fairouz’s Emirati heritage has long been a source of inspiration. Hidden within second opera The New Prince, Fairouz claims a symmetrical six-note pattern represents the flow of traffic on Sheikh Zayed Road, while the UAE national anthem can briefly be detected in the score. Yet, it seems, few people were listening.
“Because everybody gets it wrong,” he adds. “There’s nobody who says ‘Emirati composer’– I’ve gotten (been called) Syrian, Egyptian – I’m basically like Obama – I’ve been called Kenyan.”
All of which explains why he might choose to dub the piece Jabal Hafit – seemingly a last-minute change from the advertised premiere of Bursts of Meaning. The piece was presented at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall as part of a 10th anniversary concert by New York’s Mimesis Ensemble, a group who have had a deep engagement with Fairouz, programming his work in every season to date – and recording his breakout debut opera Sumeida’s Song, completed in 2008 at the age of 22.
“Although Mohammed changed the title away from Bursts of Meaning, I still hear that intention underneath the miniature,” said Katie Reimer, the 36-year-old American pianist who performed the work, and who also serves as the group’s founder and artistic and executive director.
“There are little ‘bursts’ of sound, and the piece gives those bursts space to breathe and to be listened to. This miniature slows us down, asks us to stop and listen deeply and carefully.”
Framed in its final title as part of Fairouz’s Piano Miniature series, Jabal Hafit joins a catalogue of fleeting yet profound pianistic reflections. Also performed by Reimer at Carnegie Hall was the haunting Piano Miniature No. 11, For Syria, dedicated to victims of the ongoing conflict, and the charged Piano Miniature No. 13, an elegy for Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager who was shot and killed. Closing the programme, meanwhile, was the choral A Prayer to the New Year, Fairouz’s stirring setting of a poem by the beloved Fadwa Tuqan – words he remembers reciting as a schoolboy.
This relatively modest performance comes little more than a year after the unveiling of The New Prince, a dizzying "geopolitical sci-fi opera" premiered by the Dutch National Opera in Amsterdam which is arguably the most ambitious project of Fairouz's career. Featuring a libretto by the American journalist and novelist David Ignatius, together the creative partners imagined a world where notorious Renaissance-era political philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli is transported 500 years forward from the publication of his political tract The Prince to 2032.
A frenetic triptych bringing to the stage real-life characters including Henry Kissinger, Osama bin Laden, Hilary Clinton, President Mohammed Morsi, Adolf Hitler and Chairman Mao – and premiering precious weeks after Donald Trump's ascension to the US presidency – The New Prince was surely one of the most headline-courting premieres of the season. Yet while production disputes and claimed edits to his work saw Fairouz deeply unhappy with the finished result, he pledges to realise his true intent in future productions and recordings.
“I think it’s disastrous the way it was done,” said Fairouz of the Dutch National Opera’s The New Prince. “It was the worse thing anyone’s ever done to a work of art of mine – or of anything I’ve seen – and I’ve seen some real abominations.”
While Fairouz may have been hailed internationally as one of the most noteworthy composers of his generation, there have been precious few opportunities to enjoy his work in his home country.
This is set to change soon – first with the premiere of the Emirati’s fifth symphony set for the 2020 Abu Dhabi Festival, a special commission announced in 2015, set to explore the story of the UAE and its values.
Fairouz spelled out for the first time how he has taken inspiration for the piece from the life of the country’s founder, Sheikh Zayed.
“If you get down to what he was, Zayed was not only profoundly simple, but he was profoundly humble,” said Fairouz. “He used a lot of his spare time to plant trees – this is something we forget.”
No stranger to taking inspiration from recent history, the new work follows Fairouz’s Symphony No. 4, In the Shadow of No Towers, a response to 9/11.
The forthcoming fifth symphony’s final movement will be inspired by the historic signing of the union which formally founded the UAE on December 2, 1971.
“The fact the constitution was adopted and the union signed – Zayed was willing from the get-go to compromise, to show an openness – this is something we need in today’s world, wherever we are,” added Fairouz.
“He was illiterate, and he sat down and learnt how to read because he saw value in it – and then he learnt to read music. In an age where so many young people are spending so much time watching cat videos, there’s really a lot of important things we can learn.”