'Hekayat': How Emirati composer Ihab Darwish united 128 musicians on a virtual Abu Dhabi stage

Audiences will hardly believe the performers weren't all playing in the same room, says the musician

Ihab Darwish's 'Hekayat: Symphonic Tales' will premiere on Abu Dhabi Festival's website. Courtesy: Abu Dhabi Festival
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Ihab Darwish's show at Abu Dhabi Festival will be as much a technological feat as a musical one.

Through some videographic magic, Hekayat: Symphonic Tales, which premieres at 8pm on Tuesday, will bring together 128 musicians from 20 countries at the Emirates Palace Auditorium, albeit virtually.

Most of the musicians who will share the digital stage haven't met each other in real life, a fact that Emirati composer Darwish says will be hard for audiences to imagine because of how seamlessly their performances will blend.

"It'll be beautiful, because when you see them all together on the stage, people won't believe that the musicians don't know each other," he tells The National. "They'll be playing all these symphonic arrangements in harmony and with such passion it'll seem they definitely know each other."

Hekayat: Symphonic Tales, which comprises 13 compositions by Darwish, will be available to watch on the Abu Dhabi Festival website until Sunday, April 11. Fusing disparate genres such as hip-hop, western classical music and Khaleeji rhythms, it is a celebration of global sounds – fitting, as its performers are spread across the world.

Several renowned international musicians will take part in the show including American flautist Sara Andon, Japanese drumming troupe Kodo, Spanish guitarist Carlos Pinana and Syrian clarinet player Kinan Azmeh. The performance will also feature Poland’s Beethoven Academy Orchestra and the Vox Chamber Choir.

With such a large ensemble taking part in the project remotely, how did Darwish ensure visual and audio cohesion? The answer is through meticulous attention to detail – and 675 Zoom meetings.

“In such a big project, you have to go through many processes,” he says. “The first meetings were about introducing the project to the musicians, sharing the vision, going through the strategic approach.”

Darwish then sent musicians the scores for his compositions, as well as recordings he had created using virtual instruments.

“I shared the music with them in the beginning. They listened to it and started practising, coming back to me with samples. I would then listen to these samples, making sure everything was perfect before they went and actually recorded in a studio in their country of residence.”

'Hekayat: Symphonic Tales' comprises 13 compositions written by Ihab Darwish. Courtesy: Abu Dhabi Festival 
'Hekayat: Symphonic Tales' comprises 13 compositions written by Ihab Darwish. Courtesy: Abu Dhabi Festival 

After the music was captured professionally, the musicians then had their performance recorded. In order to make sure all the clips fused together smoothly, Darwish sent performers precise guidelines on their backgrounds and what to wear.

Though filmed separately in 21 cities around the world, post-production wizardry will ensure the musicians appear as one orchestra in the finished product.

“The videos were also taken from multiple angles, including side view, full-body view, half-body view,” Darwish says. “Sometimes the video would focus on a guitarist's or cellist's fingers. We tried our best to capture the emotion of each performance.”

Once all the musicians submitted their parts, Darwish combed through more than five terabytes of audio and video material. Considering a single terabyte equates to a trillion bytes of data, this was a daunting task. The composer, however, says his background in graphics and video production helped.

“To do this kind of project, it requires a certain set of skills,” he says. “You have to be aware of all these aspects before setting out to actualise this project."

However, as challenging as the technical aspect of the performance was, the artistic side was no straightforward endeavour, either.

"You have the blues, hip-hop, opera, jazz, as well as traditional Japanese and Khaleeji rhythms, and it was important to blend them nicely," Darwish says. "It was challenging but, in the end, it came out really beautiful."

Darwish says each of the 13 arrangements within Hekayat: Symphonic Tales has an inherent story, with the overarching narrative inspired by the story of the UAE.

“Living here in the UAE, under one sky that embraces several ethnicities, cultures and personalities, is inspiring,” he says. “Seeing the virtues and accomplishments of the country is inspiring. One of the compositions narrates the story of the sea and of our ancestors, who used to go out on pearl-diving expeditions. Another piece focuses on the accomplishment of reaching Mars.”

Darwish, who released his debut album Waves of My Life in 2018, also wrote the National Day ode Aim for the Sky, which was unveiled in December at Dubai's The Palm Fountain.

He says he began composing the arrangements within Hekayat: Symphonic Talesthree years ago. Even in its early stages, Darwish knew he wanted them to be performed by a large international group. However, as he began nearing the end of the composition process, the pandemic struck, disrupting travel plans and live concerts, as well as his initial concept.

Undeterred, he began to think of other ways to present his compositions while keeping his dream intact.

Ihab Darwish's album 'Hekayat' will be available across all major streaming platforms after the virtual concert concludes its Abu Dhabi Festival run on April 11. Courtesy: Abu Dhabi Festival 
Ihab Darwish's album 'Hekayat' will be available across all major streaming platforms after the virtual concert concludes its Abu Dhabi Festival run on April 11. Courtesy: Abu Dhabi Festival 

“Nobody could perform on stage, but I still wanted to create something to maintain our artistic journey,” he says.

Because of the high-end production involved, Darwish says audiences should try to watch the performance on a big-screen TV, preferably one connected to a decent sound system. “That would be the best experience,” he says.

Once Hekayat: Symphonic Tales finishes its run on the Abu Dhabi Festival website, the album Hekayat will appear across several streaming platforms, including Apple Music, Anghami and Spotify.

“It will be distributed by Universal Music Mena across, if I’m not mistaken, more than 250 digital platforms,” Darwish says.

That exposure will allow a wide audience to access his compositions, which he says he is proud to finally showcase.

"It's one of the best projects I've ever worked on in my life."