Joanna Marsh has composed a series of musical illustrations for episodes in the life of Ibn Battuta.
Joanna Marsh has composed a series of musical illustrations for episodes in the life of Ibn Battuta.

UK Maggini Quartet stringing along with Ibn Battuta

It took Joanna Marsh several years of research to condense a three-decade journey by the intrepid Moroccan explorer Ibn Battuta into four short pieces of music that take 10 to 15 minutes to perform.

Deemed one of the greatest travellers ever, Ibn Battuta left home in 1325 at the age of 21. He eventually covered more than 120,000 kilometres, crossing most of the Islamic world, Europe and parts of China.

The Dubai-based British composer was first inspired by Ibn Battuta when she read his travel accounts in Rihla (The Journey). After a bit more exploring, she came across the Yemen-based Ibn Battuta scholar Tim Mackintosh-Smith at last year's Emirates Airline Festival of Literature and learnt more over a series of phone conversations.

"Ibn Battuta wrote remarkable tales which are a terrific read - full of picturesque scenes, opulence, beauty and a huge amount of cruelty," says Marsh. "I've selected a story from each of the kingdoms and the sultanates that he visited."

A graduate of the Royal Academy of Music in London and an organ scholar of Sidney Sussex College Cambridge, Marsh has called Dubai home for more than four years. Often drawing inspiration from historical events and figures, the composer has had several high-profile commissions in recent years, including one from the British embassy to write The Falcon and the Lion fanfare for the state visit of Queen Elizabeth to Abu Dhabi in 2010.

Marsh's latest piece, The Travels of Ibn Battuta, will be performed at The Fridge in Dubai's Al Quoz district this evening by one of the UK's leading string ensembles, the Maggini Quartet. The first violin Susanne Stanzeleit leapt at the chance to be involved with the project, explaining that what Marsh was trying to achieve was perfectly in tune with the group's vision. This afternoon the quartet - including David Angel on second violin, Martin Outram on viola and Michal Kaznowski on cello - will be joined by around 60 children between the ages of eight and 18 from Repton School.

"Even if the children are at a very basic level on the string instruments, there will be parts they can play, which is exciting," says Stanzeleit. "Introducing the medium of a string quartet to a wider audience is something close to our hearts, as we do a lot of educational work in the UK with children who haven't necessarily been brought up in the environment of classical music."

With Maggini's two violins, one viola and a cello, Stanzeleit says Marsh's composition takes into account the absence of traditional Arabian instruments in a piece spotlighting a regional hero.

"Jo has written some of the parts to create a sound similar to the oud, so we're hoping to achieve that," she says.

Marsh took about a month to perfect the piece, which she hopes will ignite the imaginations of children and adults alike, taking them on a whistle-stop tour from downtown Delhi to the bazaars of Baghdad.

"I've treated the narrative in different ways," she says. "In some ways it's very dark and then much lighter, and soulful in other places. The music is very descriptive and I would like people to find it intriguing, but also easy to understand."

Marsh hopes to export the multi-movement work with a "double life" to London this summer, after which she'll return to the Gulf to compose more pieces at her purpose-built studio in Dubai.

"I would really like to do something on Sinbad - he's fascinating," she says. "I might also explore some of the Arabian Nights stories, because there are some really great ones like Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. There's some good fun to be had.

"I've been given the opportunity to live in the Middle East, so I think it's my responsibility to choose topics and ideas relating to that. I feel I have a debt to myself, to make use of the environment that I live in, and there's no point me writing English folk tunes while I'm here. While I'm living in Dubai it seems a good idea for me to make the most of it by finding subject matter and themes that are relevant to the people and the life here."

The concert begins tonight at 7:30 at The Fridge, Al Quoz 4, Dubai. Entrance is Dh50 for adults and free for under-18s. For more information go to or call 04-347 7793

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