Artist Blog

Amir ElSaffar: Beyond the Other Shore – the Rivers of Sound Orchestra and Transcultural Music Making

Over the years, I have led numerous projects involving a diverse array of musical languages and styles from different parts of the world. Most of these have centered around the musical worlds that I have inhabited for much of my life – jazz, Western classical, and the Maqam music of Iraq and the Middle East. Beyond that, I have formed projects with Carnatic and Hindustani musicians, Flamenco musicians and dancers, trance musicians from North and sub-Saharan Africa, among others. Each endeavor has involved an intense period of travel, research, immersion, and learning about the music and its role within the society, then bringing together the musicians for a period of rehearsals and performances. In this article, I am focusing on my 17-member Rivers of Sound Orchestra, which best demonstrates my approach in combining musical languages and cultures.

I formed the Rivers of Sound Orchestra in 2015 as a kind of musical, cultural, and social experiment. The goal was to discover new ways of organizing sound without the hierarchical notions found in Western European art music (composer -> conductor -> players), without the burden of precedence found in non-Western folk or traditional forms (repeating what has been done in the past), but still maintaining a sense of structure and cohesion. I was interested in blurring the spaces between improvisation and composition, between composer and players. The process relied on spontaneous group interaction, where each musician had agency as part of the creative process. The idea was to have multiple points of origin emanating simultaneously from the present.

The ensemble included musicians from a broad spectrum of musical backgrounds and from different parts of the world. My desire was to expand beyond ideas of culture, in the sense of one style of music “belonging” to a particular group of people or a society. This notion often leads to a sense of exclusivism and musically can reproduce the unequal power dynamics that exist in other spheres. Too often, cultures are viewed as monolithic, and are idealized from the outside. A member of a given society is perceived as a representative of their culture, not as an individual with distinct humors, character traits, and subjectivity. With Rivers of Sound, I was seeking an alternative musical model embracing a multitude of musical expressions, by focusing on the interactions between individual musicians.

My first composition for Rivers of Sound, entitled Not Two, was a suite of eight movements. I chose materials and structures from pre-existing musical idioms that I believed would allow the musicians of the ensemble to collectively create a unique language and sensibility.

The tonal basis of Not Two was the Maqam – a system of heptatonic modes found in the Middle East, North Africa, Eastern and Southern Europe, and Central Asia. Maqams stem from the seven modes of the Babylonian-Greek system that are still used in the West, but with the addition of microtonal intervals, yielding hundreds of permutations. By using this system of microtonal intervals, as opposed to the fixed pitches of the 12-note system, the rigidness of structures and forms melted away so that something new could emerge.

The piano, vibraphone, and guitar were microtonally re-tuned. The horn players had to learn new microtonal fingerings and train their ears to hear these sounds. Hence, the musicians could not rely on conventions of what they already knew, i.e., chords, scales, or fingerings. They were pushed to find new ways of playing their instruments.

Maqam is traditionally performed in a heterophonic manner – multiple musicians playing the same basic melody, but each in their own stylized way, with vast room for ornamentation and variation of melodic contour. Yet, there is a sense of unison that relies on the musicians listening acutely to one another, and responding to the subtlest changes in intonation, timbre, and melody. With Not Two, heterophony figured prominently in the polyphonic structures and microtonal chords that I created. Finding a collective unison within the variations contributed to the creation of a novel and coherent sound.

Rhythmically, I was interested in exploring malleable and flexible pulses. Many of the compositions have an underlying swing, which blurs subdivisions and has a visceral sense of propulsion. I favored triple meters as they allow for ambiguity and open up themselves to larger and smaller kaleidoscoping rhythmic structures, as opposed to duple meters that tend toward the hierarchy of “up” beats answered by “down” beats. The pulse is decentralized through the overlaying multiple meters and speeds, offsetting accented beats by placing them in different parts of the measure, thus disorienting the players’ and listeners’ sense of the beginning or ending of a rhythmic cycle.

As pitches and rhythms become fluid, so do boundaries, as elements that traditionally divide musicians and genre-specific modes are brought into new contexts. The idea is about fluidity: sounds flow into one another, overtones interact, as we approach a universal human sound.

— From the Liner Notes of “Not Two”

My approach to music making depends on a sense of community, trust, and mutual respect. The sixteen members of the orchestra are of course adept and possess virtuosic skills on their instruments. Beyond that, they are all friends of mine, musicians whom I have met on my journey through different musical worlds over the course of decades. This sense of friendship eventually spread among the musicians, and became an essential part of the group’s dynamic.

The core of Rivers of Sound is my six-piece Two Rivers Ensemble – Nasheet Waits (drums), Tareq Abboushi (buzuq), Zafer Tawil (oud), Carlo DeRosa (bass), and Ole Mathisen (saxophone) – which was established in 2006 and combines Iraqi Maqam with contemporary jazz. Other members of the group include my sister, Dena El Saffar (violin, joza, and viola), whom I have been singing and inventing songs with since we were young children. She and I currently perform in Safaafir, an Iraqi Maqam ensemble, that includes her husband, Tim Moore (percussion). Jason Adasiewicz (vibraphone) and I first played together in the Illinois All-State jazz combo when we were in high school and studied and performed together at DePaul University. Mohamed Saleh (oboe, English horn) and I met in Weimar in 1999 as members of the first West-East Divan Orchestra, consisting of Arab and Israeli musicians, under conductor Daniel Barenboim. JD Parran (bass saxophone, clarinet) and I were members of Cecil Taylor’s Orchestra Humane, a large ensemble that performed actively between 2002 and 2005. Fabrizio Cassol (alto saxophone) and I met in 2013, when he invited me to be a member of his Alef-Ba project in France, combining jazz and Middle Eastern musicians. George Ziadeh (oud) and Naseem AlAtrash (cello) were both part of the musical community at Alwan for the Arts, a cultural center in Manhattan where I served as music curator from 2008 until 2018. Rajna Swaminathan (mrudangam) and I have played in a variety of ensembles, and through her, I became acquainted with Miles Okazaki (guitar). All of the musicians are performers/composers/innovators who have found creative ways of inhabiting multiple musical worlds. These worlds reverberate in the music of Rivers of Sound.

I compose the music with each musician’s sensibilities in mind – their sound and musicality, of course, but also their mannerisms, how they walk, talk, and carry themselves. In terms of the notated music, I give each musician entire ensemble scores, as opposed to individual parts, so they are aware of what all the other members were doing. The written scores are intended to be points of departure from which the musicians can invent their own parts. Once they learn the melodies and rhythms, I encourage them to alter the music in ways that they see fit. In some cases, this means omitting or syncopating notes, in others it means adding grace notes, trills, and ornaments.

The musicians listen deeply and depend upon one another, keeping their ears and eyes open at all times, and never losing focus or slipping into “auto pilot” mode. Consciousness and critical thinking are key. We work out the intonation, phrasing, and dynamics by ear. The ensemble sound has been created through this process, as the musicians self-orchestrate, and it is up to them to decide if and when they take solos.

Our first album, Not Two, was recorded in April, 2015, five days after the band convened for the first time, in a single 14-hour session. We recorded directly to 2” tape (and subsequently mixed and mastered the album entirely in the analog domain), and had no overdubs, no punches, no edits. I am interested in capturing process in our performances and recording, as opposed to presenting a perfect product. A risky approach, perhaps, but the results are much more appealing to me: the music is open, vulnerable, and ultimately an honest expression. It is about capturing the emergence of the sound.

Not Two was released on New Amsterdam in 2017, and since then, the orchestra has toured in the US, Europe, and the Middle East. The sense of camaraderie and self-organization extends to our time on the road as members look out for one another. We recorded our second album, The Other Shore, in 2019, and it was supposed to come out in 2020, supported by a two-week tour. Sadly, all of this was postponed due to Covid-19. Now, the album is scheduled for June, 2021, tour dates are being scheduled for 2021-2022, and I have been commissioned to compose a third work for the orchestra.

From a distance, Rivers of Sound appears to be a multi-cultural ensemble consisting of people from a variety of different backgrounds, building bridges through music. Cross-cultural “fusions” are common in the world of music today. These often result in surface-level engagements, focusing on the exotic sounds of the instruments, the performers’ dress, or other superficial phenomena, and indulge in romanticized ideals of other cultures, falling into the traps of essentialism.

The colonial past, present-day economic disparities, domination and inequality based on class, race, and gender are present, even as we form utopic musical societies that seem isolated from the harsh realities of the world. When connecting and integrating different musical languages, we must be mindful and intentional, otherwise we are in danger of appropriating that which we do not understand and replicating unequal power dynamics.

Rivers of Sound represents another approach. When we begin with an inherent sense of unity and interconnectedness, and musicians as individuals, not representatives of a culture, there is no longer a need to “build bridges.”

The compositions for the Rivers of Sound contain elements found in jazz, blues, R&B, and other music from the African American tradition, Western Classical music, Arabic, Turkish, and Persian Maqam, South Indian music, and other musical worlds. These are musical spaces that I have inhabited in my experience. The musicians of the ensemble bring a plethora of other musical idioms from their collective and diverse experiences, which inform the group’s overall sound. But we are never quoting or drawing directly on pre-existing or ready-made, musical forms.

Starting from formlessness, we create new structures and ways of organizing sound. In the moment of performance, cultural distinctions dissipate, and we are individual human beings communicating with one another. The music is a means of getting us all together, speaking the same language, and the magic comes from the deepening relationships and connections between the musicians.

I began Rivers of Sound as an experiment, to try to find new ways of organizing sound. Today, Rivers of Sound is an extended family, creating one of the most joyful musical experiences I have ever been a part of.

The highest ideal in maqam music is to reach a state of Tarab, or musical ecstasy, the melting away of borders, when listeners and performers share in a suspended moment of space and time, losing a sense of individual identity, reveling together in the moment of the music.

— Liner Notes of “Not Two”


About the Author:

Composer, trumpeter, santur player, and vocalist Amir ElSaffar has been described as “uniquely poised to reconcile jazz and Arabic music,” (the Wire) and “one of the most promising figures in jazz today” (Chicago Tribune). A recipient of the Doris Duke Performing Artist Award and a 2018 US Artist Fellow, ElSaffar is an expert trumpeter with a classical background, conversant not only in the language of contemporary jazz, but has created techniques to play microtones and ornaments idiomatic to Arabic music that are not typically heard on the trumpet. Additionally, he is a purveyor of the centuries old, now endangered, Iraqi maqam tradition, which he performs actively as a vocalist and santur player. As a composer, ElSaffar has used the subtle microtones found in Iraqi maqam  music to create an innovative approach to harmony and melody, and has received commissions to compose for large and small jazz ensembles, traditional Middle Eastern ensembles, chamber orchestras, string quartets, and contemporary music ensembles, as well as dance troupes.

Described as “an imaginative bandleader, expanding the vocabulary of the trumpet and at the same time the modern jazz ensemble,” (All About Jazz), ElSaffar is an important voice in an age of cross-cultural music making. ElSaffar has received commissions from the MAP Fund, Arab Fund for Arts and Culture (AFAC), Newport Jazz Festival, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Chamber Music America, Jazz Institute of Chicago, and is composer-in-residence at the Royaumont Foundation in France in 2017-2019.

ElSaffar’s most recent release, Rivers of Sound: Not Two (2017, New Amsterdam Records) features his 17-piece Rivers of Sound Orchestra, consisting of musicians from an variety of musical backgrounds. Using resonance as its governing principle, the music incorporates elements of maqam modal music of the Middle East with jazz and other contemporary musical practices to create a unique microtonal musical environment that moves beyond the notions of style and tradition into a realm of uninhibited musical communication. Each musician of the orchestra interacts with the group through the combination of improvisation and composition, the merging of musical languages, maqam and polyphony, toward the goal of reaching a collective state of Tarab, or musical ecstasy.

The Rivers of Sound Orchestra is an expansion of ElSaffar’s six-piece Two Rivers Ensemble. Active since 2006, this sextet explores the juncture between jazz and music of the Middle East. Their 2015 release, Crisis (Pi Recordings) is a reflection on a region in turmoil and strife: revolution, civil war, sectarian violence; a culture’s struggle for survival. The music passionate and visceral, a cry from the heart. Crisis was commissioned by the Newport Jazz Festival, where at its 2013 premiere, it made a clear emotional connection to the audience, receiving a rousing standing ovation after just the first piece.

In recent years, ElSaffar has turned his attention to composition, working with a variety of different ensembles and musical formats. In November, 2017, he premiered a new work Maqam/Brass Resonance, for seven winds and percussion, at the Berlin Jazz Festival. Two months prior to that, his work Interstices for Octet plus One, performed by the renowned Belgian contemporary ensemble, Ictus, premiered at the Royaumont Foundation in France. He has also composed the score for Ragamala Dance’s acclaimed new work, Written in Water, which has been touring in the US since 2016. In 2014, his work Ashwaaq, for string quartet, voice, and santur, based on Sufi poetry of Ibn Arabi, was performed at the Aix and Avignon festivals in 2014. This year, ElSaffar is working on a composition for Flamenco musicians and dancer, with Arabic musicians and electronics, commissioned by the Royaumont Foundation, which will premiere at the Flamenco Biennale in the Netherlands. He will also compose a chamber work for strings and clarinet for the Jazztopad Festival in Poland, and an orchestral work for the Eastern Sierra Symphony. ElSaffar has previously received commissions from the Painted Bride Arts Center in Philadelphia (2006), the Festival of New Trumpet Music (FONT) (2006), Jazz Institute of Chicago (2008), the Jerome Foundation (2009), Chamber Music America (2009), Present Music (2010), The Metropolitan Museum of Art (2013), The Newport Jazz Festival (2013), Morgenland Festival (2013) and the Royaumont Foundation (2014), creating works integrating Middle Eastern tonalities and rhythms into an contemporary contexts.

He currently leads four critically-acclaimed ensembles: The 17-piece Rivers of Sound OrchestraTwo Rivers, which combines the musical languages and instrumentation of Iraqi Maqam and contemporary jazz; the Amir ElSaffar Quintet, performing ElSaffar’s microtonal compositions with standard jazz instrumentation; Safaafirthe only ensemble in the US performing and preserving the Iraqi Maqam in its traditional format; and The Alwan Ensemble, the resident ensemble of Alwan for the Arts, specializing in classical music from Egypt, the Levant, and Iraq. In addition, he has worked with jazz legend Cecil Taylor, and prominent jazz musicians such as Mark Dresser, Gerry Hemingway, Marc Ribot, Henry Grimes, and Oliver Lake. ElSaffar has appeared on numerous recordings, and has released six under his own name, Maqams of Baghdad (2005), Two Rivers (2007), Radif Suite (2010), Inana (2011),  Alchemy (2013), and Crisis (2015).