What do you do when you come across a brilliant but largely unknown-to-the-rest-of-the-world composer from your home country? If you are Bahraini composer/musician Hasan Hujairi you begin to collect his musical scores and prepare to bring them to life on stage. After months of work, the concert – called Symphonies Of The Self – took place in April of this year.
I met Hasan in 2010 when we were both Red Bull Music Academy participants in London. He sent me a link to the finalé of the concert and I have to say that as a music-listening experience it engaged me in a way that music hasn’t in a while. For one – I can’t remember the last time I sat down and just listened to a 10+ minute piece of music without doing something else. No screens, no other tabs, just the music. It’s absolutely hypnotic and I decided I had to do a quick interview with Hasan to know more about the project. Here’s what he had to say.
Tell us about how Symphonies of the Self began as a project.
Since early in my childhood, I have been interested in the life and work of late Bahraini composer Majeed Marhoon (1945-2010). Marhoon was a self-taught composer who had served a life sentence for his activity with a group of pro-independence activists in the 1960s. He spent most of those years on a penal island off the coast of Bahrain, where he taught himself music theory, composed incredibly moving music (some of which was smuggled to orchestras in Europe during his incarceration), and even wrote a 6000-thousand page music encyclopedia in Arabic (which is something that has never been done before). It’s interesting to me that he did all these things even though we never had a full national Orchestra in Bahrain – and we still don’t have one until today. I find it unusually poetic that a person such as Marhoon, despite all odds, had taught himself music theory (showing a particular interest in the works of Beethoven) and wrote music for an orchestra that doesn’t exist.
My being part of a new generation of composers – and I also consider myself as being a self-taught composer for the most part – I think that it’s important to pay homage to Majeed Marhoon. This project started by me asking his family and friends for his music scores, which were not accessible to the public for a long time, and I was genuinely afraid that his works would someday be completely lost should this project not see the light of day. It ended up being picked up by the Red Bull team in Bahrain and supported by some great artists. I still want to develop the project further by making all of Majeed Marhoon’s scores available to the public by archiving and distributing them while collaborating with his family and friends on the matter.
What was the guiding principle behind the arrangement of the pieces for the concert?
As we started looking into the pieces of music to consider for the concert, we realized that he had composed well over one hundred works that could be classified as classical music, with a big proportion of it being orchestral. I spent time with one of his friends who was also his copyist (Marhoon used to ask him personally to type up his carefully handwritten musical scores on the computer so that musicians would be able to read the music scores clearly) and the conductor of the Bahrain National Orchestra (who was also a close friend and collaborator of the late composer) to discuss this matter. We ended up selecting a number of works that Marhoon himself had asked the conductor to present one day because they are what Marhoon considered as being his best works.
That being said, I feel that this project was only an introduction for us – the musicians – to the works of Majeed Marhoon. I still think that much of his work will remain unperformed for a while to come, but with adequate preparation, I hope that my dream of seeing all his works performed over time will come true.
I must also add that Majeed Marhoon was well aware of avant garde music and electronic music practice, and he mentions in the music encyclopedia he wrote that young composers of the Arabic-speaking world need to understand what all this entails if they wish to keep up with music happening in the rest of the world. This pushed me to also consider introducing an element of avant garde music and electronic music based on the work of Marhoon to reflect this particular thought of his.
How did the collaboration with Henrik Schwarz and Bugge Wesseltoft come about?
In the very early stages of planning for the project, right after the Red Bull team in Bahrain showed interest in making this project happen, they asked me to suggest some “dream artists” I’d like to have on stage with me and the other musicians. Henrik Schwarz and Bugge Wesseltoft were the first two names that I thought of just because I was deeply impressed by their lecture and performance in London while I was a participant in the 2010 edition of the Red Bull Music Academy. I’ve also been following their work since then and was constantly surprised by their approach to collaboration, which sometimes also involved working with orchestras and classical music. I thought that they would be ideal for the project and to my surprise they were very enthusiastic about being part of the project. I also shared the scores with [them] so that they can also have an input on what they’d like to perform and how they’d like to be involved in the performance.I deeply appreciate their generous contribution to the performance. They were an absolute joy to have in Bahrain both as collaborators and as friends.
What was the biggest challenge when putting together the project?
This type of a project, as you can imagine, is a large undertaking. Of course, the “musicking” part of it was extremely fun, but there was a lot of running around involved. The biggest challenge, and I do not mean this in a negative way by any means, is coordinating with all the parties involved in the project. For example, all the different musicians were affiliated with different organizations, which was a slight challenge at times when it came to making sure everyone was available for rehearsals or everyone was in agreement with the details of their involvement. We also needed to, on several occasions, find different places to rehearse because there was a major art and culture festival happening at the time – under which this project was included – and different performing groups needed to use the rehearsal spaces made available to us. I found myself juggling the role of musician, producer, and administration staff for the project, which at times was overwhelming, but I was glad to receive constant support throughout the process. I had a lot of help as the project progressed from the team at Red Bull and others who also wanted to see the project succeed. This was by no means a personal endeavor. I see the project as a big learning experience just because something on its scale had never happened before in Bahrain in regard to music. I hope that this would transform the culture of putting together future music projects there.
What did you learn about yourself as a musician while working on the project?
While working on the project, the main thing I learned about myself – specifically as a musician – is that it’s alright for me to be a complete outsider in my approach. It’s okay for me to “invent” my own approach as a composer, it’s okay for me to dream a little bigger, and to get out of my comfort zone. Audiences genuinely want to see performers succeed on stage, and I felt that I had – at least on a small scale – made an impact on the local music scene through that one particular project. I also think that learning more about other musicians and artists who come from where I come from helps me understand my own creative lineage a little better. Overall, it was both a very humbling and liberating experience.
Were there any reactions after the show that were noteworthy? Or surprising?
The most moving aspect of the project is the involvement of Majeed Marhoon’s widow and son. I tried my very best to keep them informed about how the project was coming together, and they even attended some of the rehearsals once the orchestra’s rehearsals started coming together. Marhoon’s widow and son came to the concert on both nights of the performance, and showed great enthusiasm at the end of each performance, thanking each one of the musicians in the process.
One of the most special episodes happened on my first meeting with Marhoon’s widow when I went to get her permission to proceed with the project. She told me something that I took as a sign of goodwill and as a blessing of sorts. She said that Majeed Marhoon never refused any musician who wanted to use his music, and that everyone who used Majeed Marhoon’s music eventually became very successful and fortunate in their own careers. She then said that she’s sure that Marhoon’s spirit will be with us on both nights of the performance. On both nights, I felt that he really was there, and that he was happy to be with us all.