Off the Beaten Taqsim: Middle Eastern Musical Encounters in the Urban UK, a half-day conference on Middle Eastern music

City hosted this half-day conference on Wednesday October 23rd as part of the Inside Out Festival, which supports and showcases the contributions made by London universities to the city’s cultural life.

The conference was themed around middle eastern musical encounters in the urban UK, with a strong and distinctive emphasis on practice: the speakers were all composers and / or performers whose work deals with middle eastern music, albeit in very different contexts and with different approaches and results.

Sean David Crowdus outlined how, in his piece A Sailor’s Dream, notions of cultural difference are represented, played with and negotiated through the setting of the middle eastern maqam alongside a more straightforwardly ‘western’ musical language. The two idioms are encapsulated by two distinct ensemble alignments, allowing the musical encounter to present itself dramatically through performance.

Seth Ayyaz gave a broad overview of his work as a composer and of new developments in experimental music and sound art in the middle east, beginning with a short documentary covering the 2010 Mazaj festival. The festival, which he curated, was a rare opportunity to have  diverse practitioners of experimental music engage in live discussions about issues surrounding creativity in contemporary middle eastern contexts. Ayyaz also played extracts from his recent pieces makhraj and the bird ghost at the zaouia.  He outlined how he was both inspired and troubled by performing at London’s Leighton House, given the building’s historical association with British imperialism and orientalism.

Soosan Lolavar introduced her new project Stay Close, which aims to harness contemporary classical music as a means of cultural exchange between the UK and Iran. The project’s first phase involved a trip by Lolavar to Iran, where she met a variety of composers and forged links with institutions such as Hermes Records. The second phase, recently begun, involves leading creative workshops with youth groups at the Iranian Youth Development Association, aiming to stimulate musical creativity among London’s Farsi-speaking diaspora. Ultimately this will lead to the composition of a new work by Lolavar to be premiered in 2014.

The final item was a performance of Iraqi Jewish songs by Sara Manasseh and Keith Clousten, providing an ideal counterpart to the presentations. Beyond the captivating music itself, Manasseh was able to draw on years of knowledge and research on the history of Iraqi Jewish music when introducing and discussing each song.

— Sam Mackay