Blog / The Oud & The Orchestra: Tognetti & Tawadros

The Oud & The Orchestra: Tognetti & Tawadros

Posted on 6 Feb 2015 by Neall Kriete

In Conversation: Joseph Tawadros & Richard Tognetti

RT: I first worked with Joe about 15 years ago, I was looking for a bunch of people to come up to a festival I was running, to represent different cultures, different aspects of human endeavour – I got an Islamic chanter to come up, a cantor from a synagogue, Willie Barton on didgeridoo and Joseph Tawadros, as well as the myriad faces of the ACO, to go, “come on, if musicians can do it, the rest of the world can”. As musicians, we love the borders, and what goes on within those borders, and we happily cross the borders. This cross-pollination of musical styles is a thrilling way to keep alive ancient music, classical music.

How does the oud fit in the Orchestra and The Four Seasons?

JT: The oud is of course an instrument from Middle East, it represents Middle-Eastern music, it’s a symbol of the Middle East – it’s as popular in the Middle East as a piano is in the West.

RT: But why the Baroque music? Joe couldn’t turn up and play in a Bruckner Symphony, or even a Beethoven Symphony. The thing about Baroque music is that it’s got what we call a continuo section, which can be anything really – it’s the bass line: it can be a harpsichord, it can be an organ; if you’re modernising, it can be a piano. But it’s the fundamental, out of which the melody grows. So the continuo can easily be an oud. The other plucked instrument we’ve got on stage, apart from the harpsichord, is this large lute, theorbo it’s also called – and so the oud marries perfectly with this.

JT: As a youngster, when I heard Vivaldi and Bach, particularly in the minor modes, I always thought that there were Middle Eastern melodies in there – it’s very diatonic, there aren’t any great leaps in melody. It’s very linear, and Arabic music is also very linear.

RT: Bach based his concerto style on Vivaldi’s music, so that’s northern German music, but essentially it’s Italian music. Venice – where Vivaldi was (and Gabrieli and Marcello, who we’re also featuring in the program) – was a world capital, a world centre at the time. It was a trading city, and so you had this incredible influx and out-flux of spices, art, people, and so there was all this ‘likeness’ – people absorbed different things. There’s a wonderful book that we’ve referenced, Venice and the Islamic World, 828–1797, by Stefano Carboni (Director of the Art Gallery of Western Australia), who was the Curator and Administrator in the Department of Islamic Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. What’s interesting, this book is very thick, really rich and wonderfully informative, but there is nothing on music. As Joe says, his ear is taken by Vivaldi and these Venetian composers – he feels the similarity, hears the similarity – but there is no concrete lineage. So, what we’re trying to demonstrate is that they (the Venetian composers) must have heard this music.

JT: We’re playing the Presto from Violin Concerto in A minor, RV356, and I always felt that that was a really Arabic melody. So we had to include it. The orchestra is pretty much playing it as it is. And I’m playing it with some Arabic ornaments, some spice. The compositions that we’re playing are half Baroque, and then half of it’s my stuff. The way I learnt music was the Arabic modal system – it’s what I use to compose and improvise. You can’t just put a chamber orchestra with Arabic musicians, transport them and expect everything to be happy days and vice versa. So, I think it’s a very carefully thought-out program, we’ve worked on the arrangements and been very careful with how it sounds. We’re really into the music, very passionate about it, we love doing it. And I think we’ve come up with something that has a good balance of both Arabic and Western music … but not knowing which one takes over at any time.

RT: On the other hand, it’s not sounding anachronistic; it’s not sounding wrong in place or time.

JT: It’s about avoiding cliché, and music making with emotional value to it. Permission to Evaporate, that repertoire is very important for me; it’s got a very high emotional value.

RT: I think one really good thing, strong thing, about Joe’s music is the structure. When you’re time-dependent with a composition, you need to structure it so that the ear is titillated but not over-burdened, and that there is enough repetition, but not too much, unless you’re using it as a technique.

But there is also a heavier improvisational element in Joe’s music …

JT: Arabic music is very melody-based, it’s not harmonic – it doesn’t have a chordal progression, actually. It’s all on a drone, and it’s on a mode. So usually the tonic is what holds it together. You have heterophony, because everyone’s playing in their own way – they’re free to play the melody in their own way. Improvisation in Arabic music is called taqsim, that’s basically, you start on a mode, and start modulating to related modes, kind of showing your prowess in modulations, and the audience will yell out praise if they like a modulation. That’s how I approach a melody – in a free improvisation, you’re building a theme, and you start developing that theme. It’s essentially spontaneous composition, but you’re still aware of the themes you create on the fly. Each piece will have a section for improvisation, and the whole idea is that the tarab is basically the ecstasy in music – you’re reaching this point, the melody is almost the way to get you into the mood for an improvisation. In Arabic music, it’s funny, they have these set pieces that we don’t know who composed, and they will use it for an introduction just to get you into the mood of an improvisation, just to set it up.

RT: The closest we have is a cadenza. But we play what we call a riff, a distillation if you like, of the melody.

JT: It’s a repeated pattern … it kind of puts you in that trance, that’s the idea.

RT: But you can go quite wild. And then you come out of that tarab, and it’s anchored again in structure.

JT: It’s like a journey; you’ve got the climaxes and the then the finale. And there are also these traditional cadences in Arabic music, when you’re improvising, they say it’s a free improvisation, but there are these cadences where the audience (it’s a melodic cadence, not based on chords) will know when to praise, if it’s finished correctly. There is a way of correctly finishing a solo, and the audience can anticipate it – even before the last note is hit, they know it’s coming. It’s a real interactive medium, and I think we’ve brought that interactive element from the Middle East to the Orchestra. Orchestras tend to be quite stiff, they’re very structured, but I think with the ACO, there’s a lot of smiling going on on-stage, there’s a lot of energy – that’s why I like performing with the ACO and Richard, there’s this energy and a lot of friendship. We can share a laugh, it’s a relaxed atmosphere, but very serious at the same time. We’re doing this stuff, and we’re 100% focused on doing the best that we can with this material.

The Four Seasons

Vivaldi’s Four Seasons has undergone many reincarnations since it was first played by the talented orphans of the Ospedale della Pietà in 18th-century Venice. Now, Richard Tognetti and Joseph Tawadros bring their own blend of musical alchemy to this program, reminding us that Venice is barely a day’s sail from Cairo.
Almost 300 years after Vivaldi penned the Four Seasons, Joseph Tawadros brings the sounds of the near east to Australia with a selection of original works.