Monday, February 27th, 2017 10:09 am

Phillip Golub is a composer on the M.Mus course at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama in London. Inspired by Abū l-ʿAlāʾ al-Maʿarrī’s verse, his choral piece, The Necessity of what is Unnecessary, is designed for six singers and will be premiered by the EXAUDI Vocal Ensemble, conducted by James Weeks, on March 3rd in Milton Court Concert Hall at 19:00. Below, he writes about discovering and reading The Epistle of Forgiveness through a surprising medium—music—and of its impact on his current work:  

In early 2013, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the al-Nusra Front were both fighting the Syrian Army in the northwestern town of Maarat al-Numan, strategically important due to its location along the supply route from Damascus to Aleppo. However, one bronze statue near the city’s central museum bore witness to the fact that the FSA and al-Nusra were enemies in ideology in as many ways as they were partners against Assad. The twice-life-sized bust of Abu l-ʿAla Al-Maʿarri, cast in the 1940s by a local sculpture student, was decapitated by al-Nusra. After the FSA recaptured Ma’arrat al-Nu’man, they relocated the now headless statue and took care of it, as can be seen in the below shot of an FSA fighter cleaning it.

I first became aware of al-Ma’arri through a Palestinian-Lebanese violinist. I had been telling her about Thomas Jefferson’s surprisingly severe comments on religion. This towering figure was integral to the founding of my country, yet this exceedingly important part of his worldview had never come up in my schooling in American history. Later, I would find out that a good number of the Founding Fathers had similar beliefs.

My friend responded with a did-you-know of her own: an 11th century vegan atheist from outside of Aleppo. It seemed inconceivable to me. My initial reaction reflected my ignorance and the stand-in notions of “East” and “West” through which I heard my friend’s words. My basic sketch of the world had seemed to deny that Jefferson, the man who said:


In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in

alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own,

could have anything to do with al-Ma’arri (translated by Reynold A. Nicholson), the man who said:


religious rites were a means of enslaving the masses:

O fools, awake! The rites you sacred hold

Are but a cheat contrived by men of old,

Who lusted after wealth and gained their lust

And died in baseness—and their law is dust.

Or consider:


Man once surrendering his reason, has no remaining guard against absurdities the most

monstrous, and like a ship without rudder, is the sport of every wind,

compared with:


Had they been left alone with reason,

They would not have accepted a spoken lie;

But the whips were raised to strike them.

Traditions were brought to them.

Or, finally:


It is between fifty and sixty years since I read it [the book of Revelations], and I then

considered it merely the ravings of a maniac, no more worthy nor capable of explanation

than the incoherences of our own nightly dreams,



The inhabitants of the earth are of two sorts: those with brains, but no religion, and

those with religion, but no brains.

Of course, the worlds of Jefferson and al-Ma’arri are radically different from one another and their thoughts on religion, insofar as we can even tell exactly what they really were, diverge often. But I find that it is useful to shift the focus from what divides us to what we share. I do not mean to suggest that “difference”—allowing for it, maintaining it, celebrating it, digging into the peculiarities it brings up—should not be a priority. This very website on which you are reading might not exist without a team of committed people studying some semblance of “difference” and without a decades-old cultural shift in the academy committed to protecting difference.

Still, Jefferson and al-Ma’arri’s lineage—broadly speaking—are a lot more connected than “we” in the West or “they” in the Middle East have been led to believe. That is at the heart of why I was drawn to al-Ma’arri and of what al-Nusra finds so threatening in his figure. Al-Ma’arri represents a tradition that profoundly upsets what al-Nusra’s vision—to turn the clocks back hundreds of years—would mean. He also represents a tradition that profoundly upsets what we think the origins of our “Western” ideas are.

This is the tradition from Cordoba to Baghdad of Ibn al-Haytham, who codified what we call the Scientific Method centuries before Francis Bacon; of Ibn Rushd (a.k.a. “Averroes”) whose notion of inertia would later be taken up by Johannes Kepler and whom Thomas Aquinas called simply “The Commentator” (on Aristotle, who for Aquinas was “The Philosopher”); of al-Khwarizmi, the great mathematician; and of Abu Rayhan al-Biruni, a Renaissance-like polymath. As Kenan Malik says:

“[F]rom the twelfth century onwards, Christian thinkers, most notably Thomas Aquinas, rediscovered their Aristotle, and other Greek philosophers, through Muslim commentaries and translations, a development that would eventually lead to the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution and to the breaking asunder of the closed world of Christendom. Influential though they were, the Muslim Rationalists and freethinkers have, in the rush to insist that there exists a unique ‘Western’ or ‘Judeo-Christian’ tradition, been largely forgotten today. Forgotten, too, has been fact that that Western or Judeo-Christian tradition rests as much, if not more, upon the labours of pagan and Muslim thinkers as of Christian ones.”

Al-Ma’arri’s poetry came to me through my friend as if on cue for a choral piece I was working on. When a chorus of voices sings words, I take the ensemble to be something of a cross-section of the society. The words in a choral piece carry a weight that, in my view, is different from the more personal medium of the solitary singer on stage because of the sheer number voices we perceive. It is public music.

I dove into al-Ma’arri’s work, continually surprising (I think) my friend with new findings about his life and context or in the poetry itself. She would then respond with verses or aspects of his life and work that she remembered from high school. I knew vaguely that I was searching for a text for my upcoming choral work, but I was also just wandering around amidst what I could find in English.

Ameen Rihani and Reynold A. Nicholson’s translations of verses from The Luzumiyat, some of it quite polemical, were a first stop. But the translations were often quite old-fashioned and stylized in a way that I didn’t think would work for my choral work. I then came across the beautiful translation for the LAL of al-Ma’arri’s The Epistle of Forgiveness, a work that highly ironically depicts a journey to paradise and hell (pre-Dante). Because of the quality of the language, I thought I’d met my match, and I asked the LAL for permission to set some of the words, which they graciously granted me.

But after getting further into the Epistle, I realized that the content wasn’t quite right for the music I was imagining. The musical elements of my work had begun to develop and the fantastic visions of paradise, obsessive discussions about poetry, and general tone of mockery, though fabulous, were more appropriate for a dramatic work or at least music with a more dramatic character. Ultimately, I have taken lines from the older translations of The Luzumiyat and treated them like found artifacts, stringing bits of text together to form a short and digestible impression of al-Ma’arri’s worldview. I took the liberty with these older (and public domain) translations to chop them up and combine them as I saw fit for my musical purposes.

The music of the Maqam tradition (over 1000-year-old music from the Arab, Turkish, and Persian world) is built largely through the use of tetrachords, or, groupings of four notes. An imperfect parallel in Western music would be scales or modes. For example, one tetrachord is called “Rast” and another is called “Bayat,” just as Western music has “C major” and “G minor.” (These hardly represent equivalents, rather simply examples of the types of basic building blocks that are found.) In Maqam music, the tetrachords are defined melodically; in other words, over time, the notes of the tetrachord are played in a melody. What does not happen is multiple notes sounding at the same time, defining the groupings of notes harmonically, instead of melodically. It is important that some of the notes in this music are not in tune with our standard tuning system in Western music, called Equal Temperament—basically, the notes you can play on a piano, but not the pitches in between those notes.

In my contemporary work, I treat these tetrachords as found artifacts, rather as I have approached al-Ma’arri’s translated words. What I find so exciting about them is that, when re-contextualized, these musical artifacts begin to similarly defy clear answers to questions of musical-cultural origins. What I have done is to take these tetrachords—these groupings of four notes, that is—and have the pitches sound all at once. This makes them into harmonic clusters of notes, instead of melodic sequences of pitches. The result is a sound nothing like what one would ever find in traditional Maqam music. Instead, the sound closely resembles contemporary techniques, originating mostly in France, called “spectralism.” Composers who follow this school are interested in the natural resonance of sounds, causing them to write notes in their music with very specific tunings, also outside of Equal Temperament.

Here are the four notes of the tetrachord called “Rast” from the Maqam tradition made into a harmonic cluster. (It is worth noting that the tuning of these notes varies a bit, but this would be a standard tuning for “Rast.”) “Rast” could be said to be equivalent to “C major” in Western music—the first musical building block a child would learn to define. It has a beautiful ring to it that cannot be achieved using the “in-tune” notes on the piano.

Here is another four-note harmonic cluster derived using a spectralist approach. Here, the 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th overtones (or partials) of a very low tone (that you do not hear) are played. This is just the sort of thinking that the spectralists pioneered and made a building block of their techniques. (The strange pulsing is an acoustical phenomenon on which there isn’t space to elaborate.)

Here is the spectralist approach again with the “fundamental,” as it is called, or, the very low note from which the other pitches are derived.

As can be clearly heard, the four notes derived from “Rast” and the four notes derived from the low “fundamental” sound almost identical. After accounting for the discrepancies of real instruments and live performance, they could actually be said to be virtually the same thing. All of this poses quite a problem if you have an interest in trying to maintain, from either end of the fence, that the Western and Middle Eastern worlds are musically opposed or incompatible in their thinking.

This “Rast” example, above, is the first sound of my piece. This and other similar artifacts make up its musical material. The text, adapted from al-Ma’arri, reads:


We are breaths of Earth

Bodies of Dust

Quake with a doubt uneasy

A blind man reads his fingers’ ends

Quake with a doubt uneasy

Blind, reading their fingers’ ends

Will you excuse me

For Coughing

Comet-dust and humankind are kin

Stephen K. Bannon—very likely the man with the most sway over the President of the United States right now—said to the listeners of his Breitbart News podcast on December 4, 2015: “It’s war. It’s war. Every day, we put up [on Breitbart News]: America’s at war, America’s at war. We’re at war. Note to self, beloved commander in chief: We’re at war.” Islam, all of it, he says, is the enemy in this “global existential war” that we are engaged in, as he then put in on June 29, 2016.

I would like to offer the slightest of retorts to such absolute nonsense, in the form of six white English singers in the aftermath of the horrifying siege of Aleppo, less than an hour’s drive from al-Ma’arri’s birth place, singing music and text that both speak to the kinship of our societies.

Phillip Golub