Sonata Maqâm is a two-movement piano sonata commissioned by pianist Lori Simms via the auspices of Western Michigan University where she is a faculty member. The concept for this piece began as a conversation with Lori about creating a sonata in the vein of Prokoviev’s war sonatas, but rather an anti-war sonata in reaction to our current dilemma in Iraq. Feeling very strongly about this issue, but not wanting to enter into an arena of reactionary rhetoric (albeit in an abstract musical form), I sought to treat this in a proactive way by pursuing an understanding of the music, and hence a small part of the culture in Iraq. I believe lack of cultural understanding is at the root of the escalating conflict and steps toward bridging this gap are crucial in finding ways to obtain peace.
In researching musical genres of the Middle East, I eventually came upon a genre indigenous to Iraq known as the Iraqi Maqâm. Not to be confused with the term Maqâm as it is known in all other Arab countries to be a musical mode with specific characteristics, the Iraqi Maqâm is traditional vocal art with a repertoire of about fifty independent pieces that can be improvised on, lengthened or shortened in performance. The title of this work,Sonata Maqâm, refers to the piece’s hybrid status as it incorporates elements of the Maqâm tradition as well as that of the Sonata.
The first movement borrows two musical themes, one from the opening vocal line of Maqâm Seîgâh (one of the seven fundamental Iraqi Maqâms) and one from the instrumental mouqadimma introduction to Maqâm Hleîlâwî. The Seîgâh theme is a mournful lament that plays out as sequences of three-note descending patterns. This lament begins as a solo line projected between to different voices. As the line continues, echoes of it can be heard in the surrounding texture, much akin to the way the instrumental accompaniment in Iraqi Maqâms can operate. The piece continues to develop lyrically and contextually as the theme is subjected to new forms of “instrumental accompaniment” until a new theme, the mouqadimma, enters surreptitiously in a lower voice. One could hardly identify the presence of a new theme at this point without several hearings, but it does begin a carefully planned transition to a faster section that utilizes this theme exclusively and mimics the buoyant dance-like quality of the mouaqdimma itself. This music culminates in a whirling passage of 32nd notes that suddenly comes to a stop, initiating a recapitulation of the material derived from Seîgâh. The movement comes to its end with a cascade of descending lines that diminish in energy until the very last note.
This is the point at which the Maqâm proper would ordinarily end and a pésté (popular song from the urban culture) would ensue. The second movement of Sonata Maqâm is in fact titled Al pésté and serves as a kind of refreshing antidote to the seriousness of the first movement. Again, melodic material was drawn from another source, namely the pésté of Maqâm Husseînî, the text of which suggests a woman who has lost herself to a man who seems not to return her affection (at least not to the same degree). The music of this second and final movement is intensely virtuosic and somewhat ritualistic sounding with the obsessive repetition of melodic fragments and continual use of a short trill-like gesture.
The Iraqi Maqâm is a rich musical art form that continually develops through the sharing and building of ideas between the performers that perform it. With all due reverence for this tradition, Sonata-Maqâm was written with the notion that the sharing of ideas can extend beyond borders, even when there is conflict on either side.