Amir ElSaffar: "Using Whatever Means We Have to Make Music Together"

Rebecca Bailey, Hopkins Center Publicity Coordinator and Write

In his April 23 Hop@Home live-streamed concert, this eloquent, culture-spanning musician negotiates the contradiction of self-isolation versus musical connection.

Think of a concert you attended BC—before coronavirus. Remember those speakers and monitors and microphones, that person at a mixing board twiddling knobs? If that network of electronics was working well, you probably didn't give it much thought. But it was a vital link in the experience.

For Amir ElSaffar, online performance technology is just another version of the combination of human perception, electronics and acoustics that's part of today's performing arts. "We're always dealing with limitations as musicians. We're always connecting through some sort of filter."

ElSaffar and four other members of his Rivers of Sound Orchestra will rely on that technology to perform together live from multiple locations on Thursday, April 23, 8 pm, in Hop@Home's first Live Living Room Concert. Playing Western and Middle Eastern instruments, the bandmates will collaborate on ElSaffar's rich, improvisation-laden compositions, fusing Arabic music and jazz—a gorgeous creative output that has made ElSaffar a Hop favorite as well as a leading figure in contemporary music. Tune in on YouTube Live.

ElSaffar and the entire 17-member orchestra were to have performed at the Hop this spring; that full, in-person performance by the 17-member ensemble has been rescheduled for 2021. The April 23 "living room" concert draws samples that larger ensemble: ElSaffar on trumpet, santur (a Middle Eastern hammered dulcimer) and voice, his sister Dena El Saffar on viola and joza (an Iraqi violin), Tim Moore on percussion, Ole Mathisen on tenor saxophone and Miles Okazaki on guitar.

Before coronavirus ElSaffar was familiar with online live performance as a contributor to projects led by musician/tech innovators Sarah Weaver and Mark Dresser, who had begun developing what they called "telematic music" in the early 2000s, and ElSaffar has been part of projects led by Weaver and Dresser that linked musicians in time zones from California to China.

"It was an interesting experience," ElSaffar said of his early online experiences, in an interview from his Upper Manhattan apartment where he's been self-isolating. "At first it feels strange and artificial … but eventually we got used to it and felt like there were good musical connections. As Mark Dresser said, if you have chemistry with someone, you have chemistry—it doesn't matter if you are playing in the same room or over an internet connection."

All platforms for connecting multiple locations have their quirks, including "latency," that time lag created just by virtue of the sound waves having to travel back and forth, translated into light, between musicians' locations. For ElSaffar, however, any online platform that lets you play with people in real time is preferable to the  "virtual" choirs and bands created by editing together separately recorded tracks. "These can be great but they don't allow for improvisation and live in-the-moment interaction. My experience with another concert [using less agile technology] was even though there were technical issues, it felt so good to play together. There was a sense that we were united and playing something that could only happen in that moment, and we felt the presence of the audience listening in real time. It's really different from a pre-recorded piece. I feel like people really want and need an expression of what's happening in this moment because it's an unprecedented moment for humanity and we're all suffering this thing together and yet we can't see each other."

Performing despite requirements to self-isolate is "a form of resistance—not in a political sense but in the sense that, our humanity is still going to prevail despite the current conditions, that we'll use whatever means we have to make music together."

About Amir ElSaffar and Rivers of Sound

ElSaffar and Rivers have been called "gorgeous, invigorating and accessible" (NPR Music). Wrote the Chicago Reader, "The band navigates ElSaffar's still-fresh fusion of jazz and maqam with such masterful technical power and vivid lyrical imagination that you almost immediately forget to be engrossed by the novelty of the sound."  

Deeply rooted in the musical traditions of Iraq, this ensemble honors those origins while  speaking the language of swing and improvisation. Distinct from other contemporary musical fusions, ElSaffar's group incorporates microtones rarely heard on the trumpet, as well as innovative strides in the maqam modal system performed on the santur (hammered dulcimer), which ElSaffar learned to play during his sojourn in Iraq.  

An American teen prodigy in both jazz and classical trumpet, ElSaffar spent his early 20s in his ancestral home of Iraq, immersing himself in Arabic musical traditions. In Iraq, ElSaffar learned to sing in the eloquent Sufi vocal style known as maqam and to play the santur, an ancient Arabic percussive instrument similar to the hammered dulcimer. "Something resonated at a deep level. I discovered part of myself I didn't know existed through the music," he told a writer for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  "Because the music of Iraq is like the subconscious of Iraq. It tells a story and I needed to connect to that element of the culture."

An expansion of ElSaffar's six-member Two Rivers ensemble, Rivers of Sound includes musicians from a broad spectrum of traditions playing on a range of instruments, including the Middle Eastern oud, buzuq, santur, joza and percussion, arrayed with the piano, bass and drums of the American jazz tradition, along with trumpet, saxophone, oboe, strings and voice. The modal language of the maqam combines with the aesthetics of contemporary music and jazz to create a new musical vocabulary. The unifying principle of this music allows the assembled musicians to explore and experiment together along a continuum of sound encompassing timbre, harmony, pitch and rhythm.

The ensemble's broad spectrum of instruments provides a distinct palate of overtones and timbres, allowing for the emergence of unique sonorities and encouraging nuanced interactions among the musicians. Each individual sound rises to meet its neighbors, blending to form a novel sovereign harmonic plurality. Concurrently, traditional and contemporary rhythmic languages are pared down to basic elements and reconstructed, interlocking in shared pulses and creating a communion among players and audience.