The magical Arab world inspires composer Joanna Marsh's poetic compositions

Published February 15th, 2015 - 07:35 GMT

During New Year’s Eve fireworks at Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, British composer Joanna Marsh watched in “open-mouthed awe”. Soon after taking up residence in the emirate in 2007, she had written “The Tower”, a choral work for the BBC Singers that likened Dubai’s soaring needle to the hubristic Tower of Babel. Yet when construction ended in 2010, so did her “British doom and gloom”.

“The choreography was out of this world,” she says of a spectacle that has shattered pyrotechnic records. “It had a balletic grace that was thrilling and extraordinarily beautiful. Forget that the music was filmy and not my thing — it was just what was needed.”

Marsh, 44, was as enthusiastic about “Kahayla”, her latest tower-inspired work. With a cracking whip and a galloping rhythm, the 15-minute orchestral piece uses another Dubai obsession — pure-blood Arabian horseracing — as an allegory for the race skywards.

It was performed at the New Year’s Day concert in Dubai’s Zabeel Park by the Welsh National Opera Orchestra under Xian Zhang on a pop-up stage ringed by palm trees, amid the odd thwack of cricket ball on bat and tinkle of hawkers’ bicycle bells.

The free afternoon concert launched the 20th Dubai Shopping Festival. The month-long retail extravaganza is integral to tourism in an emirate with few oil reserves: there were silk-and-gold carpets on display for $3 million (Dh11 million), and a 5.5 kilometre gold chain, handcrafted to set a Guinness world record. But this was the first time a classical concert had opened the annual spree in a cosmopolis known for commerce rather than culture.

“If there’s a symphony orchestra in town, it’s absolutely not a problem that it’s helped by shopping,” Marsh says. “It means a wider audience. People in the malls might consider coming.” The park’s 3,000-capacity amphitheatre was more than half-full. Some were lured back after hearing rehearsals, while others in this city of migrants came for the Filipina concert pianist Cecile Licad, or the Indian sarod virtuoso Amjad Ali Khan. “I’m all for cross-fertilising and interesting juxtapositions,” Marsh declares.

An openness to the Arab world has inspired her work — though she knew nothing of the culture before she arrived. A graduate of London’s Royal Academy of Music, and a former Cambridge organ scholar, she moved to the UAE when her husband, businessman and organ recitalist Paul Griffiths, became chief executive of Dubai Airports. The couple live beside a desert golf course with their son Henry, who is learning piano and French horn. Their villa has a customised studio for Marsh, and an electric organ built into the living room.

Readily assumed to be a corporate wife (“people say, ‘you don’t look like a composer’”), she might have settled into an expatriate bubble. “But you can’t miss Arabic music here,” she says. “Oud, qanun and Arabic drum trios are constantly playing in hotel lobbies, and many Arab stars come to town.”

Though wary of “Arabic pastiche”, she has lately begun experimenting with quarter-tones and Arabic tuning. But her key influences are textual (and she is taking Arabic lessons). With Arabesques for the “King’s Singers”, which premiered on January 29 at the London A Cappella Festival, she scoured contemporary Arabic poetry in translation for poems to set for male voices.

Saadi Youssef’s “A Woman” recalls an amorous encounter on a rail journey (“I’ve set it with a train in the background”), while “Fading”, by another Iraqi poet, Abboud Al Jabiri, likens an ageing woman to a bird shedding plumage. “Seeds in Flight”, by Gazan poet Khaled Abdullah, evokes a “circle of life and renewal, and has a folk song melody”.

It made her recall photos of her own grandmother. “My son is 11; I feel the years going faster. That verse beautifully articulated feelings I’d felt. I thought these wonderful texts on three stages of women’s life — passion, middle years and old age — could be given an extra layer of meaning, a sound world.”

With an oeuvre ranging from cathedral masses to humorous settings of Liverpool poet Brian Patten for children’s choirs, Marsh has also created a musical installation for a travelator at Gatwick airport, and a brass fanfare for the Queen’s 2010 visit to Abu Dhabi.

Born in Bolton to the family of a Methodist minister, she took up piano aged six, then violin and organ, composing from an early age. Later, when she became an organ recitalist, she credits the mezzo-soprano and composer Judith Bingham with “goading” her into seeing composing as a career.

In Britain she perceives a gender gap, with “more air time for male composers on radio and concert programmes” — whereas in the Emirates “the bigger challenge is that there isn’t a stream of work unless you’re in commercial film or advertising”.

In 2012 she co-founded the classical concert series “The Score” with Shelley Frost, a former “corporate harpist” who runs the Dubai venue The Fridge, to bring international musicians and involve local ones of every ability.

“They don’t have a professional orchestra or ensembles here but there’s a thriving amateur scene,” Marsh says. “There are few Emiratis because music is not part of the educational system. But as more are educated abroad, there’s a growing knowledge and appetite for classical music.”

As if this were not enough, Marsh is also founder and co-director of ChoirFest Middle East, which last year brought 35 regional choirs to Dubai. She is arranging an Emirati folk song for the third ChoirFest gala on March 10-March 14. And joining choirs from Baghdad and Tehran will be an Afghan choir, led, she hopes, by Ahmad Naser Sarmast, a musicologist injured when the Taliban bombed a Kabul auditorium on December 11 last year.

As The Score’s composer-in-residence, Marsh has been prolific, writing “A Short Handbook of Djinn” for Welsh harpist Catrin Finch, intrigued by the variety of genies in Arab lore, and the harp’s origins in Mesopotamia. “The Travels of Ibn Battuta” for the Maggini string quartet was performed here with 60 children. She had never heard of Ibn Battuta, the 14th-century Moroccan explorer, until she visited the Dubai shopping mall named after him, whose six exotic courts are themed from his travels.

Another piece, the organ work “Solomon’s Demons” for Ann Elise Smoot, premiered at Westminster Abbey in 2013, but its inspiration was the occupied Jerusalem temple built by djinns, and the overlapping of Arabian, Islamic, Jewish and Christian mythology.

Since hers is “not commercial music where you follow what’s required”, there is questioning, not just celebration. “Kahayla”, for instance, was commissioned so that the score, artfully shaped like the Burj Khalifa, could be included in a souvenir book about the tower. Yet, “it got me thinking about Dubai. There’s an intensity, excitement and competitive edginess that’s pushed humanity on. But it’s not a happy piece, because in a race there are losers. What creates that drive is ultimately selfish intent; you want people to get out of your way.”

Recalling her initial sense of being alien, “what I’ve learned is that none of these barriers are real,” she says. “Putting on music demands that you’re evangelical, so your affinity grows. It’s made me much more committed to Dubai, and given me a deeper and richer experience of living here.” Drawn to stories, she adds, “it’s quite unfashionable among composers to have narrative, but I argue it’s difficult to produce pure music. I like direction; for a piece to take you somewhere — to travel.”


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