Two years ago, I realized I was going to
perform Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony. My love for Shostakovich’s work made me find the score and
immediately begin listening to the symphony in order to understand it well before we
began rehearsals. I made it a
point to listen to a recording of the symphony from beginning to end. The first
movement alone is over 20 minutes long, it gradually and slowly moves from deep
meditative states to violent eruptive climaxes. I won’t talk about the other
movements here, because the 1st is already plenty to digest. Yes,
that’s the word: digest.

After my first listening, I met with a colleague and I remember I
told him that the 1st movement is so complicated and linear. I think
what I meant by ‘linear’ is that I couldn’t hear any related themes or repetitions of previous materials. Just a continuous stream of ideas. But, that was
the first listening. After many other sessions, I began to notice things, and
what at first seemed like a stream of unconnected events slowly began to make sense
in my mind and I could find themes that were coming back in different ways,
until finally I noticed that the whole thing is actually a lot simpler than I
could have ever imagined! It’s all constructed on two themes… But, it was
simply too much to handle on first listening.

Last week, I played an Um Kulthum song with a great singer: Abdel-Karim Al Sha’ar. We played the song “Fatt al Mi’ad”, which is one of Um
Kulthum’s most known songs and one that is full of musical tricks that make it
difficult but very enjoyable to play. A few weeks before our first rehearsal, I
made it a point to listen to the whole song (about an hour long) without
interruption as I did with Shostakovich. Same thing happened. I didn’t
understand much and I was overwhelmed and worried about how I was going to
memorize a whole hour’s worth of music. The more I listened, however, the
simpler it got. I started to notice the almost exact repetitions of sections
and I began to memorize the words and melodies. Then that one-hour monumental
recording became less and less intimidating and I was able to perceive a sequence. Finally, one of the musicians had notated the parts and the whole
thing was only about six pages long! When I finally listened to the recording
with the notes in my hand, the song had reached its simplest form in my head,
because I could see it!

I consider my performance of these two unrelated concerts to be
some of my most profound and enjoyed music experiences. During Shostakovich, I
remember going through different emotional states depending on which section we
had reached, I remember the Adrenaline peaks during the climaxes, the
aggression during the war themes, the sentiments and the tragedies in the quiet
slow sections. It was a state of ecstasy and self-abandonment. And, then the Um
Kulthum concert: Same thing! Most of the time I felt that tickling sensation in
my chest, it’s similar to when you see someone you like. A kind of emotional
agitation combined with your attempt to keep it under control. Then during the
second half of the concert, after the musicians had reached the “Saltana”
phase, which the musical intoxication reached by improvising over the known
material and modifying them on the spot, I felt my hear open up and it was pure

So, what can I take away from these two experiences? Well, as I was
having lunch with my father I told him: “You know, it’s strange. When you were
a young man, Um Kulthum was popular and almost all the Arab world knew and
appreciated her songs. And these were difficult songs to understand! You
had musical introductions that would last up to 10 minutes, then she would come
in, then a repetition followed by a new section and another repetition, and so
on. Nowadays, most music does all this in about 3 minutes, which is the average
length of hits. 3 minutes versus an hour.”

And there is also the quality of time which we must pay attention
to. The three minute pop song feels shorter than three minutes because God
forbid we take our time in developing and ask the listener to participate in
the music process. No, instead we condense everything together and simplify
everything to a point where you can memorize the whole song (sometimes
unwillingly) in one listening. However, Shostakovich/Um Kulthum’s 20 minutes
can feel a lot longer or slower, depending on the listener’s perception of it!
What I mean to say is that upon first listening, Shostakovich’s 1st
movement and Um Kulthum’s first part seemed a lot longer that what they really
were, because you don’t know what’s coming next and you don’t fully absorb everything that is happening each moment. The mind is usually very sharp in moments like these, very alert and active, which can feel uncomfortable. Easy to understand why people avoid “serious” music today. But, you don’t grow without discomfort.

I think it’s very important to push ourselves to go back to these
long processes of experiencing art, because we are becoming a generation which
needs everything to happen right away, who doesn’t want or have the time/energy
to invest attention and effort in a work of art (or anything else really)
because there’s an abundance of easily attainable alternatives out there. This
makes us unappreciative, unappreciated, and a lot of our experiences will be
very superficial and meaningless. I remember those Tarkovski films where he
might stay on one frame for 2 or 3 minutes with very little movement happening…
my first exposure to this created a sense of boredom and agitation because I
was used to all those quick cuts, explosions, constant movement, and expected
outcomes in Hollywood films. Yes, we are attracted to what we can expect, and
repelled by what we do not comprehend immediately. But, if you ask me, I think
growth (if that is your aim) is only possible with approaching that which
repels us, understanding it, and appreciating it. The last one comes
automatically, the first two require effort!