Photos: Rui Camilo


Courage and curiosity

by Markus Böggemann

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You might be forgiven for thinking a composer quite courageous for writing a piece of music for ‘the Serpent’, given that – before the instrument died a shuddering death in the 19th century – it was reported to have a sound so barbaric that it was nothing more than a “cold shuddering howl” reflecting “a remarkable ignorance and crudeness of taste and feeling”. Whatever Hector Berlioz’s reasons for this scathing judgement, they are disproved without question in Benjamin Attahir’s Adh Dhohr (2017), a concerto for Serpent and Orchestra. And contrary to traditional approaches, the composer avoids limiting himself by capitulating to the instrument’s inadequacies and limitations. Instead, he allows it to sing warmly, to emerge gracefully and to subtly merge and blend with the colours of the orchestra. Benjamin Attahir is familiar with and applies almost all contemporary music techniques, but he employs them at the service of the symphonic orchestra with its multicolour tonal world, from fragile solo voice to rich tutti. Such compositional range requires close collaboration with performers, and thus it is no surprise that not only Adh Dhohr but likewise other works have been written by Benjamin Attahir with specific musicians and ensembles in mind. Furthermore, the composer – a trained violinist – has a deep understanding of each instrument’s unique points, their tonal and technical “sweet spots”, their playing styles and gestures. This gives the music an almost haptic quality, with which Attahir produces drama. Listen to his Al Asr for string quartet (2017), for example: a 25-minute feast of colours and textures from a string quartet whose energetic bursts repeatedly contrast with ethereal sound images, as if swimming in a mirage.

Given Benjamin Attahir’s frequent work with classical ensembles and instrumentations, it can come as little surprise that he is up to the task of reimagining late Romantic repertoire within new temporal and stylistic boundaries. His Nach(t)spiel (2016), an extra final movement within Max Bruch’s Konzertstück op. 84 for violin and orchestra, makes wide-ranging use of the motivic and figurative material of the original piece. However, it likewise places it in its own unique sound world and this gives rise to a fascinating meeting point. Here, a threshold fluctuates between the original and the reimagined – boundaries become porous, categories such as “new” and “old” dissolve, listening goes deeper. Thus, a power exists in Benjamin Attahir’s music to cast new light on the familiar.