Complete performance by BMOP, Gil Rose, cond.
In 1798, Napoleon's Egyptian campaign opened the gates of the Orient to the French imaginary. Bonaparte brought along with him a team of scientists and artists who returned to France with stories and drawings from this exotic land. They started an oriental fad that would last throughout the 19th century and find its way in the paintings of Ingres and Delacroix, the writings of Victor Hugo, and the music of Bizet and Saint-Saëns. But these are my own sketches and the title of this piece aims to evoke not the Egyptian river per se, but a hypothetical set of drawings in a book of sketches by a 19th century European painter visiting the Orient.
The prelude that starts the piece is a waltz. Already, this European dance does not fit into the scenery. This prelude is a comment, a word of caution before we get started. Let's say that the waltz represents Napoleon. Was the emperor a dancer? I know not. The waltz represents our European, occidental eye; an eye that can barely perceive the place it is invading, yet still manages to deem it so very foreign.
II. LE BAZAR SANS NOM
"Le bazar sans nom" literally means "the bazaar without a name." A bazaar is a market where items - dates, spices, jewelry - are sold and packed together in a glorious chaos. In fact, in French, the expression "un bazar sans nom" means "an indescribable mess." Shop after shop offers the same item, with small variations. Perhaps the bazaar constitutes a good analogy for the texture of this piece. The nameless bazaar might appear in the middle of a sandstorm, or as a mirage, teaming with hundreds of market stands, bustling with shoppers, before disappearing, like the Flying Dutchman.
Interlude, "play between:" a casual miniature.
IV. CHANSONS INFINIES
Here again, two different meanings: songs that never end (that continue forever), or songs that are unfinished. The music in this movement comes from my setting of Victor Hugo's "La captive." In the poem, Hugo describes the djinns endlessly singing in the deserts, weaving their songs together.
A recording of the November 2012 premiere of this movement by the Charleston Symphony Orchestra is forthcoming.
Dahabeeyahs (dahabiehs in French) are sailboats that travelers used when visiting Egypt until the mid-20th century. Composer Camille Saint-Saens travelled by dahabeeyah on the Nile and was inspired by the songs of Egyptian boatmen. This piece borrows its thematic material from the other movements in the suite, while exploring another common feature in middle eastern music: irregular meters. The 7/8 perpetual motion in the piano evokes the swaying motion of a boat gently making its way down a river.
VI. CROQUIS KLEZMER
Indeed, Klezmer music is not indigenous to Egypt! A distinctly Ashkenazi (as opposed to Sephardi or Mizrahi) tradition, we associate Klezmer music with a place like Poland. Yet, the characteristic augmented second ("freygish") shows kinship with Gypsy (i.e. "Egyptian," if only etymologically!) and near-Eastern scales. Through such connections, we can gradually travel our way from Prague, Warsaw, and L'viv, to Hungary and Moldavia, to the Ottoman Empire, and ultimately back to the banks of our imaginary river Nile, which spawned our civilizations.
I, for one, worked out most of this sketch when I was an undergraduate at Bowdoin College, in Maine. I was interested in the idea of having a great number of lines all doing something different, and creating a busy contrapuntal texture. I unearthed the sketch, arranged it, and expanded it a little to provide an energetic finale for this piece.
Commissioned by Bowdoin College, Croquis du Nil was composed in the summer of 2007. The Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP) gave the première at the college in November 2007. It has since been performed in Los Angeles, as well as by the North/South Consonance Ensemble in New York City. "Dahabiehs" was composed in 2012, for inclusion in a performance of Croquis du Nil by the Charleston Symphony Chamber Orchestra (November 2012).