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Samir ODEH-TAMIMI (b.1970)
Lámed for piano trio and tenor bass trombone (2014) [10:48]
Uffukk for cello solo (2010) [10:40]
Li-Sabbrá for tenor bass trombone and percussion (2005/2015) [6:34]
Lámed II for baritone saxophone (2014/2015) [05:53]
Alif for ensemble (2015) [15:46]
Solo for violin (2014/2015) [6:27]
Lámed III for bass clarinet (2014/2017) [05:34]
Li-Umm-Kámel for flute, piano and percussion (2004) [07:39]
Salome Kammer (voice – in Alif)
Zafraan Ensemble/Manuel Nawri
rec. 2017, Kleiner Sendesaal, rbb, Berlin
KAIROS 0015023KAI [69:50]

Samir Odeh-Tamimi is a Palestinian-Israeli composer whose aesthetic direction has largely been driven by an interest in Arabic music performance practice and by an immersion in the work of Scelsi and Xenakis among others. The notes which accompany this Kairos disc offer few clues to the works presented therein, alas. The composer, it seems, is in a perpetual quest for “….an expression of the ‘archaic’ and the raw, something that he finds in Greek language and culture; the archaic in the form of the simplicity and pureness of those who live in contact with the Earth, with the body and mind leading in the same direction.” This is perhaps the sentence in Claudia Pérez Ińesta’s brief essay which provides (perhaps) most illumination for new listeners to Odeh-Tamimi; on a superficial level I suppose it could be pointed out that the majority of the oeuvre of both Scelsi and Xenakis possessed single-word titles; in Xenakis’ case often from the Greek language, in Scelsi’s derived from a variety of exotic and/or ancient tongues. Very different aspects of an edgy primitivism hover around much of their output; how then do Odeh-Tamimi’s works compare?

In the opening Lámed (Lámed is the twelfth letter of the Arabic alphabet- it gives its name to three of the works on this disc) the trombone plays a melodic line across scrubbing strings and stabbing piano. In its ever more warped and frenzied cantilena there is indeed something of the East, in its slides and microtonal intervals; in its ‘feel’. Roughly halfway through, the piece suddenly explodes in a fierce frenzy of Xenakis-like piano, a shimmering high-trilling fiddle and what borders on free jazz activity in the trombone. The stabbing piano returns briefly while the other players do their thing. Granitic and uncompromising, the piece palpably begins to dissolve as the violinist performs scurrying, rapid glissandi before the trombone returns with what seems like a reprise of the opening. Lámed seems to be built on the idea of repeated ‘waves’ of sound which emerge, tumble and fade in configurations which seem similar but are never quite the same.

In a brief introduction to his art (Youtube) Odeh-Tamimi describes his approach to composition. Inevitably for an Arab growing up in Tel-Aviv he sees his task as being largely inseparable from politics, and reminds us that predecessors such as Schoenberg and Nono were involved in creating an art of protest. He refers to the fact that anything learnt during his conservatoire training has been more-or-less ignored during the compositional process. As a musician he cut his teeth on keyboards and percussion in traditional Arabic groups; he also mentions that although he created music as he was growing up it was always improvised and never notated. If he is asked to write a piece even now he almost directly perceives it aurally or visually (Odeh-Tamimi is also a visual artist – a detail from one of his works forms the basis of the striking Kairos cover art). All of this information seems to tally with Lámed, which is a striking opener to the disc.

Four of the pieces in this collection are for solo instruments and certainly seem to have a real kinship with similar works in Xenakis’ output although any suggestion of slavish imitation is banished by the genuine integrity of Odeh-Tamimi’s vision. In the splendidly titled Uffukk the protagonist is a solo cello. This piece is driven by the overlap between the rough textures available to the cellist, and melodic shards hewn from microtonality and sinuous, Eastern-style sliding. The ‘wave’ type structure of Lámed is present here also. Lámed II for solo baritone saxophone seems to adopt a more rhythmically fluid posture which at times approaches the spirit of free-jazz, superficially at least. The silences in this piece seem to matter as much as the sounds. There are often volleys of repeated notes. In Solo for violin much of the material is stratospherically high in pitch. There are occasional vocal outbursts from the player which provide an eerie counterpoint. I feel this work inhabits a similar universe to that occupied by Xenakis little ‘Mikka’ pieces. Traditional Arabic music is never far away. Lamed III is a short work for bass-clarinet which seems to be characterised by dynamic contrasts, much rapid trilling and an increasing intensity of expression which swiftly dissipates at its conclusion.

Two of the works feature important parts for percussion, albeit in a chamber context. In the ritual-like Li-Sabbrá the solo trombone is this time pitted against a percussionist playing what sound like tam-tams, a kettledrum and a bass-drum. Its striking opening presents a series of ever-louder gong strokes followed by two sustained trombone notes. The wave-type structure is again apparent, though the variety of the trombone material increases as the kettledrum and bass-drum begin to make their presence felt. The range of timbres presented in Li-Sabbrá are unusual and impressive. Li-Umm-Kámel (2004) for flute, piano and percussion is the earliest piece in this collection. The flute almost has a cameo role here, most of the piece is based on the interactions between a dissonant percussive piano and (again) gongs and bass-drum. There are real echoes of Bartók’s Sonata for two pianos and percussion, and perhaps a link to the raw folk influences underpinning much of his output. When the flute does get involved it again projects the Arabic DNA of Odeh-Tamimi’s background, inspiration and methodology. As the piece proceeds one becomes more aware of bell-type sonorities, again implying a ritual aspect. The work finally gradually dissolves against a percussive evocation of gently lapping water.

The centrepiece of the programme is the 16 minute Alif for an ensemble of eleven players plus the voice of Salome Kammer. Alif is the first letter of the Arabic alphabet – the note refers to it in seemingly attempting to encapsulate Odeh-Tamimi’s music as a whole: Just like the letter Alif, which can take on the sound of each short vowel or remain silent, one and the same melody can carry the timbres of different instruments”. This in fact seems to be the philosophy behind the Lámed pieces; in Alif the commonalities between the materials distributed around the individual elements of the ensemble seem clear enough. Kammer’s contributions to the work are declamatory at its outset but morph into more chant-like and Sequenza-type gestures as it proceeds. The instruments, whether playing in homogenous little groups (winds and trombone, harp and piano; strings, percussion) seem to settle on textural or melodic material which operates on its own terms or interlocks logically with the rest of the ensemble. The percussion part is particularly busy: hats off to the named percussionist in the Zafraan Ensemble Daniel Eichholz who seemingly has more than two hands and whose instruments produce some interesting, and at times rather disturbing effects. There’s a lot going on in Alif – it passes by in a whirlwind despite its length. I found it really absorbing.

Kairos’s presentation is predictably unpredictable. There is little information about the works themselves – I would be interested to know for example what some of the (other) works’ titles mean or symbolise. While it may be frustrating for me, perhaps such an approach at least allows the music to stand or fall on its own terms. To my ears at least, Odeh-Tamimi’s music certainly gets close to doing what it seems to set out to do. It provokes and challenges for sure, but it also entertains. His admitted compositional influences are detectable but never overwhelming. He is given the benefit of a sympathetic acoustic and a detailed recording. Most importantly his music benefits from the unstinting advocacy of the members of the virtuosic Zafraan Ensemble in both collective and individual contexts. This is an intriguing album which unflinchingly grapples with the ambiguity between the archaic and the modern.

Richard Hanlon



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