Transmuting Poetry into Music: Two Days in NYC

The young and exceptionally talented composer.

On February 16, New York’s Columbia University will host the world premiere of Mohammed Fairouz‘s “Symphony #3: Poems and Prayers,” set to open at the university’s Miller Theatre at 8 p.m.
The following afternoon, a panel of creative and intellectual luminaries — including the widely acclaimed Fairouz, novelist and translator Sinan Antoon, and translator and theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak — will discuss the intersections of music, literature, and translation. The talk is scheduled to begin at 2:30 p.m. at 501 Schermerhorn, Columbia University.

Fairouz’s “Poems and Prayers,” after all, is a libretto that grapples with issues of literature and translation. It weaves together poetic texts from the Arabic (Mahmoud Darwish, Fadwa Tuqan), Aramaic, and Hebrew (Yehuda Amichai), and opens itself to discussion about music(s) and words.

According to Catherine LaSota, Assistant Director of Columbia’s Institute for Comparative Literature and Society (ICLS), which is organizing the twinned events, “The performance of Symphony #3: Poems and Prayers provides an exciting occasion for ICLS to hold a conversation on the topic of what we are calling ‘comparative composition.’ Our aim is for the accompanying panel to assume the form of a discussion…and that it provide audience members with a real occasion for learning to listen differently.”

The New Yorker has called Fairouz an “expert in vocal writing,” and Gramophone Magazine named him a “post millenial Schubert.” Columbia Professor Rosalind Morris adds that Fairouz’s work frequently engages text.


For example, his…”States of Fantasy,” was written in response to his reading of Jacqueline Rose’s book by the same name, and attempts to engage the status and problems of nationalism in the history of Israel/Palestine.  It uses different musical forms often associated with nationalist sentiment–anthemic elements and celebratory resolutions, for example–and attempts to put them into question by juxtaposing them with other, less harmonic elements.

Most of us, Morris notes, draw casual parallels between music and language. But Fairouz has thought hard on these issues, and gives us “the opportunity to ask, more deeply, about what kind of work music can do in the realm of communication, and what kinds of statements it can make.”

Perhaps a particular reason to have Spivak moderate the panel is because, as Morris says, Fairouz’s work “is devoted to the notion that music can effectuate dialogue at the point where speechlessness might occur,” that is, “in the space that opens between languages, in moments of conflict or misunderstanding, and in relation to habits of mind and speech that otherwise obstruct the possibility of our listening to each other.”

“It is a perhaps utopian ambition, but one of great significance.”


Mohammed Fairouz’s website

 Ensemble 212 and  the Young New Yorkers’ Chorus will be performing Symphony #3.

Columbia University’s Institute for Comparative Literature and Society

Tickets for the premiere of “Symphony #3: Poems and Prayers” are $25 for general public, $15 for faculty, and $5 for students (with CUID only, limit 2 tickets per ID). Click here for the Box Office. The discussion, “Music, Literature and Comparative Compositions: The Task of Translation,” is free and open to the public. More about the event.

Also, listen to Fairouz’s “Tahrir,” performed in Merkin Hall: