📷 by Adam Bulley
What can you tell me about Egyptian music?
That’s a question I was pestering a lot of friends with around the end of September. We’d just had a production meeting to set out a working schedule for a new collaboration project between choreographers and dancers from Scotland and Egypt, and finding out as much as I could about Egyptian music in the space of a week or so had suddenly become a matter of some urgency to me.
It would probably be polite to introduce myself before going too much further; hi, my name’s Jon, I’m a fiddle player, composer and arranger, and two and a half months ago I was invited to write and record the score for To Begin The Dance Once More.
For someone who loves to learn about different musical cultures, a joint project involving Egyptian music was an exciting opportunity. I’ve enjoyed listening to various strands of Arabic music for years but had never needed to work with it – not for any lack of enthusiasm on my part, purely because there’s so damned much music out there and time does insist on being finite. Nonetheless, here was my opportunity and I was delighted to have it.
So how does one go about learning a new musical style more or less from scratch? And why such a tight time limit?
I’ll answer the second question first because that’s so straightforward you already know the answer: dancers need something to dance to. Potentially a controversial viewpoint, granted, let me put it like this: If the film is to be of dancers dancing to a specific piece of music, that piece of music needs to exist before the rest of the project can get underway. I had to be more or less finished with my contribution before any of the rest of the project could begin. So, no pressure then. On the bright side, I now have time to write blog posts.
Okay that explains the time frame, how about learning a new musical style?
Quick answer: I didn’t. Slightly longer answer: I assimilated as much as I could in the time I had. Egyptian music, like any nation’s musical tradition, is something people spend their entire lives learning and still find it impossible to reach a complete understanding of the whole subject; I had a week. The Egyptian team were enormously helpful and sent me several examples of the style, plenty to allow me to extend my own search.
One of the Egyptian choreographers was very keen I use the theme from a modern song by Hisham Nazih, the lyrics of which were taken from inscriptions on the wall of a temple in Luxor and the Book Of The Dead. Purely as a concept this grabbed my interest right away and, happily, the melody was wonderfully evocative so, having confirmed we could use it in the film, I had our Egyptian theme, “A Reverence To Isis”.
Given my background in Scots traditional music it was, at least on paper, by far the easier task for me to come up with music for the Scottish element of the piece. Of course, knowing that a thing ought to be easier tends to increase the pressure to find The Correct Thing.
The inspiration for the Egyptian theme was a prayer to Isis and a suggested inspiration for the Scots element was the poem Beira And Bride by Donald Smith.
It’s not at all true to say that Scots Gaelic mythology doesn’t have a spiritualism equivalent to that expressed in the prayer to Isis, it very much does; this element is much more commonly represented in poetry and stories, though, and it’s very difficult to find explicit representations of it in the music. There is, of course, the Christian tradition in Scotland; by comparison to the Egyptian pharaonic tradition, however, Christianity is in its infancy and it felt important to represent two ancient cultures as equally as possible.
This challenge was made more interesting by the inherent mystic and theistic nature of the Egyptian element.
There are a number of possible contributing factors to this – there’s a time honoured tradition for writing a completely new set of words to an existing melody in Gaelic song which combines with the aural nature of the tradition and the tendency of Christianity to superimpose its own interpretations over existing indigenous traditions to make following this more ancient mythic thread through the music as near to impossible as makes no odds.
In more recent years – by which I mean the last millennium or so – the majority of music throughout Scotland has tended to be named after specific events, people and places. Not much natural crossover with gods and goddesses.
I did, however, have a concept. This put me on thin ice, yes, but I at least wanted to explore it. The idea of a wellspring seemed to be equally appropriate to both texts and, having by this point decided that I wanted to balance the quintessentially Egyptian idea of a major goddess of the pharaonic tradition with a musical style unique to Scotland, I decided to search in the realms of the strathspey. And, lo and behold, there’s a traditional strathspey from the Simon Fraser collection (researched and gathered in the highlands during the first half of the 18th century) which goes by the name Mathair Spé, “The Source Of The Spey”.
Well wouldn’t it be great if something which was such a good thematic fit worked musically with the Egyptian theme? I decided to gamble a whole day of the precious time available on seeing if it could and, mercifully, it did. We had our themes.
Now you may have noticed a tendency towards the verbose thus far in this blog post. Fair comment, I cannot disagree. Let me tell you, though, I could go on for so many hours about the nuts and bolts of actually working these two themes together. I do recognise, though, that detail on that level would be of actual interest to a total of perhaps half a dozen people. That’s not a lot of people, and even then I’m almost certainly exaggerating.
Suffice, for the sake of your mental health, to say that the form I chose was: Egyptian theme, Scots theme, working together of both themes. This seemed to give a good compromise between allowing each musical style its own voice and giving the choreographers space to express and combine their dance traditions.
Without a doubt the hardest part of the project, from a musical perspective, was curating material. Specifically doing so from a musical tradition which was completely new to me. Certainly I’m very happy with how the music came out and the dance footage I’ve seen so far is glorious; I cannot wait to see the completed piece.
As to what I can now tell you about Egyptian music: I now know enough to know what an infinitessimally small amount I’ve managed to learn. Give me a decade or so and I might be able to be at least coherent on the subject.