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Foundation for Modern Music Commission

Beyond poems and prayers: Mohammed Fairouz's Akhenaten celebrates young people affecting change and paying the price for it

Mohammed Fairouz
Philip Glass' opera Akhnaten and Naguib Mahfouz's novel Akhenaten: Dweller in Truth influenced composer Mohammed Fairouz. Courtesy of Mohammed Fairouz
Philip Glass
The Houston Grand Opera staged the American premiere of Philip Glass' Akhnaten, the culminating work of his biographical trilogy.
Naguib Mahfouz
When Naguib Mahfouz died in 2006, Fairouz crafted an elegy for violin and cello.
Tut_Media_Preview_Colassal_Statue_of_Akhenaten
On display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston is a colossal statue of Akhenaten as part of Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs Photo by Sandro Vannini

Counterpoint is the musical idiom of a plural, global society. Unlike modulations, inversions, augmentations and retrograde manipulations, each line of the polyphonic texture safeguards its individuality.

That's what New York-born composer Mohammed Fairouz posits, and his thesis has weight beyond music. A cosmopolitan community is stronger than the sum of its parts — not assimilated — working in euphony, not necessarily in harmony. Dissonance and cacophony are welcomed.

Wise words written by the 26-year-old. His music will be the focus of a Foundation for Modern Music concert set for 8 p.m. Saturday at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts. The program includes the world premiere of Akhenaten, Dweller in Truth, scored as a concerto for cello, piano and orchestra. His double concerto States of Fantasy for violin and cello, Chorale Fantasy for string quartet, For Victims and The Poet Declares His Renown, both for baritone and string quartet, are also on the playbill.

Fairouz's music reveals his tenet. Whether as a response to the Tahrir Square coup d'état or a reflection of unrest in the Middle East, languages intermingle in hopes of offering a different angle. His artistic point of view has contributed to his rise as one of the most in-demand composers of his generation, bridging history with current events and responding by virtue of art to give a mouthpiece to the vox populi and the voice of the individual, equally.

 ​"Akhenaten was a missionary, prophetic and heretic leader. In a way, the young pharaoh tried to destroy the way of life as people knew it. And that's a topic that really interests me."

It was cellist Adaiha Macadam-Somer, daughter of FMM's board member and assistant programming director Karen Somer, who connected Fairouz with the nonprofit. After pianist and FMM's assistant music director Paul Boyd heard Fairouz's works, discussions led to the commission, which was shaped into a double concerto with Macadam-Somer and Boyd at the helm.

Akhenaten, Dweller in Truth is Fairouz's first world premiere in Houston, fitting for the company's 25th anniversary season. 

CultureMap chatted with the Arab American composer by phone to unearth his journey with Akhenaten, his influences and his thoughts as a prominent artist of his generation.

CultureMap: Aside from the mammoth Tut exhibit currently on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the character of Akhenaten is significant here. It was in 1984 when the Houston Grand Opera staged the American premiere of Philip Glass' minimalist opera Akhenaten, the culminating work of his biographical trilogy. 

Now it's your turn. Does your Akhenaten, Dweller in Truth nod to the opera? Were you influenced by Naguib Mahfouz's novel?

Mohammed Fairouz: Both the opera and the novel influenced me. I knew Naguib Mahfouz quite well. I interacted with him when I was a teenager and through the last years of his life. I have been taken by his approach to prose since I first heard him read from one of his works. Akhenaten: Dweller in Truth was introduced to me by the author. Mahfouz is a magician.

 "Young people changing the fabric of society and sometimes paying the price for doing so, that fascinates me."

When he died in 2006, I crafted an elegy for violin and cello — it has been performed many times. But I had yet to write a piece after one of his books. I suppose this is the first "collaboration."

One significant point in Akhenaten — the novel — is that the pharaoh's own voice is not explored: Mahfouz profiles all the other characters around him. It's written from the perspective of after his death.

Akhenaten was a missionary, prophetic and heretic leader. In a way, the young pharaoh tried to destroy the way of life as people knew it. And that's a topic that really interests me in general, one I explored in my first opera, Sumeida's Song (based on the play Song of Death by the Egyptian playwright Tawfiq al-Hakim).  

Young people changing the fabric of society and sometimes paying the price for doing so, that fascinates me.

CM: And the Philip Glass opera?

MF: Philip is a dear composer to me and was — and continues to be — one of my greatest influences. He has been very kind to me and a group of young composers. I saw his Akhenaten as a child. Though I am not quoting from Glass' music, his setting was present in my subconscious when crafting my Akhenaten.

But it's more closely aligned with the novel.

CM: With that title and the association, I would assume your Akhenaten is programmatic. Are you trying to retell the story or are you abstracting the subject?

MF: The work is conceived as a dance piece. In a way, it's a miniature ballet. When I was writing it, I saw it like a rhythmically-driven Middle Eastern Appalachian Spring.

 "The ways of the past haven't landed us in the best possible situation. So it's time to look for another solution."

My composition doesn't represent every character of the novel specifically. I've synthesized the tenor of the novel in one movement, and it works with or without dancers. 

CM: In your previous works, certain instruments carry symbolic meaning. In your Tahrir for Clarinet and Orchestra, the solo instrument evokes the voice of the individual amid the masses. In Poems and Prayers, the woodwind is the spirit of a deceased boy as he dialogues with his living mother. 

In choosing cello and piano for Akhenaten, what are you implying?

MF: The instrumentation began with my friendship with the two performers. The piano and cello duel makes sense as there are two extreme characters in conflict: The High Priest of Amun and Nefertiti, Akhenaten's wife.

The cello takes lyrical tender melodies while the piano acts as a percussion instrument, interjecting and interrupting what the cello tries to put forth. So yes, there's a real symbolic connection between the novel's characters and the solo instruments.

The music world knows me as a composer of vocal music — I have written many art songs as I love setting text to the human voice. When I write something purely instrumental, it doesn't mean I am not writing with the human voice in mind. 

CM: In Poems and Prayers, there are intervals associated with certain words and ideas. The word "Yom" — meaning day in Hebrew, Arameic and Arabic — was assigned to a perfect fourth. In essence, you call on leitmotifs. Can we expect the same in Akhenaten?

 "I believe in the musical language of my generation. Without having to come from prominent political figures, our voice, in this day and age, is breaking down walls and barriers, and I feel optimistic about the future."

MF: There are definitely leitmotifs associated with The High Priest of Amun and Nefertiti, but I don't want to ruin the experience by disclosing what those are. As a composer, I believe in the melody line's power to carry strong emotions.

I have learned a lot from musical theater's greats including Stephen Sondheim and Jason Robert Brown when sketching a memorable melody, and how different lines can interject and interact with each other. The compositional approach will be apparent, at least I hope so.

CM: Your music — and your writing — can be interpreted as having a political agenda. Is that your intention, or just a serendipitous ramification of the subject?

MF: I am not a politician nor interested in politics, per se. What I am interested in are the voices of my generation as they enter into dialogue in hopes of moving towards a more cosmopolitan world. 

When Philip Glass choose the characters for his trilogy — Einstein (Einstein on the Beach), Gandhi (Satyagraha) and Akhenaten (Akhnaten) — he focused on those who changed the world in one way or another, people who affected tumult.

I believe in the musical language of my generation. Without having to come from prominent political figures, our voice, in this day and age, is breaking down walls and barriers, and I feel optimistic about the future. The ways of the past haven't landed us in the best possible situation. So it's time to look for another solution.

In collaboration with the Consulate General of Egypt and the Egyptian American Society, Foundation for Modern Music presents a concert of music by Mohammed Fairouz set for 8 p.m. Saturday at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets start at $30 and can be purchased online or by calling the Hobby Center Box office at 713-315-2525.

Performers include Paul Boyd (piano), Adaiha Macadam-Somer (cello), Batya Macadam-Somer (violin), Raúl Orlando Edwards (baritone), and an orchestra led by conductor Clifton Evans.

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