A Listening Guide: Malek Jandali – Symphony No. 6, “The Desert Rose”

A Guide to Malek Jandali’s Symphony No. 6, “The Desert Rose”, presented by Jack Pepper

Like the museum building and the natural phenomenon that inspired it, Jandali’s symphony is constructed as a complex interlocking structure. There are nine movements, mirroring the jagged nine-point line on the flag of Qatar. This overall structure brings together three musical forms, woven right through: it’s sort of three pieces in one. Movements two, three, five and seven form a Qatari symphonic suite, with melodies and rhythms based on regional folk dances. Movements one, four, six and nine together form a traditional classical four-movement symphony. These two ideas are combined in the eighth movement; two become one, heralding a grand finale. It’s a symphony of dialogues: east meets west, old meets new, land meets sea, street meets concert hall, man meets nature. If architecture is frozen music, then this symphony is a unique monument in itself.

Malek Jandali Symphony No. 6 “The Desert Rose”

ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra / Marin Alsop condition

I. Epigraph: Grandioso

Crashing drums and frenzied rhythms lay the foundations of our musical edifice. The Desert Rose theme is introduced. It reminds me of the language of John Adams, with its regular pulsations and prominent percussion. This is the first section of the traditional four-movement “symphony”, which will be repeated in the fourth movement.

II. Praise: Con Moto

Based on a devotional chant used to call people to worship, this movement is the first of four that draws inspiration from Qatari folk music and sounds unique to the region. The opening drums represent the Misahharati, someone who wanders the streets a few hours before dawn and plays the drum to wake people up during Ramadan. This precise rhythm continues below while the strings and brass strike up a freewheeling melodic line above, evoking a vocal improvisation; here, the orchestra becomes the human voice. As Jandali told me: “Usually the songs have no instruments, just a human voice with some percussion instruments. Trying to emulate the beauty of human sound through the orchestra was very rewarding. This is the magic of the symphony orchestra. When you have seventy humans united in common purpose, you think together… you come together with all of your differences, all of that counterpoint. You are different but harmonious. This is the message.

III. The sea: Allegretto

A playful bassoon, tremolo strings and a floating flute suggest the gentle movement of the waves, while later sudden bursts of energy and crashing cymbals suggest the swell of the sea. The melody quotes one of the songs Qatar’s most famous sea coast, “Umm Al Hanaya”, which means “Mother of curves”. It is associated with Qatari boats that traveled around the Persian Gulf and beyond in search of pearls; it is said to have been sung by women, addressing the pearl divers on board about the adventures and dangers they faced on their journeys.

IV. Nocturne: Andante

It is the slow movement of the classical symphony in four movements. Here we have an image of the sea and the desert of Qatar at night. At its heart is a violin solo, a solitary high voice that floats above a dark background like a twinkling star in the night sky. For a brief moment, the nocturnal calm gives way to a rhythmic dance, punctuated by drums with a dance in Arabic mode overhead; it soon descends into long, slow notes and the stillness of the night.

V. Ardah: Moderate

The Arda is a dance of Qatari men armed with swords, accompanied by percussion and poetry; it is used to represent Qatari unity. Jandali replaces swords with the bows of stringed instruments, making this celebration of unity a call for peace. This is represented by the instruments coming together at the end to play the melody in unison, fortissimo, all the instruments singing the same line over the beat of the drums. In 2015, the Arda the sword dance was added to UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage, which traces local traditions and celebrates cultural diversity in a context of increasing globalization; through sound, this symphony also helps to root these regional traditions for generations to come.

VI. Scherzo: Lively

Just as the scherzo offers a moment of light relief in the traditional four-movement symphony, here we have a danceable melody and upbeat rhythms. A children’s folk song is the inspiration; the air ‘Al Karnakouh’ is sung by children one evening in the middle of Ramadan, when they go to get presents from the neighbours.

VII. Party: Perennial

We arrive at the last of the movements forming the Qatari Suite, and remain on the theme of children which is so dear to Jandali; here, another traditional children’s song inspires the frenzied rhythms. ‘Al Aydo’ is sung to celebrate marriages and family unity. The hope and renewal represented by childhood – nature’s greatest miracle – is a powerful creative stimulus for Jandali.

VIII. Landscapes: Andantes

A musical landscape painting of Qatar, taking us from a gusty desert sunrise over the sand dunes, to the rain in the oasis, to the crystals that form the desert roses. The lower, murkier-textured segments relate specifically to a lagoon near the National Museum of Qatar, which features carvings in fountains inspired by Arabic script. As the music travels across the landscape and we encounter different sites and times of day, a rhythmic pattern continues to unfold: this ostinato suggests the continuity of time, constancy against change. Previously, unpredictable stabs of the xylophone suggested a dysfunctional clock: the long periods of time over which this landscape forms. These strokes become more regular, until a block of wood at the end taps steadily to suggest a ticking sound, as something recognizable forms: a reminder of the millennia it took to create the desert rose.

IX. The Desert Rose: Con moto

539 bars make up this final movement, representing the 539 interlocking discs that make up the National Museum of Qatar. As it should be for a symphony which is itself a variation on a natural and architectural phenomenon, Jandali concludes the work with a set of variations in the form of a passacaglia. The theme takes us back to the opening movement, closing the loop: back to nature and back to the land that created us.

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