Meet the Cone Institute composers: Saad Haddad
Saad Haddad, one of the four composers of the 2017 NJSO Edward T. Cone Composition Institute, chats about his career and Takht, which the NJSO performs on July 15 at 8 pm at the Richardson Auditorium in Princeton.
What sparked your interest in composing?
I’ve always wanted to be a composer even before learning to play an instrument. When I was 7, my second-grade teacher had our class write one-page biographies on important figures. During the music month, I picked up a picture book about Mozart, and it said that he composed his first piece at 5 years old. I kind of had a moment of panic, since I was already two years behind! I begged for piano lessons so I could learn to read the notes, and I haven’t stopped composing since.
What key experiences have shaped your path as a composer?
I was born in the United States, but my mom was born in Lebanon and my dad was born in Jordan. My dad immigrated when he was 17, and my mom came when she was 8. They haven’t been back to their home countries since they left, so the only things we have left are the language, the traditions and the music. I’ve listened to Arabic music all of my life, because we hear it all the time at weddings, parties and just about every family event, but I never listened to it as actively as I do now.
In 2013, I was writing a piece called Mai for string quartet and electronics that involved retrieving snippets of sound off of old VHS tapes from when I was really young. My mom wanted me to convert them to a digital format [as I watched] 200 hours of footage, I began to notice that the sounds and speech from my family members sounded rhythmic and musical. Since this personal footage had obvious influences from my heritage, I wanted [Mai] to go a step further and include remnants of music from artists from the Golden Age of Arabic Music, like Umm Kulthum and Farid al-Atrash. These singers were wildly famous with a similar following to the likes of Elvis. They became my source material, and I took what I could and transferred it to two violins, a viola and a cello. That’s the basis of how this whole process started of utilizing Arabic influences in my music.
How would you describe your compositional approach?
After I’ve found my tools for a piece, I sketch a color-coded timeline of events that I’d like to happen. I don’t necessarily stick to this sketch, but I do often refer to it and even rewrite it during the process of composing to see how my timeline is evolving. I think composition is a macro-based art form—in my experience, a listener generally grasps a holistic image of a new piece, rather than small moments or gestures, so I try to present my ideas to tailor that phenomenon.
What was the inspiration for Takht? What can audience members expect to hear?
Takht involved the most experimentation I have done in a piece so far in terms of the number of so-called “extended techniques.” I had to research and workshop with individual musicians in an effort to abstractly emulate the sounds of a traditional Middle Eastern ensemble, or takht, within the context of a symphony orchestra. With the help of many of my friends during my time at Juilliard, I tested how these techniques could work in smaller settings. Some of the effects I included were singing and playing at the same time and using a tuning key to get sliding pitches out of a harp, among others. Then, I figured out ways to combine all these materials into a finished score over about a six-month period.
What drew you to the NJSO Edward T. Cone Composition Institute? What do you hope to gain from the experience?
As a primarily orchestral composer, I relished at the opportunity to apply for this Institute, especially after learning that I would work with conductor JoAnn Falletta in realizing Takht. It is such a privilege to collaborate with the conductor who has championed and continues to program the works of my former teacher, John Corigliano. As I do with every rehearsal process, I hope to come away with plenty of hands-on insight in order to improve the piece for future performances, one of which is already slated to happen in November with the Minnesota Orchestra.