Amir ElSaffar is an Iraqi-American trumpeter who has developed techniques for playing microtones idiomatic to Arabic music in order to reconcile the aesthetics of jazz with those of his heritage. After moving from Chicago to New York and performing in Cecil Taylor’s ensemble, ElSaffar in 2002 dedicated himself to tracking down the surviving practitioners of Iraqi maqam, a 400-year-old, urban classical vocal tradition of complex melodic modes that represents one of Iraq’s richest cultural offerings. His search led him to vocalist Hamid Al Saadi, an Iraqi vocalist and scholar of maqam and the only person of his generation to have mastered all 56 maqamat from the Baghdad repertoire, with whom he studied intensively, learning a majority of the maqam compositions. Seeking an interaction between the spiritual essence of Iraqi maqam and the swing, improvisation, and spontaneity of jazz, Al Saadi has toured extensively with ElSaffar, both as a duo and with the latter’s groups Two Rivers and Safaafir, in which ElSaffar plays santur, a hammered dulcimer central to maqam.
Blank Forms has curated a program of music and poetry as part of Josiah McElheny’s new solo show, Observations at Night. McElheny’s sonic sculpture, “Moon Mirror,” will function as both an acoustic reflector and an open stage-like platform for performances, as part of an exhibition of optically dynamic paintings and sculptures inspired by cosmic revolutionary figures like Joe McPhee and Sun Ra Arkestra singer June Tyson. Tyson’s optimistic communication of the potential for world-building beyond the painful alienation of presiding earthly visions serves as the focal point for the series’ interrogation of how music and poetry might illuminate new pathways of resistance to our troubled political climate. An international assembly of artists from a diverse spectrum of creative improvising idioms have been selected to use McElheny’s parabolic structure as a catalyst for explorations of both acoustic feedback and social interaction between performers and audiences from heterogeneous cultural spheres. Featuring performers pulling inspiration from black American free jazz as well as experimental music, deep listening, and folk traditions of Korean, Japanese, Iraqi, Indonesian, and Persian music, the surreal convergence of mysteries of light and sound proposes that we might today not only pass through what can feel like a dream or nightmare state but find something here, visible or audible in the twilight that can lead into a cosmic future.