Wednesday,18 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1246, (14 - 20 May 2015)
Wednesday,18 July, 2018
Issue 1246, (14 - 20 May 2015)

Ahram Weekly

The sound of movies

The Cairo Opera House Main Hall shows opera, ballet, symphonic and Arabic music, writes Ati Metwaly, but sometimes it surprises us with something different

The sound of movies
The sound of movies
Al-Ahram Weekly

On Friday 8 May the Sound of Egypt Orchestra, conducted by its founder Ahmed Atef, played music from well-known Egyptian “Golden Age” movies. Relying on musicians from the Cairo Symphony and Cairo Opera orchestras and the Arabic music choir and ensemble as well as others, the orchestra was established in 2013 with the aim of shedding light on various kinds of incidental Egyptian music, playing film and soap opera scores and giving listeners the chance to revisit familiar and valuable compositions, hearing them in a purely musical context. The orchestra is not new to the Egyptian audience, but it seems to be gaining a new momentum.

Its repertoire draws on, among others, Fouad El-Zahery (1916-1988), Ali Ismail (1922-1974), Baligh Hamdi (1932-1993) and Andrea Ryder (1908–1971), the latter a Greek living in Egypt. They all made invaluable contributions to films by such Golden Age directors as Youssef Chahine, Hassan Al-Imam, Salah Abu Seif and Ezzel Dine Zulficar. The tradition was continued by Ammar El-Sherei, Omar Khorshid, Omar Khairat and Rageh Daoud, followed by a younger generation that includes Khaled Hammad, Tamer Karawan, Amr Ismail, Amr Abu Zekry, Hisham Gabr, Mohamed Saad Basha and Ahmed Atef. There is a wealth of material.

For each concert, Atef picks a theme as a guideline for his selection. In March, for example, the Sound of Egypt Orchestra’s theme was comedy. For the Friday concert it was “classics of national drama”, making it a journey through political identity, its bearers and their struggles. Fragments of the movies were projected on a large screen. Sixties films abounded: Shafiqa El-Qibteyya (Shafiqa the Copt, 1962, music by Ali Ismail); Al-Qahira 30 (Cairo 30, 1966, music by Fouad El Zeheiry, based on Naguib Mahfouz’s novel); Qasr Al-Shawq (1967, music by Ali Ismail, also a Mahfouz adaptation); Al-Ard (The Land, 1969, music by Ali Ismail, based on Abd Al-Rahman Al-Sharqawi’s novel chronicling the plight of the fellahin); and Al-Rusasa Latazal fi Jaibi (The Bullet Is Still in my Pocket, music by Omar Khorshid, about Egypt after the 1967 war and until the 1973 war), etc.

Forming the bulk of the evening’s offerings, Gold Age scores were supplemented by more recent films and television series, with a number of Atef’s own works included, notably the heartbreaking emotional music he wrote for Hanan Rady’s Human Comedy, a documentary that contrasts the discourse of democracy of world leaders with such realities as Palestine, the Gulf War, Somalia, Tibet, Rwanda and Burindi or Bosnia and Herzegovina. Naturally, some compositions were met with a particularly warm reception as the audiences identified the music with films they cherish, while others offered the chance to discover or re-discover a musical gem.

Atef started out with his own music, gradually including the work of other composers. He is eager to include as many composers as possible but this not always as easy as it sounds. Contemporary composers are not always willing to provide scores, but the older music, Atef must note down from scratch — a herculean task that requires weeks of intent listening and recreating the orchestration. “We have such a great wealth of Egyptian drama music,” he says, “yet unfortunately almost none of it is documented.” Another challenge he mentions is the poor sound quality of older films, something that deeply saddens him about to Egypt’s cultural heritage.

Despite such obstacles however, Atef remains positive as he reveals his dynamic plans for the orchestra: “In the Friday concert we included a choir. I hope to move a step further and reach out to well known songs from the movies, inviting well-known singers to perform them. The Egyptian audience has a very warm relationship with songs from older movies, and they can be one of the channels attracting even larger numbers of listeners while, in the meantime, we present them with instrumental music.”

Atef reveals that the orchestra already has plans to perform during the summer: at the Citadel Festival of Music and Song taking place at the Salah Al Din Citadel in Cairo, the Citadel of Qaitbay Festival in Alexandria and the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. With major expansion plans and a host of artistic and cultural benefits, the Sound of Egypt Orchestra is one of the most important recent musical initiatives. It provides a platform for the composers beyond the screen. It also gives the audience the opportunity to revisit or find out about a musical repertoire normally veiled by plot and character, and overshadowed by actors and directors. Finally, the orchestra sends a message to cinephiles and film critics about the importance of music to drama.

The project’s success also depends on non-musical parties such as Cairo Opera House technicians. The Friday concert was no doubt an enjoyable experience, but regarding the lighting design there was clearly room for improvement. The light beams changing colour to the rhythm of the music proved too distracting in the first half, interrupting the visuals on the screen and even breaking concentration on the music — happily they were not projected onto the stage in the second half, which ended with popular compositions by Amar El-Sherei and Omar Khairat. The audience left the hall in an uplifted mood, chitchatting about both the films and the music.

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