Kronos’ Fifty for the Future Composers

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Program Notes

If Kronos Quartet had a motto it might be something like: Taking string players to places they’ve never been before. With Jacob Garchik’s surging arrangement of Zaghlala (Blurred vision caused by strong light hitting the eyes) by Egyptian keyboardist Islam Chipsy, Kronos not only transports intrepid string quartets to the ecstatic milieu of a Cairo nightclub, but the chart also literally turns one ensemble member into a drummer, adding percussive drive to the tune’s lapidary churn. As part of Fifty for the Future, Kronos’ ongoing project to make new music works readily available to aspiring string ensembles, Garchik’s score is accessible free on the Kronos website, “where you can see how the piece can be played in such a way that each one of us can be the drummer,” says David Harrington. “Wouldn’t it be cool if every string quartet player in the world could be this Arabic drummer? So far Hank Dutt is ours, but that’s not to say that the rest of us won’t do it at some point.”
With his ear already drawn to the region by the Arab Spring protests, Harrington “kept coming back to Islam Chipsy,” he says. Part of Egypt’s thriving underground music scene, Chipsy’s EEK trio has carved out a singular sonic niche distinct from the electro-chaabi artists who are almost required at wedding celebrations. Raw and lo-fi, his music is both virtuosic and unabashedly hand-crafted: “There’s a certain way that he plays where he takes his fist and slams it into the keyboard that feels so visceral and exciting,” Harrington says. “There’s also this sense of fun and abandonment. I can imagine thousands of people dancing.”
Kronos premiered Zaghlala at NPR Music’s 10th Anniversary Concert in December 2017. For Garchik, the challenge was capturing the torrential textures generated by the drum kit tandem of Mohamed Karam and Mahmoud Refat and Chipsy’s keyboard, “which he plays like a percussionist,” Garchik says, employing inexpensive, cracked software like FruityLoops on a keyboard designed for Middle Eastern scales. The instrument allows him to play huge, swooping glissandos with a finger, “glissing an octave or more up or down, and I wasn’t sure if Kronos would be able to handle the speed and range. The string players have to do the hard work, but it comes off really well.”
While some pieces by Arab composers that Garchik has arranged for Kronos require careful notation to capture microtonal nuances, on Zaghlala, he was more concerned with maintaining the piece’s relentless momentum.

“One of them actually has to play a percussion instrument,” he says. “That’s always a challenge, but Kronos is not afraid. For the other players, the parts are very rhythmic and syncopated. I simplified the drum part so that it’s playable for someone in a string quartet. The challenge is to play together and get a nice groove.”

Islam Chipsy's Zaghlala , arranged by Jacob Garchik, was commissioned as part of the Kronos Performing Arts Association’s Fifty for the Future: The Kronos Learning Repertoire, which is made possible by a group of adventurous partners, including Carnegie Hall and many others.

— Program note by Andy Gilbert

Composition Process

For the composition of Zaghlala, Chipsy created the demo, which was then transcribed and arranged for string quartet by Jacob Garchik. Hear Chipsy's original recording here.

About Islam Chipsy

Islam Chipsy and his band EEK are a three-way force of nature from Cairo, Egypt described by those who’ve been caught in the eye of their storm as one of the most exciting live propositions on the planet. At the core of the group lies electro chaabi keyboard pioneer Islam Chipsy, whose joyous, freewheeling sonic blitz warps the standard oriental scale system into otherworldly shapes, as flanked by Mohamed Karam and Mahmoud Refat raining down a percussive maelstrom behind dual drum kits.

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