Baryshnikov Arts Center

BAC Stories

BAC Story by Melissa Levin

Amir ElSaffar

It is hard not to extrapolate the poetry and aspirational metaphor from the 17-piece ensemble Rivers of Sound Orchestra, the vision and charge of multi-hyphenate musician and composer Amir ElSaffar. Orchestra members come together from different parts of the country and from around the world to play an innovative fusion of Middle Eastern music, Iraqi maqam in particular, and American jazz.

I had seen the group perform once before when, in my role as VP of Cultural Programs at Lower Manhattan Cultural Council (LMCC), we presented the launch of their second album Not Two at the River To River Festival in 2017. (Of course we were charmed by the uncanny synchronicity of the festival, group, and album names: Rivers of Sound launch Not Two at the River To River Festival.) Outdoors on a plaza on a June evening, in a canyon of buildings in Lower Manhattan, the performance was nothing short of triumphant. Through threatening weather, the 17 musicians and their more than 17 instruments crammed onto a small stage and transported the audience with sounds they may not have even known they were hearing.

I am not a trained musician or listener, but even to my ear, complexity, warmth, connection, and depth permeate the music of this stellar group.

When I met ElSaffar to prepare to write this piece, I could hear him playing the trumpet, his primary instrument, from outside the doors of his cavernous studio. I paused to listen to a few bars before walking in. Then, we talked: about his initial discovery of music (he loved the Beatles, the Stones, and finally Hendrix, who led him inadvertently to Miles Davis); about his formal musical training; had a lesson in microtones; and then he veered me back to the group, the reason we were in the studio to begin with.

He described Rivers of Sound Orchestra’s coming together as serendipity, a result of two coincidental U.S. commissions. Though in many ways, even if unbeknownst to him, it sounded to me like he had been laying the groundwork for such serendipity to occur over the preceding years. He lived and studied all over the world, first in the U.S., in Chicago, Boston, and New York from youth to college, and then throughout the middle east, in Syria, Egypt, and Iraq, and throughout Europe, in the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany, and England, in part at least following a diaspora of musicians trained in Iraqi maqam or other ancient and traditional forms – a diasporic practice for our diasporic times.

ElSaffar leads the group and composes all of their arrangements. He describes a generous and generative style of leadership, relying on each individual’s virtuosic knowledge, skill, and creativity with their own instrument, to fully realize the harmonies, microtonalities, and polyphonies he writes.

Among other terms unfamiliar to me, ElSaffar had to define microtonal music, a central structure for Rivers of Sound, and he did so using the visual idea of pixels: Western music, built around western instruments such as the piano, most commonly expresses itself as what is called 12-tone equal temperament–12 parts of an octave all equal, is like a 500-pixel image. Whereas microtonal music (such as Iraqi maqam and other ancient Greek and Middle Eastern forms utilizing instruments without frets, for example) expresses additional intervals, variations, and in-betweens, more like a 1000-pixel image. Or, as he further described, relative to the other where equal temperament “approximates,” microtonal music revels in “the different shades of intonation.”

About half of the group members live in New York, and the other half are scattered across the country and around the world. Their collective expertise ranges from western classical music to experimental American jazz to Iraqi maqam, and instruments include trumpet, saxophone, violin, cello, oud, buzuk, santur, and an unconventionally tuned piano. They converge, they disperse: like the notes and rhythms in each simultaneously precise and yet free-wheeling composition. I picture them like stars in the sky, dotting the globe with individual light and lights coming together to form a constellation, a new and meaningful shape.

Many times, he refers to Rivers of Sound as a family. Indeed, his sister and brother-in-law play in the orchestra. Another musician in the group has been a friend of his since high school. Other members he has met along the way, kindred spirits, mentors, masters, technicians, and improvisers all. Their musicianship (though certainly a requirement) is second to their humanity. And, ElSaffar says that the deep friendship he has with each individual musician extends to their relationships with one another as well. He even describes electrical chemistry in the sounds certain of them create together, like “lightning bolts.”

This resonates when you see and hear Rivers of Sound perform and play music together. The music pings, vibrates, oscillates, elongates, conflates, conversates, electrifies, and lulls. A global ensemble, Rivers of Sound excavates ancient forms and pioneers wholly new ones, creating music never heard before in a universal yet secret language of microtones. 1000 pixels. You can let it wash over you, you can listen closely, and you can aspire to its example.

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Melissa Levin is an arts administrator and curator committed to innovative, inclusive, and comprehensive approaches to supporting artists and initiating programs. She is currently the VP of Artists, Estates and Foundations at Art Agency Partners, where she advises artists and their families on legacy planning. Previously, Levin worked at Lower Manhattan Cultural Council for more than 12 years, where as VP of Cultural Programs she led the program design and artistic direction of LMCC's Artist Residency programs, the Arts Center at Governors Island, and the River To River Festival. Together with Alex Fialho, Levin has curated multiple, critically-acclaimed exhibitions dedicated to the late Michael Richards’s art, life, and legacy. Levin proudly serves on the boards of the Alliance of Artists Communities and Danspace Project. She received a B.A. with honors in Visual Art and Art History from Barnard College. 


Photos by Maria Baranova