Musical Performance: Amir ElSaffar and Rivers of Sound

Fri, October 14, 2016 8:00 pm at Pioneer Works

(View all musical performances »)

Rivers of Sound is a large ensemble of instrumentalists from Western and Middle Eastern traditions, which explore the confluences of a musical language and transcend notions of tradition and style. In performing Not Two, an original composition by Amir ElSaffar, each musician interacts with the group through both improvised and composed material to create a novel composite sound.

Since spring 2016, Rivers of Sound has been on tour, performing in Philadelphia, Cleveland and Abu Dhabi. This fall, Rivers of Sound has scheduled concert performances at the following venues:

Friday, October 14, 2016 at 8:00pm
at Pioneer Works, Brooklyn, NY (Buy tickets)

Saturday, October 15, 2016 at 8:00pm
at The Walker, Minneapolis, MI (Buy tickets)


Amir ElSaffar, trumpet/santur
Carlo DeRosa, acoustic bass
Aruan Ortiz, piano
Dena ElSaffar, violin/jowza
Fabrizio Cassol, alto saxophone
George Ziadeh, oud/vocals
Jason Adasiewicz, vibraphone
JD Parran, bass saxophone/clarinet
Miles Okazaki, guitar
Mohammed Saleh, oboe/English horn
Naseem AlAtrash, cello
Nitin Mitta,table
Nasheet Waits, drums
Ole Mathisen, tenor saxophone/soprano saxophone
Rajna Swaminathan, mridangam
Tareq Abboushi, buzuq
Tim Moore, percussion/dumbek/frame drum
Zafer Tawil, percussion/oud

Composer, trumpeter, santur player and vocalist, Amir ElSaffar, an expert in Jazz and Iraqi maqam, has forged his novel approach to combining musical languages through his six-piece ensemble Two Rivers. Over the past eight years, the group has released three CD’s on Pi Recordings. Crisis, the most recent, was a Newport Jazz Festival commission. Jazz critic of the The Chicago Tribune, Howard Reich, declared Crisis “one of the most beautiful and evocative jazz recordings of the year.” A reviewer for The Wire, stated that “ElSaffar is uniquely poised to reconcile jazz and Arab music without doing either harm…the result of engagement across the board, presented with clarity and eloquence.”

Rivers of Sound: Not Two is a continuation of the Two Rivers concept, but projected onto a wider canvas unprecedented in scope and imagination. Microtonal maqam melodies traverse a richly-textured bed of sound created by oud, buzuk, and santur, in combination with cello, violin, saxophones, English horn and trumpet. Also at play are multilayered, rhythmic patterns and harmonies performed by re-tuned vibraphone, piano and guitar. The drum set, mridangam, dumbek, frame drums and double-bass provide the rhythmic foundation and subdivisions of the multiple currents. Resonance across rhythmic, tonal, and timbral spectra, and across musical traditions, is the guiding principle.

ElSaffar’s music is at once unique and engaging. challenging notions of composition vs. improvisation, tradition vs. modernity, microtonality-modality vs. harmony. His compositions bring to light the universality of music across cultures. Given the catastrophes befalling the world at large, and the Middle Eastern specefically, Elsaffar's music is both timely and urgent as he is preserving elements of these cultures by bringing them into context with contemporary musical forms.

ElSaffar received funding from the MAP Fund and Arab Fund for Arts and Culture, to create Rivers of Sound. The 17 members came to New York City from as far away as Qatar, Palestine, and Brussels in April for three days of rehearsal, the premiere of Not Two at the Lincoln Center, and an epic 14-hour day at Avatar Studios, where they recorded the 80-minute suite directly to tape. ElSaffar believes that the nature of this sound cannot be captured digitally and has committed to all analog, with a double LP to be released in the Fall of 2016.


The highest ideal in maqam music is to reach a state of tarab, or “musical ecstasy,” which results from the melting away of borders between a notion of self and other, as performers and audience revel together in the music. As pitches and rhythms become fluid, so do cultural boundaries: elements that traditionally divide musicians and genre-specific modes are re-contextualized in a fresh transcultural soundscape.

Last updated: 2016-09-21 11:34:14

Rivers of Sound, photo by White Cube
Rivers of Sound, photo by White Cube
Fabrizio Cassol, Ole Mathisen, Mohammed Saleh, photo by White Cube
Fabrizio Cassol, Ole Mathisen, Mohammed Saleh, photo by White Cube
Rivers of Sound composed by Amir ElSaffar (standing), photo by White Cube
Rivers of Sound composed by Amir ElSaffar (standing), photo by White Cube

Pioneer Works

59 Pioneer St.
Brooklyn, NY 11231

Alwan Auction 2016

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