4.3 Dawara – the album

The third timeline contains extracts that combine live and studio recording. In addition, I introduce a new approach on how to reharmonize Arabic maqam improvisation. What follows is an adaptation of the Arabic tunes for Southeast Asian instruments globalising the sound of my compositions.

This album is compiled of ideas created over a time period of two and a half years. After the Live in Concert album, I wanted to further explore the Arabic soundscape. In addition to visits to the Middle East, I listen to older and more recent Arabic pop and traditional music regularly to familiarize myself with the many styles of arrangements, instrumentation and melodic lines. I believe there is an unconscious influence that consolidates with my ongoing and previous experience in collaborating and scoring for Arabic instruments. When I listen to music nowadays I do not need to write it down or transcribe it; it is now an intellectual process based on previous experience in transcribing and playing by ear for many years.

A source of inspiration was the Keyscape plug-in, which has these unusual piano sounds that triggered my imagination and creativity when making sketches in Logic. Here is an example from my tune “Path”, in which two separate piano tracks from Keyscape play the background and melody centred around a G-minor vamp. After a while I added pizzicato strings, a string sample from another plug-in I recorded into Logic by playing the sound through my keyboard.

  • March 2017: Path sketch 4/4 time signature; key of G minor.

  • August 2017: Trio rehearsal in my office at UiA. 


  • September 2017: Path – Excerpt from the live concert. 

Composing at the piano, I imagine how the melodies will sound and ornamented on specific traditional instruments. Arabic melodic lines often consist of close and repeated intervals. Programming in Logic with samples of The Middle East instruments does not help me much, although I have tried several software packages. However, without the specific knowledge of how a traditional musician would ornament the line, it would not sound right. And producers and programmers from The Middle East have an advantage in growing up with traditional music and Arabic pop in internalizing the music. Another challenge is imitating ornamentations in melodic lines on the piano, thus creating an unnatural staccato feeling. In those situations, I have to trust my experience that the lines will work for Arabic instruments.

One of those songs was “Dawara” [دوارة], the Arabic word for circles or repeating, which in many ways described how I composed for this album: repeating themes arranged in expanding circles. “Dawara” is a song title which turned into an album title, a tradition in the music industry used more in the past. Composing the song started out by using some of my favourite voicings. The first harmony in the intro is a mix of the Bm and Gmaj9/B chords, creating a suggestive mood and uncertainty as to what harmony is being played. I improvise around and use the harmonies as a framework for creating melodic lines inside it. This voicing is an explicit part of my sound signature, and can be found in other compositions like “Too close” in the Asian Flow (2014, 2015) albums.

I compose melody and harmony together, as for me they are inseparable! The melody is often the top note in my voicings, and I follow the principle of Evans and Kapstad in maintaining a thread line in both the harmony and the melody, an equableness which in my opinion cannot be emphasized enough. 

This melody works well with Oud and Qanun, but is not specifically a good fit for piano. It follows the practice of traditional Arab melodic lines, in which the intervals are in seconds and several notes often are repeated before moving on. This facilitates a variation in ornaments.

I imagined the refrain as a theme that started slow and accelerated, with a de-accelerando at the end of the verse and then an accelerando at the start.

One of my intentions with this piece was to highlight the qanun player Feras Charestan. The intro (0-1:30) was completely improvised, as we did not have time to rehearse it. It is a musical dialogue between Feras and me, where I set a harmonic mode, Feras take the lead and we then move around partly diatonically. The communication is intuitive and responsive. At a certain point, I signal the band to start and our dialogue continues until the theme starts.

  • September 2017: “Dawara” improvised the intro from the live concert on the qanun and grand piano. 

  • September 2017: Live concert example of oud and qanun ornamentations.



The Norwegian Society of Composers and Lyricists (NOPA) has an artist apartment in London, where I spent a week in August 2017 puzzling the musical pieces together. But the progress was slow. Sometimes, creativity fails and back in Norway I worked up until the final day printing the scores only an hour before the soundcheck. Composing can be an emotionally challenging process, and being a perfectionist make the distance from belief to doubt short. 

  • May 2015: This is an idea that later became the composition “Arabic Bolero”. Recorded on the grand piano in my office at UiA.



  • September 2017: Here is the orchestration from the concert with the B theme as well.

  • Summer 2017: A Logic sketch of “Caravan”, where I use two piano tracks and a Turkish tar instrument sample to play the main melodies. Torbjørn and me worked out a bass line and recorded it to remember. I then added percussion loops for rhythm sketches.


  • September 2017: Here is the concert version of the same part.


Due to budget limitations we only had one night and the day of the concert for rehearsals. Arriving at the soundcheck I was told that Eirik, my regular sound engineer, had to take an immediate sick leave and the substitute was a young unexperienced guy. He was not treating the musicians well, and could not do his job. Rehearsal without proper monitoring is exhausting. The overall arrangements worked with minor adjustments, and as the last time Torbjørn, Karl and I had a couple of trio rehearsals on our own before we all gathered.

NRK, the national Norwegian broadcasting network, dropped by for a TV interview on the day of the concert on 27.09.17.

Published with permission from NRK Sørlandet

At the request of several of the musicians I replaced the sound engineer on the day of the concert. Luckily, I got a hold of Ruben Lervåg, who worked on the Live in concert production. Ruben only had the dress rehearsal to learn and adjust the sound and some of the mic placements, so there were limitations on what he had time to do. Nevertheless, he saved the concert and it made a huge difference for all the musicians involved. Wrong mic choices from the first sound engineer were something we later struggled with in the editing of the files in the studio, because the qanun in particular lacked warmth. In addition, there were several digital errors over all the tracks, which was a huge problem, as something went wrong when recording it to the hard drive. We spent lots of hours editing out digital errors because it was on all audio files at the same time. Erik did an excellent job with this since some bars had to be replaced, which demands a musicality to fit all the tracks together. 

  • September 2017:

    Live concert digital error on “Dawara” intro on the qanun.

    After trying to find melodic lines elsewhere in the song to replace the digital noise, we ended up with a delay with an added note, as I felt that was a better fit. Playing the song for Feras, he approved with the solution. 

  • September 2017: Live concert digital error oud solo from my tune “Rhallas”, which had too many digital errors and could not be used on the album. 


  • September 2017: I got a hold of a video clip from a person in the audience filming the solo with a phone. Listen to this amazing solo by Elie; key of D major with a 7/4 time signature.


I reviewed the concert recording together with my studio sound engineer Eirik Mordal a couple of months later. It was ok as a concert, but as a recording it lacked a little edge on some of the songs. I ended up with five tunes, which we started working on in March 2018. I realized that four strings were not enough for some of the more complex harmonies, and there were several options discussed by me and Eirik. One option was to rescore and record a string orchestra like I did on the Asian Flow albums. Another option was to dub up with more strings separately, though neither option were optimal because the live sound is complicated to reproduce in the studio. What about going in another direction as far as dubbing the melodies with Arabic (oriental) strings?

4.3.1 Istanbul Strings

For many years I have wanted to work with Istanbul Strings. They are a studio session string orchestra recording Arabic and Turkish pop productions. I reached out to the maestro Hüseyin Kemancı, and we agreed to record three songs. We set up a phone with WhatsApp at the mixing board inside the control room so I could see the string players through the window, hear the recording through the speakers, with the sound engineer holding down the talkback button so I could talk to Hüseyin if I wanted something changed. Due to language challenges, I ended up using three phrases: more glissando, more oriental and more legato, and sang the lines to suggest when words would not suffice. Me trying to imitate Arabic ornaments by singing them must have sounded terrible, but they understood my intention. Sometime I changed the octaves in comparison to the written score based on my gut feel in the sessions.

In the first session recording for “Dawara”, two musicians were present and they dubbed 3-4 times playing violins, then repeated the procedure with violas, ornamenting exactly the same with each dub of the melody in creating a thick strong timbre, which was very impressive. Every time I suggested a change, they adapted it and evolved the idea further. As the maestro, Hüseyin chose the specific ornaments, and then instructed the others to play the same.

We recorded in two sessions on separate days due to their tight schedule. The second session musicians recording “Silk Road” and “Caravan” four string musicians were present, and I intended to record the video session for documentation with a desktop app connected to WhatsApp. Due to an error in the software, only the video and no audio were captured.

Interestingly, the musicians were excited when recording “Dawara” and complimented the melody, the qanun player and the overall composition. Hüseyin even asked me if he could record two tracks of him improvising on the song, and posted it on YouTube and Instagram. No special feedback was given for the next two songs, so perhaps there was something about “Dawara” that resonated with the Turkish musicians.

  • May 2018: Screenshot from WhatsApp video recording session where I am producing from my living room at home listening with a headset. 

    Here is a short video from the session with voiceover, and not the original sound due to a software failure.

  • May 2018: : “Silk Road” has repetitive rhythmic patterns and changes in harmonics, rather than the melody in the A theme. 

  • May 2018: In the B theme you can hear Istanbul Strings ornamenting the melody.

    Here is the separate track with Istanbul Strings vibrating the notes as part of the ornaments.

    Here are the tracks of the western strings and Istanbul Strings together:


  • May 2018: Hüseyin Kemancı improvising freely over “Dawara”. Captured from the Istanbul studio. I love his beautiful ornamentations, but unfortunately there were no space left in the song for a single violin in addition to the other strings, so we could not get the sound to blend naturally.

Back in the studio, I wanted to keep the sound of the Istanbul Strings as close to the original with a dry feel centred in the middle of the mix. Combining a studio recording with a live recording is challenging since the ambiance and feel cannot easily be produced, as they will sound different. But I am ok with that and rather embraced the difference instead of trying to fuse it into the live sound image, which we also tried. My inspiration is from Arabic pop production, where the Arabic strings are centred and highlighted.

4.3.2 Harmonic approach

My aim is to combine complex harmonies and reharmonization with Arabic maqams in a way that preserves the mood, while at the same time not interfering with the melodic improvised lines through taksim or mawal. I was working at a studio in Bethlehem, Palestine back in May 2017, collaborating with four Palestinian artists using the same intuitive improvisation method developed through my sessions with Abeer, now for a larger group.

Torbjørn, my bassist, was attending the studio sessions and after many years of collaboration he understands my musical intentions, and with small hand signals or a word from me he can change the groove and tones, in addition to contributing with his sound and musicality. I provided harmonies with a piano and pad sound from a plug-in, communicating with the vocalists and responding to their vocal improvisations.

I had an epiphany when we rehearsed an improvised arrangement with a mawal we moved from the intro to a new bridge, performed by the artist and qanun player Shafeeq Alsadi.

From left: John Robert Handal, Torbjørn Tveit, Shafeeq Alsadi and me in RJ Studio in Bethlehem, Palestine.

I realized the connection between the following chords and several maqams: Ebmaj7#11(13)/Bb; adding the Gb note from hijaz made it into a cluster chord moving around to Cm, D7b9 and Cm6/D.

Because the piano and western instruments are usually unable to play quarter tones, the most common maqam used on western instruments is hijaz (D-Eb-Gb-G-A-Bb-C), usually with a tone centre around the b2 interval, although the ornaments and glissandos are not possible to do. And Shafeeq is landing on the Gb in-between, which is the tension tone. Listen:

I combine several chords into a connected harmonic structure based on parts of the western Phrygian scale and elements of hijaz. In addition, I reharmonize the chords or change the bass tone while slightly moving within the harmony, thereby making the feeling different and applicable for adding quarter tones from several maqams over the harmonic structure.

Here is an example applied in a sketch with traditional singer Munther Al Ra’i improvising from the same session. Here I expand and apply several harmonies. Notice his amazing belting vocal technique acquired from early age calling for prayer at the minaret:

Munther Al Ra’i and me in Bethlehem, Palestine.

I am influenced by Ziad Rahbani combing jazz and maqams applying some of the same harmonic structure as a starting point. Here is his tune وقمح from a performance in 1987 featuring Feras and Rony in the orchestra:

4.3.3 Traditional Thai Instruments

When writing the tunes for Dawara, I aimed for the compositions to work for both Arabic and Southeast Asian traditional instruments. What would the latter sound like? Here is a clip from a workshop at Silpakorn University a couple of weeks after the concert in Norway in October 2017:

In this score, I wrote detailed melodic lines for all instruments, and we discussed after the session what parts worked and what needed to change.

Almost a year later, in August 2018, I did a concert at the Southeast Asia Music Exchange (SEAMEX) at the Thai Cultural Centre in Bangkok. Learning from the experience from the workshop, I let the Master of the traditional group, Somnuek Saengarun, be in control and adapt the score as he saw fit. The traditional section with pi, panat, khong and khim had a separate rehearsal. In addition, the saw, khean and phim were part of the traditional section. Ranat and khong are answering the main theme, adding a response in the end of each line:

As you can hear the sound is not optimal, as the concert hall has hard surfaces that reflect the sound around the room, which creates an uncontrollable reverb and bass frequencies. Surprisingly, the sound from a mobile recording was better than the recording from the mixer.

Pi, the Thai traditional obo, is a fascinating instrument central in ceremonial music, including Muy Thai Boxing, and have a distinct nasal sound. I wanted us to do a free improvisation as an intro to the tune “Crossroads” (Haaland, 2018), and here is Somnuek Saengarun improvising and I am responding harmonizing on the spot:

In this tune, the B-theme starts with khim and the string quartet, and then repeats it with other instruments adding in khean and pi.

We modulated into a solo between khean and a Filipino traditional gong to fit their scales. We changed to the more shuffled rhythm is in the style of Mor lam folk music, found in northern Thailand and Laos. The khean is a central instrument in this style. Here is the outro with the now modulated theme with khean, khim and the string quartet:

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