AAM Explore

AAM BLOG

11 May 2015

Introducing: the oud

One of the oldest stringed instruments in the world, the oud can trace its origins back to at least 3,000 BCE when it began to appear in works of art and as a decorative motif on functional items. Its initial popularity in the Middle East and North Africa quickly spread across the Mediterranean to Europe and – in all of its multiple regional variants – it came to be the dominant stringed instrument of the Classical world.

Like its more modern European progeny the lute and the mandolin, the oud has a round-backed body and a backward-bent headstock. Unlike its descendants, however, the oud is fretless, allowing musicians to play microtones, as well as bending and sliding notes and adding vibrato. Most ouds have 11 strings comprising five tuned pairs and a single bass string; this pairing of equally tuned strings gives the oud a distinctly brash tone, compounded by the use of a plectrum in performance (traditionally fashioned from an eagle’s quill).

Classical oud repertoire is characterised largely by an emphasis on melody and rhythm, as opposed to harmony. Underpinning the melodic content of this music is the maqam, a kind of Arabic mode. Performers improvise in and around one (or a number) of the more than 100 maqamat, utilising different rhythmic structures known as awzan, in an effort to achieve tarab, or a kind of musical ecstasy.

From pictorial and written accounts, we know that skilled performers of this ancient musical tradition were present in Venice in the 18th century, not only in the general multi-cultural milieu of the city (which was legendarily cosmopolitan) but in specifically Western contexts as well (such as ballet and opera).

We hope that by presenting works by Joseph Tawadros, one of today’s leading exponents of traditional Middle Eastern music, alongside more well-known 18th century Venetian works we can begin to tease out the complicated web of influence existing between composers often seen as quintessentially Western and their non-Western contemporaries.

We hope you'll be able to join us later this week!