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Mezzaterra is a song cycle that explores themes of culture, language, and heritage. Drawing inspiration from pharaonic hieroglyphs through to contemporary poetry via European art music and music for religious rituals, the result is a 40-minute piece fusing Arabic and European musical styles. It aims to provide a voice for those not often heard, those who traverse countries and cultures; those whose language and music represents a meeting point in a complex pattern of migration. The piece draws on Coptic hymn, German lieder, English song, classical Arabic song, and the Andalusian muwashshahat tradition.

Mezzaterra examines concepts of travel, wandering, being an outsider, a foreigner – issues that were as powerful and relevant in pharaonic times as they are today.

Written between November 2021 and July 2022. Concept and vocal material by Camille Maalawy. Piano and composition by Mark Slater. Original percussion improvisations by Guy Schalom.

See below for more information about:

The Work

Mezzaterra is a 40-minute piece comprising eight songs for the following ensemble:

  • Mezzo-soprano
  • Grand piano (to be used with preparations)
  • Arabic percussion (daf, finger cymbal, riq)

The songs:

1. The Stranger
2. Exile
3. Three Rekhyt Birds
4. Al Gawal ألجَوَالْ (The Wanderer)
5. Bat Arav בת-ערב  (Daughter of Arabia)
6. The Great Longing
7. Al Nakhla ألنخلھ  (The Palm Tree)
8. Ver Firt Di Ale Shifn


Tête à Tête (August 2022)

Opera North (November 2021)

Further Information

The Concept of Mezzaterra

Camille Maalawy:

Mezzaterra is based on themes of culture, language, & heritage based on my British/Egyptian (Coptic) background. The word ‘mezzaterra’ is taken from the book of the same name by Egyptian novelist, Ahdaf Soueif, and means a meeting point for cultures and traditions. I trained as a classical singer, but have come to specialise in music of other cultures, predominantly classical Arabic & Sephardic repertoire of the Spanish & Judeo-Arabic diaspora. I wanted to try and devise a new piece that would combine both elements of my huwiyyah (identity) to reflect who I am as a singer and performer, and also as a woman of mixed heritage, who on occasion has felt neither totally British, or Egyptian.

Mezzaterra, is rooted in an exploration, indeed a celebration, of culture and identity, and how these are perceived and translated across cultures and between nations. The piece draws on Coptic hymn, German lieder, English song, classical Arabic song and the Andalusian muwashshahat tradition.

In pharaonic hieroglyphics, the Rekhyt Rebus (lapwing) was always depicted with its wings pinned back to represent the foreigner as one of a lower class, but whom the ancient Egyptians acknowledged had a rightful place in their society to balance maat (order) & isfet (chaos). I wanted to look at the perception and representation of the foreigner or immigrant both historically and also in the current situation in the 21st century. Through the eyes of the wanderer, the traveller, the outsider, Mezzaterra examines whether the concept of being a foreigner in a new place has really changed since the days of the Pharaohs.

Our song cycle endeavours to be an artful intertwining of languages, musics, identities and cultures in a celebration of the common ground – or mezzaterra – that unites us.

The Songs

Camille Maalawy:

The cycle takes the form of a journey, both within the complete piece, but also within a single song. Schubert is quoted both in the first and fourth pieces. First, with text from the first song of ‘Der Winterreise’ which is sung in English, Arabic and German. Then in the fourth piece, ‘Al Gawal’ (The Wanderer), through the triplet rhythm used in the introduction of the original piece; but by using prepared piano, the altered timbre provides a kind of distance, and emulates string instruments such as the oud. Text from ‘Der Wanderer an den Mond’ was translated into Arabic, and there is a hint of 10/8 rhythm at times that references the famous muwashshah, ‘Lamma Badda Yatathanna’. The result is three independent parts, all wandering, sometimes meeting together at bar lines, but with freedom within the musical language.

In ‘O Kirios Metasou’ (The Lord is with you), the religious language of the Coptic faith is interspersed with Dowland’s ‘Flow my Tears’. The piano is treated to emulate the traditional bells heard in the Coptic church, whilst the theme of exile adds a mournful tone. ‘Three Rekhyt Birds’ invokes the images of suppression captured in hieroglyphs from pharaonic times. The ambiguous text of Kahlil Gibran’s ‘The Great Longing’ is accompanied by ambiguity in the tonal structure of the music, becoming almost bitonal; like the wanderer, it is neither one nor the other.

In ‘Bat Arav’ (Daughter of Arabia), a poem by Todros Abulafia, in Hebrew and then Arabic, is set to a French troubadour melody. This beautiful poem written when Christians, Muslims and Jews lived together in relative harmony and creativity in Andalucia is a meeting together of faiths, cultures and language, building on cultural and musical similarities, whilst celebrating and using the differences to create something new and contemporary.

‘Abd al-Rahman was a Syrian prince who became the first emir of Cordoba, but who was also a poet. In ‘Al Nakhla’ (The Palm Tree) he talks about his nostalgia for a homeland he would never see again, and aligns the tree to himself – both strangers in a strange land. This is in the style of a mawwal, a classical Arabic improvisation with emphasis on the meaning of the text, but also emulating the Asturiana of Manuel de Falla and the movement of the trees in the breeze.

The final piece is ‘Ver Firt di Ale Shifn?’ (Who Guides the Boats?), a beautiful Yiddish poem by the Polish poet, Zishe Landau who emigrated to New York in the early 20th century. I first learnt it at Klezfest, run by the JMI many years ago, and have always been so touched by the text. Landau lost a child himself, but it is a universal message for all those who may have lost a child, or the displaced children who are fleeing from war and persecution. Indeed, it is the image of the three year old Syrian boy, Alyan Kurdi, washed up on the beach in Turkey in 2015, that floods my mind.

The Creative Process

Mark Slater:

Mezzaterra was (mostly) created during an intense three-day session between November 10th-12th 2021 in the Mantle Studio in the Howard Opera Centre in Leeds. Camille had assembled a substantial body of materials comprising texts, concepts, ideas, melodic sources, and snippets of musical cells. By the time we turned up on the first day, we had both had the chance to explore these materials and curate what, for each of us, were the focal ideas. All of this was centred on Camille’s idea of a ‘mezzaterra’ – or middle ground, or meeting point – as a symbol for the many ways that cultures, languages, and identities traverse one another and become intermingled. That the song cycle would assemble and combine textual and musical ideas from many sources was clear from the start. Our job was to work out how exactly we would do this and how the piece would progress. We were joined by percussionist Guy Schalom whose contribution towards rhythmic, structural, and narrative elements was instrumental in shaping the songs as they are now. Camille and I held a second session to create another two songs, which took place at my house in early 2022. The original six songs covered a lot of ground (musically, narratively, politically), but we both felt that there was more to be said; that there were other ideas to be explored.

Fundamental to this process was a playful, exploratory, and improvisatory approach to the materials. What happens if we put that with this, or if we sing this text using this melody in this language? How does the potential of significance and meaning shift when we cross-fertilise different sources? How does our perspective change when we make a statement several times in different languages and using different musical materials? I saw my role as providing a framework in which these explorations could take place. That was partly to do with proposing a structural scheme and partly to do with finding ways of fixing anchor points in the song cycle without fixing the specifics of what would be performed. Improvisation should, we agreed, continue to characterise future performances of the song cycle – though perhaps in varying degrees.

Funding & Support

This work was created through Opera North’s Resonance programme with funding from the PRS Foundations Talent Development Partner Network and supported by PPL.

Words of Support