Illustration by Gauraang Biyani

The Musical Soundscape of NYUAD

How do the musicians and artists invited to perform at NYUAD influence the artistic culture of our campus?

Apr 23, 2017

The musical soundscape within NYU Abu Dhabi as an institution has largely come to be defined by various events hosted by students, faculty members and other community members, oftentimes under the umbrella of the NYUAD Arts Center. This season, as one of the Producing Assistant Interns, I have been able to work closely with artists and companies who have been hosted by the Arts Center. I have simultaneously listened as an audience member and worked to facilitate the shows behind the scenes, exploring the broader ideologies held by artists in the fields of music, theater, dance and performance. This has allowed me to venture into the developing soundscape as facilitated by the Arts Center and how music, in particular, is expressed as a fluid, dynamic mode of expression.
Many of the musicians I interviewed this season reiterated one important idea: music is made between gaps, in the cracks that exist between institutions and political structures. The artists raised important questions about what mainstream music is and if music can ever be categorized ‘traditional’ or ‘contemporary’. Several artists expressed their belief in considering the act of coming together and listening to music in 2017 as a political act in itself, emphasizing the political connotations and implications of their work. Performing at NYUAD, even the UAE, which are a crossroads between people belonging to different cultures, can be seen as making a political statement. Even as the diversity within the student body continues to increase, performances that were showcased within spaces such as the Red Theater made me delve deeper into this notion of music as something that is stumbled upon, and then conceived and developed. The Red Theater has now become a crucial cultural, social and political hub in Abu Dhabi and the UAE. There have been staccato moments where I have had to step back from the music to appreciate what it represents and reveals, even as the sound of the cello and the notes played on the flute blurred the line between the familiar and unfamiliar for me.
That said, I noted that the variety of performances this season had something for everybody, irrespective of their musical background and preferences. From Mauritanian music to Carnatic Jazz, each performance presented different content and showed how music could be created from a wide range of instruments and timbres. I was further struck by the intersection between different genres of art in Noche Flamenca’s Antigona, for instance, which presented a rather powerful musical ensemble that formed the very backbone of the performance. Similarly, in An Iliad, the narrative relied on the political counterpoint of the Trojan War. The performance would have been incomplete without bassist Brian Elingsen’s continuous presence, which was recognized by the twangs that were produced periodically to aid the visualisation of the scene.
As I witnessed these works, some of which were experimental and improvisatory in nature and others orchestrated, I asked whether music even had any boundaries. I found myself also asking the following questions: How is the soundscape of the UAE and the Middle East defined and to what extent do these artists and companies that come into residence within our institution aid in the evolution of this soundscape? From the very first Bang on a Can All-Stars concert that marked the opening of this season leading to the Barzakh Music Festival, Tomatito, the dazzling performance by Vijay Iyer & Tirtha and Vijay Iyer and International Contemporary Ensemble and the latest Manifold festival hosted by the Arts Center, the representation of artists within our school in addition to the work of artists outside of the region cumulates to enhance this evolving soundscape in the UAE. In my conversations with these artists throughout the season, it became evident that each of these performances had a different purpose keeping in mind the audiences and their varied tastes. I am now convinced that the notes of the clarinet and the tabla will continue to ask and answer the questions of identity, sense of belonging and inclusion in the context of the global diaspora.
Archita Arun is Creative Editor. Email her at
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