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74 chapter two Balancing Integration and Disintegration Amir Elsaffar and the Contingent Avant-Garde : kamran rastegar The avant-garde is so constitutive to our notions of modernity and culture that rarely is this term subjected to systematic definition within academic discourse. In this, the avant-garde is a key paradigm of the notion of cultural modernity; to define it would require stepping outside the epistemic boundaries of modernity and postmodernity. This is not to say that attempts to define avant-garde practice are either futile or folly but rather to simply note that, as a concept, it is married to what are essentially the Eurocentric narratives of modernity, which are developed through a notion of sequential avant-garde movements that are eventually absorbed into the heart of the West’s universalist high culture. As a constitutive narrative to cultural histories of modernity, the avant-garde is a story with a pleasing ending. It goes like this: the previously marginal artist is eventually feted by the arbiters of cultural legitimacy as a genius. (The tragic variant delays the celebration to a posthumous recognition—still essentially a happy ending.) How does the modernist fetishization of avant-gardism relate to our understandings of modern or indeed contemporary musical practices adduced with the ethno-cultural descriptor “Arab”? Recent studies on colonial and postcolonial modernity have attempted to distinguish or deuniversalize modernity , positing resistant or regionally inflected modernities that speak a different language and embody different values, where the conception of the modern is concerned. In my own work, I have termed these contingent Amir Elsaffar and the Contingent Avant-Garde / 75 modernities (Rastegar, 14), a corollary to Julio Ramos’s description of divergent modernities in LatinAmerica (Ramos) or Jonathan Holt Shannon’s suggestion of “alternative or counter modernities” in his study of Syrian contemporary music (Shannon, xix). What these and other idealized alternatives to the Eurocentrist narrative propose is that modernity’s universal claims are in fact limited, requiring redefinitions of the modern with new parameters for its universal aspirations. One manner by which these limitations may be exhibited is within the narratives of the avant-garde (what Rosalind Krauss terms the modernist myth of the avant-garde) that purport a diametrical opposition between the poles of “tradition” and “modernity,” with a wholesale celebration of the avant-garde’s “disgust for the pieties of tradition” (Sweet, 151). This valuative system marks as reactionary the non-European modernities that have not adopted this antitradition stance as a basis for their conceptions of modernity. This is why, for example, many Euro-American scholars still often find the works of nineteenth-century Arab authors as somehow lesser exemplars of a universal modernity, imitative and unfulfilled in their articulation. This is why ethnomusicologists of the Arab world are still so often tied to the poles of tradition versus modernity as essential parameters for a lifetime of academic research. A cursory view of Amir Elsaffar’s work presents him as embodying a set of contradictions—in an oxymoron, he could be termed a conservational avant-gardist. He is, on one hand, an innovative jazz virtuoso improviser and composer whose primary instrument is the trumpet and whose original compositions make use of maqam theory within jazz and other new musical frameworks and, on the other, a stolidly traditional practitioner of the Iraqi maqam genre, as a singer and santurist.1 However, Elsaffar evinces little concern with what observers may see as irreconcilable contradictions in approach between radical impulses for reinvention and conservative impulses to retain and reaffirm “traditions.” Instead, he moves easily between modalities of traditionalism and antitraditionalism with seemingly little need to justify his embrace of both. Here, I will briefly attempt to reconcile Elsaffar’s balancing of these purportedly contradictory stances in a critical overview of his work. Then, in the interview that follows, Elsaffar himself articulates his journey from a solidly Western training in jazz and classical trumpet, to the adoption of maqam theory in his performance and compositions, to his study of and archival project involving the hermetic Iraqi maqam tradition.2 In the text that precedes the interview, I will outline the way by which Elsaffar’s esoteric accumulation of influences sets his work out as a move beyond the modernist (and Eurocentric) origins of the concept of the “avant-garde”—which Bourdieu traces as a juncture within the economy of “disinterestedness” by kamran rastegar / 76 which the autonomous field of cultural production is characterized. This move beyond is also one that abandons as exhausted...


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