Hawar Tawfiq

The piece that opens both the concert on 11 January and the Annual Gala on 12 January is by the Dutch composer Hawar Tawfiq. Tawfiq, who was raised in a Kurdish family that valued the arts and painting, took inspiration from Dutch artists in writing this composition.
Part of Metamorphosis II;  M.C. Escher, 1940
Part of Metamorphosis II; M.C. Escher, 1940

Hawar Tawfiq wrote M.C. Escher's Imagination commissioned by the Concertgebouw Orchestra.

Discovered by chance

As a composer, Hawar Tawfiq is as productive as he is fascinating. It’s not at all surprising that his music is often connected with colour and visual art: he grew up in northern Iraq in a Kurdish family, in which paintings and painters were an important part of daily life. His older brother Salar is one of the country’s most influential painters. Hawar himself had violin lessons from an early age.

Hawar Tawfiq
Hawar Tawfiq (foto: Els Zweerink)

Hawar arrived in the Netherlands in 1998 alone as a teenager seeking asylum, after a perilous journey lasting months. Thanks to a teacher in the asylum seekers’ centre who happened to discover his musical talents, he was brought into contact with the conservatoire in Tilburg. He studied violin with Annemieke Corstens and Alexander Kerr and composition with Alexander Hrisanide and Roderik de Man. When his request for asylum was denied, important figures in the music world, including Kerr and Herman Krebbers (both formerly concertmasters of the Concertgebouw Orchestra) pleaded his case and he was allowed to continue his studies. In 2011 he completed his composition degree with the highest possible distinction.

Mysterious breathing sounds and walking insects

For the Concertgebouw Orchestra’s commissioned work, Tawfiq felt a strong urge to find a quintessentially Dutch source of inspiration. He ended up choosing the graphic artist M.C. Escher; he was also inspired by Dutch landscapes, insects and Theo Jansen’s strandbeesten, huge sculptures of animals that move along independently. His basic element is a little motif heard first in the solo clarinet: a long note followed by two groups of three quickly falling notes. ‘Just like Escher, who worked a lot with inversions, I’ve played with this motif a lot’, says Tawfiq. Although the motif isn’t always recognisable, ‘all the entrances directly or indirectly refer to the motif or the intervals in it.’

Escher, metamorphosis II
Metamorphosis II; E.M. Escher, 1940

The work begins with mysterious-sounding breathing. ‘Escher gives me the feeling that he breathes life into his works, as if everything is in motion’, explains the composer. ‘Another important effect is the clicking sounds from the winds (…). Insects and their metamorphoses are important to Escher; I’ve tried to enlarge and express the sounds of insects walking.’

Freeing our minds

The composer, however, would like to emphasise ‘that the listeners don’t have to imagine insects walking or an Escher piece breathing before them, but to hear the sense of mystery in the music, and the beauty of that mystery. (…) The magic of the music gives us the opportunity to free our minds as well as our ideas about sound (…) In this regard, a sound doesn’t have any fixed meaning in and of itself. The poetic aspect of the music begins at the point where reason makes room for the vibration and the mystery of beauty.’

Animaris Percipiere; strandbeest by Theo Jansen (foto: Loek van der Klis)

The world premiere of M.C. Escher’s Imagination by the Concertgebouw Orchestra, planned for December 2021, was cancelled due to the pandemic; the first performance was given by the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra on 11 June 2022.

By: Martijn Voorvelt for Preludium 

Concerts with work by Hawar Tawfiq