Our Own Voices, an O, Miami Poetry Festival Performance
What draws me to poetry is the impact of a succinct verse; a few phrases strung together speaking so boldly. With folk music, which I love deeply, I am also drawn to its open, outward voice. For this most recent show with O, Miami, “folk” was the focal point of the performance; specifically, a wide variety of voices emerging and coming together.
This song makes me feel like I'm in the sky
sitting on the clouds and eating a strawberry
-D'Metrius Johnson (Miami)
The performance featured individual works of newly written poetry (Miami elementary school students; Miami poet Annik Adey-Babinksi), new prose (Simon Nicholas), and newly composed musical works (Shawn Crouch, Abby Swidler, Daniel Pencer, Borey Shin). The poetry flowed throughout these works - sung and spoken.
At the center of the program was a piece with no poetry attached: “Strum,” by Jessie Montgomery. And at the end, another work with no words -the Fourth String Quartet by Bela Bartok. But the visceral and also lyrical elements of the pieces were so fearless that they grounded the evening in their strength.
For me, the variety of the pieces of the voices - young and old, vulnerable and insistent - created its own folk narrative. As if at the end of the night, a group of storytellers parted ways, an unspoken understanding among them.
I will believe in snail mail/but can’t survive on stamp glue
send me a picture/taken from your street
and I’ll step into it
-Annik Adey-Babinski (excerpt from On MC Hammer's Birthday)
Perspectives in Counterpoint: Arabic and Jewish Music at UTEP
In January, I spent several days in El Paso, Texas, with my friend and musical duo partner Layale Chaker, composer and violinist. Layale and I met at the Banff Centre in March 2015, and had not seen each other in several years, besides a brief and purely coincidental day in Lucerne, Switzerland, in the summer of 2015. We have remained in touch, working together on many projects, including several premieres. Over Skype, Layale taught me Arabic songs and coached me on the styles of some of the pieces she wrote me. And together we came up with this most recent project - a program of Jewish and Arabic music and new compositions inspired by people, places, and music that are close to us. It is hard to find the words to describe how impactful our time was together, after three years apart but remaining so close in between.
Upon arriving in El Paso, Andrea Shaheen Espinosa, the director of Layali Al-Sham, the Arabic music ensemble at UTEP, brought us into the openhearted world of her ensemble. The ensemble feels like, and in many ways is, a family, and welcomed us both to join.
Below are some highlights from this experience, small samples of what I hope will be a project that continues.
From Day 1
The evening I arrived in El Paso, I went to rehearsal. Everyone in Layali Al-Sham was warm and open. The ensemble consisted of two violinists, a bass player, an accordionist, two guitarists, two percussionists, a flutist, and a small choir, gathered together in a semi-circle. Layale led the ensemble on several new pieces and arrangements of Arabic music, building in room for improvisation.
Once the rehearsal was in full swing, I took the choir outside of the theatre to a quiet spot to teach them a Sephardic song, entitled "Los Bilbilicos" (The Nightingales). I taught the song completely by ear: I would sing, they would repeat. Since the song is in Ladino, which overlaps strongly with Spanish, there was a familiarity to many of the ensemble members, but the free nature of the song was new to them. We repeated the melody over and over, until it started to stick. I looked at the group of people in front of me - who I’d just met for the first time and who were trusting me completely - and asked who would be willing to try to sing solo. Taking it one step further, I suggested that they improvise on the melody. A shyness took hold of the group, in spite of their ease and comfort in their surroundings. I gave a demonstration, making small changes with the ornamentation and the syllable placement within certain words, to show how subtle the improvisation could be. A couple of members volunteered to try, but mostly stuck with the given melody.
We finally gave the piece a rest, after an endless amount of repetition of an already very repetitive song. During the rehearsal break, I walked out into the hallway, and heard two of the female vocalists practicing the song together - one of the more confident singers was gently nudging the other singer into believing that she could indeed sing the piece. Their voices were beautiful.
From Day 2 - Talk and Performance at the El Paso Holocaust Museum, "Music as Resistance"
When we arrived at the Holocaust museum, I expected a small gathering of people, an intimate crowd. As I unpacked my viola and started to mentally prepare for my talk, I saw people beginning to line up outside the room. Soon I was getting nervous, and I decided to slip away into an office space and let the crowd enter; when I returned to the room, it was packed - people were even standing in the doorway. I began by playing Bach, because this felt like the only way that I could introduce my Great-Grandfather, Arthur Bloch, the focal point of the talk. He was a lawyer, violinist, and an instrument collector living in Berlin who escaped with his immediately family to the United States in 1937 to flee the Nazis. Most of all, he was a music-lover deeply embedded in Western classical music community. And music, as it turned out, saved our family.
Most astoundingly, Arthur Bloch continued his tradition from Berlin of Friday evening chamber music gatherings in his home upon settling in New York.
Later on in the talk, Layale and I performed a piece together by the composer Ilse Weber, who wrote children’s poetry and music, even when she was in a concentration camp. She worked in a children’s infirmary in one camp, where there was no medicine, simply beds. She would sing lullabies to the children, including “Weigala," which Layale and I loosely arranged for our two instruments. I sang the last verse, without words. Here was music as a form of love, of all that was left; of escape, and certainly of resistance.
At the end of the talk, several of the audience members remarked on their own experiences of crossing the border, and of choosing to stay their homes, especially in Juarez. They spoke of what it would mean to have to leave their home - and to how much they related to the strength of community and also of music in their own lives.
When I described what I can only imagine was the sense of comfort and home that my Great-Grandfather felt when he was amongst musicians, I realized, very plainly, that I feel the same.
From Day 3: Juarez
Part of what was so special about crossing the border into Mexico was our two guides, Omar and Federico, who are simply two of the most thoughtful and caring musicians and artists I have ever met. They first took us to have a traditional meal, complete with enchiladas, mole, and tamales (and after a while…some tequila and mezcal in a bar downtown). Our next destination was a stretch of fairly new murals, bold and contrasting with the strip malls that we had driven past before arriving downtown.
As we headed back towards the border crossing, we passed a stunning church, and soon after I began to drift close to sleep. Before we knew it, we were at the border, with a mix of familiar and unknown ahead.
From Day 4: Perspectives in Counterpoint
Our concert filled me with joy and also sadness. Layale’s solo piece for violin that opened the evening captured that exact combination of feelings for me - the line was so melodic and beautiful but also tinged with something true and dark.
We premiered a three-movement duo by Layale, "Gemellar, impressions from the brown texts." The second movement is a cadenza for solo violin and solo viola - very open to interpretation, and with only the briefest overlap between the two instruments. We also premiered a work by one of my dearest friends and a composer whose voice is always in my heart - Sahba Aminikia. This piece was entitled “Red Rose,” reflecting the title of the poem it is based on, by Iranian poet Forough Farrokzhad. The intensity of Red Rose came from the consistency of the underlying rhythmic figure that one of us always had, and from the melodic voice calling out above, that is always reaching and always unfulfilled.
We performed the entire second half of the program with the ensemble, Layali Al-Sham. Many of the instrumentalists and vocalists took solos, and their performance drew upon various styles.
At the very end of the concert, the percussionists began playing a rhythm. Above that began a long improvisation, solos trading off among different members of the ensemble. I think that this was the moment that filled me with the most joy. The energy in the atmosphere was something to constantly strive for, and something I will not forget.
by Forough Farrokzhad
Red Rose. Red Rose. Red Rose.
He took me to the garden of red rose. In the dark, hung a red rose on my wild hair, then, made love to me on the petal of a red rose.
O paralyzed doves, virgin barren trees, blind windows! Look! Beneath my heart, deep inside my womb now grows a rose; red, red rose. Rose, red like a flag --
-Translated by Sholeh Wolpe
Modern Muses, an O, Miami Poetry Festival Performance
Over the next several weeks, I am working with four different composers to put together newly composed works for my concert for the O, Miami Poetry Festival on April 12. The concert is a free event, held at the CIC Miami, at 8pm, with wine, beer and snacks generously provided! No tix required. Click here for details - Modern Muses: O, Miami 2017.
As part of this collaboration, I am discussing the inspiration, and muses (!) behind these four distinct works with each of the featured composers - Ljova, Layale Chaker, Abby Swidler, and Sahba Aminikia - and also posting videos from performances that provide context for what this concert is all about!
Interview #4: ABBY SWIDLER, “The Dust Beneath” (2017) for String Quintet/Two Voices
I was first drawn to Abby’s music when I saw her graduate recital in Contemporary Improvisation at NEC (New England Conservatory) several years back. The music, which was very eclectic, flowed naturally from one piece to the next, and every aspect of the performance was personal. For our O, Miami collaboration, I sent Abby a poem that I had been working on as a basis for the piece. The idea was very open – the text was a launching off point. Talking with Abby, I asked her what her process was like once she received the poem:
A general thing for me when working with a story, or a painting, or a poem: to familiarize myself with the work, I do a “free write.” When I got your poem, I took each stanza, and spilled out whatever words, or colors, or ideas came to mind. That was my jumping off point for turning it into sounds, for figuring out which words resonated with me and that I wanted to include in the piece. For example, the first stanza: "Bury my soul in a bookshelf/And let the dust begin to settle/For all the music that I make /Spews out into something vast and empty." I just wrote down a bunch of words that reminded me of that, without thinking, like free-associating. I wrote down “dark, lost, air, dust, pressed, hidden, hiding.” And I did that for each of the verses. From there, I figured out which musical sound would really fit each section. For that particular section (the first stanza) I wrote down “harmonics, or pizzicato” and from there I wrote a little melody… I kind of like to immerse myself in the world of the piece. Words help me to get my imagination running.
This piece was a unique experience for me. So far in my composition life, I have a set of songs that I’ve written, and a set of instrumental compositions that I’ve written. I’ve done a few arrangements for ensembles (turning songs into instrumental works) but this was one of my first experiences writing a piece that combines both of those elements. I sort of turned your poem into a song, but it’s also kind of an instrumental piece.
Recently, I’ve been writing a lot of pieces writing instrumental pieces without words, so it was fun to go back to song, and work in some of those elements. I enjoyed using different techniques from the strings to bring out the sounds that I wanted and needed. When I did that word-association with the poem, it created a form, and a trajectory for the piece, and I figure out how to order the themes and moods that came out...the form revealed itself that way.
This is my first time setting a text from someone else. I have definitely drawn rhythmic inspiration from words before. It’s mostly been for songs, but I want to work on this idea more. There was one assignment in grad school where I used the rhythm of a James Brown song, of a specific set of lyrics that I used as a jumping off point rhythmically for piece. I’ve used many different processes in writing pieces, and songs. But words as a way to ground the piece is something I always come back to, in order to capture the mood, or story, or character. Words can be a concrete – like trills – or vague, like a color, like “blue” – that might remind me of a specific word. It’s fun to just come up with those words as a palette. Having those specific ingredients keeps the piece focused on the character and world that I want to be in.
Abby has an individual voice and direction as a composer, songwriter, and performer (multi-instrumentalist and singer), and I was curious about how these different elements come together and influence one another:
My concerts of late have been multifaceted, including film, theatre, and dance. It’s been a whole array of different kinds of things. I’ve played my music with a lot of different kinds of ensembles – I’ve been performing instrumental pieces in conjunction with songs, which I think is really fun. I enjoy working with sets of musicians in different places to bring my music alive. I like the voices of the amazing musicians that I get to work with, and that performers are going to make decisions that will be interesting and beautiful and the piece can morph with each interpretation.
I would say that in general my songs use a lot of space. I enjoy letting notes ring, and having silence as part of the music. I think my music has a lot of subtlety. I’ve written some of my songs where I am playing violin and singing, where I’m playing guitar and singing, tenor guitar and singing …sometimes I write on piano. But it depends on which instrument I have in mind to play, or a tool to write on…this changes the sound. A few of my songs are re-compositions of other pieces. I wrote a song that’s on my EP that is inspired by Lady Madonna by the Beatles, but it sounds completely different. Mine is a bluesy, slow version.
At this point, my music has taken many different forms. I’ve written everything from fully notated minimalist string quartets to large structured improvisations (textural). I’ve played songs that maybe someone listening to it would say – that’s progressive folk, or indie-rock. I think you can hear all my influences in my music, and that I play contemporary classical music as well. I love gamelan, I love playing Ravel quartet … you can hear all these elements. Meredith Monk, Benjamin Britten, John Cage, and songwriters Soledad Bravo, Shara Worden, Xenia Rubinos, Carla Kihlstedt, Sam Amidon…there’s a wide array of influences.
As a performer, it takes openness and vulnerability…it’s scary to learn new and different musical languages and it takes a lot of time and patience. I think there’s a lot of discomfort that comes along with creating something that is unlike anything you’ve heard before, or that’s outside of one particular genre. I’ve learned to love that discomfort.
I like that it’s hard to say what genre my music is. I have had a diverse set of musical experiences. I want whatever sounds are necessary to make the piece come alive. I’m not afraid to utilize something to (a new technique) to make a particular color, even if it might be something that a performer might have never tried. When a musical sound is necessary, it’s worth giving it a try.
Interview #3: SAHBA AMINIKIA, “The Book of Jackals,” a collaboration with Mario Alejandro Ariza (2017)
Sahba and I have worked on several projects that integrate poetry and music, with recorded narration as well as narration that comes from within the ensemble (The Wind Will Blow Us Away, 2016). This most recent collaboration is something new for us: we were connected with Mario Ariza, poet, through O, Miami festival. Mario sent us some of his recent works that he had written, and they were striking. After a preliminary discussion about what the themes of the work might look like, Mario set upon writing a new poem - "The Book of Jackals," inspired by Indian/Persian fables, to be the basis of Sahba's musical composition. Below are some of Sahba’s thoughts on this most recent collaboration, and important works that preceded it:
I’m very interested in storytelling. It has a huge effect on the audience; it takes them from one place to another. That comes with responsibility – I wanted this piece to be a story that comes from an ancient text but that resonates with people now.
Mario’s poem – “The Book of Jackals” – is based on the ancient Indian text, entitled “Panchatantra” (The Five Devices”). The book was translated into “Middle Persian” during the Sassanid Period, around 570 CE, and called “Kalīlah wa Dimna.” The original book was written by a philosopher, for a young Indian prince, as a way to teach him how to act and behave. The stories are animal fables, and all of the characters are animals. They speak like human beings, but are strongly attached and bound to their own nature, creating twists in the story. Aside from evolving from their origins, they are always chained to their own nature.
The Persian adaptation of this book contains 10 interwoven stories. It is a mix of prose and poetry. In Iran, we use them as casual conversation to make a point. We grew up with these stories; we know them all.
I wasn’t really interested before in using old text. I was born after the Iranian Revolution in 1979, and there was already this gigantic story there that I was interested in. However, in 2014, I worked on a piece that was based on an old story, “Sooge Sohrab” (The Tragedy of Sohrab), and I realized that these stories still resonate today. I wrote this piece as a response to my own arrest, interrogation, and torture in December of 2012 in my homeland, Iran:
The stories that survive that many years – they contain some sort of eternal truth, having to do with human nature, and how we get addicted to the loop of our own lives.
I asked Sahba about working with poetry as a medium, and discovered that poetry holds deep roots in his life:
I grew up with poetry. In every Iranian household you can find Hafiz. Iran is such an old civilization, and there’s a hierarchy when it comes to making art. We have such a strong poetry tradition, that it’s hard for contemporary poets to stand out. They are constantly being compared to these gods of poetry (Rumi, Hafiz…) It’s hard to hear a very unique voice – you have to be strongly bound to the past, or you aren’t validated as a poet. Recently I have been looking into contemporary poets, especially female poets, who have a more marginalized voice in Iran. People who have been under some sort of pressure in their own societies often have a more flavorful sound or voice. It comes from the deepest place in human beings, and that resonates with everyone.
Since I’ve been living in the States, I’m interested in translation of these poetic forms and texts. I want to find the best translation of texts and present them to American audience. Poetry is so bound to the language, and hard to translate. One of the best translations is Fitzgerald’s of the poet Khayyam:
Ah, with the Grape of my fading Life provide,
And wash my Body whence the Life has died,
And in a Windingsheet of Vine-leaf wrapt,
So bury me by some sweet Garden-side.
(LXVII from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, translated by Edward Fitzgerald)
Sahba recently completed a major collaboration with Kronos Quartet, the San Francisco Girls’ Chorus, and the choir from the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM), on a piece entitled “Music of Spheres.” This piece also uses text as a mode of bringing people together:
I am just coming out of the Kronos Festival 2017, held at the SF Jazz Center between February 2 and 4. Four of my works were completely new, and for “Music of Spheres,” I reached out to the schoolmaster, Ahmad Sarmast, of ANIM. He was very receptive to the idea of collaboration. I gathered 3 Persian Lullabies, transformed them into a certain meter and into one melodic line, and asked the Afghan students to record them. Every aspect of doing this in Kabul is a huge deal; people are dealing with different needs and priorities; they’re constantly alert. Over 6 months, they recorded the lullabies. A friend of mine, Lauren Braithwaite, organized all of the rehearsals in Kabul, including two studios sessions, and sent me the videos, clips, and images.
The language, Farsi, was the common thread – we could understand each other. The students from ANIM were coming from a religious background (Sunni), and I grew up in a Shi’a country, so the text was the biggest concern. I had to find something that would speak to these opposite ways of looking at Islam. Everyone in the world can connect to lullabies, nothing can provoke. They have to do with the first days of someone’s life, before we become bound to our own stories.
The way I write music, it is a process for myself – when I’m stuck in sorrow, in uncertainty, I try to make music out of it. I immerse myself in those emotions. The space that can be found in music and poetry creates a platform for us to stay in tune with ourselves. I am dedicated to works through I can project human suffering in spite of the darkness; to people who are striving for beauty, when their actual needs are water and food.
Interview #2: LAYALE CHAKER, “Orison,” for String Trio (2017)
Several months ago, Layale worked on a sketch of a string trio with members of Bang on a Can. Three of us from the New World Symphony will give the premiere of this work on Modern Muses. "Orison" is based upon the vocal drones that characterize Oriental liturgy chants, including Byzantine and Syriac chants that Layale grew up hearing in Syriac Church, in Lebanon. In our interview, Layale discusses the unique aspects of this work, and the meaning that it holds for her.
“Orison” is inspired by ancient text, referring to the practice of divine love. The chant that the piece is based on is written in an ancient language, Syriac, an Aramaic language – very close to Hebrew. The piece takes the idea of divine love and turns it into something more profane, more raw. It has a human life. The rhythm, the percussive elements, and the improvisation at the end of the piece – it feels sensual, somehow. This old manuscript is disintegrating from the beginning to the end of the piece.
The piece gets as far as possible from the old language. It goes from something very exclusive to something very inclusive. The first movement, “Orison” is a kind of prayer. The movement is based on a drone upon which the music develops. The drone creates this tension because it’s always there, and everything is happening on top of it. Every time there is a dialogue between two instruments, the third instrument is there, grounding them, acting like the drone. There is always this two against one.
In, “Jathis,” (the second movement), the idea of two against one continues. But this time, I use different accents, desynchronized among the instruments, to create rhythmic tensions, so there is a more hectic feeling. Whereas the first movement sounds like a sacred madrigal, the second movement is like particles of the first movement all over the place. Jathis refers to the Karnatic tradition from South India. I was working a lot on South Indian music, and was starting to integrate techniques from that into my writing. I come from a very melodic tradition, and tend to explore these ideas of tension from a melodic perspective. I thought, how do I break to do that, adopt a different logic?
Athar Kurd is the third movement. It refers to a mode that I really like. I discovered, by chance, that this mode, which is found in the Arabic tradition, has an equivalent in South Indian music. I thought this was an interesting meeting point. In Arabic music, this mode is barely used – it sounds like it’s from somewhere else. It is similar with South Indian music; the mode is quite unusual. It sounds almost like Messiaen, for my ears. The disintegration of the chant continues through this third movement, until nothing remains but colors. Just colors of the chords, and remnants of something rhythmic. What remains is quite calm. Even the melody of the violin disappears, and the piece ends in a kind of rebirth. When the last bit of the melody is gone, then everything can happen.
The chant that the piece is based on is written in a very strong tradition,“Syriac.” I grew up with this tradition, something very old, and very heavy, and there is the idea of having to preserve it. I heard it so much – it haunts me somehow. It accompanies me all the time. When I hear Good Friday chants, it still moves me; it moves me to the core. In everything I write, there is a bit of an homage to this music that I grew up with. I want to be free from the text – that’s why I don’t go back to it in the piece. But it’s something emotional for me.
This past fall, I premiered a solo viola piece by Layale, called Tied Up To Your Name by Water, based on text by Mahmoud Darwish. While working on the piece together, Layale showed me some techniques on violin that she uses to explore different sounds, to attain a wider palette of colors.
I feel like the violin is my medium, not my end. It’s the means of expression that I have, at the moment, at the tip of my fingers. It frustrates me sometimes to hear instruments that make a specific sound; I wish that I could play that instrument to make that timbre. One of the biggest challenges is how to recreate specific instrumental gestures. For example, on the duduk – the vibrato is very specific to Armenian tradition and to that instrument. But there’s nothing saying that it can’t be done on the violin. It’s interesting to explore and expand the language of our own instrument by adding to it, different timbres from different traditions.
I really love when I hear a solo, and at the end of the piece, I look at the CD and it’s not the instrument I thought it was – it’s an amazing feeling! Sometimes I wish I were a percussionist, or a wind player. Thinking about breath changes my whole idea of phrasing. But there are many things you can do, with the grip of your bow, how much hair, how much you press with your left hand – to create that flautando feeling – you can spend hours trying to do that. And the instrument can sound many different ways, just by trying to recreate a certain sound or a certain color.
When I was working with Dhruba Ghosh (sarangi player) I noticed he uses a bass bow – it’s amazing! I was just looking at his fingers, and wondering how his bow sounded even lighter than mine, and it’s a bass bow! It’s about allowing yourself to do what you have been not been taught. He was getting this sound that comes from nowhere, just flowing in, like it’s coming from the next room.
I really like the idea of making the violin sound like not the violin. Like a duduk, like a mouth organ, like a sarangi….
to your name ...
Nothing takes me from the butterflies of my dreams
to my reality: not dust and not fire. What
will I do without roses from Samarkand? What
will I do in a theater that burnishes the singers with its lunar
stones? Our weight has become light like our houses
in the faraway winds. We have become two friends of the strange
creatures in the clouds ... and we are now loosened
from the gravity of identity’s land. What will we do … what
will we do without exile, and a long night
that stares at the water?
(Excerpt from "Who Am I, Without Exile?" by Mahmoud Darwish Translated by Fady Joudah)
Interview #1: LJOVA, Clarinet Quintet, "The Refugee" (2017)
Last spring, I performed a piece by Ljova called Plume, arranged for string quintet and percussion. I knew I wanted to explore more of his repertoire, and he recently sent me one of his newest works, his Clarinet Quintet (premiered in winter of 2017 in LA, with Joshua Rubin on clarinet). I immediately was drawn in by the solo in the opening of the piece. The pacing and the contour of the clarinet line are beautiful, moving in the most natural and improvisatory way.
I asked Ljova about the inspiration behind the piece, and how the music is shaped by its inspiration. Below are excerpts from Ljova’s responses:
I grew up listening to the Brahms Clarinet Quintet and Golijov's "Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind", and wanted to see if I could contribute in a meaningful way to the genre. Of course, as a violist, we’ve also shared the Brahms Sonatas and the Clarinet Trio.
As a young orchestral player (I grew up as a classically-trained violist), the clarinet was my least favorite instrument in the orchestra -- I didn’t understand how it could blend in with the rest of the wind section. As a standard orchestral sound, the clarinet has a relatively plain tone, whereas the rest of the wind instruments have a beautiful natural vibrato. Then as I grew up, I started listening to other kinds of music, and found the lack of vibrato to be an asset. I started thinking that the clarinet is wonderful, and it does have vibrato in some contexts, and it has so much inflection, flavor, and of course, immense range. It eventually became my favorite wind instrument.
Then I discovered some incredible players – one of my favorite performances at Juilliard was playing in the orchestra on Corigliano’s Clarinet Concerto with soloist Alex Fiterstein. Some of my favorite recordings are with jazz clarinetist Michel Portal, and the bass-clarinetist Michael Lowenstern. And then over the years, I also got to know Kinan Azmeh, as a member of the Silk Road Ensemble, as a composer on his own. I’ve had him as a guest with Ljova and the Kontraband several times. I always learn from him, from his incredible musicianship the openness with which he gives and contributes, not only as a player but as a human soul and human being. Kinan and his story, his musicianship and his citizenship, as a citizen in the world and as a citizen of music, were a major part of the inspiration.
As I was writing this piece, the world was changing. The view toward immigrants was changing. The view towards multiculturalism was changing towards something more fearful, something unsympathetic and unkind. This was definitely something I wanted to discuss musically, and as part of that, I wanted to see if I could frame a piece by asking questions – by constructing phrases that were questions that would lead into more questions. Phrases that left each other unresolved, structures that would end up as a question mark. So much of the way we talk has a definitive cadence which leads to a period, or an exclamation point, some kind of certainty. I wanted to see if I could avoid these cadences, and find a way to keep the questions leading to bigger questions, and spin out continuously. This piece keeps coiling out from its beginning note all the way until the very end —before finishing almost on the same note where it began — but transformed.
I wanted to subtitle the piece “The Refugee” because it is inspired by the plight by people who are running from persecution, from disrespect, from danger, from hunger, from lack of opportunities and basic needs. It is inspired by stories of people leaving their homeland, trying to find a home somewhere else, trying to find answers, to find basic ways to continue their life and find some level of comfort.
My parents and I left my native Moscow, Russia, in 1990, during a growing wave of instability and anti-Semitism. My father, Alexander Zhurbin, was (and remains) a celebrated Russian composer and performer -- he was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, where his family was evacuated during World War II; my mother Irena Ginzburg is a writer, poet and translator. Members of her family were shot by Stalin during his regime, her mother and uncle grew up as orphans.
I am a member of this refugee community. I feel much kinship with the community, and with the plight of the people running from uncertainty in their own homeland and trying to make a home here.
The poem that Ljova chose to pair with his work, which will be read aloud in the performance, is by the Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva. I asked Ljova about how he encountered this poem:
Marina was one of Russia’s greatest poets of the 20th Century, a unique voice. My father (Russian composer Alexander Zhurbin) wrote 2 song cycles on her poetry. The first cycle — on a double LP with a cycle on Velimir Khlebnikov’s (“Two Portraits” ) was one of the popular LPs of 1983. Then my father wrote another Tsvetaeva cycle in the last few years. Just by chance, at St. Mark’s Bookshop in NY (now closed), there was a volume of Russian poetry called The Stray Dog Cabaret. It was a collection of this intimate and interwoven community of Russian poets - Tsvetaeva, Khlebnikov, Esenin, Mandelshtam, Mayakovsky -- with a wonderful translation by Paul Schmidt. Eventually, I want to write a song cycle based on some of these poems, and so every couple of years I take it off the shelf and see if I can structure something off of it. I love the collection in this book and the translations, they carry so much flavor.
All things are strange.
All faces. And perhaps what once
Was closest is strangest of all.
All signs upon me, all traces
and all dates seem wiped away.
A soul. Born. Somewhere. Or other.
(Excerpt from the poetry of Marina Tsvetaeava, 1934; translated by Paul Schmidt)
Finally, I asked Ljova about the specific musical influences, on his composition and on his life as a performer. He has been influenced by a huge array of artists and cultures:
I’m influenced by everything. Sometimes things are like a lightening switch. I went to a concert, for example, of Ethiopian music at Lincoln Center a couple years ago. It was the giants of Ethiopian music, and I fell in love it. Since that concert, my use of diminished chords have increased by 1000%. It’s the greatest thing ever – a song built on a single super crunchy chord diminished chord — what could be better?…I love it.
As a kid, I listened to tons of classical music, because that’s what we had in the house. I loved the sound of the orchestra, of the fiddles. It was the world I grew up in, the world I loved.
There is so much music in 4/4. I wondered about the other kinds of music. I felt I could make a difference with more angular music – make it more accessible and make it fun. Perhaps that’s how I readily fell in love with Cuban music – it’s in 4 (most of the time), but the bass is never on the downbeat! The bass in its own world. Everything is suspended over the downbeat.
I was at Juilliard in the late 90s, to study classical music. On weekends, I played weddings, all over New York. I played in a group of Russian immigrants, who were 10, 20, 30 years older than I was. We played Jewish music, Russian music, Italian music; all sorts of music. We played Indian weddings, Danish, Finnish, Haitian weddings…the requests were from completely all over the map. Sometimes these requests didn’t have sheet music. So I would get a CD and I would have to write it out. I didn’t know that I could, but I learned how to do it on my own. Little by little I learned how to arrange for strings. I learned how to arrange by ear, so it sounded exactly like the record, but with a string quartet instead of a big band.
My cousin, Johnny Gandelsman, asked me to arrange several selections for the Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, focusing on Romanian Gypsy music. I had been listening to that music for years. The composer Osvaldo Golijov heard my arrangements that summer at Tanglewood, and asked if I’d consider helping him on some arrangements for the Kronos Quartet and to play viola in his new song cycle “Ayre”, for Dawn Upshaw and Carnegie Hall. We made a record of that piece, and went on tour with it. Later, I became Golijov’s assistant on several film scores for Francis Ford Coppola.
I often work as a composer for film and contemporary dance. All of these collaborations continue to influence me, pull me in different directions musically, strategically... These projects and influences keep intersecting and creating their own crossroads and cross-relationships, enriching the palette of things that I draw from all the time.
Amid the Mountains: Banff Centre Residency
Below is some writing from my time at the beautiful Banff Centre, in Canada, during the residency and Persian and Eastern Music Traditions.
The First Days (Week 1)
Tonight, after a bonfire and s'mores, 10 of us squeezed into a practice cabin and jammed, sang, and danced for 3 hours. I learned Arabic, Persian, and Andalucian songs. And this was after a day that started with a morning jog up the mountain with Cam, an incredible bluegrass/jazz/world music fiddler in my program.
I feel inspired here, in a way that is completely different and eye-opening: there are almost 30 musicians in the world music residency, and each of us has a unique and personal style of music-making. In our workshops, we learn by ear, occasionally notating phrases or using a chart for reference. Most of our work involves taking a phrase of Persian or Turkish music and imitating the notes, style, and ornaments. Once we understand the phrase, we each improvise upon it. We often play in large ensembles, learning a song all together and then opening up the music for improvisation.
I am surrounded by instruments that include the Indian sarangi, 2 ouds, a medieval vielle (the precursor to baroque instruments!), and the setar. I love the different timbres and hearing how each instrumentalist finds a way to make an ornament or gesture.
During one of our very first group improvisations, one of the vocalists, Roya, began her solo almost from nothing, eyes closed and her voice hushed and low. But as she began to sing out, intensifying her expression and deepening her voice, I found myself on the verge of tears.
I don't know exactly where this music will take me, but I know that I am surrounded by musicians whose individual voices I will never forget.
Impulses (Week 2)
This morning, we had our second workshop with Dhruba Ghosh, the incredible vocalist and sarangi player who came all the way from Bombay. Dhruba talked about impulse: musical impulse, which is really our natural, personal, and very human impulse that comes through our voices and our instruments when we make music.
We started out by humming one note - an "A" - in unison, as softly as possible. Then we parted our lips slightly, allowing our sound to forms soft "oh" vowel. From there, we simply sang that same note, coming in and out of the sound as it felt natural. Every person breathed at a different moment, entering the gentle music at his or her own pace.
Afterwards, we picked up our instruments. Staying on the same pitch, we played as soft as possible we possibly could until a natural feeling took over - a thought, or a punctuation in our phrase - an impulse. The impulses took form in a slight swell in the sound, just barely coming out of the gentle texture of our group sound.
From there, we began using the other notes in the scale. Notes overlapped and intersected, but we reminded unaffected by anything but our own impulse. We moved into shorter, more staccato sound briefly, until concluding with our long, barely audible, sustained "A" until the sound completely faded.
I kept my eyes closed throughout most of this warm-up, focusing on my breath and the timbre of the quiet sound emerging from my voice, my viola, and the musicians surrounding me.
For me, this idea of impulse, of reaching inward to bring out our most natural and personal expression, is a way to connect with ourselves even amongst our hectic thoughts, our influences, and our environment. And I wanted to share the experience from this morning, to put it in words and hopefully never forget its significance!
Final Moments (Week 3)
There were many beautiful moments in the final days of Banff, and for me, they often involved the voice. Every single musician sang at some point during our residency, and our voices revealed expressions that were personal and completely, un-selfconsciously, our own. Listening to Kiya, our program director, at the final concert, playing his heart out on the setar until finally joining in with his voice, was transformative: at the very instance that he began singing, the music filled the space with indescribable vividness and clarity.
Something that one of the faculty artists mentioned early on in the residency was that in his musical tradition, the instrument simply serves to mimic the human voice as best as it possibly can. This statement has stuck with me. Working on the opening statement of "Hora Lunga," from Ligeti's solo viola sonata, which is based on a folk melody, I started to think about the simplicty and power of the voice that is behind that phrase. Feeling the music in this way has opened up more possibilities, and more freedom, in a sense, from the notes on the page.
In our last days, I felt every musical moment with heightened senses. The amount of joy that arose in Bentley, the rehearsal space where we spent countless hours playing and improvising together, goes beyond any describable feeling. For me, the joy went beyond the music itself: I could just sit and watch the unqiue way that the setar sways back and forth, and basque in the moments of anticipation before the clarinet or saxaphone would enter with a solo that that might start from nothing, or might cry out boldly.
It has been a new, wonderful, and difficult thing to share some of these thoughts and moments on "paper." I will hopefully be able to share some of the music itself, as well as some photos, now that we have finished our residency. This experience in Banff has been deeply humbling and deeply joyous, and I only hope that I will see and play music with each beautiful musician that I met there in the very near future.