The events of September 11, 2001, shocked Americans deeply. After our initial anger at the attacks, many of us were surprised to realize just how little we knew about Islam, the world’s second largest religion. Similarly, the vast majority of Muslims were horrified at the acts perpetrated in the name of a religion that gives their lives dignity and peace. As my personal response to 9/11, I founded the non-profit Cultures in Harmony (www.culturesinharmony.org). I wanted to do what I could to bring Muslims and non-Muslims closer together at a time when each development in global politics threatened to drive us further apart.
I began playing violin in 1986, composing in 1996, and conducting cultural diplomacy in 2005. Tonight’s recital brings those three threads together. Each piece compels the listener to confront the relationship between Islam and the West. Referring to Islam and the West as monolithic concepts does a disservice to both. I do so here for convenience, and have chosen a wide variety of music in order to represent the diversity of expression within both traditions.
Bartok’s devotion to Hungarian folk music is well known, yet he contributed much to the preservation of other folk traditions as well. The four brief duos presented here showcase a variety of heritages, though for all Bartok’s scrupulous fidelity to eastern European musical idioms, the “Arabian Song” shows only a cursory resemblance to Arab music. It uses a few of the intervals common to that music, yet does not conform to any of its scales, or maqamat.
My duo for two violins, commissioned by my former teacher Mimi Zweig for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Indiana University String Academy, is self-consciously concerned with the concept of dialogue. The two violins take the role of two very different individuals discussing Islam and the West, with the first violin as the more aggressive viewpoint and the second violin looking for solutions and common ground. Five sections loosely inspired by the Muslim call to prayer, or adhaan, thread throughout the work. You can hear the adhaan five times daily in any Muslim city, but I should emphasize that since it is sacrilegious to represent the adhaan in music, these sections are only a non-Muslim's impressions of the adhaan, rather than the adhaan itself.
In the first movement, the section entitled "8:46 A.M." refers to the moment when the first plane struck the World Trade Center. This event belatedly catalyzed a spirit of dialogue between Islam and the West that should have begun earlier. A ferocious fugue forms the bulk of the movement.
The second movement contains an ode to an Iraqi ballerina. My friend John Ferguson is the director of another cultural diplomacy organization, American Voices, which runs Camp Unity in Erbil, Iraq. He found out that one of the ballerinas who attended Camp Unity in 2008 was subsequently visited by terrorists who killed her and her entire family simply because she aspired to practice a Western art form. The story affected me deeply, so this movement is dedicated to her memory. Astute listeners will detect a couple quotes: an excerpt of Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings symbolizes the fascination that ballet holds, since Balanchine's "Serenade" (using this music) was one of the first ballets I loved. The Turkish tune "Gül yüzünü rüyamizda" comes from the Sufi tradition and represents a peaceful interpretation of Islam in which the whirling dervish ceremony is simultaneously a form of dance and a form of prayer.
The third movement, "Obscenity," considers the different ways Muslims and non-Muslims interpret this concept. In rendering both pornography and the infamous Danish cartoons in music, I hope this movement leaves the listener thoroughly disgusted, so that this disgust in turn may lead to empathy for those who find obscene that which others find acceptable.
In the fourth movement, an adhaan progresses to a further development of the Sufi tune, before leading triumphantly to a March. Is the March the bellicose cessation of dialogue, or the joyous conclusion of dialogue in which contrapuntally distinct voices finally fuse together in harmony? A final adhaan pleas for peace.
During a Cultures in Harmony project in Egypt in January 2009, I asked an employee of the world-renowned Bibliotheca to provide outstanding Egyptian examples of Western classical composition. He gave me an entire book of the compositions of Attia Sharara, the reigning living master. I found his light Fantazy El Mansora thoroughly charming.
After my first visit to Turkey in 2004 with the Bloomington Muslim Dialogue Group, I wondered why people referred to Mozart's Fifth Violin Concerto as "Turkish," when it sounds nothing at all like Turkish classical music. What I learned is that the appellation "Turkish" was frequently applied to eighteenth century works featuring bass drum and cymbals, since those instruments distinguished the music of janissary bands. The Ottoman Empire used janissary bands both to intimidate enemies on the battlefield and for cultural diplomacy, sending them to Vienna, where Mozart may or may not have heard one. Here I make the Turkish connection explicit by playing Turkish improvisations, or taksimleri, whenever Mozart calls for a cadenza. I am indebted to my friend, oudist Mahmut Celiker, for giving me a lesson on this process. Because it was fashionable in Mozart's day for pianos to have a Turkish stop which would imitate the sound of bass drum and cymbals, Cory will "prepare" the piano to recreate this sound.
The final two works on the program present an American composer inspired by Persian music, and a Persian composer inspired by American music. In 1956, Henry Cowell won a Rockefeller grant that enabled him to travel to Turkey, Iran, India, and Japan to learn about their music. "Homage to Iran" received its premiere in the shah's palace on July 3, 1959. Behzad Ranjbaran, once a political prisoner under the shah, came to the United States in the 1970s, where he studied here at Indiana University. I was proud to make my New York concerto debut on April 10, 2006, by giving the New York premiere of his violin concerto with the Juilliard Orchestra conducted by Gerard Schwarz. I am delighted to present a work by my fellow Jacobs School of Music alumnus as the virtuosic conclusion to tonight's meditation on cultural relations.
Thank you to Erin Aldridge and Cory Smythe for joining me for this evening of musical dialogue. Thank you to Mimi Zweig for being one of the most significant influences on my life as a violinist, composer, conductor, and cultural diplomat. What Mimi and the String Academy have given to me over the past twelve years can scarcely be measured. Imagine the impact she and the Academy have had on thousands of kids like me over the past twenty-five years!