Harmony Beat

Violinist from Indiana traveling to all 50 states in 2016, asking: "What is American culture?"

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Location: Indianapolis, IN, United States

violinist, violist, teacher, composer, conductor, writer, cultural diplomat, traveler

Friday, July 31, 2009

A dinner and a birthday, plus project reports

Thank you to the New York volunteers of The Citizens Foundation who came out to dine with our Pakistan project participants at the fantastic Bukhara Grill.

Tomorrow (August 1) is the birthday of two people very important to Cultures in Harmony: Kimball Gallagher, who just returned to the US from leading our project in Tunisia, and Amanda von Goetz, who designed our fantastic website and is a member of our board. Happy Birthday to Kimball and Amanda!

I look forward to hearing Kimball's report about Tunisia. In the meantime, our Mexico project participants have finally all arrived, after a delayed flight compelled part of the group to come to Mexico City a day late. I look forward to hearing how that project progresses.

For the next couple days, our Pakistan project participants will rehearse and prepare here in New York, and then on Monday, we're off to Islamabad!

Monday, July 27, 2009

New York performance and talk

On Wednesday, July 29, I will perform a solo sonata by Bach and talk about Cultures in Harmony at Cindy Sibilsky's art exhibit opening at The Bean at 49 1/2 1st Ave. at 3rd Street, New York City. The exhibit opens at 8:00 p.m. and the performances will start around 9:00 p.m. Please come if you can; there is no admission charge.

The group in Tunisia continues to send occasional updates; everything seems to be going well. Andrew Roitstein leads a group to Mexico on Thursday, and one week from today, I lead a group to Pakistan. That means that next week, Cultures in Harmony will have simultaneous projects on three continents!

In a way, that's not so important. What's important are the instant message conversations and messages I keep getting on Facebook from friends in Egypt, Cameroon, and the Philippines, still jubilant about our projects there this year; friends in Tunisia, happily reporting on the project I am so sorry to miss; and friends in Mexico excited about seeing us again. Meanwhile, every day brings a new flurry of e-mails about Pakistan.

I value the quality of the friendships we have forged far more than the quantity.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Performance in Tunisia

Based on the reports from Tunisia, our concert at the English Language Village in Nabeul was a success. Jim Miller, Academic Director for Amideast, writes: "Thank you so much for your performance here at the Village last night. I think you captivated the audience once we figured out the lights and moved the seats! It was quite the scene!"

Thursday, July 23, 2009

U. S. image in Pakistan

According to a recent survey, Pakistan is one of the few countries where anti-American sentiment remains high, in spite of Obama's election. Why is this?

While Obama may still be generally beloved throughout much of the world, his escalation of the war in Pakistan has brought closer ties with the military, rather than with civil society, and the unmanned Predator drones continue to claim civilian casualties. Fatima Bhutto and Tariq Ali do an excellent job explaining the problematic approach of this administration to Pakistan. Here in the U.S., Nicholas Kristof gets in the spirit by recommending that we launch a major education initiative. Perhaps the U.S. should simply give the money it currently gives to the Pakistani military to The Citizens Foundation, Cultures in Harmony's partners for our project next month in Pakistan.

After reading these articles, I confess to feeling a bit like a fool. When our unmanned Predator drones kill Pakistani civilians and when our tax dollars support bombs instead of books, do I really think that four Americans giving concerts in three major cities will usher in a new era of friendship, peace, and cooperation? Do I believe that a few outreach concerts in schools will be enough to convince Pakistanis to buy T-shirts with Obama's image instead of burning him in effigy?

Of course not, but I am not out to establish lasting peace or sell T-shirts (although that might prove more lucrative than violin playing, depending on what the T-shirt depicted). The four of us go to Pakistan to ignite within the hearts of children the possibility that Americans and Pakistanis can work together, respecting one another, to create works of beauty. We go to suggest a different model for a relationship that has been determined more often by what is expedient rather than what is just, what seems necessary rather than what seems possible.

What about our safety? I am confident we will be safe, but I am also inspired by an anecdote recounted by Ms. Bhutto's interlocutor. Ken Saro-Wiwa was killed for his activism in Nigeria. His son was asked whether the loss of his father was too great a sacrifice, and he said, “All of us have a choice, to make our children safe in the world or to make the world safe for our children.”

In other news, word from our project in Tunisia is good. Sarah Wood writes: "Everything is going pretty well. the students are for the most part really wonderful to work with. its great...i get to teach all day."

Sunday, July 19, 2009

News from Tunisia

Kimball wrote me this morning from Tunisia: "We made it fine. The level is slightly higher than last year and there are fewer students, so all in all it's better."

In this article, Hillary Clinton calls for a greater use of citizen diplomats. Though her words are specifically directed at relations between the US and India, they apply to all bilateral relations. Thank you, Madam Secretary, for acknowledging the role non-governmental entities should play in diplomacy.

Education in Afghanistan and Pakistan

Smugness seldom satisfies, and Thomas Friedman's pompous odes to his own wit and wisdom typically irritate me even more than the hagiographic tone of Three Cups of Tea, the book I am now reading. Yet this column by Friedman does a good job explaining why Greg Mortenson's work building schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan justifies the hype and accolades it has received. Though I disagree with Friedman's relative comfort with the conduct of America's war in Afghanistan, efforts to be bring secular education to both genders should be celebrated. (Readers of Mortenson's best-selling book should bear in mind that the Central Asia Institute undoubtedly owes its success to a wide network of people, Mortenson's charisma and the book's awestruck depiction of him notwithstanding.)

For this reason, I am very pleased that Cultures in Harmony will work with The Citizens Foundation in Pakistan. TCF has built 600 schools that have enrolled 80,000 students. They have created 6,026 jobs, of which 4,150 are their all-female faculty. They have achieved 50% female enrollment, 98% high school graduation, and are the second largest provider of education in Pakistan. Last Tuesday's opportunity to meet Ahson Rabbani, their Vice President, was an honor. He has helped guide TCF to an astonishing level of sustained achievement and growth.

Also, I look forward to teaching at the Afghan National Institute of Music, the website of which is now live. Take a moment to browse it. Look at the picture on the home page. See all those smiling kids, holding instruments, eager to learn? Those are my new students, children who have thirsted for music their whole lives.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Tunisia and Pakistan

Bon voyage to Team Tunisia! They leave today for another exciting year teaching young musicians. This year, they will also get to perform a lot more than in the past. Check out the concept paper here, now updated with their biographies.

I also updated the Pakistan concept paper with the latest details and with links to the biographies of the four participants.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Letter to a Young Violinist

Today, a young violinist wrote me for career advice. Answering his letter prompted me to set down in writing much of what I have been thinking lately, so here is an abridged version of my response.

Dear Nick,

Thank you for sharing your background, and thank you for contacting me. I am honored that you feel my opinion would help you. The questions you ask seem directed towards someone who fits the definition of "violin soloist," or "professional classical musician." I am not comfortable with such labels. I am a person who happens to play violin, rather than a violinist as such; I often prefer discussing or reading about Iranian politics, Pakistani history, or cultural diplomacy to discussing historic recordings, recital programming, method books, and career paths. Lately I spend more time walking in the park than practicing.

Please understand that I don't mean this as a rebuke to your questions (which I will answer shortly) or as an underhanded way of condescending to those who do derive great satisfaction from the conventional career paths offered by classical music. Rather, I inform you that my own perspective is rather unusual.

I am the founder and director of Cultures in Harmony, an organization that promotes cultural understanding through music. We have conducted sixteen projects in ten countries from Qatar to Zimbabwe. In August, I will travel to Pakistan with Cultures in Harmony. In October, I will move to Afghanistan, where I will take up the post of Violin and Viola Teacher with the Ministry of Education. I will continue to run Cultures in Harmony remotely from Kabul.

Your teacher, family, and friends may very well disagree with all my answers. You should consider my thoughts as coming from an atypical source, and apply them or not as you see fit.

One week after my freshman orientation at Juilliard concluded, the planes screamed into the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. This tragedy changed my life, and transformed my view of music. On September 16, I played for some soldiers from the Fighting Sixty-Ninth regiment as they were coming back from a long day of rescue and clean-up work at Ground Zero. This experience made me realize that I could not remain in the ivory tower of classical music while the floodwaters of history raged outside. As musicians, we possess extraordinary power to help direct the flow of history. Yet that power is too infrequently explored or understood.

I founded Cultures in Harmony to explore that power, but many other organizations exist as well, including ones that are far more famous and have far more impact than my own. My conviction that the musician is not separate from society is hardly original. The president of Juilliard, Dr. Joseph Polisi, repeatedly returns to this theme, most notably in his book, The Artist as Citizen.

Because of this conviction, I urge you to think not about how to budget your practice time, but how to make violin practice part of a rich and enriching college experience. What interests do you have outside of music? How can music complement, enhance, or further those interests? What concerns you about the state of your community, your nation, your world? How do you define those different groupings? How can music help address your concerns and right the wrongs you observe?

Certainly, when I was a freshman I practiced a lot. I wish I had taken more walks, read more books, seen more plays, discussed more political developments, reflected more, evolved more, listened more. In December 2007, I performed solo with orchestra in Carnegie Hall. I have not performed with orchestra since then. I do not think that if I had practiced 100 more hours, I would have performed a concerto since then, nor do I believe that if I had practiced 100 fewer hours, I would never have enjoyed that singular honor.

After graduating from Juilliard in May 2006, I resolved to free-lance in New York. By August of 2006, I had been awarded the job of Interim Concertmaster of the Spokane Symphony. Yet what mattered was not that I was concertmaster. What mattered was the impact I was privileged to have on the community because I was concertmaster. I sought out opportunities to do outreach even the last-desk players didn't want, such as helping out with a petting zoo or playing at a nursing home. I enjoyed the plethora of activities offered by a beloved orchestra in a smaller community: solo work, chamber performances, new music, gigs, and more.

I free-lanced in New York for a year (2007-2008). Following that, I was a Fellow at The Academy. The most meaningful part of The Academy was not the regular performances in Carnegie Hall. With considerably more fondness, I recall the adorable class of first grade violin students I taught at PS 108 in Brooklyn.

While I have not had many solo engagements, I am not particularly bothered. I find more meaning performing for children in the slums of Cameroon or for indigenous tribes in the jungle of Papua New Guinea than I do in performances given in cold, darkened halls for old, wealthy audiences whom I do not know and am unlikely to meet again. I sometimes joke that I have performed on three stages that I love: Carnegie Hall; the ancient Roman coliseum at El Jem, Tunisia; and a tiny amphitheater in the remote mountain village of Miarayon on the island of Mindanao in the Philippines.

My biggest struggle as a classical violinist was learning to accept that I will not be the next Joshua Bell, but that struggle resulted in the current stage of my professional career, where even an average day means more to me than the highlights of the conventional career I thought I wanted. One hundred forty-five people in Zimbabwe can see because of a benefit concert my organization presented for Eyes for Africa. Children in Moldova are reading 7,000 books because of a benefit concert I played in 2005. In Cameroon, Cameroonians and Nigerians work together to build mutual understanding and respect, and their work found new inspiration in our project there last month.

Which was more meaningful? My Carnegie Debut, or a violin student in Tunisia who told me: “It was terrific to meet you and I hope that I will see you again next year and I’m awfully happy to know and to meet you. Besides, you’ve changed the image that I had about Americans because you’re completely different. You’re nice, kind, friendly, generous, awesome, beautiful.”

That question is impossible to answer, because clearly both experiences have tremendous meaning. Only one of them moved me to tears of joy though, and by now you can guess which one.

Finally, you ask what advice I would offer to those who would like to pursue a career as a soloist.

Be honest to yourself and with others.
Think before you speak.
Make time for fun.
Act honorably and decently.
Be kinder than necessary.
Listen more, talk less.

You might think that such advice could just as easily apply to a cable guy, and scoff that I am merely offering a mediocre recycling of Polonius' speech to Laertes.

Well, here's a story about a cable guy. A guy came to my apartment to fix my high-speed internet. When he found out that I am a violinist, he was impressed. "You get to do something you love," he said. "I'm just a cable guy," he added, with a heart-breaking, wistful tone.

Never forget that you are engaged in a magical avocation. Simply by causing the air to vibrate, you can fabricate an invisible, inexpressible connection that compels your listener to confront the humanity they share with you, with the other members of the audience, with everyone in the world. The sound waves are the same, but each interpretation of those waves is different, and from this flow the ideals of equality, democracy, justice, freedom.

We are equal in our ability to apprehend music, for even the deaf can feel the sound waves, and no language barrier on earth prevents the greatest music from having an emotional effect.

Yet that effect is different for each of us. What one woman loves bores another; what one man finds a catchy tune, another can hardly remember. From the need to respect each different interpretation, we can understand democracy.

The truism of music's universality becomes lost in cliché, but that does not make music itself any less universal. You cannot truly listen to music from another culture or performed by someone from another culture without understanding that we all share some basic traits. We all desire beauty and truth; we all cry over heartache; we all act silly with a baby. To understand this universality can be terrifying, which is why many choose not to listen to music with the intensity that would make this message inescapable.

Yet the message is there. It was there in Mexico when I observed a group of jarineros diligently practicing their music, even though their music was incomprehensible to me. It was there in Egypt when I danced on the street with fishmongers, singing a song by Um Kulthum that we distorted beyond all recognition. From this universality, a passion for justice flows as inevitably as a river from a mountaintop.

When you make music, you understand the true meaning of freedom. Freedom does not mean do whatever you want, and even the most rule-abhorring improviser subconsciously establishes rules that limit what they can or cannot do. You will meet improvising musicians who speak of "free improvisation," but in this free improvisation, will they perform the complete works of Mozart? Of course not. There are always rules, but within those rules, the freedom available to us is magnificent, terrifying, ennobling, soaring, and the only reason any of us bother to live in the first place.

Take the Bach G Minor Adagio for solo violin. Learn it strictly, with the rhythm exactly as printed on the page. Now observe two things: many violinists never bother to learn the precise rhythm, instead taking as sacrosanct the rubato they heard in some recording. Second, many violinists play this piece with eight pulses to a bar, treating each note as a significant event, rather than as a point along an ornamental curve, unfolding with a spontaneity that is logical only in hindsight.

After learning the movement, try playing it with two pulses to the bar…the metronome would be theoretically set to about 16 to the half note (one eighth note at 64). How much freedom is suddenly available to you! How profound, anguished, playful, eccentric, and impassioned becomes this one page of music! How unimportant the intonation of a given sixty-fourth note, and how all-important the relative weight of each gesture becomes!

Music is not about you, it is not for musicians, it is not its own world. It is far too serious to be taken seriously, too important to be spoken of in important tones, and too powerful to be confined to conventional venues, career paths, and modes of living and expression.

Music connects us to each other, touching us at a level few things can. If life is love, and love is the connections we value above all others, than music is no more separate from life than life is from itself.

These are just the ramblings of a 26-year-old with too much time on his hands as he prepares to go to Pakistan in three weeks, stand alongside members of The Citizens Foundation as they offer secular education to boys and girls, and perform alongside Pakistani musicians to demonstrate to a people deeply suspicious of Americans that our souls vibrate as one.

Sincerely yours,
William Harvey

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Afghan Star

To prepare for my upcoming move to Afghanistan, on Wednesday I saw the moving documentary Afghan Star. It chronicles some of the contestants on the Afghan version of American Idol as they strive to win the most votes in a televised, nation-wide song contest.

The documentary mentions that of the 2,000 original contestants, three were women. Two of them advance rather far. Setara was my favorite of the two. Clad in very modest clothing that extended to her wrists and ankles and wearing a headscarf, she showed captivating enthusiasm and a lyric, tuneful way with the songs she sang. Yet because she moved a little bit from side to side, numerous average Afghan men who were interviewed said things like "This is a very bad thing," and even "She deserves to die." She was voted off the show and received death threats, but is apparently still safe in Kabul and recording an album.

The documentary is a testament to music's power to heal a wounded people, and the slices of Kabul life made me very excited about my upcoming move. Check out the movie when it comes to a theater near you, and in the meantime, you can watch Jon Stewart's interview with Saad Mohseni, the producer of both the documentary and the TV show.

In other cultural diplomacy news, the New York Philharmonic has been invited to perform in Cuba, following their historic performance in North Korea. Congratulations to the Philharmonic for having the courage to take this important step in normalizing US-Cuban relations. While their performance in North Korea was indeed followed by a thaw in relations, Washington and Pyongyang have by now returned to the old antagonism. Let's hope that any improvement in the Havana-Washington relationship resulting from this performance lasts longer.

Now, if only Iran would invite Cultures in Harmony to do a project there!

Monday, July 06, 2009

Moving to Afghanistan

The Ministry of Education of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan has offered me the post of Violin and Viola Teacher, and I am honored and thrilled to accept.

Living in Afghanistan, I will have the opportunity to test the belief that animates every Cultures in Harmony project: that music can help bring peace to our world.

In no project that Cultures in Harmony has attempted will this belief be as tested as it will in Kabul. One American violinist will move to Afghanistan at the same time as thousands of American troops. The people of Afghanistan have been outraged as our weapons continue to injure and kill innocent civilians. If there is one country where the United States has not begun to recover its reputation in the age of Obama, it would be Afghanistan.

Yet most people in Afghanistan yearn for peace and friendship. They want to bring the culture of music—a culture that the Taliban drove underground—back to their country. One of the reasons I founded Cultures in Harmony was an article that appeared in the New York Times on November 20, 2001. It quoted a 16-year-old named Ajmal from Jalalabad: "We are searching for any kind of music. It's been six years since I heard music. There are no words to explain the happiness I think I will feel when I hear it."

While in Afghanistan, I will teach violin and viola privately, help start an orchestra and chamber ensembles, and perform alongside local musicians. I look forward to learning how to play Afghan music, and I will do my best to speak Dari. I will also continue the vital work of Cultures in Harmony by enjoying access to high-speed internet and telecommunications. Our projects in 2010 will proceed as planned.

In August 2009, I will go to Pakistan with Cultures in Harmony for three weeks. Upon returning, I will be in New York City before moving to Kabul in late October 2009. Because the school where I teach has a lengthy winter break, I look forward to being back in the United States from December 2009 to March 2010.

I would love to see those of you who live in New York over the next couple months. Please follow this blog while I am in Afghanistan, as I will use it as the primary means of relaying news.

In lieu of a gift in the next couple months, please consider a tax-deductible donation to Cultures in Harmony. Whether we are conducting projects in Tunisia, Mexico, or Pakistan, as we will in just a few weeks, or our director moves to Afghanistan to accept a job congruent with our mission, we remain passionately dedicated to music's power to cast light into the world.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

The impact of cultural diplomacy in China

This article describes the impact of Isaac Stern's 1979 tour of China. His master classes and violin recitals with David Golub helped open relations between China and the West, and the 40 million young Chinese students of violin and piano today can testify to the enormous effect cultural diplomacy can have at its best.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Recording of "Dialogue"

My composition for two violins, entitled "Dialogue" and premiered this past Tuesday at Indiana University, deals with the concept of dialogue between cultures. You may listen to a recording here. You can listen to the rest of my recital, which also featured works about cultural dialogue, here. Erin Aldridge was the violinist for my piece and the Bartok; Cory Smythe played piano on the Mozart, Cowell, and Ranjbaran.

Review of cultural dialogue concert

String Academy alumnus Harvey takes the spotlight
By Peter Jacobi
H-T Reviewer

The roster printed in the program book for Tuesday evening’s concert in Recital Hall evinced equality: The music would be performed by violinists William Harvey and Erin Aldridge and pianist Cory Smythe, their three names set in same-sized type.

As things turned out, though Aldridge and Smythe certainly contributed to the affair, this was Harvey’s show. He had planned its content. He had composed a major work as centerpiece. And he was stage front fiddling audaciously from start to finish.

The concert was billed as the IU String Academy’s 25th birthday celebration. In that regard, before the music got under way, founder and director Mimi Zweig had memories to share. So did Emeritus Dean of the Jacobs School Charles Webb, he who had said yes to Zweig’s proposal to start the academy and now praised its accomplishments.

Violinist Harvey, a product of the String Academy and recipient of a degree from IU, then took charge. The warm-up came in the form of four selections taken from Bartok’s multitudinous Duets for Two Violins, which he and Erin Aldridge handled adroitly, every twist and trick therein.

The two followed by bravely wading into 30 minutes of roiling musical waters, these of Harvey’s own devising. What the audience heard is called “Dialogues,” a demanding and often arresting exercise commissioned by Mimi Zweig for the String Academy’s birthday. Nothing of much greater difficulty could have been written for a pair of violinists. The plucking and the sawing, the contrapuntal calisthenics, the elaborate passage work, the extreme dynamics stretching from the barely audible to screeches and screams, the sudden shifts from rhythmic madness to almost prayerful calm and back again, all put tremendous pressure on the performers, pressure they handled masterfully.

In program notes, Harvey addressed what drove him as he composed “Dialogues.” He is founder of Cultures in Harmony, a nonprofit working to promote international understanding through music. “Dialogues,” he says, speaks of the need for improved relationships between Islam and the West. The music is said to express the composer’s reaction to the 9-11 attacks, a terrorist killing of a young ballerina and her family, the contrasting beliefs of Muslims and non-Muslims on moral issues, and the need for prayer and dialogue in the search for peace.

A listener, of course, can read anything into wordless music, leading to very different reactions from what a composer intended. And who, on Tuesday, was likely to remember Harvey’s explanations while listening to a score of such intensity and diversity? Let this listener simply say that “Dialogues” made a strong impression, one that might have been even stronger had its duration been shortened. Length began to sap the music’s impact about two-thirds of the way through.

The remainder of the program also bore witness to Harvey’s international enthusiasms: an attractive “Fantasy El Mansora for Solo Violin” by a prominent Egyptian composer, Attia Sharara; the cavorting Rondo from Mozart’s Violin Concerto Number 5, K.219, “Turkish;” Henry Cowell’s striking and stirring “Homage to Iran,” and a “Moto Perpetuo” by the Iranian Behzad Ranjbaran, who studied music at IU. Harvey’s technical skills and ability to evoke moods from his violin were at all times in clear evidence. For the last three items listed, Cory Smythe provided exemplary partnership on the keyboard.