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Mena Mark Hanna

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Music, Exile and Trauma

Posted: 04/11/2012 2:21 pm

On March 15, I attended Houston Grand Opera's 46th world premiere, The Bricklayer, a chamber opera by American composer Gregory Spears and Iranian librettist Farnoosh Moshiri. Ms. Moshiri's libretto is drawn from her painful experience in exile following the Iranian revolution of 1979. The Bricklayer is a harrowing piece of musical theater, directly confronting the torture and death of Iranian intellectuals and political dissidents at the hands of a despotic theocratic regime. During the performance, I detected shifts of uneasiness and stifled sobs emanating from an audience largely comprised of Persian émigrés; the premiere was met with an irrepressible standing ovation.

This uniquely intense experience -- that of the exile -- has been rehashed time and time again in our increasingly violent and globalized world, but it has only emerged with such saliency in the public's consciousness through art during the 20th century. The philosopher and social critic Theodor Adorno best encapsulated the problem of art's relationship with such trauma with the dictum, "To write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric... " Adorno's words are problematic, to say the least; they imply that art cannot be created in a state of exile, after severe social trauma. But one could make the case, as émigré intellectual George Steiner has, that the entirety of 20th-century Western literature is extraterritorial. Nearly everything written is in some way affected by a state of exile (be that internal or external), a result of the violent social upheaval that characterized the past century. I readily agree with this idea of the "extraterritorial," and I think it can be extended to Western classical music.

The themes of exile -- nostalgia, loss, and bewilderment -- are explicit in the German avant-garde following World War II. Arnold Schoenberg's "A Survivor from Warsaw," written in 1947, is perhaps the most succinct and uncompromising musicalization of the Jewish tragedy. Schoenberg, an Austrian Jew living in exile in California, developed the twelve-tone technique of composition, a system that orders all twelve pitches of the chromatic scale in a manner to prevent the emphasis of any one specific pitch. A Survivor from Warsaw is a departure from this taut, formalistic manner of composition. Instead of composing with notational symmetry and structural rigidity, as Schoenberg was wont to do in the later years of his exile, the composer presents the listener with an intense, highly expressionistic fictional representation of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising through the use of a narrator, men's chorus, and orchestra. By eschewing the strict compositional formalism for which Schoenberg was famous and indulging in the expressionism of his youth, we have a composer trying to come to grips with his own state of exile and the guilt of that exile-a subconscious attempt to prove Adorno wrong.

But how does a non-Jewish German confront exile? Karlheinz Stockhausen's "Gesang der Jünglinge" (literally "Song of the Youths," composed in 1955-56) is, to me, a German artist trying to grapple with the destruction that his country wrought on the Jewish people. Stockhausen electronically manipulates a recording of a boy soprano singing text from the Old Testament Book of Daniel, relating the persecution of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego at the hands of the Babylonians- -- an account of the torture of Jews in exile. What makes "Gesang der Jünglinge" a rhetorical masterpiece is the integration of the virtual world of technology with the physical world of the human voice. This collision of electronic sound and the human voice is a remarkable metaphor for exile, the result being mystical, bewildering, and strangely nostalgic: the artificially manipulated voice of an innocent schoolboy one would hear at a local playground plunged into a cold realm of synthetically generated sine tones and pulses, a sphere devoid of humanity.

Exile, as Edward Said points out, has its origins in the ancient practice of banishment; it is a forceful abandonment and not voluntary. It is often exile or death. Some Iranian artists like filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, whose films have been banned by the Iranian government, and composer Alireza Mashayekhi, refused exile, risking imprisonment and torture by staying in Iran after the 1979 revolution. Kiarostami and Mashayekhi have been hugely influential on younger generations of Iranian artists; their artistic integrity remains unassailable in the face of a violent and repressive theocracy. Mashayekhi's electronic music captures the wariness of his precarious position as a non-exile -- that of an artist who cannot be openly subversive through art. His music is wistful, evocative, and intimate: microtonal intonation, folk melodies, traditional Persian instruments, all filtered through the strangeness of electronic sound manipulation.

Yet non-exiles cannot accomplish what Farnoosh Moshiri and Gregory Spears created through The Bricklayer on the evening of March 15. An American composer and Iranian writer collaborated to produce a sense of home and a common consciousness for the Iranian émigrés in the audience -- and maybe, even, a call to future generations to return to their homeland. It reminds me of a verse from the 20th-century Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish:

Take me as a relic from the mansion of sorrow.
Take me as a verse from my tragedy;
Take me as a toy, a brick from the house
So that our children will remember to return.