As I prepare for the world premiere of my Violin Concerto "Al-Andalus", a work that is rooted in medieval Arab history, my thoughts are squarely focused on the present day. Current events have been disturbing to say the least. The reports from 40 foreign ministers at the Geneva II Conference on Syria told of over a hundred thousand people dead and over ten million displaced. The figures are numbing. Whats more is that we are hearing warnings from the United Nations that these figures are going to spike tremendously unless the most basic assistance is allowed to reach those affected. And just as it seems clear that the global community is unable to sustain another war, tensions are bending the Ukraine in that direction.
It may seem strange in this context that I've created a violin concerto that has turned out to be my most consistently optimistic and upbeat work so far. The whole piece is in celebration of the best aspects of the human spirit from our audacious attempts to defy gravity and take flight to the sensuous duets depicting the play of erotic love. The work even ends with a wild dance party. But I'd like to think that this is not escapism. Works of art in dark times have often reminded us of our best. It is important to document and reinforce the human spirit when there seems to be so little of it in the world.
In his poem September 1st 1939, W.H. Auden could easily have been writing about 2014 (about the world of Edward Snowden and the NSA, Bashar Al-Assad and John Kerry, Crimea and Sergey Lavrov)when he spoke of "the international wrong". But the most striking line of that poem is also the most direct and true: "We must love one another or die".
This line is truer now than it was in 1939 or than it was at any other time in the history of the human race. The past hundred years have brought us into closer quarters as a species than the millions of years that preceded them. Our technology allows us to traverse the globe in less than 24 hours. Our advancements have also enabled us to create and proliferate weapons that make us more capable of destroying all humanity more swiftly than ever before. Our cultural, artistic and humanistic awareness has not grown to match our propensity for self-destruction. But it needs to do that.
In the end, it is our poems, songs and pictures that are our easiest ways to love one another. Our works of art sensitize us to one another. It is impossible to dehumanize another person or culture if you are moved by their art. It forces you to acknowledge the humanity of your would-be enemies and, by extension, the shared heritage of all humanity. It makes war much more difficult.
Our artists may be our most potent diplomats but that's not to begrudge those 40 foreign ministers and diplomats at Geneva II. Some of the statements stood out for their constructive potential (Fumio Kushida, Frank-Walter Steinmeir, Saud Al Faisal) while others did not (Sergey Lavrov, Ban Ki-moon, John Kerry). What they all had in common was a somewhat narrow focus on the immediate socioeconomic and geopolitical concerns of their respective nations. But they can't be faulted for that. They are foreign ministers after all and those concerns are their responsibility. It is the role of the artist to focus on the human aspect of this diplomacy and to ensure that we never forget that the numbers coming out of Syria and other world-wide crises have a human face.
This gives us even more of an incentive to rebuild broken links and invest in the revitalization of the creative sharing of ideas that typically characterizes a golden age such as the medieval golden-age of Al-Andalus that I celebrate in my new violin concerto. Our inability to come together as a human race is not only stifling; today, it is also highly dangerous. After all, do we want to build artificial walls of separation and sustain a dark age in our time of increased potential for human communication and understanding? Or do we want to usher in a golden-age that future generations can celebrate just as, today, we can celebrate the accomplishments of Al-Andalus?
Al-Andalus receives it's world premiere with Rachel Barton Pine and the Alabama Symphony Orchestra on March 8th 2014