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PEN World Voices: Kronos Quartet vs. A Trio of Scribes

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Wednesday evening at the Metropolitan Museum was meant to be a correspondence, an exploration of words and music featuring the Kronos Quartet and the writers Rula Jebreal, Marjane Satrapi, and Tony Kushner, but to most ears there was a friendly cacophony. Salman Rushdie, president of PEN introduced the much-anticipated event noting that the World Voices Festival began in the midst of President Bush's second administration when the dialogue between this country and others was breaking down. As the world has changed, a new U.S. president seemed to brighten attitudes toward America from all over the world. Still repression prevails: Satrapi's film which had been shown on Tunisian television is now banned, the station's head on trial for programming it. Echoing Kushner's epic Angels in America, so prescient of current events, a Mormon presidential candidate's gay aide is fired.

Not for nothing was this performance titled, "Exit Strategies." Veering toward the political, recordings announcing the dropping of the atomic bomb, and the gap between words and music became more pronounced. Tony Kushner observed, "In the 'sixties, we'd be on the right drugs. This is an odd evening."

Perhaps the program was meant to illustrate how dialogues are not always harmonious; indeed the writers' personalities shown forth in their relation to the sounds of the string quartet. A strident Rula Jebreal, whose story is perhaps best known in Julian Schnabel's film adaptation of her book, Miral, did not seem to notice the music and talked over it, asking key questions of Americans, not provocative, she insisted, but to provoke national debate: why is there no real national debate about Iran, why are the poorest left behind for health care, why are the Republicans so obsessed with women's bodies? Satrapi free-formed, recounting the plot of Persepolis, her graphic memoir of waking up one day in Teheran to find the mullahs ruling the day, making little school girls such as herself confine themselves to traditional dress and behavior. Distracted by the beautiful music, she stopped talking. The consummate man of theater, Tony Kushner managed to tuck his reading of a dramatic monologue into the music's folds. Self-conscious about this effort's success, he announced that he would be bringing the Kronos Quartet to his therapy session.

A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.