The oldest music on my latest album, Native Informant, was written in 2008 but the sounds that inform all the music on this disk started coming to me years before that when I was a teenager. My earliest travels to Lebanon took me to Bourj Hammoud, a densely constructed district of Beirut teeming with history and populated largely by Armenians. Many survivors of the Armenian Genocide settled in this area. The prime role that history plays in day-to-day life couldn't be more apparent. Bourj Hammoud's winding streets are a survey of history and if they could talk they would tell us that the study of history is particularly important because history can be our greatest teacher. But the streets of Bourj Hammoud aren't mute. Music seems to emerge from every corner. Much of this music is live and nearly all of it is Armenian from the folk music played on the Duduk to the songs of revered composers like Ganatchian and Komitas. During my time in Bourj Hammoud, I befriended an elderly piano seller who shared his favorite Armenian greats with me. I was struck by the immediacy of the tunes I heard: so shamelessly melodic but consistently deep. This was sophisticated, multilayered stuff and yet the people on the street could sing it. In fact, they did. I never musically recovered.
That's just one element in the landscape of the contemporary Arab World. There's an overabundance of material in the region and certainly enough to rock an artist with inspiration. On the bus ride from Beirut to Damascus I read through a volume of poetry by Mahmoud Darwish and first came across the tender and startling poem that I was eventually going to set to music in 2008. This poem became the basis for my lullaby (called Tahwidah) that opens the Native Informant album. Tahwidah is a short art song that ruminates on deep loss.
Mahmoud Darwish was well-known throughout the Arab World in his lifetime as a leader among avant-garde poets, championing free-verse and innovative poetic structures over the revered ancient forms. So when I first read the opening of Tahwidah, I was surprised to see that the poetry read almost like ghazal (a traditional form of Arabic love poetry). There was even meter and rhyme as a woman sings of the different forms that her lover might take. It's not until the last line of the poem that Darwish breaks out of this lyricism with the revelation that "this is what a woman/said to her son/at his funeral". The poem knocked me out and obsessed me for the rest of the bus ride to Damascus.
I spoke with Darwish about setting it to music and the idea was to set it together with other poems from his cycle in which Tahwidah appeared. Many years later, Darwish was scheduled to come to New York to give a poetry reading at the Edward Said Memorial Lecture on September 28th 2008 and we arranged to talk while he was in town. Darwish never arrived: he died suddenly a month before his trip to New York. I interrupted work on my first opera, Sumeida's Song (which I was completing at the time) and wrote my musical setting for soprano and clarinet, Tahwidah, as my first reaction to the poet's death.
It took me four years to include Tahwidah on an album. In the meantime, many clarinetists and singers had performed the work but I had to find just the right combination for the first recording of the song. The Native Informant album opens with a profound counterpoint between the Jewish Klezmer master clarinetist David Krakauer, the words of an iconic Palestinian poet, Mellissa Hughes' tender, theatrical soprano, and the music of an Arab American composer.
I discovered more layers of meaning to Mahmoud Darwish's poem in the following days. Damascus unveiled the alternately triumphant and dark history of the Arabs in the 20th century. Nowhere was this darkness more apparent than in Damascus' Army Museum. Examining the maps and weapons of a disastrous series of wars (1948, 1973 and especially the psychological and physical devastation of the 1967 war) made it very clear to me why Darwish was hurt into poetry. The ancient history of the city was also on full display as I entered the Old City of Damascus through Bab Touma (Thomas' Gate), saw St. Paul's residence and the crib of early Christianity before continuing on to the great Ummayid Mosque in the heart of the Old City (which houses the head of John the Baptist). My music has often been described as "cross-cultural" and I have to think that the early experience of walking through the historic Jewish, Christian and Muslim quarters of Old Damascus impacted me tremendously as an artist.
Later that evening I had drinks of arak and ate grape leaves at a restaurant in the Bab Touma area among Arabs of many faiths and backgrounds. It's been hard for me to see the destabilization of Damascus. Especially visceral was when, in October 2012, explosions rocked Bab Touma itself and brought this vibrant corner of the city into the current Syrian Civil War.
Tahwidah is not the only lullaby on this album. The final movement of my violin sonata, Native Informant, (the title piece of the disk) is also a lullaby. It takes its point of departure from the Armenian music I heard back at Bourj Hammoud. When Rachel Barton Pine commissioned a violin sonata from me, my initial idea was to end it with something fast and flashy. I got to know Rachel pretty well during the process of writing the work and crafting it for her "voice". The first movement I wrote in Native Informant was the central lamentation titled For Egypt. It was February 2011, the Tahrir Square uprisings in Cairo were in full swing and reports of protesters being killing were hitting the news. For Egypt was my first response to the loss of human life in Cairo. The voice of the solo violin in this movement is alternately pleading, crying, wailing and even expressing a little bit of hope. Far away from Cairo, Rachel Barton Pine and I met up at the Central Park West apartment where she was staying in New York and she read this movement from my handwritten manuscript. I'll never forget the first simple and profound words that came out of her mouth when she finished playing through the movement for the first time: "it's so sad".
While I was composing Native Informant, Rachel and her husband announced that they were going to have a baby. I knew from the very start that I wanted to end my piece with a sort of rebirth and when Rachel shared the happy news with me I had the idea of crafting the final movement as a slow and tender lullaby for Rachel's daughter-to-be. The result was a lullaby in which I tried to capture the sophistication and immediacy of those Armenian lullabies with tunes that people in the street could sing. The music is nocturnal and introverted. The violin imitates a harp lulling a child to sleep and the melody has that slightly plaintive quality of the Armenian lullabies.
The final work on the album also took me back to Lebanon but to a part of the country far from Bourj Hammoud. The work was my response to a commission from the Imani Winds for a wind quintet and I titled it Jebel Lebnan (Mount Lebanon).
Mount Lebanon is the historic name for the mountainous country as a whole but it's also a specific region of the country where I stayed for several days in a town called Bikfaya. This town and its surrounding areas are Maronite Christian strongholds and it was there that I saw the various monuments to the Pierre Gemayel, the founder of the right wing Lebanese Phalangist Party. His son, Bashir, was to become one of the presidents of Lebanon during the country's civil war and it was in reaction to Bashir's assassination that the Phalangists presented the massacres at Sabra and Shatila in 1982.
I visited the Shatila Refugee Camp and (twenty years after the massacre) it was one of the most horrifying things I have ever seen in my life. I watched the old newsreels and heard the moans of men, women and children who had lost everything. It was in that moment that, deep inside me, I conceived of what was to become the first movement of my wind quintet Jebel Lebnan many years later. Titled, Bashir's March, this movement starts with a wild cry from the e-flat clarinet and piccolo screaming at the top of their shrill ranges against an ever-downward moving march in the horn and bassoon.
The relentless music of Bashir's March gives way to an interlude called Nay (the Arabic word for flute): an inward-looking flute solo heard in the dead of the night. The work continues, without pause with a funeral march: Ariel's Song. It's in the middle of this movement that the quintet reaches its darkest depths.
Jebel Lebnan's final movements represent a rebirth of the human spirit (spring after winter). Dance and Little Song activates the heart and the limbs through a dancing motif and it's followed by Mar Charbel's Dabkeh, an Arabic round dance that invokes the spirit of Lebanon's patron saint.
Much of the music on the Native Informant album speaks to my love for the Arab World, the beauty of its people, the generosity of its culture and my relationship with its artists and poets. A lot of it is also an expression of my deep yearning for healing and peace in uncertain times. Most of all, in a region that is extraordinarily complex and often reductively misunderstood the music I've collected on this CD is a chronicling of human events (a study of history) in the best way I know how.