Last month I attended a performance of John Adams’ On the Transmigration of Souls (2002) by the Northwestern University Symphony Orchestra (NUSO), joined by the University Chorale, the Bienen Contemporary/Early Vocal Ensemble and a children’s chorus called Anima Singers, conducted by the sublime-as-usual Donald Nally.
In a nutshell, the performance was great. It was one of those concerts where I have almost nothing to say about the way the works were performed, as often happens to me when I witness Dr. Nally’s conducting. The different elements of the music were all clear and well articulated, you could follow the logic of the score and marvel at the tuning and careful layering of this mass of instruments and singers, not to mention the man’s (still on Dr. Nally) deep passion for life that communicates through every piece I’ve ever watched him lead. At two or three points in the piece, I found Adams’ writing, and the energy of the performers so powerful that I frankly had goosebumps. I’m particularly thinking, in this recording, of [9’45-10’10], [11’10-11’50], [~16′], [17′-19’30], and the ending. The passage from [17′-19’30] in particular is so powerful and harrowing that I think it makes the entire piece.
While I had these few moments of real, visceral engagement with the music, I actually left the hall with a bitter taste in my mouth. I struggled with my reaction afterwards, trying to articulate what about the piece so deeply annoyed me.
The performance took place precisely a week before the attacks on Paris of November 13. A week later, at the exact time of the performance, the gunmen massacring people at the Bataclan would be killed as French police raided the theater after hours of siege. I would be sitting, helpless, in my Chicago apartment, listening in horror to France Info’s all-night coverage of the events, with a nauseating sensation of history’s whirlwind blowing all around me, if you will forgive my cheesy prose. Right then, and especially during the days that followed, the Adams piece lingered in the back of my mind, as I watched people the world over fall over themselves in expressions of selective solidarity. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not criticizing emotional reactions, I think they’re very important, but while I’m not going to dwell here on why I wasn’t impressed with people’s humanity that seemed to be born that Friday night, I will say that my criticisms of much of the Western popular reaction to the most recent attacks closely mirrors what I perceive to be On the Transmigration of Souls’ fundamental shortcomings.
The piece was written a few months after the horrible attacks on New York, in a very short span of time, as Adams discussed in an interview initially posted on the New York Philharmonic website. He selected different types of texts: a short list of names (short, sadly, in proportion to the number of people who have died in the attacks), which was read by people of different ages, with these recordings mixed with city sounds. There were also texts taken from missing-persons signs posted around Ground Zero. These texts were sung by the choir, often extremely clearly, with the choir homophonically (or monophonically) enunciating the words.
And that’s where my problems with the piece began.
As a composer, I can understand the practical limitations in choosing the texts (and the names). You can’t use all of them, you can’t even use half of them, realistically, so you need to select some, and you’ll obviously choose the ones that speak to you the most. Or should you? Can you generalize about such a decision, in the name of artistic autonomy?
Have you ever seen this video at U.S. airports welcoming foreigners to the country? It has every single type of person in it, white, black, Asian, native-American, women, men, old, young, etc. Every single type of person you can imagine is in this video, and I remember watching it while waiting in the long immigration queue and laughing a little to myself at how simultaneously cute and somewhat naïve it is. (That’s to put it nicely, another way to put it is that it’s deceiving, misleading…) But to be honest, there’s no other way to do it. You have to show everyone when making any kind of collective statement, even if the reality isn’t as perfect as the goal, and even if the reality isn’t at all working towards the stated goal… As cliché as it is, there’s no real way around it. Not on an airport screen, anyway.
John Adams did not use a single Arab name in his list, and to me, that’s irresponsible. Innocent Arabs died in the attacks, and although in 2002, the hundreds of thousands that would soon die as a consequence of 9/11 were still alive, they were very much not well, and were an integral part of the overall equation that led to the terrorist events, not just a group that produced the criminals who carried out the attacks. The oppression of Arabs, the discrimination against them, but more subtly, their removal from the political, cultural, and economic equations, both in the Middle East (through the West installing dictators of their choice) and in the United States (the example of this piece will do), is a big part of the climate that produced (no, produces) this kind of terrorism. Picture yourself an Arab living in the United States at the time of the attacks. You’ve heard it countless times in the media by people who have said it better than I could: they were mortified, not only that their country was attacked, that innocent lives were lost, but that this was done in the name of their religion (if they’re Muslim), and these people have been looked at condescendingly and suspiciously by the rest of the country – and much of the world – ever since.
I think that not mentioning a single Arab name sends an involuntary message towards Arab-Americans, one of exclusion, of a shunning of sort, and it’s precisely the kind of neglect that pushes confused young minds towards fundamentalism, making them prone to being manipulated in the first place, by telling them that no, you’re not secondary, you’re not less important, you’re actually not included altogether, you’re outside the equation, you don’t matter.
OK, but John Adams was writing a personal piece. Why does he have to take all of that into account in the first place? While I personally questioned why he should include the text “Shalom” in the small list of selected texts (why not “Salam”, or something in Spanish, why this single inclusion of a non-English text, in the official language of a country in whose name more harm was done to innocent Arab civilians than most others?), who knows what personal associations a person has with certain cultures and materials? At the end of the day, this is a work by a single individual, entitled to choose a text that spoke to him personally.
But what about the context? Picture the scene: an official concert to mark the one-year memorial for that horrific day, a massive orchestra (the New York Philharmonic, no less) with double harps and keyboard instruments, a huge choir in the back (at least 90 people), and a children’s choir to top it all off, speakers scattered around the stage, and a presidential name if there ever was one plastered on the front page of your program notes: John Adams. It sure doesn’t feel like a personal piece or occasion. Regardless of how the composer chose to approach the piece for himself, how not-specifically-about-9/11 he wanted this to be, it’s just not going to be perceived as an intimate reaction to an event. It can’t claim to be naïve, it’s going to be scrutinized by the collective, and should assume the consequences of this attention. If I wanted to write an intimate piece that reflected on something that produced trauma in me, I would have written a piano piece, a chamber piece, a song, or an orchestral piece to be played on a different day, something much less public and massive. Choosing to have a personal reaction by using these forces and this occasion, on an official stage if there ever was one, is contradictory.
As you might be aware, or can guess from my last name, I am Lebanese, and yes, of course, part of why I focus on Arabs not getting mentioned is out of some form of self-preservation. Is it unrealistic to expect an Arab name to be thrown into that list, considering so few Arabs actually died? Perhaps. Is it a bit idealistic of me to expect such a gesture? Yes. But it does not take away from the following two points.
First, there’s the question: is it possible to write such a piece apolitically? My answer is, obviously, no, because regardless what position you take, the political dimension is juxtaposed onto your choices, especially in such a public context and occasion, so unless you’re politically astute and aware, stay away.
And second, was it possible to use art in this case for more than self-involved ambition so typical of professional artists? (comparing your work to architectural gems of the history of humanity when we’re talking about over 3,000 families destroyed, who will likely be tuning in to this concert, really?) Yes, we all sometimes find inappropriate sources of inspiration, the way a scientist might see in a death opportunity to further research, we sometimes feel an urge to create something out of destruction, out of despair, not strictly for healing purposes. But we keep it to ourselves, at the very least in the program notes. (I personally found that extremely crass, to be honest.) But to answer my question: yes, it was possible to use art in this case in a way to promote inclusion, to bring people together, and then even to provoke them, if you want (some might say many will be provoked simply by having an Arab name included, and perhaps they should be). Or nurture them, console them, motivate them, I don’t know. But break the cycle that divides us, that oppresses us, and that feeds itself.
Am I looking at all of this with hindsight? Yes, perhaps many people in the West are nowadays much more aware of these things than they were ten years ago, but trust me: Arabs have been aware of it all along. And what’s more: if you’re not politically aware, (or worse, if you would have been one of these people in a racist picture from the 40s, just because “it was a different time”) don’t get involved in such politically charged situations. I’m not going to refrain from critiquing this work from a political angle simply because an artist might claim to be apolitical or naïve. The political angle is one of the ways art has relevance in our society beyond its traditional “clientèle”, and I refuse to accept that an artist can remove themselves from the political dimension of an event such as this one.
But moving on to my final point, Adams’ treatment of the text not only sends what I consider to be irresponsible political messages, it also goes against his own intent, what he was going after in the piece, as stated in the interview:
My desire in writing this piece is to achieve in musical terms the same sort of feeling one gets upon entering one of those old, majestic cathedrals in France or Italy. When you walk into the Chartres Cathedral, for example, you experience an immediate sense of something otherworldly. You feel you are in the presence of many souls, generations upon generations of them, and you sense their collected energy as if they were all congregated or clustered in that one spot.
If the goal is to communicate the massive number of souls that passed through, I can imagine the messages and names being layered; having the choir speak multiple texts simultaneously, giving us, the listeners, the impression that we’re only touching the surface of this world of loss and pain. That the stories are countless, that we’re staring at the tip of this giant iceberg. That, for me, would convey this hidden multitude. Instead, Adams sets the text one sentence at a time, enunciated extremely clearly by the choir, not to mention the cold, robotic manner of singing (a debatable argument, when it comes to aesthetics, I’ll concede).
To reiterate: while I don’t find the manner of singing the texts a suitable rendition to the extreme emotional content found in them (an issue Adams addresses in the interview I mentioned above), one could argue that it’s a matter of taste, and I will concede that. But leaving thousands of stories out, only to focus on a handful, one at a time, has strong ideological implications that go beyond taste.
If the point was to focus on individual stories, I think turning our attention to a single one for the entire piece, treating it genuinely for the tragedy that it is, and using it as a symbol of our common mourning, would have been a much more effective way to go. It’s essentially one of those rare situations where I allow myself to be dualistic: it’s either one story, used as representative of so many others, or it’s many stories, treated as a block, a screen, that we know hides countless others. By setting the text (the few selected by Adams, and even the names as they are, with no additions) in a less clear manner, by exposing us listeners to three or four lines of text at once, the effect would have been achieved, and we would have found ourselves “in the presence of many souls, generations upon generations of them, [sensing] their collected energy as if they were all congregated or clustered in that one spot.” Instead, we found ourselves listening to a succession of robotic renditions of heart-wrenching last words (listen to [4’00], the horrible [8’10-8’30], with the flight attendant’s last words, [12’45 to 13’20] and sadly a lot more). Granted, it was chilling, but for the wrong reasons.
The beautifully crafted small moments that moved me when I first heard the piece are so far gone for me at this point, and what could have been a visceral, deep work of art that I would turn to at a time like these past two weeks, beyond its initial context, withers into an admittedly small, but sad example of why we are where we are today, fourteen years later. Today, I can’t help but feel the same when I go on Facebook, for example, and read one of many posts, genuinely intended to be a beautiful sentiment of solidarity and compassion. I believe that most people approach writing these messages sincerely and selflessly; however, when viewed from the Arab perspective, ever-absent from the collective Western mindset, these messages instead blindly reiterate the same credo: exclusion.
This post is more related to Lebanese issues, and I apologize in advance if I come off as harsh, but these are things I’ve been wanting to say for a while.
They’re predicting apocalyptic events in ten days: Water levels are expected to rise by over 20 meters all over the planet, and unless we can find a way to protect ourselves, it will be the end of humanity as we know it. World leaders are working around the clock to come up with solutions to avoid annihilation to their people, and of course, cooperation is out of the question: Everyone is on their own boat. The American president made a speech in which he urged all Americans to join in building a giant wall all along the coasts to protect the country from flooding. Europe’s leaders are trying to re-imagine their cities as floating havens, with gondolas as new cars. Benjamin Netanyahu is planning on sending every Jewish person to another planet to start over elsewhere, and the Lebanese president.. (Well, yeah, it is a fictional story, and although having a president is apparently as likely as water levels rising 20 meters the world over, let’s say we do…) So the president holds a press conference. Lebanese people, proud of their high mountains, are hopeful of the country’s chances of surviving the disaster. Few people have such a percentage of their country this high above sea level, so for once, Lebanon seems to be quite lucky in its geographical dispositions. It sounds funny to say, but people in the country are actually optimistic, and the president speaks: “My fellow Lebanese, I come to you today with urgent news. Water levels are expected to rise in just ten days the world over, and it seems like much of humanity is going to be wiped out. Lebanon has a long history of hardship and struggle, and this disaster should not frighten us. We will adapt and learn how to endure, and so I declare that we now have exactly ten days… to learn to live under water.”
Nothing sums up what I perceive to be the Lebanese mentality par excellence as well as this joke. We learn to live with our problems, no matter how small, instead of dealing with them. And I think this applies across all fields and scales, whether it’s families dealing with bullying fathers, or people learning how to live without electricity, or tolerating zo3ran, or any of the many problems we live with. In a way, it’s pointless for me to say anything about all that’s happening in the country these days. We all know it well, and extremely articulate people from Tol3et Ri7etkom already said it all better than I ever could. It’s so difficult to live abroad at times like these, when I would want to be involved, to help, with my body and my voice, in the amazing struggle these young people are waging against oppressive, corrupt mafiosi. Again, all this is obvious and clear, although how the people will prevail in this fight is not.
The only thing I would like to add to this is what I perceive as a fundamental flaw in the way we, as Lebanese, have learned to behave, as a coping mechanism. We let go of things, we’re lazy when we should be precise, we laugh when we should be grave. How many young Lebanese do you know can stay serious when discussing our issues? I know it’s a defense mechanism, but at the end of the day, our country is split between the few who care too much and can’t do anything about it, and the many who have learned not to take anything seriously as a coping mechanism. And the way this comes off? We accept all kinds of problems, and always revert to blaming the government for all our shortcomings. We cannot keep learning to live with problems to praise our resilience, our adaptability. We need to start demanding action, solutions, and we need to be hopeful for our future, because we have everything we need to turn this around. But it all begins with people taking themselves seriously, and recognizing that this rampant corruption that plagues the country begins with every stupid “tayib ya man, 3isha” uttered on the streets. It’s a country of “bad students bullying the nerds” to keep quiet. It has become a culture of its own, and I can’t see how we can solve the problems we all suffer from without a serious attitude shift. We need to be serious, and we need to listen to each other. And it’s funny, but I can already hear all my friends laughing about it, “oh man, this guy. He’s just so intense. Khalas man, enta ssarlak ktir zamen mesh 3eyish hon, you’re too serious.”
Maybe I am. But then, all that’s left is to make sure we’ll all incredible swimmers, because the tide’s coming in, and it’s going to be pretty rough.
This past week has seen horrible events take place on camera for the whole world to see, as murderers fired into crowds and exploded bombs strapped to their chests in order to kill as many innocent bystanders as possible. Paris yet again descended into hell as determined criminals struck its festive streets, less than a year after the Charlie Hebdo horrors.
People from all corners of the globe, as had happened ten months ago, began expressing a level of compassion and outrage rarely seen, and debates on why this display is hypocritical and whether it is indeed racist raged on on the sidelines of the mourning processions.
Quite frankly, I find the idea of “feeling one’s feelings” extremely difficult. Indeed psychiatrists would probably also tell you that most people find it very difficult to sit across the table with their own emotions. Many among us project these feelings of pain, of sadness, and turn them into rage, anger, hate. Others repress these feelings, only to have them reappear, channelled. Some of us will become more aggressive, others more paranoid, cautious in our dealings with strangers… I don’t know, people are so different, and yet we’re mostly united in the fact that we find some of our emotions very difficult to cope with.
But many of us have had a generally healthy reaction, by dealing with our grief in any way we can, whether this means displaying the French flag on our Facebook profile photos, writing long posts describing our horror, our heartbreak in front of so much violence, or some even by writing songs to express these emotions.
It is a healthy way to deal with a concrete reality that you, as an individual physically far away from Paris (most likely, as people in the world are), and yet emotionally so close to it, are up against. Does it matter if you’re French? Does it matter if you know someone directly affected by the events? The fact that it happened over there partly means it could happen wherever you live (you being a prototypical Western person). You’ve probably visited Paris, and have French friends. But there’s more to it.
France is, for many in the world, the ultimate Universal. It’s nobody’s fault that it is so, it happened over the course of a couple of centuries, with literature, politics, and other fields choosing to represent France as a pinacle of cultural achievement, of refinement, and what have you. But let’s be absolutely clear: this is a complete construct. France, the amazing country that it is, is just another country on this earth, and its 66 million residents are only a water drop in the sea of people that populate this planet. They are just as important as the rest of us, and while many of us find what happened absolutely shocking, there are ramifications to the way we choose to express our outrage.
Many have written about why the specific wording some have chosen is racist, or even hypocritical. The main question I asked myself when many friends and colleagues called asking me if everyone I know in Paris is ok was: “Where were you guys 24 hours ago, when equally insane freaks attacked Beirut’s Shia neighborhoods with a savagery difficult to put into words?” It’s not their fault that they didn’t know, you might say. It’s true. As unimpressed as I was by people’s humanity that seemed to be born all of a sudden that Friday night, absent as it was for all the previous events that shook the world these past few months, I refuse to judge people for not feeling strongly about what happened in Beirut. It’s a complicated issue, and throwing it in everyone’s face at a time like this is crass, and counterproductive.
But here’s my point, and I really wish for people to consider it carefully. It’s difficult to feel empathy for people who live in a place you’ve never been, who are portrayed very poorly in the news, in movies… I have many acquaintances who have confessed to me, with impressive candor, that they simply can’t feel any sort of direct bond or empathy for people living in places like Baghdad, Beirut, or Damascus. It takes a lot of courage to admit it, but I think most people, if they take a few seconds to think about it, will realize that it is almost impossible to feel close to people you can’t picture, people you feel you share no common heritage with, no matter how false these claims are.
And here’s what I have to offer: the great opportunity of the week. It sounds harsh to say, that a positive opportunity can arise in the wake of such horror, but what if everyone took a second, and considered the great turmoil the attack on Paris has produced in you. Consider the horror, the sadness, the rage of people who have lost loved ones, and multiply this feeling by a thousand. That’s how people who live in Syria, in Beirut, in Baghdad, have felt over the past many years. It’s difficult to put yourself in these shoes, until someone straps them on you by force. Here you are, hurt and haggard. It’s the closest you’ve been to people living in the Middle East in a while. Let’s call it what it is: a great opportunity… for bonding.
So when the news tonight says that France, Russia, or the United States are bombing Raqqa heavily, at the end of the bulletin, take a minute, and imagine the horror of fighter jets bombing entire residential buildings to the ground, of living with these monsters who attacked Paris, with no way out, and no Facebook posts or flags in your honor. Just a brief mention at the end of the news, in the corner of the newspaper’s webpage. Many people will probably even be glad it happened to you. Can’t you just picture some people raising a glass, in a bar, while watching images of a plane taking off, adding something crass, like “let them burn in hell”?
You know how it feels, right now. We all do. Why doesn’t it affect us more than that? Is it just another sad truth about feelings? That they can easily overwhelm us, and when they do, we go numb? We shut down. And we go into denial.
If you want to spill ink and waste energy writing about things these next few days, why not try convincing others to examine those feelings? For everyone‘s sake.
Philosophy and Music are full of parallels.
Both are not exactly sciences; yet both are often driven by logic. Both tend to pretend to be objective; and yet both are often very much about some of the most subjective things of all, like a need for human connection, or curiosity. Or worse of all for some, feelings. And there are musicians and philosophers who will take you to court for saying that.
Differences can be found when one asks: why do people make music/philosophize? Few will answer that they play/compose/listen to try grasping deeper significations of existence, although some might. Some people do experience music in a manner similar to how spiritual and religious acts are lived. On the other hand, many will tell you that they think about/read/write philosophy because it allows them to untangle parts of the complicated web that is life. It allows them to make sense of things. It might allow them to learn from the investigations of intelligent, thorough people – well, mostly men – who came before them, and who published books about what they thought. It might allow them to understand more what this is all about. But what is this need to understand, if not a need to hold on to this thing that’s slipping away from you?
Well, what if music could be seen as giving more meaning to time: for many, its inevitable passing is one of life’s most fundamental flaws, or fatalities. To others, it’s one of life’s most defining features. It’s all philosophy, you might say. But music is a way to decorate it. Music could be a way to decorate time.
There are many explanations and interpretations. What’s missing is a consensus, and thank God for that. The point is that there isn’t a single way to look at both, and that uncertainty, that multiplicity, that irreducibility, becomes this thing’s defining feature (not to sound too Adornian).
Alright, where am I going with this? I’m making another tie between the two. First, I have to mention Michel Onfray, a French philosopher who is very active on multiple platforms in France. One of his goals is to write the counter-history of philosophy (and of literature), correcting the bias against materialistic (among other) philosophers, dating back to the Greeks, all the way until today. Something he frequently advocates, for example, is the necessity for philosophers to use the pronoun “I” when writing. To speak of concrete, personal experiences, not only as illustrations of personal philosophies, but as concrete, existing, acknowledgeable realities of writing, of philosophizing. Because how can you write, think, especially about philosophy, without being fully present, you – and your past, your predispositions? By refusing to say I, by refusing to be personal, you’re really just in denial. By pretending you can devise entire systems of thoughts, of looking at the world, without recognizing that these ideas work for you, because you are you; by pretending like you’re coming up with absolute systems of thoughts that work outside time, outside space, outside concrete personal histories, but also that work for everyone else, you are not only diminishing the overall validity of your ideas, but you are also removing from the equation some of the most interesting, personable, relatable facets of the work.
I’m not saying that the biographical, personal dimensions of the work are the most important, and that a certain amount of objectivity doesn’t exist. But many are saying it’s all that exists, it’s the only aspect of the work that can be discussed; that if emotional and cognitive reactions are inevitable, they cannot be discussed, and as such are ignored when discussions of works occur, especially in the academies.
In no way am I a specialist in philosophy, I just really enjoy reading it when I have the time. But I just can’t help finding a parallel with the approach many composers have had over the last century. What’s surprising is how prevalent this view still is today in some academic circles. Composers speak of their work as if it mostly consists of research, as if by writing their pieces, they’re only investigating possibilities of sound, the way a scientist investigates mixing chemicals in certain conditions, or the way a geologist might study tectonic plates. In a way, discussing how a piece of music makes one feel, or how it reflects how the composer relates to certain things, is basically opening a can of worms. But can we stop seeing things in black and white?
Saying that a piece of music often communicates more than just frequencies, harmonies, textures, even intra-musical references, that it can speak to somebody on a very personal level, but also that it communicates very personal sides of the composer’s persona, does not mean that it cannot also be analyzed on a technical level, in parallel; saying that considering the context in which a piece of music was written, taking the composer’s intention, their life, their experience into consideration, is basically blasphemous, that true analysis needs to ignore all biographical traits, and take the piece of music as an object that stands by itself in time: isn’t this wasteful? Yes, sometimes it’s really interesting to analyze a piece of music without relating every aspect of it to its creator, sometimes it’s great to analyze a work by Mozart without thinking of the context Mozart was writing it in, and to look at it from a completely different perspective (analyzing a Classical piece spectrally, for example), while sometimes it’s also interesting to think of Mozart’s relationship to a certain subject (his aversion to the flute, for example); it can only add to the richness of our perception and our assimilation of the work. I’m criticizing some theorists’ adherence to one way or the other, exclusively.
As a composer, on the other hand, you really can only say “I”. You’re not your own analyst, you can’t pretend to be researching an objective process which would exist without you. The popular question: would this piece be the same piece if it were written by someone else or at a different time in history; this question that spills so much ink in aesthetic discussions by philosophers and musicologists cannot be seriously asked by a composer looking at her own work: your piece is your piece, and to you, as a composer, as far as you are concerned, it can only be your piece, it reflects who you are. So don’t hesitate to say I when you speak, and stop pretending like you’re doing the work that someone else could be doing. The piece you write would not be written by anyone else if you were not to write it. Maybe at some point in time, Schoenberg did the inevitable, what would have been done, eventually, in European concert music. For one, this is only true of a very small and narrow musical circle at a very specific time in music history.
But even one adhering to this viewpoint in Schoenberg’s case does not necessary translate into this view holding today. Things have changed, but also the entire world visibly and actively participating in these exchanges, with their own influence, their own directionalities, their traditions, their different ‘languages’, only further complicate the extrapolations necessary in order to “read” History and its progression, especially in the world of art. Being able to think ahead might work in very specific circumstances, but at the end of the day, every decision, every new piece by every composer represent steps on the journey of that specific composer, one that reflects that specific composer’s predispositions, their personality, their taste, their moods. You can experiment by using a specific bowing technique, or quoting a different style in a piece, and see what it gives, the way a cook can see what happens if they throw pepper flakes into a creme brûlée, but at the end of the day, it mostly says that you like pepper flakes and crême brûlée – or not – and that you’re trying something new, as much it says anything about the chemical properties of either.
It’s very personal. And I would want to hear you speak about it saying I, I, I, at the risk of sounding self-involved, because to me, this alternative is much more interesting, much more genuine and appealing than you sounding detached, self-important, and quite frankly deluded.
Over the last several years, Lebanon has witnessed a return of many of its old leaders who had vanished after the civil war to their positions of power. Aoun came back from exile, Geagea was released from prison and began guiding the Lebanese Forces (now that’s a name) again, and others, who had remained quiet for a while, began raising their ugly voices as all these corrupt, chauvinistic men began manipulating the population, yet again.
Yet again, we have a crisis when the time comes to choose a Lebanese president. Every time, we experience a political vacuum when the “leaders” can’t decide on a single name, and the country kind of goes on hold. It’s not only a practical problem that we face in these situations: it’s a symbolic problem. It’s an image problem. One that we’re willing to tolerate, the way we tolerate so much else.
The way we tolerate these political leaders, actually. It’s so common, in Lebanon, to criticize them. We write songs about them, we say that they are corrupt, that they abuse the population, that they cause most of our problems, we even make apps to mock them. But make no mistake: when someone says that, they mean the others. They probably think they support someone who’s above it all.
Someone who’s above us all. The leader, in Lebanon, is a man with a God complex. A man who thinks his role is to guide, to protect, to solve others’ problems. Well, this is the good interpretation. But hear this: the good interpretation isn’t even good enough. Why do you need someone like that to protect you? Why does someone like Farid El Khazen have to step in when a criminal murders a young man? Political leaders, zu3ama, are who they are because of the people. People voted for them, people support them, go to them regularly for all kinds of reasons, most of which have to do with corruption. You go to them when you need a longer arm that can grab something out of reach for you. Many of these situations are due to the inherent deficiencies in our government. Impossible hurdles find themselves between you and so many important things you need to do. These hurdles are the product of this culture, and people need to survive, so they do what they do to get over them. But it’s a vicious circle: the more you support these men, the more legitimacy you invest in them, the more corrupt this government will be, the more dis-functional the system will be, the more violent disagreements will be, the more unstable your life will be, and the more you will need them.
The more “crises” we will have, like the presidential one. Because each and every single one of these macho power-hungry freaks wants to outdo all the others. They are a part of our social fabric and have always been, they are the residue of our feudal system. Turning this tide around will take decades. But I’m going to move past the fact that these leaders are a problem, a cancer in our society, I’m going to accept that one has to work them into any equation that addresses the near future of our country. But consider this.
If you care about Lebanon, if you care about politics, if you care enough to invest your energy into this, if you attend political rallies, if you like to voice your opinion about these things: you can’t support most of these leaders. I don’t care how good Geagea’s ideas are, or how much you agree with Aoun’s party’s approaches, or Frangieh’s, or the Gemayels… You have to consider one thing: each and every one of these guys has blood on his hands. They’ve all participated in the civil war. For me, for that simple fact and that fact alone: they’re all illegitimate.
When you talk about Geagea’s political ideas to someone who disagrees with them, they don’t necessarily disagree with the ideas. Do you know how many people Geagea’s militias have killed? Or Aoun’s army? Or any of these people? Every single person in Lebanon knows someone who was killed in the war, because of the decisions made by these same leaders.
It doesn’t matter how good their ideas are. They are illegitimate. You can’t build a country, you can’t build a democratic political system, you can’t even build a dialogue when you put on the table the name of someone who has directly killed someone else’s children, brothers, sisters, parents, friends! Forget the fact that we haven’t judged these people for what they did. They’re a shameful part of our past. We need to deal with it, and put it away. We can’t allow them back on the platform. We can’t let them take the reigns again.
We need new people. We need young, men and women, who can present new ideas, and who can show a clean record for themselves, who have never killed anyone, or who have never spoken poorly about any other human being based on their religion, their gender, their sexual orientation, or whose za3im’s ego they flatter.
We need young leaders who respect other humans, who respect all Lebanese people, and we need to stand behind them, behind their ideas, and honestly… honestly hope they don’t get assassinated.
I’ve lately been reading a book by the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek called Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle. It’s a good book, in which Žižek sums up his immediate reactions to the American invasion of Iraq in six short essays of sort, followed by longer appendices and reflexions. I’m a partisan of many of Žižek’s ideas, and am familiar with his books, but also with his interviews and conferences: he’s a very interesting, thought-provoking – and entertaining – speaker. Here is a video for those who do not know him and who would like a short exposure to his particular manner of his speaking (it’s also a good example of how his insightful observations can be simultaneously brilliant and funny).
Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle was published in 2004, shortly after the American invasion, and was therefore still very “fresh” in its analysis, and, in a way, in its relevance. I found it interesting to read for the added benefit of hindsight. I was curious as to how he saw the situation unfolding in the long run, and was left impressed by his predictions. I’m going to mention a few key moments for me in the book, but the main reason I’m mentioning it here at all has nothing to do with Iraq, as you shall soon see.
Žižek explains the title of the book as a reference to the kettle found in a joke evoked by Freud, “to illustrate the strange logic of dreams: (1) I never borrowed a kettle from you; (2) I returned it to you unbroken; (3) the kettle was already broken when I got it from you. Such an enumeration of inconsistent arguments, of course, confirms per negationem what it endeavours to deny – that I returned a broken kettle to you.”
Žižek makes the parallel between this line of reasoning and the one presented by the American government when it claimed to invade Iraq in search of weapons of mass destruction. Many Lebanese readers, for example, will feel comfortable with Žižek’s analysis of the situation, and his criticisms of the war: his line of thought is one frequently heard in Beirut cafés and on the news. A particular moment that struck me was when he spoke of the long-term implications of the American invasion:
“The danger, following the logic of a self-fulfilling prophecy, is that this very American intervention will contribute to the emergence of what America fears most: a large, united, anti-American Muslim front. This is the first case of a direct American occupation of a large and key Arab country – how could it not generate universal hatred in reaction? […] What might indeed emerge as the result of the US occupation is precisely a truly fundamentalist Muslim anti-American movement, directly linked to such movements in other Arab countries or countries with a Muslim presence – in other words, a Muslim ‘International’.” (p. 18-19)
Here, Žižek is essentially describing ISIS. He continues with an interesting observation regarding American dominance in world order, describing it as The Nation-State Empire. It’s an interesting way to sum up America’s behavior: “The problem with today’s USA is not that it is a new global Empire, but that it is not: in other words, that, while pretending to be, it continues to act as a nation-state, ruthlessly pursuing its own interests.”
On Conspiracy Theories
I’ve always been a fan of hearing Žižek speak about the Left, about politics – and about movies, – but reading this particular book comforted me, in a way: it’s not because he was speaking of a geographical area close to home – he is not, in fact, the book mostly talks about implications of the war on the rest of the world. What comforted me was the similarity between how he described the situation and how it is sometimes described in Lebanon. One particular moment stands out: “I cannot resist a slightly paranoid speculation: what if the people around Bush know all this, what if this ‘collateral damage’ is the true aim of the entire operation? What if the true target of the ‘war on terror’ is not only a global geopolitical rearrangement in the Middle East and beyond, but also American society itself (namely, the repression of whatever remains of its emancipatory potential)?”
This echoes many conspiracy-theory-sounding explanations frequently heard in Lebanon and elsewhere, about America’s plans of re-organizing the entire region; the Kissinger plan; about America’s involvement in creating ISIS; and many, much more horrifying stories. I am often really annoyed by the propensity for such fantasy in the common Lebanese. In Lebanon, people watch “predictions” on New Year’s Eve, made by buffoons who take themselves much too seriously, “reading” the future. Let’s be direct: either you think these people are actually having visions, in which case you need to wake up, and get your sanity checked; or you think these people are analysts of sorts, who choose to use their skills and understanding of society to “predict” what will happen, like a Lotto – in which case they should be held accountable for their predictions. They would be much more useful to people by discussing the reasons for their predictions, encouraging people to think and understand the situation, rather than pretending like their speculations came to them from above.
Why people care for these things will always remain a bit of a mystery for me; but it must have something to do with people’s inclination for idiotically repeating conspiracy theories. It’s as though we have such a difficult position in History and in our everyday life that the only way we can console ourselves for it is by making up insane explanations that imply that the horror we live through is someone else’s doing. That it all makes sense. It often does, but let me clearly state my own opinion: most of the time, what happens to us is our own fault.
We get – close to exactly – what we deserve.
Still, on the general subject of conspiracy theories, I think that it’s a genre actively developed and maintained by people in power in order to create a new category in people’s minds. A pavlovian-reflex of sorts. Whenever someone ventures to think outside the box (and this mostly happens in the West), they are quickly dismissed as crazy and as conspiracy-theorists. I’m not saying those people (real crazies) do not exist, but I am saying that their number is far smaller than the number of people who get accused of telling these stories.
In Lebanon, we have the reverse problem. Way too many people tell such stories, to the point that you don’t even know what’s true and what isn’t. You find yourself trapped between being an idiot and being naive, and you’re not sure what to believe anymore. In that sense, reading Žižek’s above-mentioned quote comforted me, because I thoroughly trust his intelligence, his thoroughness, his integrity – and his sanity.
But there was something else, and that’s the reason I’m writing this entire post.
And Nothing Happened
The Lebanese francophone newspaper L’Orient-le-Jour frequently publishes stories that bear “positive news”. As they describe the purpose of this section: in a context of corruption, infrastructural problems, political problems, and so on, the editors strive to regularly find positive stories to offer their readership, as a touching effort to balance things out. These stories generally range from inspirational personal stories to ambitious projects undertaken somewhere in the country, and more.
In a personal attempt to do the same, I would like to share the following story that I have found in Žižek’s book:
“If there is an ethical hero of recent times in ex-Yugoslavia, it is Ika Saric, a modest judge in Croatia who – without any clear public support, and despite threats to her own life – condemned General Mirko Norac and his colleagues to twelve years in prison for crimes committed in 1992 against the Serb civilian population. Even the leftist government, afraid of the threat of rightist nationalist demonstrations, refused to stand firmly behind the trial against Norac. However, when the sentence was proclaimed, during a feverish phase characterized by threats from the nationalist Right of large-scale public disorder to topple the government, nothing happened: the demonstrations were much smaller than expected, and Croatia ‘rediscovered’ itself as a state under the rule of law. It was especially important that Norac was not delivered to The Hague, but condemned in Croatia itself – thus Croatia proved that it does not need international tutelage. The true dimension of the act proper consisted in the shift from the impossible to the possible: before the sentence, the nationalist Right, with its veteran organizations, was perceived as a powerful force not to be provoked, and the direct harsh sentence was perceived by the liberal Left as something which ‘we all want, but, unfortunately, cannot afford at this difficult moment, since chaos would ensue’.”
I don’t believe I need to comment on this and spell things out, as the parallels between this story and, for example, the Lebanese context are apparent. What if we just need to hope more? What if we just have to try, sometimes, and take a leap of faith? What if we stopped listening to the people who threaten all of us? What if we stopped giving in?
Because the majority of us are non-violent. The majority of us don’t care. We just want to live our lives, work, go to the beach, eat, dance… But we all constantly hold our breaths, and keep quiet in the face of threats. In fact, many of us actively defend the status quo. What if we took that leap of faith, as Croatia did? What if we started trying to do the right thing, and hope for the best? Hope that things work out?
What if it could have also worked out for us, but we simply never really tried? What it it was all really our fault, that so far, nothing has happened?…
I think the Critic is simultaneously an obsolete, ridiculous role, and an extremely potent one that holds one of the keys to future ways of doing things. Every musician is a critic, and as much as no one should be allowed to bestow absolute judgements on other people’s works from above, a reshuffling of the idea does wonders: anyone should be allowed (encouraged, even) to speak their mind – as long as we all do so elaborately. The goal should be to maintain and preserve individual and widespread engagement with all kinds of music.
Here are a few points that come to my mind:
1. So long as you want to speak in complete sentences, whoever you are, speak
No one needs to justify liking something. A reaction such as: “I hate it,” or “I love it” cannot be debated. Les goûts et les couleurs ne se discutent pas (tastes and colors cannot be discussed). But were someone inclined on elaborating, then they should absolutely share their ideas with others, whatever they position happens to be in musical communities – meaning even if they are not in a position of influence. Power and privilege cannot carry on being translated into domination and over-influence in the musical world, whether through money and media-control in some circles, or through degrees, pedigrees and pedantry in others.
2. In defense of grey areas, in attack of machismo
For centuries (and ours is not exempt), very influential and brilliant people have given in to ridiculous, binary ways of thinking. While many are moving beyond that, just as many are holding on. Let us stop seeing things in two colors (most often in the form of one’s way and any other way). Music (just like philosophy, theory, politics,) draws its wealth and its beauty precisely from the simultaneous coexistence of a wide and often-incompatible multitude.
One could make the case that aggressive behavior, machismo, will to power, to self-advancement, scheming, networking-for-the-sake-of-networking; have produced a wide multitude of arrogant and condescending people who take themselves much too seriously, and who, in my opinion, push many fellow musicians, composers, but also lay-people, away from the discourses on music, on performance… They create disengagement with music as much as they contribute to repertoires, to philosophical and aesthetic discussions, and so on. Some people look for success, and in doing so, they look to establish centripetal systems where they occupy central positions of power; they look for privilege, influence, for exclusivity. If I say “stop taking yourself too seriously”, I stress the yourself in the sentence.
Is it not possible for “greatness” in today’s musical world to be the result of a rich cultural activity spread over many parts of all societies, rather than to have it found consolidated in the hands of a privileged few? Could it not strictly exist in this global state, itself the sum of many, many smaller parts, none of which are that great in and of themselves?
I’m pushing you to the left of a spectrum I just decried when I say this, but what if we stopped looking at individuals, at ensembles, even at whole schools, as examples of this “greatness” we track so avidly in Music History, and instead, attribute it (or not) to multi-national societies, multi-national communities, as a whole? What if ego stopped guiding effort, what if coronations in all guises stopped being the consequence of quality? What if music stopped being so frequently used as an excuse for self-advancement, and the creation of social ladders?
You’re a musician? That’s great. Perform, compose, record, write, talk, argue, do what you do. But stop expecting to be tapped on the shoulder for it. Stop playing the game of the financial and political circles. Do what you do, and leave it at that. Let others talk about what you did.
3. By debating, you’re not speaking to change minds, but to clarify and to understand
Every debate and argument should not be about convincing the other person of something. It should be about understanding each others’ points of views. It should be about being able to put oneself in the other person’s shoes. Only once this – very difficult – task is achieved can one “judge”. And it’s a bit like the usually-overlooked wisdom of religious behavioral prescriptions. They go a little something like this: “Only once you do X and Y can you do Z; and you won’t.” The reason being that if you were to do X and Y properly, Z would become irrelevant. Either that, or that it’s humanly impossible to do X and Y. Were you to fully put yourself in the other person’s shoes, you wouldn’t need to judge them anymore. You would understand. The most you can then hope for is that they would do the same with you, at which point the better argument will either convince, or both can coexist paradoxically, as history books abundantly show.
Music is not an exact science. People see the same thing from so many different angles, all of which, in a way, are valid. Who are we to say no? Some would say that such an approach could lead to absolute nihilism and the death of all debates. But I would say it’s quite the contrary. People need to take themselves a lot less seriously, and be willing to venture down their own paths, even if they suspect that someone “smarter”, or “more experienced”, or “brilliant”, has already gone down that road before, or has even written a book about it. It’s not because someone has lived really well that living becomes pointless. You don’t not use a good idea because someone has already used it. You don’t write because you want to outdo others. You don’t debate so you can silence.
I may be accused of being idealistic; I would call it optimism. The reason I advocate this approach is because it would result in a much richer engagement on the part of people who are not that involved to begin with (and they are by far the most numerous), and who are turned off the whole thing because of pretentiousness. Soaring levels of aggression and hostility, when we’re talking about textures, forms, orchestration… Composers who hold their aesthetic values as absolute (or even superior) and who want to go to war defending them, the way Boulez did in the 40s and the 50s, have no place in today’s world. Just do your thing, and then shut up about it. Let other people write their own reviews about it. Don’t ask your friends to write raving reviews about your work; stop using your pieces as career-propellers; stop pretending to be super-inspired and driven, when the basic gut feeling that drives you is the desire to obliterate anyone who has ever attempted to do what you’re about to do before you. Stop transposing right-wing, corporate business strategies into the music world. Encourage anyone-and-everyone to talk about why they love or hate what they love or hate, let anyone-and-everyone be an integral part of the equation, as long as they’re willing to do so in full sentences; and if this fact discourages you to want to work, if it makes performing/composing/writing/teaching less meaningful, then quit, because you’re doing it for the wrong reasons, and you’re doing more harm than good in the long run.
The death of the Critic-as-a-pseudo-God (or as-a-real-estate-agent), and the birth of the Critic-as-anybody-and-everybody willing to use full sentences.
A couple of years ago, when I lived in Massachusetts, I shared a car ride from Montreal to Boston with a guy who did the drive almost every week. We headed south on snowy roads, and began chatting about the usual vague and generic topics. “Montreal or New York bagels? How do you like living in Boston? Do you prefer Montreal?” He went back home every weekend to see his girlfriend. “Oh, Montreal isn’t home? he asked.” No. “Wait, where is home? Ah… Lebanon.”
This made approaching the border fun, with him teasing me about the questions they might ask me. “Sir, do you know any terrorists? he asked, with an artificial low-sounding American-officer-of-the-law-voice. You must get a lot of shit at airports.” I always loved those comments. “Wait, you’re not a terrorist, are you? haha.” No. Haha. I suck at fake-laughing. “You must hate the Islamophobic climate nowadays, eh? Ah, you’re not a Muslim. What are you? What do you mean, nothing? Isn’t everyone in Lebanon something?” We all need labels. A name for what we are. At least he knew more about it than many who had questioned me before him. “You were baptized? So you’re a Christian, then.” Well, if that’s how that works, then… yes, I guess. “But still, it’s not easy, I imagine?” What? “Being from Lebanon.” Being from Lebanon is not so bad. It’s telling people about it that is.
I did end up having a genuine laugh when the border-patrol person questioned him a lot longer than me. While he had to talk about his job, what he’s bringing into the country, how long he was gone, and other trivial questions, “So, you study at Boston University?” is the only question I had to answer. We continued on our way, driving through the wintery-white green-mountains of Vermont (Yes, it’s in the name), onto New Hampshire, where the highway happened to skirt a town called… Lebanon.
“Did you know that people from this town prefer to pronounce its name Leba-nen, rather than Leba-none?” No. Why do they do that? “So they can distance themselves from the country. They don’t want to be too associated with it.” Well, then why don’t they change their name? was my immediate reaction.
I later researched it, and discovered that it was named after Lebanon, Connecticut, which was itself given the Biblical name because of the height of the land, and because of a large Cedar forest. It was not named by the local Mohegan tribe that used to live there, as you will have guessed, but by the white settlers who purchased the land from them in the early days of the colonizing saga of North America: a tale far-from-devoid of war and massive killing of people, and sadly not too different from more familiar colonizing tales of the 21st century (more familiar to some, at least).
But back to Lebanon, NH: do they not realize that in British English, Leba-nen is how the country’s name is pronounced? (Leba-nen is my inexact approximation of the British pronunciation). I mean, Lebanon has produced a culinary tradition that the entire world admires. It has produced music, art, literature, all of which speak for themselves.
These people are distancing themselves from us? Who ever heard of Lebanon, New Hampshire? Even a town whose main claim to fame is being near the junction of Interstates 89 and 91 gets to snub us? This bothered me a lot, at the time. But as I thought about it, I realized it’s really all in the name, and ours is always in the news. Fox News, it’s true, but they still call it the news here. You want to be mentioned on the Food Channel, or in fun tourism documentaries, on sports channels, even comedy channels… just not on American news channels. People read your name too many times, and now they only think bad things.
I guess being unheard-of is better than being poorly-heard-of.
It got me thinking about names, and how loaded they are. So much is in a name that we don’t mention. Things we don’t even notice, things we forget, often on purpose. In the West, people name everything. The smallest ponds have names, every alley, even park benches sometimes have names. In Lebanon, if all streets have names that we wrote down somewhere, who knows them? I don’t know the names of most of Beirut’s streets where I spend my time. I’ll leave it to someone else to ponder why we avoid the practice of naming, and what it says about us, though I sometimes think it would be more useful to be explicit and precise…
Anyway, I remembered all of this earlier today when I read this article on BBC, which talks about a situation they’re having in the city of Frisco, Texas. A new high school is opening soon, and it’s going to be named after the small farming town that used to exist where the high school is being built: Lebanon High School. You might have predicted it, and it’s true: many people in town are complaining. As one resident put it, “for a high school name, it doesn’t fit this community.” Another resident added that although she appreciated the history of the name in the community (the small village of Lebanon had a long history, probably going back.. a hundred years, or who knows, maybe two, I didn’t research it) it (the name) always troubled her. “The present-tense name of a country that was in the news all the time with reference of war and battleground was always what was on my mind when I would say the name Lebanon,” a local resident told the school board.
Who can blame her? The name is always associated with bloodshed and violence today. Don’t misunderstand her: Lebanon-the-country, not the other Lebanons. The history of the small village’s name is appreciated, even though it is indirectly linked with a history of colonization, of massive murder of hundreds of thousands of native Americans, with the slavery of millions of black people for centuries… No, no, you misunderstand. All of this doesn’t matter. It’s the name, Lebanon, that disturbs. I mean… Could it just be racism? – You mean, against who? The Lebanese? Against Arabs? What do you call that kind of racism? You see, it doesn’t have a distinct name, the way anti-semitism does (although Arabs are also Semites, for God’s sake). It’s lumped with all other kinds of racisms. Even the terrifying ones, like the kind against African-Americans, who have suffered unbelievable amounts of prejudice and discrimination for centuries, and still do, even in modern-day America.
All that to say that a name is something that comes with a baggage, with images and ideas associated with it, images that we need to work on improving, not only because everyone else in the world does it with their names, but also because many in the world make sure ours is seen as negatively as it is. People in Lebanon are all about conspiracy theories, and sadly always have been. That’s also a subject for another post, but in this case, it’s not far-fetched to say that the PR campaigns from certain other countries actively work as positively on their images as they do negatively on ours. Being conscious about this would at least help us not help them.
Israelis make movies like the one named Lebanon, about their soldiers’ experiences in the 1982 war. Bands call themselves Beirut while having nothing to do with the city. Towns called Lebanon shun us. Lebanese restaurants in the US often call themselves Mediterranean, because otherwise they would lose too many clients. Now, other restaurants call themselves Mediterranean too, and sell Lebanese-style cuisine, even though they’re not Lebanese at all. It works, we’re all hiding behind signs, pretending.
Who cares what something actually is. It’s all in the name.
p.s.- This may come off as a joke, but the BBC article actually closed with the following quote from a resident of Frisco: “All we’re asking for is a voice to be heard and have an open mind.” I think it’s about time we start demanding the same.
I would like to discuss a particular issue I find myself going back often in my work: Orientalism. For those not familiar with the concept, a quick Wikipedia read should get you up to speed. It has become a very common term in Critical Theory and in many fields, from the Arts to Politics, especially since the publication of Edward Said’s book Orientalism in 1978. I don’t want to get super technical here, and my point is not to contribute to research and discourse on Orientalism. My goal is to use Orientalism as a tool in trying to understand very personal issues when it comes to my own identity problems (which I have in common with many people from Lebanon, and elsewhere) but also when it comes to my music and “Eastern” art in general.
Orientalism in a Nutshell
Essentially, some people have argued that Orientalism was (is?) a global, uncoordinated movement that took place in the West over centuries in which the “East” was portrayed as the other, the inferior, the backward, while the West was presented as the progressive, the good, the strong, and so on. This began a long time ago, way before the many examples that may pop into a current reader’s mind, like Hollywood movies or CNN and Fox News. Essentially, over the course of centuries, through books, arts, laws, colonialism, crusades, missionary schools, and many others; through a broad consortium of means, an unconscious prejudice and a set of — usually negative — assumptions has shaped the identity of people from the East in Westerners’ minds.
This “other”, against which they were set, allowed Westerners to build a stronger sense of who they were. In a way, it also allowed them to build an ego. The racism many people from the East experience in the West, even today, comes from this old tradition of condescendence, of stereotyping, of domination. Because domination does not only happen through the military, through economic hegemony, or even through sciences and technology alone. It happens through ideas, through the arts, through literature, through very subtle public relations campaigns.
As far as we’re concerned (and by we, I mean Easterners, and people who are sensitive to our plight and our position in today’s world), a more important and dangerous consequence of this state of affairs lies not only in how the West ends up seeing us, even without realizing it, but in how we end up seeing ourselves. For such is the power of Orientalism and of broad movements like this one in shaping perception and senses of identities: we end up only being able to see ourselves through their eyes.
Questions like “when am I being racist towards myself and my fellow countrymen”, or “when are my criticisms of Lebanese society, for example, a residue of colonialism”, are things I wish to talk about a lot. But I will to do so later. For now, I’m going to focus on a recent situation I’ve run into in my music as an illustration of this problem and leave it at that. I’m going to talk about this project I’ve recently been working on, which I think many people will find interesting regardless of whether they relate to its Orientalist problems or not.
Kan Ya Ma Kan
Briefly: eight years ago, it was while I visited my family in Lebanon for the summer that the war between Hezbollah and Israel broke out. I was a fairly inexperienced but very passionate young composer, and I decided to block out the horror happening around us by throwing myself into writing a large orchestral work that would be my personal reaction to the war. The piece was huge for me, a big step forward, but it was unplayable as I had written it. It was too ambitious. So it stayed in the back of my mind for eight years. Until a few months ago, when a friend of mine asked me if I wanted to write him a piece for a large wind orchestra. I took the old piece as a canvas on which I painted a new work. At times, you can hear the old piece almost as is. At other times, you would not be able to recognize the initial piece at all because it was completely reworked.
I called it Kan Ya Ma Kan, which is Arabic for “Once upon a time”. It’s a story, although I don’t tell the audience exactly how I think it goes. I invite the listener to imagine their own unfolding of events. Lebanese listeners will undoubtedly recognize our national anthem making various appearances, as well as well-known references: the car horn signatures of the Lebanese Forces (Ouwwet) and of the Free Patriotic Movement (3awniyyeh), which happen together in a sort of cacophony. I also use the dabkeh rhythm, and other devices in order to give the piece as much of a “Lebanese flavor” as I can.
The piece features many bells that sound like church bells, a distant tribute to my grandfather who passed away in the days preceding the fighting. It was a few hours after his funeral that Israeli jets began bombing the country, as those bells still resonated in my ears.
You can find a recording of the piece here.* A video recording of the performance is now also available on Youtube.
*Please use earphones or good speakers in order to hear the bass clearly. The recording was made of a live performance, so it contains some inaccuracies and details that will need to be improved, so please do keep that in mind. Thanks for listening.
The Orientalist problem
I grew up listening to Lebanese music, and I still do. Whether it’s Fairuz, Marcel Khalife, or many other national emblems, I think I’ve absorbed it completely to the point that it’s subconscious. Even when I perform non-Lebanese music, my friends frequently comment on my different way of trilling, ornamenting, and performing, which I recognize as being due to my life-long exposure to my native music.
One thing that could distinguish the music of Lebanon from that of our Arab neighbors is that it often seems to sit on the border between Eastern and Western traditions — more so than in other countries. One can find harmonic progressions that closely mimic progressions found in European music, while still retaining the ornamentation and melodic devices so prevalent in Levantine and other Eastern traditions. To purists, it often sounds bad because they find it confused, inauthentic. To me, it’s normal, and I often ended up playing music of this nature when I improvised while growing up.
To be fair, I have to remind you that I have spent the past 12 years studying music in conservatories and universities in Canada and the United States and have studied with European and North-American teachers for the most part. During that time, I hardly ever composed music that allowed my Lebanese side to come through in a dominant fashion. I wrote music that you could mostly describe as being new Western classical music. I did most of my musical education in this context, and as I grew and became an experienced composer, I realized that I often felt very phony. It was like I was trying to participate in other people’s family meetings. When I wrote music that tried to push the limits of Western tradition, it was like I was fighting someone else’s fight. It’s not that Western music isn’t natural to me. To be perfectly honest, it’s quite the contrary: it’s the music I know best. The problem was that a very large portion of my musical personality lay unused, ignored, almost repressed.
It was only when I began writing Kan Ya Ma Kan a few months ago that things fell more into place for me. I ran into big issues: I was trying to write Lebanese music, a music that I supposedly knew well; and yet every time I would pause and look at what I was coming up with, I was horrified to find clichés that Western composers wrote when they would try to set Rumi to poetry. Or worse, it sounded like modern Aladdin! It’s as though I don’t know how to be Lebanese anymore without adhering to the image: the false, stereotypical image of the Arab that Westerners have written and invented for themselves.
It’s like I don’t know how to be me without going through them. I got really lost. What is Lebanese? Can I even ask this question in this day and age? Is Nationalism still a thing? Many Western countries went through the Nationalist stage in their development, during which they built their own identity, a stereotypical and largely fake one, but a necessary step that precedes questioning the assumptions and moving forward.
So much of what you find in the “box” called Lebanon, we’ve inherited from the West. They built it, filled it, and we had very little say in it. It’s a heavy box to carry, to be honest. Especially when you live abroad. I’m expected to function, think, write, speak; everything I do, I’m expected to do it as a Lebanese. Or as what they understand to be a Lebanese.
I felt so empty. Or did I feel free? I’m not sure which. I’m just now intensely aware of how much this label over my head matters to everyone around me and just as aware of how heavy it is to carry around. I didn’t invent it. I didn’t contribute to it at all.
In fact: very few Lebanese people did.