Mother Tongues

instrumentation: electronics

year: 2018

about the content

The piece was developped for Common-Senses, a multi-sensory performance experience organized by Francesca Ferrara in March 2018. Composers were paired with chefs, and each team was asked to craft a combined experience using food and music. Mother Tongues is exclusively made up of recordings found online. These include conversations, songs, and ambient sound recordings. I have tried to use as balanced a collection as possible. For example, I have used recordings of birds  both in Beirut and Jerusalem; recorded street conversations in the Holy city as well as in various souks in Lebanon; there are sounds taken from playgrounds both in Israel and in Lebanon; and so on.

The basic form of the piece is organized around a 24-hour cycle that begins and ends right at sunrise. I keep track of the time of day by featuring both church-bell sounds that ring the time (as is heard throughout the Lebanese mountains) and the calls to prayer which occur five times throughout a 24-hour cycle. These important cultural sound icons serve as natural indicators of the passing of time. The recordings that surround the “narrator” show him/her moving through crowds, in and out of different buildings such as restaurants, radio stations, playgrounds, woods, on both sides of the border.

In the attached score, I have selected various moments, most of which are not in the English language, and translated them in order to help give the listener as much context as possible in order to grasp what is being said. On the other hand, most listeners’ inability to follow all conversations (given that few people speak all of Hebrew, Yiddish, Arabic, and French) is intentional on my part, and is meant to reflect the misunderstandings and alienation that divides humans who might otherwise agree with one another in more ways  than they might imagine, were they equipped with the means to literally understand one another.

program notes

Sounds, like flavors and scents, are powerful triggers.

In approaching our collaboration, Idith Meshulam, an Israeli chef and pianist, and I discussed our experiences growing up on either side of a rigid and threatening border that indefinitely tore apart a geographical region that had been much more united for most of written history. It is sometimes referred to as the Levant, and stretches the length of the eastern Mediterranean, across hills and mountains into the beginnings of the Syrian and Jordanian deserts, and covers forests, tall bare mountains, fertile valleys, narrow coastlines, and deserts.

The region presents some striking characteristics: first and foremost, it is hot. Not the heat of a desert or a tropical forest, but the dry heat that while it easily burns your skin recedes quickly as you climb the hills and hide in the pine forests or by its many springs. Lebanon is known for its mountains, its snow, its cedars, its water sources. Israel is known for its inland seas, its varying geography. Both are hugged by the Mediterranean, and many of their cities lunge towards it in the form of peninsulas. Birds are everywhere, coyotes howl into the night, and the passing hours of each day are regularly paced by the coexistence of the region’s many church bells and its calls for prayer. Its people are hot-blooded and yet warm, impulsive and yet thoughtful.

We’re not trying to paint you a pretty picture, we are both exiles after all. For the two of us, the airport is as crucially a part of the picture as our native homes. And yet, when discussing pairing food and music, we irresistibly found ourselves drawn to the Proustian notion of sensory triggers of memory. Put differently, and because memory is so closely connected to imagination, we hope that the pairing of sounds, songs, scents, and flavors that are deeply rooted in Levantine everyday-life would facilitate, for each participant, the capturing (or re-capturing for those who have been there) of a physical dimension wholly absent from our performance. In other words, through the smells and the sounds, the listener/eater will be able to see the place in their mind’s eye.

The tape is constructed through recordings of voices, sounds, songs, all found online. Idith contributed several important “ingredients,” both personal and generally Israeli, for me to integrate into my version of the space. These include performances by Idith, who is a professional pianist, of Schubert’s Der Wanderer and a Bulgarian childhood song played on the accordion. I then contributed a valuable bag of Lebanese thyme brought back by my parents to Idith’s dishes through which she explores her own associations with her native land.

We aimed to create a rational, even-keeled representation of the Levant; not devoid of the violence that plagues it, and yet not summed-up by it.



download the score for a transcription of the text in various languages