E Pluribus Unum. Mostly.


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.

Reviewing, Judging; Renewing: The Critic


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 quitbecause 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.