The return of Kronos Quartet to Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall on Feb. 8, with a program titled “Music for Change: The Banned Countries,” coincided with the U.S. release of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Never Look Away. The film opens with a scene set during the real-life “Degenerate Art” exhibition sponsored by the Nazi party in the late 1930s. While the curator explains why the works of Kandinsky are emblematic of genetic failure and societal decline, the film’s main character – a then six-year-old boy – is inspired by the work, finding a sense of wonder that propels the rest of his career.
Since 1937, the phrase “Degenerate Art” has in a sense been reclaimed by museums, including the Museum of Modern Art, which has an ongoing digital exhibition devoted to works in its collection that would have been banned by the Nazi party, or the Neue Galerie, which in a 2014 exhibition titled “Degenerate Art”showed many of the same works displayed in Munich in 1937. The intent with using this title in context is just that: context. It is on the artists and culture-makers of today to remember the past, to keep a ledger of history. To quote philosopher George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
So even without an assist from Hollywood, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of déjà vu encountering a program described as “The Banned Countries.” I’d also wager that’s by design. Kronos, as Andrew Gilbert points out in his program notes, “has always looked to music as a model for how to move through the world.” David Harrington, Kronos’s artistic director and first violinist, has also noted his goal for the quartet “has always been to be a revolutionary force, not just in making music, but in exploring the ways that music can increase our understanding of our times and our connection to people around the world.”
The latest proof of concept for Kronos, then, was a 90-minute sonic protest against Executive Orders 13769 and 13780, which were signed by President Donald Trump in 2017 and have been informally referred to as the “Muslim ban,” limiting entrance into the U.S. from countries with predominantly-Muslim populations, including Yemen, Syria, Somalia, and Iran. All are represented on the Banned Countries program, alongside works representing Azerbaijan, Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine, Afghanistan, Mali, and Nubia (which was divided between Egypt and Sudan in the 1950s).
It’s a large geographical swath, one that reminds us of the limitations in trying to put a name or descriptor to “Arabic” or “Muslim” music. Kronos deliberately defies both in its programming, by including music that moves past the reaches of the Middle East and taps into faiths beyond Islam. This moves the tone of the program far past what Lebanese editor Lynn Charafeddine once described as the “weird ‘leily ya leily’ chant” to which many soundtracks have defaulted as the “Arabic sound.” Jacob Garchik’s arrangement of “Dooyo,” a 1987 track by Somalia’s Dur-Dur Band, shows a style as ensconced in Michael Jackson and Bob Marley funk as it is in rhythmic traditions from the Horn of Africa. Stephen Prutsman’s arrangement of traditional hymn “Wa Habibi” pays homage to Lebanese diva Fairuz, who became a symbol for the country’s common ground when she remained steadfastly bipartisan during the country’s bloody civil war, as well as to the region’s Christian and Orthodox traditions.
As diverse as the region Kronos explored in this program is, there are also connective threads. Azerbaijani and longtime Kronos collaborator Franghiz Ali-Zadeh’s opening work, Mugam Sayagi, explores the Azeri musical tradition of Mugami—in the composer’s words, “a secret language used in the 16th century to disguise emotions discouraged in Islam.” Follow the threads of the former Soviet Republic back through its Azeri links, however, and you discover ties to Iran, Afghanistan, and Syria, and a linguistic resonance with the Kurdish language. Egyptian keyboardist Islam Chipsy’s “Zaghlala,” which saw Kronos member Hank Dutt abandon his viola duties in favor of drumming, has the same percussive quality of dabke, the dance of choice at weddings in Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine.
Indeed, Kronos’s flair for finding and fostering connections – what David Foster Wallace once described as “the subsurface unity of all things” – is what makes a program such as this possible, both sonically and logistically. Harrington describes his first encounter with Palestinian musical collective Ramallah Underground via MySpace in the program notes for the group’s “Tashweesh,” commissioned by Kronos and arranged by Garchik. “They were open to the world of music,” Harrington recounts, and their partnership with Kronos grew out of a mutual exchange of CDs and sound files.
This is also where the program flourishes, with a mutual exchange between performers and composers, finding a sonic common ground. Likewise, their introduction to the late Nubian composer Hamza El Din came through another longtime friend of the quartet, Terry Riley, and transcends musical tourism. Iranian vocalist Mahsa Vahdat’s closing set with the ensemble, featuring settings of texts by Rumi and Hafez, Sohra Mahdavi, and Vahdat’s husband, Atabak Elyasi, mirrored the interdependence between Ali Zadeh’s music and the quartet’s performance—especially that of cellist Sunny Yang, whose lines often mirrored those of a Muezzin singing the call to prayer.
At other times, the connection felt a little more strained by distance. Omar Souleyman’s folk-pop style has made him a staple at Syrian weddings and Brooklyn music festivals, and his own U.S. appearances were affected by the 2017 executive orders. Hearing his song “La Sidounak Sayyada” (“I Will Prevent the Hunters from Hunting You”) in arrangement, however, lost part of that frenetic dabke–driven energy at the heart of Souleyman’s work. I was aware, suddenly, of being back in New York, in a hall named for a Gilded Age steel magnate, in a concert setting that runs counter to the participatory nature of many of these works. (An invitation to the audience to clap in rhythm with Hawa Kassé Mady Diabaté’s Tegere Tulon not long after felt more perfunctory than communal).
In a sense, this, too, is as it should be. In highlighting “The Banned Countries,” Kronos Quartet shows the limitations of closed borders and nationalism. It calls to mind the Syrian poet and diplomat Nizar Qabbani who, in the middle of the last century, began writing from the narrative viewpoint of an Arabic woman in order to bring to light the dangerous traditions and taboos that led to a proliferation of gender-based violence. If you isolate verses and poems from the context of the whole, you can spot many of Qabbani’s shortcomings as a male who, while progressive for his era (and even in today’s zeitgeist), still missed some of the vital nuances of the female experience. By focusing on these details, however, we would forget that it’s necessary for those in power to speak up if only to pave the way for those whose voices need to be heard. As Qabbani remarked in a 1968 lecture at the American University of Beirut, “Is it not the irony of fate that I should cry out with a woman’s voice while women are unable to speak with their own natural voice?”
In 2019, it’s an irony of fate that we should hear the voices of Syrians, Palestinians, and Yemenis through an American string quartet while we bar these same people from entering our country and listen to them selectively in the context of our news cycles—not only because we repress the voices of those who are repressed in their own countries, but also because we ignore the full narratives of their lives against the shorthand of “refugee” or “civil war.” With this program, the Kronos Quartet implored us to listen—and, more importantly, to pay attention.
Qabbani also wrote that, like sparrows, words don’t need entry visas. Music needs them even less. But it’s on us to show up for it. It’s how we move through the world.
Olivia Giovetti has covered music and arts for Paper, the Washington Post, NPR, VAN, and beyond. She’s previously served on staff at Time Out New York and WQXR/Q2 Music, and her writing has been heard onstage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of the Next Wave Festival. She combines her love of the arts and meditation practice on The Meditation of Art.
Classical music coverage on National Sawdust Log is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The Log makes all editorial decisions.