“If there’s a logic behind tonight’s program, it would be the idea of human migration, globalization, borders, and the lack of borders,” Ed Yim, the president and CEO of the American Composers Orchestra, explained at Carnegie Hall last week. The ACO’s program consisted of three works: the first, by an American born to Russian-Jewish immigrants, a sonic evocation of the centuries-old practice of weaving knotted carpets in East Turkestan; the second by an U.S.-born expat who has lived primarily in London and Munich for the past several decades; and finally, a collaboration by a Shanghai-born composer and a Palestinian filmmaker about Syrian refugees. These works ranged in composition date from 1980 to 2019, and in sonic palette from Morton Feldman’s spatters of pointillistic dissonance to the dense multimedia of Where We Lost Our Shadows, a new piece for orchestra, video, vocal soloists, and percussion soloist by Du Yun and Khaled Jarrar, presented here in its New York premiere.
The three works were broken up not by an intermission, but by a panel discussion moderated by ACO artistic director Derek Bermel. This discussion offered audience members the fantastic opportunity to hear the thoughts and opinions of the creators behind the music being presented onstage.
However, 120 minutes is quite a long time to sit in the same assigned seat in a concert hall with no intermission. As new-music organizations increase their efforts to become more and more “woke,” I urge them to consider the ableism implicit in demanding that your audience sit still – or face the withering judgment of others – for two hours, with no chance to stretch their legs (or, in this reviewer’s case, to relieve debilitating nausea caused by a round of new medication).
I am glad we have gotten to the point of acknowledging that bodies exist out in the world, thanks to Jarrar’s cinematic incorporation of them in the video component of Where We Lost Our Shadows. Let’s start acknowledging that bodies exist in the concert hall, too.
The program began with Turfan Fragments, a valiant attempt by notable male composer Morton Feldman to musicalize the carpet weaving traditions of East Turkestan, dating to the third and sixth centuries. Fragments of these knotted carpets were discovered on an archaeological expedition in the early 20th century, but they were too small to indicate anything – design, source, etcetera – beyond the existence of the carpet-weaving tradition itself.
Feldman wrote that “This is to a large degree the extended metaphor of my composition: not the suggestion of an actual completed work of ‘art,’ but the history in Western music of putting sounds and instruments together.” Turfan Fragments flits its way from module to module, roving across a terrain of excruciatingly careful dissonance, repeating itself tirelessly within each module before moving on to the next. The ACO played these layers of sounds – always quiet, even when the layers became fuller and bolder – accurately, yet their performance didn’t feel as engaged as it might have.
The ACO seemed much more energized by their next piece, Gloria Coates’s Symphony No. 1, “Music on Open Strings.” Although she typically doesn’t like to talk about her music, Coates explained to the audience that the symphony’s sound world was based on Chinese scales and tunings; the musicians gradually must shift their instruments from Chinese to Western tunings over the course of the four-movement work.
Our programs noted that Coates has since composed 15 additional symphonies—“possibly the most written by a woman in history.” The first of her 16 symphonies is stunning, and George Manahan led the ACO in a truly impressive performance. Coates’s music simmers like something you’re trying not to think about, but that hovers persistently at the edge of your consciousness—like anxiety personified, or maybe just sonified. From the opening melodies to the splashing, clashing glissandi in the final movement, I was totally transfixed.
Although the ACO offered audience-goers a post-concert drink in celebration of Coates’s 80th birthday, the real highlight of the evening was Where We Lost Our Shadows. Throughout the half-hour work, Du Yun’s music converses fluidly with Jarrar’s film, a gripping exploration of “the trauma of displacement.” Jarrar talks with Syrian refugees whose voices grow louder than the orchestra, and whose bodies become larger than life as he brings them into the historically white, colonialist space of the concert hall.
“We are not traveling, we are immigrating—there is a difference,” explains teenage Lilas from Syria. And then Helga Davis is singing “What is there for me to say?” and Ali Sethi is singing a raga in a jarring, angular vocal technique, and then Shayna Dunkelman is doing stuff on the drums that seems beyond the scope of human possibility. It was all so much and so fast, and I’ll be thinking about it for weeks, if not months, to come.
During the panel conversation, Du Yun and Jarrar discussed the impetus for the work with Bermel and French anthropologist Didier Fassin. Although the experience of Where We Lost Our Shadows was undeniably haunting, its framing during this panel was problematic. Du Yun explained that “the difference between the concert hall and BBC News” is that in the concert hall everyone has to listen for 25-30 minutes, “with nowhere to go”—whereas, ostensibly, otherwise they might just change the channel or press the mute button on the remote.
Although I usually find Du Yun’s approach to art and politics to be extremely on point, I find myself unsettled by this naïve proclamation. “Art” and “the news” are two different things, and the conflation of the two is an excuse for, at best, mediocre art, and at its most dangerous for virtue signaling disguised as half-assed activism. There was no mention, during the panel or in the program notes, of ticket proceeds being donated to Syrian refugees, nor were audience members instructed of ways we could help out, whether volunteering our time, money, or resources to this cause.
Instead, it seemed that the creators wanted to “draw attention to” a problem for the sake of it, at the end of a haphazardly multicultural program, and in a way that was harmful even while clearly well-intentioned. Fassin, in emphasizing the perceived unworthiness of the lives of Syrian refugees, stated that “only” 500 people die at the U.S.-Mexico border each year, as compared to 5,000 Middle Eastern refugee deaths per year. This is a ridiculous comparison. It’s not like Carnegie Hall concert-goers are diehard Central American immigrant devotees at the expense of refugees elsewhere in the world; there is room to care about the tragic deaths, brutality, and mistreatment of refugees on our own soil in addition to those in the Middle East.
In the spirit of Where We Lost Our Shadows, I found some ways to assist refugees beyond “drawing attention to their plight.” Get involved with the New Sanctuary Coalition or a similar volunteer organization in your community. Call your representatives and tell them to urge our racist, xenophobic president to raise the refugee cap. Finally, instead of buying a ticket to a concert, consider donating that money directly to the Syrian American Medical Society, Islamic Relief USA, Doctors Without Borders, or another humanitarian aid organization.
Rebecca S. Lentjes is a writer and feminist activist based in NYC. Her work has appeared in VAN Magazine, Music & Literature, Sounding Out!, TEMPO, and I Care If You Listen. By day she works as a translator and assistant editor at RILM Abstracts of Music Literature; by night she hatches schemes to dismantle the patriarchy.
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.
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