Sunday, 10 May 2009

Reconciliation: music dedicated to peace in the Middle East

Israelis spray burning phosphorus onto civilians in Gaza, 2009.
Can we even begin to imagine the horror?
This music is dedicated to peace in the Middle East. Two clashing keys are eventually reconciled and, in the process, are fused together and completely transformed. These musical transformations are a metaphor for the huge social changes and compromises which will certainly be necessary for any political or social reconciliation.
for string chamber orchestra or string sextet
(v, v, v, vla, vc, db; 6 min 03sec) 

Connect your device to a decent sound system or enclosed headphones, and click the orange PLAY button...

Alternatively, you could listen to the music at its URL:
If you wish, you can read the score (in pdf format) here
This link will open in a new window so you can follow the score while listening. 
Both the score and mp3 recording are free and downloadable.
(For a quick overview, read the red bits only)
00min:00sec The slow Introduction is symbolic of thousands of years of co-existence between Palestinian and Israeli peoples. However, embedded in this atmospheric passage is a brooding, unsettled sense of yearning, hinting of unresolved issues.
Technical notes: Introduction, bars 1- 15. The brooding unsettled mood at the opening is generated by a D-augmented triad (D, F#, A#) over a D pedal (the music is at least 'D-centric' if not in pure D-major), extended over unexpectedly long stretches of time (bars 1-3 and 8-10). At the start, the listener might normally have expected the key of D-major, but here the chord is disturbingly "corrupted" by the A# (notated here, for convenience, as Bb). An augmented triad is normally quite unstable and tends to resolve promptly to another chord, like iron filings drawn inexorably to a magnet. Here, however, at the very opening, its agony is prolonged for 3 full beats before momentarily changing to an A minor triad on the fourth beat. Bar 2 resumes the augmented triad, relentlessly sustaining the tension well into bar 3. This effectively turns conventional musical syntax on its head, making stable the chord which is usually unstable. By corollary, the normally stable A minor chord is treated as if it were a unstable passing dissonance. This inherent instability of augmented triads saturates a great deal of the Introduction: by way of example, see the bass (bars 6-7) and the viola (bar 7). In addition, the melodic outline of the future main theme is previewed in bars 1-3 and 8-10. Here the first violin meanders around the descending cells of F# E D (suggestive of D-major) and C Bb A (suggestive of F-major). This theme will feature in the next section "Robusto".
00min:27sec A brief 'roll of thunder', swelling in the remote key of F-major (bars 6 and 13), followed by few brief moments of disturbingly jagged, lightning-like melody in the viola (bar 7) represent occasional social discord. You are at liberty here, Dear Listener, to visualize whichever Qu'ranic/Torahnic events you will. This Introduction, musically speaking, is a chilling premonition, a compressed exposé, of the two conflicting keys which are to become, in musical metaphor, the antagonists in the Muddle East.
Technical notes: The long-anticipated D-major triad does finally appear - but only momentarily - by the middle of bar 5, before being swept aside by the surging crescendo in F-major (bar 6). These two key centres are to represent Israel and Palestine. Sharing only the common note of A (first violin, bars 5-6), they exert a colourful chromatic-mediant relationship to each other. It is this relationship which is exploited (twice for emphasis) in the Introduction. It is perhaps fitting that the letter A should represent the common element between Israel and Palestine if you consider that the words "Allah" and "Adonai" both begin with "A": the two countries do worship the same God, after all.
01min:32sec "Robusto" - the main theme begins.
 This innocent 6-note falling melodic motif contains all the musical seeds of the coming cataclysmic descent into conflict in the Middle East. Its melody can musically accommodate TWO keys (D-major and F-major, representing Israel and Palestine). All continues reasonably harmoniously, but at...
Technical notes: "Robusto": (bar 15, Rehearsal A)
The main theme (F#, E, D, C, Bb, A), as in the Introduction, juxtaposes the two keys D-major and F-major, thrusting them together even within the opening bar. The notes F#, E, and D constitute a segment of the D-major scale, and the notes C, Bb, and A suggest the scale of F-major. There are some repetitions of the theme, with embellishments, which serve strategically to to impress it on the listener's memory, given that it will re-appear, transformed, throughout the rest of the piece. The underlying harmony in each bar is a repeated alternation of two beats on D followed by two beats on F, ie, constant juxtaposition of the antagonist keys not unlike an ostinato.
02min:08sec. ...things begin slowly to unravel and get slightly disjointed... until an unexpected dramatic pause…
Technical notes: After bar 20, however, the two keys begin to blur and overlap as the Fnaturals in the lower voices begin colliding violently with the Fsharps, as if someone were deliberately smudging the entire score. Appropriately, there are instances of "false relations", which, according to the conventional canon of music "laws", are the equivalent of an atrocity. In addition to this, the phrases become rhythmically more disjointed, harmonically more blurred and confused. These harmonic and rhythmic distortions and collisions symbolize the ongoing Palesine-Israel conflict.
02min:22sec After the pause comes a brief allusion to "Tristan und Isolde" by Richard Wagner, the notorious 19th century anti-Zionist. Passions immediately inflame, with volleys of dissonant chords rising like tracer fire, and the two clashing keys of D and F angrily lock horns.
Technical notes: "Langsam" (Rehearsal B, end of bar 22).
At Figure B, the fragment of the Tristan theme (laced with even more chromaticism than the original) surges up to a spicy clash between F and F# at bar 25. Volleys of augmented chords rise like tracer fire during bars 25 and 26, cadencing on further F-F# explosions at the beginnings of bars 27 and 28. Just like the Middle-East conflict, there is no consistent logic to the sequencing of these chords. Prominent are F-augmented and F#-augmented, followed by some which spiral through the circle of fifths towards a chord of D-major/minor at bar 27. The chord at the start of bar 28 has lost any immediately recognisable tonal basis - it comprises mainly the notes of F and F#, the conflictual nub of the matter.
03min:05sec Next, coming out of the blue like the proverbial white-hatted "posse" in a B-grade Western movie, a fragment of the melody "The Star-Spangled Banana" boldly steps into the musical fray. This rising ditty, of course, alludes to a familiar 20th century fundamentalist hamburger-consuming pro-Zionist superpower. Ironically, this intrusion seems to whip up even more angst than ever before. Under this needling provocation, the Middle East conflict quickly escalates into a searing musical conflagration in the high register of the violins. There is a series of violent flashpoints at which you might interpret screams of agony during Israel’s Six-day War in 1967, and Palestinian citizens deliberately crushed to death by Israeli bulldozers in the Jenin refugee camp, not to mention the calculated slaughter of more than 1300 Gazans in 2009.

Technical notes: "The Star-Spangled Banner" (Rehearsal C, bar 29)
The rising triad of "The Star-Spangled Banner" is doubled by basses and celli in octaves in imitation of brass-band voicings. (Incidentally, the word "Langsam" was Herr Wagner's choice, not mine). The level of dissonance between the instruments' parts increases after this (bars 29, 30), and their degree of musical rationality and accountability decreases. Fully-fledged war breaks out at bar 31 ("Appassionato molto") with head-on confrontation between Fsharps and Fnaturals.
...but Peace Talks continue, and small compromises slowly begin to happen. The source of cultural clash (represented in this music by the note F) is gradually eliminated, resulting in a building sense of relief and relaxation. The instruments begin to cascade slowly downwards, concluding in a curiously satisfying and peaceful cadence... 

Technical notes: The Fsharps (from bar 33; ironically a prominent note at the opening of Wagner's Tristan theme) begin to subdue and eliminate the Fnaturals during an extended descending passage. A tentative cadence at bar 37 arrives at Skryabin’s so-called Mystic Chord, which, both by being placed as the lowest pitch and by its louder dynamic, arbitrarily asserts the centricity of the note C over both D and F. Like tonal chords, this chord, with its strong quartal elements, is capable of being inverted to create subtle shades of harmonic colour.
03min:56sec (Rehearsal C, bar 37) But now, lo and behold! This is an utterly new species of chord, the long-awaited moment of reconciliation between the two competing keys - they have been fused into a new entity altogether. In fact, from this point on, nothing in the music (or the Middle East, for that matter) can ever be the same as before. This unfamiliar New Chord is neither D-major nor F-major, but a negotiated composite of the two. It is a complete transformation of Tradition, both in music and social metaphor. The creation of this New Chord constitutes the pivotal moment in this entire piece. (Perhaps at this point I ought to coin the term "Peace Acchord"). This time, however, it is built on the foundation note of C, not D or F as before.
The sound quality of this New Chord may not be fully to the taste of either Palestine or Israel, but nevertheless it is the essential compromise with which they must learn to live. Could this mysterious New Chord metaphorically represent some Cosmic Compromise-maker, a canny Concord-broker? United Nations delegates sitting at The Round Table in the glassy "Tower of Babble" in New Camelot, perhaps? Can the peace last? Well, as the proverb goes, a Camel is a Horse designed by a Committee...

04min:10sec "Ballo Dolente" = "Sad Dance" (Rehearsal D, bar 39). Now that peace is achieved, there is a dance of celebration - but it is a lugubrious and tired dance, soured by traumatic bloodied memories. Musically, the dance showcases the ethereal, strangely beautiful qualities of the New Chord, the ‘bringer of peace", in a number of varieties not unlike typical chord changes in a slow Blues. (I visualize these as akin to the ever-mutating qualities of dappled late-afternoon sunlight filtering through forest foliage). Their orderly movement is determined by traditional cadence formulae dictated from the deep by the domineering double basses, like a Council of Wise Elders, a metaphor for the authority of Musical Tradition.

Technical notes: Isolated from the other instruments, the bass-line during ‘Ballo Dolente’ would make perfect tonal sense to musicians from Mozart to Zappa to Leadbelly. Soaring over this rock-solid conventional bass-line are various transpositions of the Mystic Chord, conjuring up a kaleidoscopic palette of subtly different harmonic colours (given that there are always six of the possible twelve tones being heard at any one moment). This harmonic 'disconnect' between upper and lower parts makes for disturbingly disoriented experience for the listener* - a neat metaphor, perhaps, for the eternally polarized misunderstandings between governments and citizens.
 *To further illuminate the point about a tonal bass-line controlling a quartal environment, have a look /listen to my piece Chord Soup, a miniature I wrote as a pre-study to Reconciliation. Its time-scale is so compressed (less than a minute) that it may assist you to hear what I'm bonging on about here. Its structure is a simple I-V-I arch, so send your ears down to the double-bass).
05min:00sec CONCLUSION
As the dance draws to a close, worrying snatches from the Introduction are heard again, reminding us that it is all too easy to slip back into old ingrained thought habits and prejudices, or to permit extremist elements to re-ignite hatreds of the past. From this point on, however, the Musical East lives happily ever after, beginning with a series of three cadences at...
05min:11sec which the authority of the new musico-social language is re-affirmed, allowing the music to fade comfortingly into the future. In an effort to be democratically inclusive, the note F is offered a place. Although on first impression the texture of this final chord sounds vaguely similar to the very opening chord of the piece, it is actually quite different, utterly transformed by the reconciliation process. Thus the piece does NOT end as it begins: instead of the schematic paradigm 'ABA' so beloved of the 19th century European Enlightenment, this music adopts a more dynamic and forward-looking 'ABC' format.
Technical notes: There are unnerving flashbacks to 'augmented fifth' chords - like those heard back at the very opening. This constitutes a worrying re-emergence of the old musical language, a recidivist step in terms of the reconciliation process. There is even an ever-so-brief allusion to the rising minor 6th motif of Wagner's theme again, as well as the ‘thunder in F major’ (bar 50).

General note on the form of Reconciliation

The formal strategy underlying Reconciliation is not entirely alien to the musical reconciliation at the heart of the musical architecture of 18th-century Sonata Form. However, whereas the old Sonata Form required one key to completely vanquish the other to impose a "winner", my music simply merges both keys into democratic compromise and equality of status. I have attempted to broker a reconciliation between the sound-worlds of Tertian and Quartal harmony: in fact you may have noticed that the note of F, earlier so vilified and exiled during the musical ‘Peace Process”, has been quietly re-incorporated in the final cadences (from bar 47). Arbitrary exclusion of any note, any voice, would have represented a cultural loss to the entire community ...we all need to move beyond adherence to destructive social hierarchies, illogical land borders unrelated to cultural borders, or self-centered nationalisms. And historically, it is often the Artist who has volunteered to be the sensitive barometer, the mine canary, of social justice and change.
The genesis of the music
At the musical heart of the portrait - and the very genesis of the the music - is the exquisite agony of the augmented triad. When I was very young I heard Schuman's sublime piano piece Traumeri, and was totally overwhelmed by its emotions: back then I had no idea, of course, that it was Schuman's sublime use of compositional devices such as augmented triads, double-diminished sevenths, dominant sevents with flatted ninths etc, that was the musical cause of the uncontrollable lump in my young throat.
Years later, as a music student, it all became clear and "explainable" of course, even if in coldly rational prosaic terms. I duly absorbed the "Rules", handed to me on (well-tempered) Musical Tablets directly from Moses and Bach, such as "Thou Shalt Resolve Augmented Triads"... (and even more specifically, how they should be resolved!) Academe has such a lot to answer for in such Attempted Codification of the Uncodifiable - the Muses should be outraged at the insensitive "one-size-fits-all" authoritarianism. But all the same, I consciously determined never to lose those tingling sensations of musical magic I had felt as an untutored but attentive Young Listener.
Now in later life, I have tried to re-conjure that, to weave all of the old magic deep into the fabric of Reconciliation and hopefully to carry it a step further, to intensify it, gently prod and challenge. Why must an augmented triad resolve into some other chord if you enjoy the sound of it 'per se'? For an even more thorough answer, I'm going off now into the Hereafter to consult with my friend Claude Debussy...

 I would like to have this music performed at any formal or informal send-off of my mortal coil, pre- or post-cremation ...preferably on something of better quality than a boom-box, with any luck. Reconciliation can be understood not only as a parable of the Middle-East, but also as a personal metaphor for my life. In fact, the piece began its existence as an autobiographical endeavour tracing the long road of recovery from sexual abuse. Later, I switched to the Middle-East dedication because I felt so strongly about the heartless bombardment of Gaza. So it is perhaps appropriate that an autobiographical musical portrait should accompany my Exit: the shape of the music reflects phases and transformations during my life, and those who are close to me may be able to understand what I mean when I say "personal metamorphosis".

Please ask those present to resist the senseless ritual urge to clap (clapping is such a noisy shattering atrocity after the otherworldly experience of focusing attentively to Music). Instead, simply allow a period of silent reflection before fading the lights back up. Fade the lights in the room, then allow some silence to elapse before beginning to play the music. Ditto, permit some silence after the music fades. Silences can be the element of a performance which have the capacity to speak the loudest. Please don't clap.

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