Wednesday, April 2, 2014

PASSAGE WORK: a path towards stillness?

 This is a slightly revised version of a short article I wrote for the Journal of Music in Ireland on the occasion of the first performance of my Passage Work for soprano, chamber ensemble and electronics which took place in the Project Arts Centre on 20th December 2001. The same musicians will be performing it again in the same venue on 17th April 2014 as part of the FreeState 8 concert that I have co-curated: Sylvia O'Brien (soprano) and the Crash Ensemble, conductor David Brophy.

Composed during the earliest phase of the second Palestinian intifada, my Passage Work begins with a cataclysmic tutti (soprano voice, seven instruments, tape). This echoes the opening of the finale of my Oboe Concerto (1993-4), composed shortly after my return from the Middle East where I had first-hand experience of the first intifada.  The first movement of the Concerto is echoed here in the falling and rising arpeggios which originally characterised the oboist’s “passage work”. In the classical/romantic concerto this term denotes a mere occasion of virtuosic display, but here such “display” forms an intrinsic part of the musical argument.

The process whereby details hitherto considered trivial are brought to the foreground of our attention typifies the thought of Walter Benjamin (1892-1940). Towards the end of his life, Benjamin sought to encapsulate such an approach to historiography in his unfinished Passagen-Werk, for which the English is The Arcades Project (not Passage Work!), the arcades in question being those of Paris.

The story of Benjamin’s Calvary has often been told: his flight from the Gestapo across the Pyrenees bearing a mysterious manuscript in his briefcase, his suicide (by poisoning) in the Spanish Catalan village of Portbou, in the mistaken belief that he was to be returned by the authorities to Vichy France (the death of Benjamin, coincidentally, is the basis for Brian Ferneyhough’s first piece of music theatre).

In January 2000 I visited Portbou and was deeply moved by Israeli sculptor Dani Karavan’s memorial to Benjamin, entitled Passages, the foundation stone of which was laid in 1990, the fiftieth anniversary of his death. This monument consists of some 85 steps descending steeply within rust-coloured walls towards the sea, but stopping halfway at a sheet of glass “that may provide assurance against falling without, however, alleviating the feeling of insecurity” (Konrad Scheurmann in For Walter Benjamin, ed. Ingrid and Konrad Scheurmann, Bonn 1993). Nearby is the cemetery where the local community has erected a simple memorial to Benjamin. Both monuments bear inscriptions taken from Benjamin’s own works. The former: “It is more difficult to honour the memory of the nameless than that of the celebrated”; the latter: “There never exists a document of culture that is not simultaneously a document of barbarism”. Both of these citations are used in my Passage Work’s text-collage.

After my Portbou visit I fetched up in the spectacularly beautiful French Catalan town of Collioure. Being a fanatical visitor of cemeteries, I soon found the grave of Antonio Machado, who had fled here from fascist Spain with his family in 1939; worn-out and grief-stricken, he survived for only a month, dying in the same room as his mother (who died three days later). I was familiar with Machado’s work through settings by Dallapiccola and Nono, and was struck with his use of the imagery of paths and steps and the strange link between this and Karavan’s monument to Benjamin (“Caminantes, son tus huellas/el camino, y nada más;/ caminante, no hay camino,/ …Sino estelas en la mar.” [Traveller, your footsteps/are the path, and nothing more;/ traveller, there is no path,/…only tracks in the ocean]).

Alongside these texts (and a further excerpt from Benjamin’s Passagen-Werk: “to identify the sea upon which we are voyaging, and the shore from which we set out”), I chose a few fragments from other left-wing poet/exiles: Pablo Neruda (“where the militant sea / dashes its blue waves beneath the angry foam”), Paul Celan (“Where did the way lead when it led nowhere?”), and Mahmoud Darwish (“Where should we go after the last frontier, /where should the birds fly after the last sky?” – the last four words became the title of a book by Edward Said, the most famous international spokesman for the Palestinian cause). Whatever about the thematic links between all these excerpts, there are those who will probably find their juxtaposition provocative; I make no apology for this, but would nonetheless stress that a juxtaposition is not an equation.

The text-collage forms the basis both for the solo soprano part, and, broken into its phonetic constituents, for the vocal element of the tape part (which uses the voices of Francesca Martelli and Andrew Redmond). The recorded sound of footsteps, on iron and on asphalt, provides the remainder of the tape material, which was initially notated like an instrumental score. Armed with a commission from the Crash Ensemble, I started work on the piece in Collioure in November 2000 (I feel that the “ebb and flow” structure of the piece owes much to that locality with its three small harbours in each of which the sea sounds quite different) and finished it in nearby Céret the following March. The realisation of the tape part was entrusted to the indispensable Jürgen Simpson. The première took place in Dublin’s Project Arts Centre on December 20th 2001.

Passage Work bears the dedication … “das Gedächtnis der Namenlosen su ehren” (to honour the memory of the nameless), quoting the Benjamin inscription from Dani Karavan’s haunting memorial. Let me finish by quoting Karavan himself: “I think it is very dangerous to work on such a subject because you usually feel forced to do things very expressively – as a kind of loud scream…I would never be able to work in such a way. I believe in the power of stillness and a degree of reserve to awaken emotions. It’s impossible to represent aggression by aggression. The artistic means would never be capable of competing with the terrible reality…” (interview with Ingrid and Konrad Scheurmann, loc cit.) Perhaps, unlike sculpture or architecture, and with no thought of “competing”, music may allow itself the occasional loud scream. Although the many strands of Passage Work do ultimately converge on “the power of stillness and a degree of reserve”, there are times when such a scream is the only articulate response to the injustices of our world.
                                                                        Raymond Deane, copyright 2001.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Chris de Burgh Notes our Opinions – and Suppresses Them.

In 1979 Chris de Burgh chose to tour Apartheid South Africa, in violation of the boycott call from the African National Congress. In justification, he pleaded that “I’m not singing for the government… I hope to make a difference…”

It is arguable that by ignoring the boycott call from the democratic opposition to South Africa’s anti-democratic regime de Burgh was indeed “singing for the government”, and that, far from “making a difference”, he was in fact helping to reinforce the status quo more than a decade before the release of Nelson Mandela from Robben Island.

In 1984 “12 Dunnes [Stores] workers went on strike [in Dublin] for two and a half years for the right not to handle goods from Apartheid South Africa. The strikers were feted by Bishop Desmond Tutu and international human rights groups. Nelson Mandela said that their stand helped keep him going during his imprisonment.”

Almost exactly thirty years after this, Chris de Burgh announced that he would perform in Tel Aviv on 29th March 2014, ignoring the Palestinian call for a cultural boycott of the Israeli state. The Ireland-Palestine Solidarity Campaign learned only two weeks before the event of de Burgh’s plan to cross the picket line, upon which the usual procedures were followed. A letter was posted via his website, followed by a telephone call to his management – or, more precisely, to an anonymous answering-machine in London. Neither approach having received a reply, the letter was made public. A Facebook page was set up and supporters of Palestinian rights posted pleas on de Burgh’s own Facebook page.

At this point, things turned nasty. It would appear that defenders of the Israeli state set particular store by de Burgh’s imminent visit, perhaps bearing in mind his 1979 performance in the other Apartheid state that was Israel’s most intimate ally. Veterans of internet campaigning reported that they had never encountered such an outpouring of Zionist propaganda as flooded de Burgh’s page, replete with the usual venomous and mendacious defamation of anyone with a track record of support for Palestinian rights. Abuse ranged from “hater” and “old fart” to “anti-Semite” and “Nazi”; in my own case, hoary canards about my visits to Hong Kong and Iran and my supposedly having “intimidated a cancer victim” (the latter rebutted here) were dredged up and recycled shamelessly.

An objective observer, perhaps from Mars or Venus, might compare the polite attempts to persuade de Burgh not to break the boycott to the incoherent and often obscene vitriol emanating from the other side, and draw obvious conclusions about the rights and wrongs of the case. De Burgh’s response was different. On 24th March he requested that “someone out there who has "The Storyman" CD could go to the booklet that comes with the CD, entitled "Stories," look up track 4,"My Father's Eyes," and post the whole thing, starting with "Palestine 2000...”  When numerous fans obliged, he wrote: “Thank you....for those with differing opinions to read...there are always two sides to every story.”

The song in question comes from 2006 and has the lyric “…I have seen it in my father’s eyes,/…I have heard it in my father’s voice,/ It’s been a hard life, a hard fight, and all of the things that he wanted/Are in his hand, but silver would not betray what’s written in the sand, /And a wall will not keep his people from the Promised Land.”

This might be read in a relatively progressive light: nothing could keep the Jews from the Promised Land, and no walls will keep the Palestinians from it. The message is reinforced by being repeated in Arabic by the Egyptian singer Hani Hussein.

However, the sections of the YouTube video featuring Hussein conspicuously fail to show the actual wall, illegal under international law, that Israel is building within the occupied Palestinian territories. This is the very same Apartheid Wall that will have made it impossible for de Burgh’s West Bank fans to attend the concert in Tel Aviv which, as a consequence, took place before an audience every bit as segregated as if it had happened in Apartheid South Africa or in the US southern states during the Jim Crow years.

If de Burgh were actually stating that Israel is “the Promised Land” for the Palestinians who were violently expelled from it in 1948 (and their descendants), then surely it would have been consistent of him to show respect for those same Palestinians by staying away from Tel Aviv in answer to their boycott call. In performing this song during his gig there, de Burgh may have felt that he was making a contribution towards “showing both sides”. In reality he was demonstrating the ethical and political bankruptcy of his entire stance.

Also on March 24th he wrote (and tweeted) All your opinions have been noted, thanks for your input” and “‘I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.’ Evelyn Beatrice Hall, author.” (Actually, Hall’s paraphrase of Voltaire.)

De Burgh, or whoever administers his Facebook site (the responsibility is still his), proceeded to delete most of the Facebook messages urging him to abide by BDS, while leaving in place those urging him to perform. These included many posts explicitly defaming specific BDS advocates, who were prevented from defending themselves by the simple expedient of being blocked. Only after complaints directly to Facebook was it was possible to have some of these posts removed. Nonetheless, Chris de Burgh’s site was transformed into a compendium of propaganda for the Israeli state, and of uncontested vilification of those who oppose its colonial and apartheid policies.

This procedure was entirely unprecedented; it remains to be seen whether it will provide a template for other artistes determined on crossing the Palestinian picket line in order to collect the astronomical fees offered by Israeli promoters, but incapable of thinking up a plausible excuse for doing so. The fact that de Burgh had recourse to the cliché that “there are always two sides to every story” (thus “balancing” oppressor and oppressed), while simultaneously ensuring that only one side saw the light of day, displayed a breath-taking level of hypocrisy.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Is There Nothing Left for the Children of War? Open letter to Chris de Burgh

Dear Chris de Burgh,

In your song Lebanese Nights you wrote:
                                All over the world, the gift from before,
                                Nothing is left for the children of war…

Since the year 2000 more than 1400 Palestinian children have been killed by Israeli soldiers and illegal colonial settlers. Defence for Children International estimates that “since the year 2000, around 8,000 Palestinian children have been detained and prosecuted in the system…. The majority of these children are charged with throwing stones.”

In a report last month (February 2014), Amnesty International declared that Israeli forces have displayed a callous disregard for human life by killing dozens of Palestinian civilians, including children, in the occupied West Bank over the past three years with near total impunity…”

These children are indeed “children of war”, but is there really nothing left for them except “the gift from before”? Do we not owe them our solidarity, particularly in view of the failure of the international community to end Israel’s “near total impunity”?

Almost a decade ago, in July 2004, dozens of Palestinian federations, associations, and civil society organizations "call[ed] upon our colleagues in the international community to comprehensively and consistently boycott all Israeli academic and cultural institutions as a contribution to the struggle to end Israel's occupation, colonization and system of apartheid...", and in particular to "refrain from participation in any form of academic and cultural cooperation, collaboration or joint projects with Israeli institutions" (note that this call is not directed against individuals).

One year later a more comprehensive call came from some 170 Palestinian civil society organisations for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against the Israeli state "until Israel meets its obligation to recognize the Palestinian people's inalienable right to self-determination and fully complies with the precepts of international law." A year later again, over 100 Palestinian Filmmakers, Artists and Cultural Workers called for a cultural boycott in similar terms. These calls from the oppressed constitute a strong mandate.

Recently such famous musicians as Roger Waters (who declared his "solidarity, not only with the people of Palestine, but also with the many thousands of Israelis who disagree with their government's racist and colonial policies, by joining a campaign of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel...") and Elvis Costello ("there are occasions when merely having your name added to a concert schedule may be interpreted as a political act that resonates more than anything that might be sung and it may be assumed that one has no mind for the suffering of the innocent... ") have refused to perform in Israel.

Not least, at time of writing some 260 Irish creative and performing artists have signed a pledge undertaking not to accept invitations to Israel. Musicians constitute the largest single group of signatories, including Andy Irvine, Dónal Lunny, Peadar Ó Riada, Liam Ó Maonlaí, Damien Dempsey, Sharon Shannon, and many others from the fields of popular, traditional, jazz and classical music.
In view of these manifestations of solidarity and concern, your decision to perform in Tel Aviv on 29th March has been noted with deep disappointment.

It is because our governments refuse to take action to curb Israel’s crimes, even when enjoined to do so by the International Criminal Court or indeed by their own statutes (e.g. article 2 of the Euro-Mediterranean Association Agreement), that civil society is obliged to call for such harsh tactics as cultural, sporting and academic boycotts. Such tactics are aimed at bringing to an end the circumstances that called them into being – in this case, Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands, its siege of Gaza (declared illegal by an independent UN panel), and its policies of apartheid and colonisation.

You may argue that music is “above politics”, but this hardly stands up in view of a statement by Nissim Ben-Sheetrit, now Director General of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, that Israel “see[s] culture as a propaganda tool of the first rank, and… do[es] not differentiate between propaganda and culture.” (Ha'aretz, 21/09/05). This means that any artist(e) visiting Israel will be exploited by that state’s very active propagandists to normalise it and to whitewash its crimes. By cancelling your projected concert in Tel Aviv you will be joining the likes of Stevie Wonder, Annie Lennox, Roger Waters, Elvis Costello and other conscientious musicians in refusing to be “propaganda tools” for the Israeli state.

But most importantly, by not crossing the picket line you will be showing the persecuted Palestinians that something is indeed left for the children of war - hope.

Yours sincerely –

Dr Raymond Deane
Cultural Liaison

Ireland-Palestine Solidarity Campaign