Friday, October 14, 2016

Mohammed Fairouz’s oratorio 'Zabur' is a powerful war requiem

Posted By on Fri, Oct 14, 2016 at 12:29 PM

click to enlarge Fairouz - PHOTO BY SAMANTHA WEST
  • Photo by Samantha West
  • Fairouz

Over a year has passed since the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir premiered Mohammed Fairouz’s oratorio Zabur, a powerful war requiem based on the humanitarian crisis in Syria. Zabur’s Indianapolis premiere is the subject of a new CD to be released this month by Naxos Records, one of the top classical music labels in the world.

This is a big deal for the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir, as the release of Zabur marks the group’s first ever recording for a major label. On top of that, the ISC will perform for Zabur’s New York debut at Carnegie Hall on October 16th.

The ISC’s commission and recording of Zabur represents a significant milestone for both the choir and the Indianapolis music scene at large. Classical music audiences in Indianapolis aren’t always enthusiastic in their support of new music. So the ISC should be commended for commissioning a work that challenges local audiences musically and conceptually.

On the occasion of Zabur’s CD release, I spoke with composer Mohammed Fairouz to get his thoughts on the continuously unfolding crisis in Syria. Fairouz is an important voice in contemporary music, in fact the BBC has called him, “one of the most talented composers of his generation."

NUVO: Zabur has been described as a “war requiem for Syria”. A significant amount of time has passed since you initially conceptualized Zabur, and during that period the humanitarian crisis in Syria has become graver. Are there any thoughts you’d like to offer on the continuing crisis in Syria as we approach the Naxos release of Zabur?

Mohammed Fairouz: Thank you for that. I appreciate your question, and I think it's the most important question to be asking about this work at this time. I'm glad you started with that.

The truth of the matter is that the Syrian situation should concern all of us very deeply for a number of reasons. One reason is the obvious strategic problem that has emerged as a result of the state falling out of the hands of anyone, really. It has transcended into complete chaos. We live in such an interlinked world that states cannot descend into chaos without causing chaos for other states.

A second reason is that we have on our hands the largest refugee crisis since the Second World War. That in itself should be very concerning to us.

I think the moral dimension is also extremely powerful. President Obama has many accomplishments under his belt, especially on the domestic front. But Syria is the strategic disaster of our time. Syria will be remembered as the shame of our generation, and the shame of our time. The strategic error President Obama made in issuing a red line and then allowing a dictator to cross that line with no ramifications, especially as that red line involved the use of chemical weapons, has been devastating. It's been devastating to the idea of global order. It's emboldened people like Putin to make excursions into the Baltic states and Eastern Europe. It's threatened NATO. It's created a situation we should all be very concerned about, and I can't overstate that.

The human dimension is what we are concerned with in the oratorio. It humanizes the tragedy and that's what is so valuable about depicting this musically. But I am also very concerned with the strategic problem that has emerged. I think most millennials you’ll talk to are great fans of the Obamas, and I think there is much to admire in his accomplishments, his integrity, and his seriousness. But I can't really decipher if it's been a very high level of moral ambivalence on his part to allow this to escalate. He does have a responsibility, as of now he's still the most powerful man in the world. When you have power, you have responsibility.

In 2014 I wrote a scathing critique of Obama fiddling while the world burns. I said that the next administration would inherit a nightmare on the foreign policy front, and indeed they will. We're very lucky that Hillary Clinton seems to be the clear favorite in this election. She has the foreign policy chops to get into this. She knows how to use the military, which I think is very important. We're just so lucky that she's part of this equation, as we are unlucky and embarrassed that Donald Trump is the other half of that equation.

NUVO: You mentioned the fact that we’re currently facing the worst refugee crisis since World War II. Not terribly long after Zabur premiered in Indianapolis, Indiana Governor Mike Pence announced his intention to block the resettlement of Syrian refugees within the state of Indiana.

This sort of anti-Muslim or anti-Arabic attitude has intensified in the last several months with the rise of Donald Trump. I wonder how this growing wave of anti-Arab or anti-Islamic sentiment is impacting you as an artist?

Fairouz: I have to interject there. I think that what’s dangerous about Donald Trump’s campaign and people like Mike Pence, is not so much an anti-Arab or anti-Muslim argument, the problem is that it’s sort of an anti-everything argument.

Donald Trump is a buffoon. Mike Pence is not. He’s more dangerous than that. If you watched the vice presidential debates, his diagnosis of the problem in Syria is largely accurate. His response to it isn't and I don't know why we would imagine it would be. Why would he be an expert in foreign policy? He was the governor of a state. We have to approach these things a little more analytically than we have thus far.

We have on the other hand, a former Secretary of State. Someone who has served on the Senate's Armed Services Committee, and the Foreign Relations Committee. She's very experienced. She's made mistakes and learned from them - which by the way is a strength, not a weakness.

I have to say this and it's really, really important, unlike Sisi in Egypt, unlike the Brexit movement, unlike Putin, unlike these other bloviating strongmen, what’s happening now is especially dangerous in the United States. The words "e pluribus unum" are not in Britain's DNA. Britain does not refer to itself as a nation of immigrants. It is part of our identity. This idea of the melting pot is part of our identity. It's part of the way we think about ourselves and brand ourselves to the world. I just want to be very careful about this, because I think when we say anti-Arab or anti-Muslim sentiment, we're excluding a long list of people that someone like Mike Pence is against.

When I came to Indiana the last time for the premiere of Zabur, it was around the time Pence was squandering the state's budget on oppressing gay people and LGBT Americans.

Think of what we saw a few days ago with the attitudes towards women. It's not a revelation, it's characterized this whole campaign. And women are over 50 percent of the population of the country.

It's also the language about Mexicans.

You know Hillary Clinton said that by the end of this cycle there will not be a single group in this country that Trump's campaign of sneer and snarl hasn't insulted - including our armed forces and off-limit things like Gold Star parents.

I've tackled this question before. People have asked me if I feel targeted religiously or ethnically and I think it's really important that we transcend that sort of thinking. I think we should all feel targeted. We should violated if someone takes the oath of office and doesn't know the Constitution. We should feel upset by that as Americans. Barbara Bush said she can't understand how any woman could vote for Donald Trump — I can't understand how any person can.

I think we have to be very aware of the fact that we’re all in this together. If by some unfortunate freak accident this man is elected, we’re all going to have to live with the consequences of it. There isn't just one community who will have to live with the consequences of it. We are all going to have to live with the consequences of it.

click to enlarge Fairouz - PHOTO BY SAMANTHA WEST
  • Photo by Samantha West
  • Fairouz
NUVO: I write a lot about the relationship between art and social justice, or art and the struggle for peace and human rights. You’ve written several programmatic pieces that engage with contemporary political or social issues. Would you like to share any of your thoughts or opinions on the relationship between art, music and social change?

Fairouz: If one were to be realistic about this, I'm sort of a foreign affairs analyst, a political analyst, or whatever you want to call it. I've written for a number of major publications, including The New York Times, on issues of global governance. I don't see my art as being separate from that.

When you write something like I'm writing now, The New Prince opera with David Ignatius, you have to make the journey compelling. I think that's something that is really important to my art.

If someone asks you what sort of writer you are, or what sort of composer you are, these are means to an end. They're not things in themselves. Do you know what I mean? You write in order to say something. Somebody can be a poet. Somebody can be a journalist. Somebody can be a novelist. There are all sorts of different writers, and different things serve different functions. Some people do all of the above.

The idea of creating art isn't about going in your ivory tower and creating art. Why are you doing it? What is your intention? Then what is your method? Often times I find that method dictates intention to artists, rather than the other way around.

People are often times surprised when they talk to me, at the end of the conversation they'll say, "Well, we haven't talked about music." I think it's a curious idea that artists will go into a conversation and talk about their art, rather than the issues they're passionate about, or the issues that drive their art or motivate their art. They'll go in and talk about their method rather than their intention or message. I think that's really strange.

Let me give you one final example off the top of my head. I actually think that there's a lot of good messaging coming out of the Clinton campaign right now. I think it's some of the most unspectacular, but substantial messaging. "Stronger Together" is a very meaningful slogan. It's not as strong as "Make America Great Again" or "A Future To Believe In," but it's more meaningful and more substantial.

There's another Clinton slogan I've seen a lot, and that's "Love Trumps Hate." I think that in itself is a very meaningful slogan and I think it's one you’ll run into when you talk to artists. They're going to say "love will win the day" when you're talking about social justice.

I'm writing an opera about Machiavelli. One of Machiavelli's teachings is that if you have to choose between being loved and being feared, you must choose being feared. It's safer and you ensure respect.

I personally don't believe that. But if I want to argue with that, then I actually have to write a drama that shows in a compelling way why I believe Machiavelli is wrong. I have to take real exercises from the world and put them onstage. One of those exercises is for example the situation with Palestine and Israel right now. Which is a never-ending cycle of violence. When Israel bombarded Gaza all those years ago, they were going in with the Machiavellian attitude that if we make them fear us they will be humbled into submission. Of course that's the same attitude that sent Israeli tanks rolling into Lebanon all those years ago.

It hasn't solved the problem of Palestine and Israel. The Palestinians started lobbing rockets at Israel and responding with suicidal vengeance. So how this cycle of violence will end we don't know. But the Palestinians and Israelis might want to consider for a moment the possibility that Machiavelli was wrong, that it is indeed safer to be loved than to be feared. It's safer to build communities than to denigrate others. It's safer because people don't respond well to being intimidated. They tend to want to react violently.

You have to demonstrate this through real world models. It's not sufficient to talk about it in the abstract. That's the sort of thing that I think can be valuable in our artistic enterprises. It's something that Mozart understood so well, and that Beethoven understood so well, and Mahler understood so well. It's not a new enterprise.

NUVO: It was a pleasure speaking with you Mr. Fairouz. Thanks for your time and I hope a future project brings you back to Indiana some day.

Fairouz: Me too. I like it out there.

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