While I’m in a meme-busting mood, let me take on another one today: the notion of a work being especially relevant for our time. You know, such as when you read (and I’m sure you have) something like “given the present situation, the work’s handling of issues of (fill in the blank) seems particularly relevant today.” Usually, this claim is made when some old work, according to the writer in question, can be interpreted, however creatively, to support the writer’s views of current political and historical events.
To me, if a work of art has something to say, it said it before the current situation, and will still say it when the situation has passed. Timeless works — Beethoven’s 9th, Britten’s “War Requiem,” Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” — are, as the adjective says, not pinned down to any one time, but are always relevant. They’re also the rarest of exceptions. For every Beethoven’s 9th, there are thousands of works that seemed terribly important at the time, then fade and crumble like old newsprint. Have you actually listened to Marc Blitzstein‘s once-vaunted “The Cradle Will Rock” lately? An artifact, maybe; timeless art, no.
And then there are works of art that aspire to the big issues of the time, but fail to live up to the challenge. In such cases, it’s the subject matter that adds resonance to the artwork, rather than the other way around. I’ve been listening to one such work, a classical music work, lately. My goodness, I wanted to like it much more than I do. But the piece ended up illuminating for me not the big issue it aspires to, but the problem of tackling contemporary issues with old artistic solutions. You end up with a work that not only likely won’t stand the test of time, but which seems irrelevant upon birth.
The work’s composer, a 29-year old Arab-American named Mohammed Fairouz, has earned critical acclaim for a growing catalog of small- and large-scale works for varied forces. My first encounter him is on a new Sono Luminus CD containing his ten-minute long clarinet-and-orchestra piece “TAHRIR,” and his hour-long Symphony No. 3, “Poems and Prayers.” It’s the latter work that interests me here. From the Sono Luminus website:
Symphony No.3: Poems and Prayers is a poetic Middle Eastern journey scored for solo vocalists, large mixed chorus and orchestra. Leading the performance are GRAMMY® award winning mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke and critically acclaimed baritone David Kravitz. Commissioned by The Middle East Center for Peace, Culture and Development at Northeastern University, the symphony expresses ancient and modern texts ranging from the Aramaic Kaddish to modern Israeli and Arabic poetry by Mahmoud Darwish, Yehuda Amichai and Fadwa Tuqan. Opening with the powerful chorus in Kaddish delivered in Aramaic, moving to the hauntingly beautiful and poignant movement Lullaby (where Cooke is joined clarinetist David Krakauer), to the expression of frustration at the futility of war Memorial day for the War Dead, and the repeated call for peace throughout the work with the use of the text in Oseh Shalom, Poems and Prayers weaves together a narrative of shared loss and dispossession as well as hope and reconciliation.
Noble goals and worthy sentiments, to be sure. How does this young composer express them? In a musical language hardly more contemporary than the Hebraic works of the great 20th-century Swiss-American composer Ernest Bloch (such as “Schelomo” or “Sacred Service”), or even of the epic film scores of the Hungarian-American composer Miklós Rósza (e.g., Ben Hur, Quo Vadis, King of Kings) — and frankly, less melodically appealing than either.
The soloists sing in full, hall-filling, vibrato-laden voices. The large chorus intones its texts soberly and reverently. The orchestra adds the requisite romantic backdrop, with occasional evocations of Middle Eastern rhythms and Semitic cantillation. Yes, the subject matter is very, very serious. Still, it would be nice if someone sounded as if they were enjoying themselves (other than clarinetist David Krakauer, who’s always worth hearing). In other words, it’s your basic late-romantic classical choral-and-orchestral work.
And that’s my problem with this and many other new works on big themes (e.g., James Whitbourn‘s “Annelies,” a setting of Anne Frank texts recently performed in Northampton). The more formidable the subject matter, the more conventional and dispiriting the musical language. Serious doesn’t have to mean cautious, dull and grim. A big, important work of art is still a form of entertainment. If it fails on the latter score, it also fails on the former.
Neither does or should serious always mean a standard classical set-up. I’m not going to tell Mohammed Fairouz or any other composer how to compose. If this is how he chooses to express himself, that’s his right. But if I may, let me propose an alternative approach to his subject matter: How about getting a bunch of dazzlingly talented young Israeli and Arab musicians, playing and singing in contemporary vernacular and on the instruments such young people play today (even electronic!), and put something together that would really speak to today’s concerns in the language of today? Maybe such a piece wouldn’t earn the cultural approval that classical status provides. But it could have a chance to reach the actual people most concerned with the issues the piece tries to address.
P. S. Whatever I may think of this music, I certainly appreciate this example of Mr. Fairouz’s prose in the