‘We Don’t Live in a Post-colonial World’: On Music & Translation

Spivak and Fairouz at the Feb 17 panel.

By Jennifer Sears and Katrina Weber Ashour

The recent panel discussion “Music, Literature and Comparative Composition: The Task of Translation,” sponsored by Columbia University’s Institute for Comparative Literature and Society, raised questions of the transformation of ritual and language across contexts, the responsibility of the artist, and — at its core — the power dynamics in and around the Middle East.

Framed as a discussion on the intersection between music and literature, translation and comparative composition, the event was a response to the previous evening’s premiere of composer Mohammed Fairouz‘s Symphony No. 3 “Poems and Prayers” at Columbia University’s Miller Theater. This contemporary oratorio utilized a full chorus and orchestra, male and female solo vocalists, and adaptions of poetry in Arabic by Mahmoud Darwish and Fadwa Tuqan and in Hebrew by Yehuda Amichai, book-ended by the Aramaic Kaddish, a prayer of praise used in the Jewish ritual for mourning.

Under the moderation of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, best known for her cultural and literary theories on post colonialism, the panel featured Michael P. Steinberg, musicologist and director of the Cogut Center for the Humanities; Jacqueline Rose, a writer on topics of feminism, psychoanalysis, and literature; Sinan Antoon, poet, novelist, scholar and translator; and the composer himself, the prolific Mohammed Fairouz.

The Performance

During his brief introduction before the concert, Fairouz warned the audience of his tendency towards satire and called attention to two points in the coming performance: the ambiguity of a repeating line in Amichai’s memorial poem that “behind all this some great happiness is hiding” and a certain “bombastic nationalism” that would be revealed in moments throughout the evening.

The first movement opened with the Kaddish performed in Aramaic by the solo vocalists, the orchestra, and the full choir, which was positioned in the balcony above the audience and thundered down with a dramatic unseen presence. In sharp contrast, the second movement was a sparse, mournful duet between the mezzo-soprano and a solo clarinet. The text, an excerpt from Darwish’s epic “State of Siege,” was described in the program as a lullaby from a mother to her dead son and was set to a Middle Eastern maqam (or tonal scale). The movement ended with a gasping note of the clarinet’s decrescendo.Without much pause, the men’s chorus began singing the Oseh Shalom, a line from the Kaddish translated from Hebrew in the program as: “He who makes peace in high places, may he make peace for us and for all Israel.”

The program notes explained that the men’s chorus represented the minyan, a formal quorum of men required for traditional Jewish prayer.

The next movement returned to a central pairing of the solo female vocalist with a solo instrument, here the violin. Although the orchestra accompanied them, the instruments played in an overlapping series of fragments and the focus remained on the soloists. With traditional operatic technique, the female vocalist sang Palestinian writer Fadwa Tuqan’s poem that laments the failure of words in the face of the occupation. The female chorus then returned to sing the Oseh Shalom, supported by the orchestra. With the beginning of the next movement, the audience was surrounded again with the full chorus in the balcony and the solo vocalists and orchestra on stage. Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai’s “Memorial Day for the War Dead” was sung with discordant chords, mourning the loss of life, and included the line: “and everything in three languages: Hebrew, Arabic, and Death.”

The symphony ended with a return of the Oseh Shalom. This time, as Fairouz pointed out in the program notes, the chorus sang a modified version that has been adopted by some Jewish groups since the 1970s, which asks for peace in Israel “and for all the nations of the world.”

Possibilities and Responsibilities of Representation

Jacqueline Rose

A major crux of the next day’s discussion was the “lure of the desire for representation” – the expectation or the responsibility of an artist to be representational in his or her work. Panelists questioned how an artist navigates the limits of representation in the face of political injustice and the resulting tension between justice and dialogue.The symphony was described by Fairouz in his program notes as a poetic journey in which the ancient Aramaic Kaddish and the modern Israeli and Arabic poetry are joined to create “a narrative of shared loss and dispossession as well as hope and reconciliation.” However, in the context of Palestine/Israel, the very idea of a “shared loss” or common desire for reconciliation can itself be contentious.

The panelists discussed how throughout Fairouz’s piece, symphonic unity was dismantled with a polyphony of voice, fragmented instrumentation, overlapping layers, and what Jacqueline Rose described as “an overriding dissonant harmony.”

In a situation of inequality and occupation, having both sides participate in a narrative on equal footing would itself be an issue, however the concern is heightened when there is an inequality of voice and when, as SinanAntoon phrased it, “the poets are translocated and combined within the Jewish rite,”as they were in this symphony. The Kaddish and Amichai’s Memorial Day poem were paired with full orchestration, while in contrast, short excerpts of Palestinian poetry were paired with solo instrumentation or a solo instrument with a reduced orchestral accompaniment.

When Antoon commented upon the brevity of the Palestinian voice in the work, as neither poem was included in full, Fairouz responded with some hesitation for want of completely“undressing” the work’s meaning so directly, that this was a purposeful representation of the power dynamics in the region – that the work “has happened within a structure that exists.”

According to Antoon, Darwish, Fadwa, and Amichai all felt the burden of being considered “national poets,” and at times they struggled to write outside of this role, to deconstruct their own myth, to write about the personal as well as the political. Yet while the poet may critique a nationalist dialogue or fight against the pressure of representation within the context of the Middle East, he or she also writes to claim a history and the land. Even the act of mourning the dead is a political statement when, as Antoon stated, at the end of the day “they return to radically different realities.”

Antoon quoted Darwish’s comments on Amichai: “his poetry put a challenge to me, because we write about the same place. He wants to use the landscape and history for his own benefit, based on my destroyed identity. So we have a competition: who is the owner of the language of this land? Who loves it more? Who writes it better?”

Jacqueline Rose was upset at the idea of calling Amichai a “national poet,” to the point where, in her rebuttal to Antoon’s claim, she preemptively asked him not to interrupt, which he did not appear to be attempting to do. Yet when Antoon responded a few minutes later, she could not keep herself from interrupting him.

The debate about Amichai’s role as a national poet is not new. However, the title of national poet is more a pronouncement of how the artist is seen or used, rather than his or her ambitions. As Fairouz stated in the panel, “the great happiness” hiding in Amichai’s memorial poem was the redemption of the Isreali dead through the creation of Israel: the Israeli’s celebration, the Palestinian’s Nakba.

As a composer resisting or responding to the lure of representation, Fairouz’s position is further complicated by the literal inability of music to speak – what Michael P. Steinberg called in his remarks the “incapacity of a musical utterance.”

The issue cannot necessarily resolved with a straightforward pairing of music and text, as Steinberg and Fairouz both recognized. In response to the pressure of representation, the composer, much like the poet, may use silence or a lack of resolution to complicate meaning. As Fairouz explained,“the soloists reach an exhalation but not a resolution.”

The limitations of language were painfully evident inthe selected poem by Tuqan, which lamented: “My family, my country, my people:/ Oh how I hate to sit down and write on this day/ Will I protect my family with words? / Will I save my country with words?”

A reader familiar with her work might wonder why Fairouz did not include the biting final line from this poem, that “[one] must simply say that Palestine during the last thousand and six hundred years was not waiting as an empty and vacated property.” In fact, one wonders why Palestine is not named at all throughout the course of the symphony, although Israel is named. Or why, as Antoon pointed out, the liner notes do not mention that Darwish’s text is drawn from a poem titled “A State of Siege,” written in Ramallah in 2002 under Israeli bombardment, details that impact how the poem is understood.

It is a difficult balance for the satirical composer to replicate structures of inequality in order to comment upon them without appearing to endorse them, and in his response to questions, Fairouz cited a self-described youthful optimism. In the end, the work was less about a literal or aesthetic interpretation of the text, and more about the emotional tension contained within the reenactment of the conflict and of mourning in its various iterations.

The Challenge of Reiterating Ritual on Stage

Sinan Antoon

When Gayatri Spivak opened the discussion, she challenged the speakers to consider the complications of reiterating ritual on the stage. She mentioned both the rituals of mourning and of prayer. Later in the discussion, Spivak returned to the idea of ritual and prayer, asserting that when works of prayer are represented, the meaning of the prayer becomes even stronger for non-believers, because those who don’t believe in the prayers want to look into “the other.”

Jacqueline Rose addressed the complication of representing ritual when she discussed the idea of lament. In her opinion, singing is a form of collective ritual. In response to Fairouz’s statement in the program that the women’s chorus sings Oseh Shalom “without much rhetoric,” Rose challenged the idea that a“public utterance of death” can be conveyed without rhetoric. Rose also asked what kind of collective ritual is possible and if opposing forces can effectively be brought together on the stage. The violence presented in Fairouz’s work, she suggested, is as intimate as sibling rivalry. She questioned how catastrophe can be commemorated, noting that commemorations of events become public ritual.

In an age of injustice, Rose later asked, how do you navigate between loss and understanding prayer?

Responding to Spivak’s question, Michael P. Steinberg seemed to imply that the goal of composition is not necessarily about recreating ritual, but about creating an aesthetic of emotion and desire. Music expresses a universal melancholy, according to Steinberg. Continuing his discussion of ritual in music, Steinberg referenced the influence of 17th century Protestantism, which changed western music by demanding its closer relationship to text.

When text is attached to vocals, a complication arises between text and singer. With text, a gap opens for translation and mistranslation. Steinberg contrasted Fairouz’s Third Symphony with his previous concerto, “Tahrir for Clarinet and Orchestra,” which does not rely on text.

Steinberg referenced his personal experience in Nazareth with composers and musicians who were asking themselves if they were repeating an “inherited legacy” or practice of colonialism through their continued use of western musical forms. Steinberg closed his comments by suggesting that if there is a benefit to “globality,” a word he settled on after rejecting “globalization”, the result should not be flatness or universalization. Globality should ideally add dimension to works produced.

As Steinberg finished, Spivak agreed that melancholy and the inability to articulate ideas or feelings is at the heart of the challenge of artistic dialogue between cultures. She posited that when artists, or their work, are reduced to separate identities, there is a danger of “flatness” in the result.

SinanAntoon, in addition to talking about the role of an artist who reconstructs identity, also looked at the “perplexities” that arise when works from one ritual context are transposed into another framework, as they are in Fairouz’s composition. Antoon compared the lives and deaths of the three poets: Amachai fought and died in Israel. Tuqan died after her hometown was seized. Darwish became a refugee at six when he fled during the 1948 war in which Amachai fought.

Responding to the limited space allocated to Darwish’s poetry in the symphony, Antoon finished his section by reading from his own translation of Darwish’s “In the Presence of Absence”:

They wrote their narrative: we have returned. They wrote our narrative: they have returned to the desert. They put us on trial: Why were you born here? We said: Why was Adam born in paradise? Remember yourself, before all turns to dust.

Spivak turned the panel to Fairouz, who discussed how musical works can create a space for ritual. He stated that he chose these specific works by Darwish and Tuqan because they were both written during a state of siege, created within a heightened moment of tension. He constructed the transition from Amichai’s poem to Oseh Shalom with a resonant chord at the end so that the note resists silence. This choice was intended as a way to hold off death, as, for him, silence is equivalent to death.

Steinberg added that silence at the end of a piece might mean that a perceived resolution that is in fact unresolved. Death is inevitable, however silence can be peace, solitude, or fear. Steinberg suggested that the audience experiencing the work in community ultimately shapes the nature of this silence.

Finally, Fairouz described music as “the most subversive art form” because it is free of or of ambiguous meaning.While Arab tonalities and instrumentation undeniably influence his work, in his remarks Fairouz asserted his right to use classical western forms – the operatic vocals, the fugue, the formal orchestra –stating that the ‘idea of the symphony as colonial is simplistic’.

However, in the end he concluded, “We don’t live in a post-colonial world.”


NPR has audio clips that help give a sense of the program.

Jennifer Sears is an author and instructor who lives in New York City.  She can be found at www.holisticbellydanceproject.com

Katrina Weber Ashour is an arts and communication consultant with
experience in the Middle East, whose current clients include Mathaf:
Arab Museum of Modern Art. In a previous position as the Artist
Liaison & Institution Manager at The Third Line, an art gallery in
Dubai that represents contemporary Middle Eastern artists, Katrina
managed artist projects, museum relationships, and grants. She
developed and oversaw the gallery’s non-profit programming, including
film series, the collaborative Pecha Kucha Night Dubai, and Kutub, a
monthly bilingual Arab literature appreciation group.