During spells of overlapping crises, some art forms fare better than others. Streets clogged by outraged demonstrators, emptied by pandemic lockdowns or gutted by explosive criminal negligence offer picturesque locations for photographers, documentary filmmakers, and illustrators as well as visual and performing artists of an engaged disposition.
Contemporary artists, on the other hand, tend to be uncomfortable being timely.
Earlier this month Cynthia Zaven premiered a new work for choral ensemble, called “Madrigal d’essilio” (“Madrigal for Exile”). It’s hard to accuse the composer of banal opportunism.
Madrigals were a form of secular choral music popular during the European Renaissance (the 15th-16th centuries). The piece’s text is derived from works by two historic exiles – Italian poet Dante Alighieri (1265–1321) and Armenian poet and musician Sayat Nova (1712-1795).
The composition, rehearsal and debut performance of “Madrigal for Exile” were all framed by ambient crises, and isolation and uncertainty are inscribed upon it.
“Madrigal for Exile” was commissioned by Germany’s Eclat Festival for New Music and performed by Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart, which is among the world’s premiere new music vocal ensembles.
The piece debuted in Eclat’s opening concert at Theaterhaus Stuttgart, Feb. 3, 2021, raising the curtain on “Voice Affairs,” a program featuring works by several composers and performers from the MENA region – including Raed Yassin, Aya Metwalli, Samir Odeh-Tamimi, Youmna Saba and visual artist Panos Aprahamian.
Eclat had commissioned a piece for chorus with piano accompaniment, inviting Zaven to compose and perform in the world premiere.
“I didn’t integrate piano into the score in the end because I didn’t think I’d be able to travel,” Zaven says. “I’m glad it worked out that way, actually.”
The libretto is comprised of snatches from Dante’s “The Divine Comedy” and Sayat Nova’s “Tamam Ashkhar.” While both poets wrote in exile, these texts do not themselves discuss the writers’ uprootedness. The exilic condition is suggested obliquely, like the vernacular languages in which both poets wrote – Dante’s Tuscan Italian, Sayat Nova’s Georgian Armenian.
“Something about the loss of landmarks and everything else these days,” Zaven says, “it made the idea of mother tongues feel very resonant.”
The notes Zaven wrote for the piece’s debut allude to an exile tied to neither Armenian history, nor the 20th century, nor historic conceptions of exile. They do reference the waves of catastrophe that broke upon Lebanon in late 2019, tore through 2020 and continue to wash over the country, and the world, in 2021.
“Ever since the crises began, I have felt a deep sense of exile,” she says, “feeling alienated and gradually losing all landmarks, especially since the Aug. 4 explosion.”
COVID has made the feeling of isolation worldwide, she writes. The noise has been overwhelming.
If this work was composed in a state of isolation akin to exile, the same was true of the rehearsal process, which saw the composer locked down in the hills above Beirut while her vocalists were in Stuttgart.
“The rehearsals took place in three stages,” Zaven says. “First there was a Zoom meeting where they did a sight reading for me, so they could ask questions. A month later, they sent me a video of their rehearsal. They did this three times, and each we talked about their interpretations.”
In her notes, Zaven insists that “Madrigal” isn’t nostalgic. It doesn’t long for a dysfunctional past. It expresses a yearning to travel.
“Sometimes you don’t have to leave” a place to be exiled, she says. “You retract. I’ve been in a sort of self-imposed exile for the past year and a half or more. When you live in Beirut you’re in a constant state of interaction with the surroundings, the noise … When you live outside, it’s different. You have to plan things … You become more selective.”
“Growing up is exile,” she says later in the conversation. “That’s what’s happening to this country right now.”
On page, the madrigal’s libretto makes for jagged reading. The extracts are usually brief – words and phrases rather than sentences and paragraphs.
A loose coherence can be pieced together, but the reading is more archaeological than historical. The strongest impression is one of shards of verse torn away from their historical and narrative context. This is especially so for Sayat Nova’s passages, since a wider public is more likely to have heard of Dante’s work, even if they haven’t read it.
As interpreted by the six voices of Neue Vocalsolisten, Zaven’s score amplifies the cacophony of narratives implied in the libretto, as well as the isolation of individual voices.
Passages find individual soloists commencing lines of verse, which others complete. Later, fragmentary solos and duets emerge from an ensemble drone. Twice the six voices coalesce into a euphoric ascent of the scales – once when Dante evokes the vault of stars, once again near the end of the piece, when he celebrates free will.
So this madrigal of exile ends on a euphoric note. For Dante, the composer writes, the sky represents infinity, which opposes the mundane materiality in which humans are confined.
Zaven returns to making music to spite the overwhelming noise.
“Composition is all about organising sounds, organizing notes,” she says, “while outside – the city, the country, the world – it’s complete chaos …
“I started studying piano just before the Civil War, but my introduction to music, to sound, was really the air-raid siren. I was 3 years old and that siren was next to our house. My family could ignore it. I would go crazy. You can’t shut your eyes to noise. Then someone bombed the place and I never heard that siren again.
“The war changed the texture of noise in the city … When you’re composing, you can emulate the sound of a siren, but not an RPG.