Commisioned by the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus and Poole Arts Centre with funds provided by Southern Arts, Poole Arts Trust and the John S Cohen Foundation.
Voices Of Exile
In 1992 I recorded a 15-year-old girl refugee in the Kalighat slum area of Calcutta. Her village had been destroyed by drought and she, like hundreds of thousands, lived in Calcutta's streets. When her family left her village they had to walk for days and consequently could take none of their few possessions. All she could bring with her, she said, were her songs. For Kamla the songs were her link with her village, her past and her culture- they represented a part of her dignity. Although at the time I did not know it, I felt that one day I would write a work that would incorporate Kamla's beautiful song and the stories of others like her.
Nine years later the political debate on refugees and asylum seekers seems to often overlook the fact that these people are individuals, not statistics or political footballs. Voices of Exile makes no overt political point, it tries rather to give a voice to a wide-ranging group of writers who have suffered exile, prison, sometimes torture, and who can give an insight into the shared experience of the refugee. It is an uncomfortable subject, yet one which, after being introduced to the work of the Medical Foundation and Prisoners of Conscience in 2000, I decided to make the theme of my commission from the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus.
The work of most of the writers and poets I selected covers their experiences of the last few years- human tragedies that are occurring today and will occur tomorrow. At the outset I realised that a cantata on this subject begs the question- can the humanities humanise, can art make any difference? Theodore Adorno wrote "There can be no poetry after Auschwitz". In other words, has the instinct for poetry in the post-Holocaust era been burned out of mankind? Tony Harrison, my collaborator for the last six years, refuted that famous statement by writing "There can only be poetry after Auschwitz". The fact that refugees and torture victims have recorded their thoughts and experiences in prose and poetry that is in turn poignant, passionate, bleak, courageous, humorous, affirms the ability of at least some to celebrate life even after experiencing the worst that can befall.
The image of a fragile candle, the same flame that commemorates those who burned in the flames of Auschwitz and elsewhere, is the central, ambivalent image of the cantata- the destructive flame is also the flame of the imagination, the creative spark that appears able to sing through the flames. In the Epilogue Harrison writes:
The candle burns but for how long? Loneliness, loss, exile, grief may move the sufferer into song that like the candle's bright but brief.
The poems I discovered over a year of meetings with the Medical Foundation, Prisoners of Conscience and Exiled Writers Ink embodied increasingly "the flame that men must light and light again". The experiences I read about seemed to fall into five main categories that became the pillars of the cantata: I Memories Of Home; II Journeys; III Prison; IV Exile; V Freedom.
Since the poems span thirteen different languages I took two decisions early on- to set them in English and to make no attempt to imitate the inherent music of the countries covered. Instead, to give the "voices" of the title their due I recorded four poets reading in their original languages and, like UN simultaneous translation, play a taped section before crossfading to the English translation set to music. Yet the presence of authentic musical refugee voices became more compelling as the composition progressed, and I decided to incorporate three folksongs (Bengali, Somalian and Macedonian) into the playback material. In the case of Macedonian singer Tanya Czarovska I also recorded for reference a version of the spoken text in Macedonian and English translation. One afternoon I accidentally played back all three layers simultaneously and discovered a strange, haunting texture of the original folksong layered with spoken text and translation, which I then harmonised with live chorus.
My attempt at a unified musical style that would span an eclectic range of textural sources presented questions about the internal structures of the songs. Some seemed to cry out for classical forms, such as the passacaglia in Erich Fried's circular poem It Has Happened (No 7). The insistent "It has happened, and it goes on happening and will happen again," seemed to require the unforgiving, immutable straitjacket of the passacaglia, in which jagged, angular choral lines struggle to break out from the constriction of the poem. The passacaglia leads directly into a fast fugue (No. 8) in which Abdirhman Mireh describes his painful ambivalence towards the aircraft that promises his survival but parts him from his homeland forever. The double entendre of fugal flight was irresistible, and the entire fugue occurs over a pedal bass that evokes the throbbing of jet engines. One song, Ken SaroWiwa's description of his dream encounter with the ghostly General Jen Saido (No. 10) is a dramatic monologue in which the tenor soloist takes on both the voice of Saro Wiwa in the tenor clef and that of the General in the bass clef.
As the composition took shape it seemed as if the musical language was undergoing a journey of fragmentation akin to that of the lives of the poets. The music of part 1, Memories Of Home, has a confidence that is gradually eroded with the descriptions of upheaval, and becomes a fragmented, tonally ambiguous texture in No. 10 and rhythmic neurosis in No. 12. The texture then becomes suddenly very fragile and spare, with just a cappella chorus accompanying the beautiful Macedonian folksong (No. 13). Even sparer is the following song with solo piano and violin accompanying the touching Algerian poem by Samia Dahnaan. Part V, Freedom, rediscovers something of the confidence of Part I and even recalls the exuberant rhythms of Memories of Home. In each of the anthologies and collections of unpublished poems it seemed that love poetry played a vital role as an antidote to the suffering of the writers, whether as a spark kept alive as lovers are separated, or the discovery of new love in the places of exile.
Part V includes two love poems, Mohammad Khaki's beautiful "My Wish" (No. 16) and the sensuous "Daughter of the Dessert" (No. 17) by Antonio Joaquim Marques from Angola. The latter is a dream of fertility returning to a parched land, an apt metaphor for the hope, however distant, that the cycle of inhumanity might one day be broken. In the meanwhile, as Tony Harrison's Epilogue concludes, the poetry and the songs that continue to be written and sung represent, like the candle's flame, a fragile hope.
Preview the score: