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John Harbison

Publisher: AMP

Abu Ghraib (2006)
Associated Music Publishers Inc
Works for 2-6 Players
Sub Category
Piano + 1 Instrument
Year Composed
15 Minutes
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Programme Note
John Harbison Abu Ghraib (2006)
Composer Note:

The title of this piece refers to an important episode in our country’s history. Abu Ghraib, while inscribed on our nation’s consciousness by photographs and reports, has been absorbed into the nation’s bloodstream, its long term effects yet to be known.

[My piece is not a protest or moral lesson. These would require little bravery. Instead it seeks music in a moment when words can fail.]

There are two movements, separated by a pause: Scene I. Prayer I; Scene II., Prayer II. Each Prayer begins with the violoncello playing alone.

Scene I, in its harmonic details, investigates infection and wrongness. Then, in a less rebarbative language, Prayer I begins a tentative plea for help beyond ourselves.

Scene II is based on an Iraqi song which I was hired to transcribe back in 1962, for a collection called Lullabies of the World (I was asked to transform its bent pitches and asymmetrical rhythms into “American family-sing form.”) This song is shown to have connections to two of our well-known hymns. Prayer II again suggests that by entering a difficult meditative world we may find courage to face our own Shadow.

This piece was composed for performance by Rhonda Rider and David Deveau.

–— John Harbison

Sample Pages

Norman Fischer, cello; Jeanne Kierman, piano Tanglewood Contemporary Music Festival 31 July 2007; Lenox, MA … Harbison's “Abu Ghraib” cut deeply. Premiered at the 2006 Rockport Festival, this is a dark piece, at once sweet and dissonant, in which piano and cello go in and out of synch, with suggestions of innocence destroyed (a Middle Eastern lullaby dissolves with a startling rap on the piano lid) and self-righteousness (“Rock of Ages”) undone by a final harmonic earthquake.
Jeremy Eichler, The Boston Globe ,06/08/2007
...its alternating sections of pianistic brashness and meditative, strikingly beautiful cello writing yielded a heartfelt work that would have been just as moving, whatever its title.
Allan Kozinn, The New York Times,04/08/2007
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