By Adam Lamper
Section: ArtsNovember 6, 2015
Long has it been known that music, with its esoteric fundamentals, can serve as the ultimate form of storytelling for those to whom the language of music comes as naturally as their own mother tongue. However, both the study and practice of such a skill have become less sought-after as we fall headlong into the age of visual media. This being said, there are still a select few pioneers in the field of music who are constantly reshaping the art form. Among them are Syrian composer Kinan Azmeh and accompanying visual artists and filmmakers Kevork Mourad and Khalil Younes, whose live audiovisual performance brought our senses to the forefront of the Syrian revolution and its aftermath this past weekend in Slosberg Recital Hall.
As part of the World Music Series of Brandeis’ own Music Unites Us program, both Azmeh and Mourad were invited to perform their newest project, “Home Within,” a seven-movement, solo-clarinet piece that pairs Azmeh’s musical virtuosity with Mourad’s real-time, speed drawing technique. The result is a mesmerizing feast for the senses that abstractly and emotionally portrays contemporary issues involving the Syrian revolution, while simultaneously providing a semi-concrete example through its visuals.
Opening the night was a pre-concert talk featuring Professor of Applied and Social Theater Dr. James Thompson. The lecture, titled “Art, Beauty, and War: A Short History,” was brief yet incredibly dense in information and thought-provoking questions. Spanning from the censorship of onstage violence in the plays of the ancient Greeks to Picasso’s view of painting as an instrument of war, Thompson covered the historically convoluted relationship between war and art, eventually arriving to the endemic outpour of creativity among many contemporary Syrian artists, among whom there exists an extremely diverse range of media, including hip hop, finger puppet satire, mobile phone film festivals and, of course, Azmeh and Mourad themselves.
The first piece of the concert was a world premier of one of Azmeh’s latest pieces, “Don’t RipEat after me,” featuring the Lydian String Quartet. In the background of the musicians was one of Younes’ abstract animations, a kaleidoscope of different imagery that served to set in stone the story that the music was intending to portray. Accompanying the music of the strings was a dark, electronic and ambient backtrack that aligned perfectly with the performers and video alike, demonstrating clearly the high levels of dedication and work that were put into this production in order to get such perfect timing. However, the most spectacular portion of the performance was the diverse and symbolic variation in sounds from the quartet, which at times mimicked sounds of warning sirens, further adding to Azmeh’s balance of art and war.
Though the openers were far from flat, they shone pallid against the enchanting combination of Azmeh’s haunting melodies and Mourad’s visual flare in their hour-long piece “Home Within.” Like the Lydian String Quartet’s performance, the majority of “Home Within” contained backing tracks that varied from movement to movement and ranged from 8-bit-esque to being composed of human speech and previous recordings of Azmeh himself. Also contributing to the humanistic aspect of the performance were the numerous figures that Mourad created to give further depth to the stories behind the music. Armed with only two bottles of ink and a surplus of paper, Mourad gave animation to his still images through his use of smudging. This also served to imbue the images with a smoky texture, perhaps signifying the destruction caused by the revolution, or to further perpetuate the semi-abstract theme of the performance. The projection of Mourad’s drawing, in accordance with the echo effect added to a significant portion of Azmeh’s playing, had a ghost-like effect on the motion that added to the fluidity of their work.
Only once in a while does a performance as inspiring and beautiful as this come along to remind us of the truly cohesive, informative and transformative power of art. As the concert came to a close, audience members were reminded of the “200,000 Syrians and still counting” to whom the performance was dedicated, and as they pensively filed out of the hall past the reception and the “Soup for Syria” fundraiser, they were, in a way, altered by the unfathomable violence faced by so many Syrians on a day-to-day basis. Through its universal admiration, art, in contrast to Picasso’s perspective, can be viewed as an instrument to end war by bringing important matters to those who have the capability and willingness to incite change.