The novel Clio’s Mobile Home is a facet of my creative work. Several characters in my novel write poems; I am serious about writing poetry. I also work on short shorts, and short stories. They are all modes of thinking about identity, transcendence and beauty in contemporary life. Art keeps us aloft, but it is more than decoration. Its force can be astounding. The artist becomes an instrument, and art lives to tell the tale.
Kinan Azmeh is an existential wanderer and a supreme musician who finds homes around the world. He was riding the New York subway, just back from a musical tour in China, when he described the genesis of a piece he’ll perform, along with the MusicWorks Collective, during his upcoming residency at Community MusicWorks.
Azmeh’s composition The Fence, The Rooftop, and the Distant Sea began with a moment. Years ago, Azmeh was sitting on a rooftop in Beirut, Lebanon. He was staring out past a fence at the distant sea. As his mind skimmed the waves, he entertained a series of images from Damascus, the hometown he’d been separated from. How far was home, or how close? He used a mental map to reconstruct ways of getting from his parents’ house to the opera house, where the traffic lights would be, which corners were where. Later, he composed music for the four-sectioned piece in which two characters turn over the complex notions of what is home, when you have it, when you lose it, how you recreate or reconstitute it.
“In the beginning of the piece, the search for home is complicated and fraught,” he says. “As the music continues, one realizes the best are simplest memories; the music ends almost in the form of a lullaby.”
It’s an extraordinary and consoling resolution that he shares in concerts for audiences widely and happily varied – at refugee camps for Syrian and other displaced people, at schools, at prestigious spots like Carnegie Hall. Azmeh’s musical meditations on home/not home have been the product of discontinuity, years of reflection, radical turns of life both by choice and by fate.
Born in 1976, Azmeh began studying clarinet at age six in Damascus. After studies in high school, he left Syria to study at Juilliard School in New York. His musical reach was always inclusive. He was at home with classical greats: “Bach, Mozart and Brahms weren’t staples on the Syrian radio. But as a child I drank it in. Mozart is equally mine. It didn’t matter if he was Austrian or German, he was Syrian too.” In New York, he won prizes for virtuoso playing, performed with the Syrian National orchestra, Daniel Baremboim’s West-Eastern Divan orchestra, Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road. He plays with City Band, a consortium of creative musicians who cross borders and integrate different musical genres.
“Bach, Mozart and Brahms weren’t staples on the Syrian radio. But as a child I drank it in. Mozart is equally mine. It didn’t matter if he was Austrian or German, he was Syrian too.”
When the Syrian uprising began, it caused Azmeh tremendous suffering and an inability to return home. The pressure crushed his creative juices: he couldn’t pick up the clarinet for a year. “What was going on was way deeper than the music I was trying to make. The need for the arts was too complicated for me to address, no less reflect on.”
Azmeh eventually came back to his own tool for self-expression — his playing and composing. “I decided to use it as loudly as possible. Even though I realize it’s a soft form and I realize the limitations of it.”
The haunting refrain, “What is home?” came up again in 2017. Azmeh found himself unable to return to his adopted country, United States, when President Trump issued a travel ban on Syrians, and he was on tour. He felt the outrage, double sting, and fear of being exiled again. This was an irony for someone like Azmeh, who believes so staunchly in the openness of cultures, the shared vocabularies of music. “I don’t see barriers or much difference between musical genres. Of course there are different musical vocabularies, but at heart, it’s all the same.”
Essentially, Kinan Azmeh feels most at home when he’s playing music, and the powerful emotion he conveys through the heart of his instrument. The clarinet is close in sound to the human voice, and Azmeh’s playing is informed by familiar folk musics, for instance, klezmer, Greek, Turkish, big band jazz. He can blow off the roof or go silky and soulful. Listen to the meditative care with which he describes playing a wind instrument: “When I play one note, I feel the reed vibrate. There is sound coming out of silence. Every time I play I’m giving birth to something. I’m fighting silence when I start breathing, then when the breath stops, the sound stops.”
Ultimately, Azmeh’s immersion in music and experience of exploring identity has led to wisdom in liberating oneself from strictures. He tells a story of escaping labels: “First I was called a young clarinetist from Damascus. Then when I wasn’t young, I was a clarinetist. Then a musician from Damascus, then a Syrian musician. The next step would be a musician. Yo-Yo Ma said to me, ‘there’s just one additional step to take: you become a human.’”
Interview by Jill Pearlman
Interview done for Community MusicWorks and shared from its blog. For information about Kinan’s residency March 27-30 in Providence, please visit http://www.communitymusicworks.org
“And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you.” Most of us can hear Martin Luther King’s thunder and cadence from his speech in Memphis the day before his death in 1968. He knew – a voice was whispering in his prophet’s ear, an angel pressing against his heart – that he would not be crossing the finish line. Moses, the prophet who led his people out from a narrow place of oppression, also was open to the terrific presence of destiny; he, like King, only saw it from the mountain top.
Those of us who are still here: we are still, always arriving. We’re not in the Promised Land, that’s for sure. All we can really do, is to be in the becoming. Still, always arriving. We’ve been still, always arriving since we left the ennui of Paradise. We throw questions, try to dominate, cure. We try to stare down the enemy though, as if in a mirror, we’ll see our own face in its acts of aggression. Learning to love the questions themselves, rather than the answers relaxes the drive to conquer. As King said, mental freedom, illumination can move things.
Today also on the Jewish calendar: Tu B’Shevat, festival of the trees. Today trees are sheathed in ice in New England. The sap is there, held in tension, in suspense, waiting, always arriving.
I am happy to see my poem, Armageddon Blues, in the winter issue of Salamander. The poem is full of irony and tenderness for the challenges of everyday life in times of siege. The unthinkable seems to suck all the energy out of the room. I see certain personal hallmarks: I play with dialog and dialectic, two voices, two positions in this extended address (which is one sentence). I explore a subject of continuing fascination: the ways that art speaks, with fragility but force, to macro political forces. And in order to insure human values along with survival, the necessity to guarding one’s own place of beauty and goodness.
Oh, the curse from the Chinese: “May he live in interesting times.” We’re living those interesting, precarious times: we are in the middle of structures, nations, assumptions breaking apart. London is calling, Paris, Brazil, US falling. We’re deep inside that process!
But what does it mean to be a witness to history? More frequently than not, it will look circumstantial, something like the poet in Roberto Bolano’s “Savage Detectives” who was talking stall to stall in the women’s room while a coup was happening. Unfolding of lives coexistent with unfolding of human events in time. We will be gauged by the intimate, by the personal. By what we create, salvage, dream. The values we discover as essential. Otherwise we will be dispersed, our heads endlessly spinning. Here are some images from the month when “Paris was burning!”
For Noël, the French received a gift of unknowingness. It’s a lucky gift! Les gilets jaunes have doled out confusion to their compatriots who are singularly sure of themselves, gifted in the pur et dur, the absolute. Their clipped “mais oui!” or “mais non!” has, until now, been singularly annoying.
In this new moment, when asked about politics, people pause, hesitate, search for words that are taking days and weeks to form. They glance out the window at the full moon, the crumbling cornices, the slate roofs. Roll over, Descartes! Perhaps there are no answers at all!
Yes, the conceptual ways of thinking are sinking under their own weight. The good news is that the French have a great correction in their back pocket. Food, or exquisite attention to the everyday. The marchés are cornucopias of oysters, escargots, fishes, feathered pheasants; they have a milky way of pungent cheese, chocolate and of course the faucets nearly run with wine. Celebrations aren’t just about consumption: they are happenings of community. I also think of Francis Ponge’s poems about oysters and escargots. When systems can’t be trusted, when they fail, go to what you can touch, taste, what is close to the heart. Don’t go to nihilism, go to regeneration. It’s a chance to reimagine what society could be, to clear space for imagination and the beauty of what is.
We saw a show of the photographer Willy Ronis, whose brilliant eye caught French culture in various states of undress, layered with two or three complex emotions. Reading a plaque, I was astrounded when the critic wrote, ‘After the interruption of the Occupation, he returned to …” Feathers ruffled at first, I thought, “As if the Gestapo was a minor thing!” Then I remembered la durée. I realizing this is the strategy of half full: back to everyday life, back to reality.
Even the hardest hearts have a soft spot for Thanksgiving. It’s love for the cornucopia, the harvest that spills in fullness from a stony season. It’s the fact that somehow our motley immigrant crew has extended out in bursts and starts from the Pilgrims, creating continuity of the myth in our discontinuous arrivals and nationalizations. Except for Native Americans and turkeys, minorities – Jews, Italians, Irish, black – have seized the chance to be equals at the table, and even though it is symbolic, the symbol glows like the torch we know and love(d).
The myth has been hardy and functional. Yet no one in this stony year would ever say we’re going to leave the table united as a family. That didn’t happen during the Civil War or the Vietnam War; it’s not going to happen now.
As our secular religious holiday, our American Shabbat, Thanksgiving could give us an opportunity to pause and step back from another of our favorite American myths: that human ingenuity can solve it all. Current radical activism and resistance is anthropocentric; it’s all about us. Us v them or us v us, in a sense; the all-self, all the time show is ultimately destructive.
My father, who loved good food, used to take lunch to his office — a paper bag with two apples. His Pittsburgh office was a sloping set of rooms above a pharmacy on Walnut Street, near Squirrel Hill. When he got strung out with work, he’d take a stroll on the street, see other people with their own problems; and then, there was that crisp juicy apple.
Give thanks to the apple.
To the hard soil that we tend so it gives yams. To the dried leaves that look like yam skins. The wild river and still pools of icy run-off. The space between the stones and how much better we are when we lay fallow. A big American amen.
Pittsburgh is a city of neighborhoods, of hills and shadowed valleys. The valleys or “hollers” – Pittsburgh is on the edge of Appalachia – have had plenty of darkness over different eras. Parts of the city seem backwoods, almost abandoned – the light barely flickers there.
The steel industry collapsed, things got worse, things got better, and the city of neighborhoods – that’s what Pittsburgh is – picked up to become a comeback city. Houses in the hollers were picked up by young homesteaders who lived alternatively, starting B &Bs, planting organic gardens, remaking neighborhoods. The newness of the Warhol museum, City of Asylum, Mattress Factory on the working class Northside made it not my father’s Pittsburgh.
We were four generations in Pittsburgh; my grandfather grew up in the Hill District, then moved to Squirrel Hill. He was an old-style family doctor who made house calls with stethoscope in his leather kit. He sometimes took his payment in garden vegetables, or a chicken. When the Hill became mainly black neighborhood, he stayed working there and some patients, the story goes, named their kids after him (Reuben).
They davened in Synagogue Beth Shalom; were long members there until my parents moved to Rodef Shalom. I can’t imagine the decades were easy. I heard stories of some families during the Depression having to put their kids in Jewish adoption homes, and were lucky if the kids were there when money came back in.
My father worked outside the city in the mining counties. It took not recklessness but confidence to be that “Jewish buccaneer.” It was possible. Sometimes he had to shine a powerful flashlight down those hollers.
How far have we not come? We’re subjects of history’s hills and shadowed valleys. My grand-parents and parents, who have all passed, would have been surpised if they’d been told to take literally the psalm: Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death—
Many people are reminding us alongside the darkness there is abundant light. So be it.
You’ve probably noticed the problem?It’s about reactions to climate change and the geologic epoch named for our human interference.In your cautionary Toronto art show, with its corollary film, Anthropocene, you want to bring home the horrors of massive overreach and tread on our environment. Images abound of our mindless extractions of riches which have rejiggered the look and function of our earth. They are troubling. But what troubled me is that your images are so beautiful.
Why is art so damn slippery?Artists want to get across a point – but good art rebels.It says things you never intended.It confuses the viewer with interpretations that multiply, then undercut each other like fencers in a duel.They endear us to the artist who seems a mess of competing contradictions.I get that.
Photographer Edward Burtynsky and filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier, have no doubt noticed their attraction to order.There is pattern galore in those vast swaths of landscape seen from satellites and drones.There is barely a visible human.We see soil separated from its marble, sand separated from its oil. The waters have been separated from dry land, day separated from night.Like some divine repetition, chaos has been vanquished by the beauty of Order. Order with its geometric designs, its repeating patterns; its colors garishly bright, iridescent and stimulating, or ochred and “earthy.”
And it was good?The unfamiliar, in the hands of the artist, has become beautiful.And the modern viewer is transfixed by a beauty that might be destructive or violent or apocalyptic – spidery mining cavities, the cliffs of plastics.
Death-in-lilfe?Life-in-death?Though our modern beautiful is beyond the meditative pastel, a new calm reality might be suggested, visualized on the other side of the dead-ended.The art might function autonomously, to suggest that in the meditative mazes of roughed-up landscapes, there might be renewal.A new way.A place of a certain magic where things out of sense rest with different sense.
What might we be shocked into discovering? Could the artists help us to overlay the fear of the evolving future with images of shine, seduction, recognition?