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Letting Music Speak of Mideast Pain
By Felicia R. Lee

For Tamar Muskal, an Israeli-American composer, the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians goes beyond politics. It is music, it is poetry, it is the lone voice, speaking of pain and dreams.

It is also in her composition "The Yellow Wind,"(premiered on May 14 and 15, 2005) which combines a full orchestra, an Arabic flute, Arab and Israeli poetry and songs, and excerpts from the 1988 book of the same title by David Grossman. It is to be given its premiere tonight by the Westchester Philharmonic in Purchase, N.Y.

The project was a labor of love for more than a year, Ms. Muskal said, a time of writing the music, finding Arabic translators and mixing in the right words. She also knew that her subject was so incendiary that she risked being accused of politics rather than respected for creating art.

"At this point, it's not relevant who's at fault," she said of the troubled Mideast, during a recent interview at a Manhattan Starbucks.

Ms. Muskal, who is Jewish and grew up in Israel, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, said that at 39 she realized that pain is pain, no matter who does the suffering.

"It's a collection of stories and interviews," Ms. Muskal said of her "Yellow Wind," much like Mr. Grossman's book. "It doesn't analyze. It doesn't offer any solutions."

"But the thing I can bring is my own music," she said. "Music can get to places where no talk can get. With politics, people get aggressive and defensive in two minutes." The composer described her 35-minute piece, which was commissioned by the orchestra, as a "song here, a song there, here a text, here the song," and said it played with boundaries in more than one way. It's folklore, it's all kinds of music and does not neatly fit into any genre.

The composer said she started with just a vague idea of creating a piece about the feelings of the people involved in the Mideast conflict, perhaps running Arabic and Hebrew words together. She ended up turning to the book, an account by Mr. Grossman, an Israeli novelist, of the experiences of both groups in West Bank settlements and camps in 1987. Ms. Muskal said she was moved by his stories from his seven-week journey, finding them apolitical and balanced.

So she approached Mr. Grossman about doing something specifically for her and he declined, she said, but offered to let her use his book as she wished.

And there Mr. Grossman's words are, read by the narrator as Ms. Muskal's music plays: "I decided not to talk with Jewish or Arab politicians or officials.
Their positions are well known, to the point of tedium. I wanted to meet the real players in the drama. The people who live it. Albert Camus said that this passage from speech to moral action has a name: 'to become human.' "

The Palestinians and the Israelis get about equal stage time in Ms. Muskal's version of "The Yellow Wind." The piece features the vocalists Keren Hadar and Mira Awad singing in Hebrew and Arabic, and work by the Israeli poets Shaul Tchernichovsky, Natan Alterman and Natan Yonatan. The Arab poet Mahmoud Darwish's "I Am From There," featured in the composition, says: "I have learned and dismantled all the words in order to draw from them a single word: home."

Brian Lehrer, the WNYC radio moderator and talk show host, will be the narrator.

Ms. Muskal took lessons in Arabic music and learned enough Arabic to set the words to music fluently.

Bassam Saba, a Long Island-based musician who plays the nay, an Arab flute, is onstage the whole time. He helped familiarize Ms. Muskal with Arabic music.
"I saw how she thinks to force these two cultures together, composition-wise,"
he said.

"It follows all the discovery and connections between people on earth now,"
Mr. Saba continued. "People are looking for each other more. It represents this kind of cultural communication. For me, it was important to look for this marriage, coming from the Middle East."

Some of Ms. Muskal's own life lessons came from being a transplant. She left Israel in 1994, she said, for the far more diverse shores of Manhattan. Armed with a music degree from the Rubin Academy for Dance and Music in Jerusalem, Ms. Muskal commuted to Yale, earning a master's degree in music. She now lives on the Upper West Side with her two young children and her husband, Daniel Rozin, an artist who teaches at New York University.

"On one hand, it's fascinating," she said of becoming a New Yorker. "On the other hand, when you're from a small country, you suspect everything that isn't you. Slowly, you discover beautiful things in other cultures."

Ms. Muskal's other recent commissions have included a concerto for string quartet and orchestra for the Penn State Philharmonic Orchestra, and pieces for the Richmond Symphony in Virginia. Her "Dmamah" for four instruments, performed in 2001 at Merkin Concert Hall in New York, had "color and life," Bernard Holland of The New York Times said in a review.

Paul Lustig Dunkel, the Westchester Philharmonic conductor and music director, described Ms. Muskal as a major young composer who about three years ago became the philharmonic's education composer-in-residence, writing orchestral pieces based on student art and poetry. He said he hoped "The Yellow Wind" would lure younger audiences interested in world music and big themes.

"Art is a very good way - an excellent way - to get people to think about what's going on," he said.

Introduction by Tamar Muskal

As an Israeli and a composer I wanted to write a piece that dealt with the Israeli -Palestinian conflict. The piece, for full symphonic orchestra (3333, 4331, hrp, pn, 3 perc, timp, narr, strings and three soloists: Nay (Arabic flute) player and 2 female singers, has its themes in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict; yet it is meant to be universal, a work of art that can carry its message anywhere in the world where suffering and conflict exist. The texts in the piece are taken from three sources: 1) from renowned Israeli author David Grossman's collection of interviews collected in his book The Yellow Wind; the interviews were conducted during a series of Grossman's visits to the west bank, refugees camps, settlements and villages 2) poems by Shaul Tchernichovski, Natan Alterman and Natan Yonatan, and 3) poems by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish..

The two vocalists represent their own people: an Israeli, who will sing the Hebrew poems (Tchernichovski, Alterman and Yonatan) and a Palestinian who will sing the Arabic poems (Darwish). Both singers will sing the poems in their original languages (Hebrew and Arabic)

The Narrator (Brian Leher from WYNC) will read excerpts from Grossman's The Yellow Wind in English (a translation form the original Hebrew). Each vocalist will sing three poems: The first four poems will be sung alternately -- Arabic, Hebrew, Arabic, Hebrew -- while the last two poems will intertwine with each other. Thus, at the work’s apex there will be a kind of duet between the two vocalists, though each one has her own poem. Both the Hebrew and the Arabic texts will reveal a gradual development in their subject matter and in their emotional intensities.

The Yellow Wind was premiered on May 14 and 15, 2005. The other pieces in the
Saint Saens: Violin concerto no. 3 to be played by the well known violinist:
Joshua Bell, and Brahms: Symphony no. 2.

Tamar Muskal - bio

Tamar was born in 1965 in Jerusalem, Israel. She studied viola, music theory
and composition at the Rubin Academy for Dance and Music in Jerusalem and
earned her BA in 1991. Ms. Muskal came to the United States in 1994 and
subsequently earned her Master's degree from Yale University, where she studied with
Jacob Druckman, Martin Bresnick and Ezra Laderman. She continued her studies at
the City University of New York, where she studied with David Del Tredici and
Tania Leon.

Recent commissions have included a concerto for string quintet and orchestra
for members of the string faculty at Penn State University, an orchestral
piece for the Richmond Symphony, a chamber piece for Music From Copland House
Ensemble and a percussion quartet for the Ethos Percussion Group. Ms. Muskal has
also served as the Westchester Philharmonic's education composer-in-residence
for the past three years, and in that capacity has written three orchestral
pieces based on students' artwork and poetry.

Ms. Muskal also focuses on music for theater; recent works include "Angels in
performed in Cincinnati, "The Labor of Life" and "The Seven Beggars"
performed at La Mama Theater in New York, and "Cristabel" and "Trojan Women" performed
in New Haven.

Ms. Muskal has been the recipient of many awards and fellowships, from
prestigious institutions such as ASCAP, Meet-the-Composer, the Jerome Foundation,
American Music Center and the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival. Her most recent
award is from the American Academy of Arts and Letter (2004). While at Yale,
Ms. Muskal received awards for her work, including the John Jackson Prize for
the best composition for strings, the Wood Chandler Memorial Prize for the best
composition in large form, the Lucy G moses Fellowship for students with
exceptional promise and the Irving S. Gilmore Fellowship given for one student of
each department. Her piece DMAMAH recently won the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble
composition competition and the Tampa Bay Composers Forum Composers Compet

Related Links:

  • 'The Yellow Wind' Premiere May 15th
  • Read additional reviews on The Arab-Israeli Melting Pot

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  • Paul Lustig Dunkel, conductor and music director of the Westchester Philharmonic and Tamar Muskal

    From left to right: Keren Hadar, Paul Lustig Dunkel, Bassam Saba Tamar MuskalJoshua Bell and Mira Awad.

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