Sunday, May 06, 2012

Exit Strategies

Music and words. Hard not to make one subservient to the other. Exit Strategies, the May 2 event organized jointly by PEN World Voices and the Met Museum, avoided the issue by and large by having music and words work separately, and so the chief interest of the evening for me lay in their dissonance. GH was less amused.

The music was provided by the Kronos Quartet with a long history of in-depth collaboration with composers like Terry Riley, Philip Glass and Steve Reich, and with musicians like Chinese pipa virtuoso Wu Man, Bollywoord "playback singer" Asha Bhosle, Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq, Mexican rockers Cafe Tacuba and Azeri vocalist Alim Qasimov. During the event, the quartet played imperturbably a wide range of music from around the world. The same could not be said of the writers who clearly felt that their words were intruding on the music.

Rula Jebreal, a French-Israeli journalist, asked her American audience a series of questions about the state of political debate in the country, before reading a harrowing account of violence in Iraq. Marjane Satrapi, the author and illustrator of Persepolis, extemporized on life under the Iranian theocracy. Her description of life without music was given added poignancy by the quartet's performance. Tony Kushner read a poetic description of the loss of a loved one to death. He read well, riding on the peaks and troughs of the music.

The evening would have been unexceptional if it had ended at this point, but it didn't. The quartet continued to play. They played music already spliced with words, one piece counting down to the dropping of the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima. Both Satrapi and Kushner were nonplussed by the invitation to improvise words to the solemn music and weighty themes. Not so Jebreal. She kept asking questions of the other two to press them for their opinions of the current American scene. In doing this, she was behaving like the tough interviewer that won her fame. Satrapi and Kushner evaded her every attempt to engage them in politics. Satrapi fell back on the "mystery" of the music that rendered words inapt and insubstantial. Kushner obviously felt the same, but also tried, quite unsuccessfully, to steer the conversation to less inflammatory topics. His questions, however, drifted into disquisitions instead, and so when they ran out of steam, Jebreal would persist with yet another question.

Finally the writers tiptoed off, giving over the stage to the musicians. They returned only at the end, to take their bows with the Quartet sheepishly. I was thrilled to see how the unscripted part of the evening turned out, even though language lost the game to music.

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