The Arabic word ‘nakba’ (النكبة), which translates as “disaster” or “cataclysm”, is used to refer to the suffering, displacement and destruction wrought on the Palestinians from 1948 (with the wartime exodus) to the present day. It’s a term that has been in use right from the outset of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, originally coined by Constantin Zureiq in his 1948 book Ma’na al-Nakba (The Meaning of the Disaster). The use of this word by Iranian composer Arash Yazdani as the title for his 2018 orchestral work therefore immediately charges the piece with a huge amount of emotional and geopolitical weight and resonance.
That being said, Yazdani’s approach isn’t to create a superficially descriptive, war-like music but instead to explore a more abstract series of musical relationships, above all focused on the idea of the instruments being in tune with one another. Or, rather, not in tune; the string section is subdivided according to slightly different tunings of the reference note A: for the first violins it’s 446Hz, the second violins use 443Hz, the violas are at the western standard of 440Hz, while the cellos use 437Hz. It’s interesting to note that just this simple divide of scordatura throws up a load of baggage from the perspective of music history. 440Hz may be a widely-used standard today but it only gained significant traction in the early 20th century (Italy had taken issue with the prevailing French standard of 435Hz, a move subsequently endorsed by the USA), and at other points in history and in other parts of the globe widely divergent reference pitches have been used. Indeed, just recently at the Borealis festival it was fascinating to hear Khyam Allami, Catherine Lamb and others speak of standardised tuning and temperament as a form of modern-day gatekeeping that continues to keep alternative approaches marginalised and regarded as ‘other’. (Digging a little deeper, it doesn’t take long even to find incredible conspiracy theories about all this.) Tuning, it seems, also has the capacity to be charged with huge amounts of emotional and geopolitical weight and resonance.
The way Yazdani uses the instruments in groups to create large-scale textural effects has similarities with sonorism. However, while the sonorist approach usually removes significance from individual players beyond their role in the larger sum total, Yazdani – appropriately, in a context referencing human suffering – often emphasises the fact that his textures are the product of many individuals acting similarly to their neighbours yet in a way that is unique. Thus, the work’s opening series of unified upper string swooshes gradually complicates so as to highlight the large number of individual attacks, resulting in a disorienting chorus.
i said that Nakba is not an obviously descriptive ‘conflict’ music, but there are a number of ways that the piece explores division and disruption. Most obviously, Yazdani exploits the possibilities afforded by the strings’ different tunings to create an abstract narrative of tension and resistance. In this context, notes that are in close timbral or registral proximity tend to lead not to intimacy or sympathy but to friction. A recurring feature are not-quite-unisons, as frequencies vibrate and collide against each other in a variety of shimmering and juddering beats. In conjunction with this – often following these instances – are points of possible resolution where the music settles either to a single pitch or, as happens a couple of minutes in, to a clearly-defined fifth.
Further collisions occur from the way timbrally or registrally distant instruments act upon each other. Only half a minute into Nakba, the way the lower strings appear, so much more nebulous and turbulent than the relative clarity of the upper strings, suggests them to be an entirely different, unrelated entity, perhaps an ominous one. A series of impacts a few minutes later are similarly hard to read: ostensibly attractive, covered in glitter and solemnified with tam-tams, yet acting to cause pitch disruptions that each time require stabilisation. The relationship between the strings and the heavy brass also demonstrates disharmony, the latter growling angrily on their first appearance, though in due course subject to their own issues of tuning and pitch agitation.
More intriguing are the episodes in Nakba that don’t explore such clear-cut instances of friction. There are times when Yazdani allows notes simply to hover and float together, continuing to collide but in a more neutral (though not quite passive) way. Even more remarkable is a passage nearly halfway through when a low brass fifth becomes the basis for a distorted attempt at something triadic. It’s a beautiful moment, one that brings to mind the askew harmonic practices of Georg Friedrich Haas. Episodes like these are only brief reposes, though, as for the most part Yazdani is more concerned with trying to wrangle and expose the results of bringing these abrasive notes and ideas together. On a couple of occasions the orchestra is polarised, simultaneously rising and falling from opposite ends of the pitch spectrum in a gradual process of what could be (mis?)interpreted as reconciliation.
But uncertainty and unease are the dominant forces in Nakba, and instances of apparent calm or resolution such as these are proved either moot or just plain false. In the latter stages of the work, after what seems to be a progression towards unity, the music instead develops into a complex texture of undulating pitches that ultimately becomes a massive climactic miasma, where everything is unstable, in constant movement. Completely overwhelming, its aftermath is littered with percussive crashes, leading to one of the most agonisingly poignant points in the piece, where the horns rise up through awkward harmonics, in the process becoming fraught and desperate, eventually unleashing a sequence of horrified howls. Their distress is answered by another crashing outburst, whereupon Nakba ends with a weird deep grinding. Far from being even hinted at, the merest concept of resolution seems to be non-existent in this context. Its prevailing sense of discomfort and despair is heart-breaking.
The world première of Nakba was given by the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Bas Wiegers, at the 2018 AFEKT Festival.
I do not have a Nakba story, my story is lack of one. What little I know, I string together though it bears little semblance to a story. A series of facts, few, hard and devoid of much feeling. (twitter: @MIDDLEOFTHEEAST)
The orders were given for the troops to ‘drive out’ the inhabitants of both towns. All-Lyd was besieged for several days and massacres took place before it fell. Seeing what happened in neighbouring All-Lyd, the residents of Ramle left under the threat of a similar fate. The coming days meant a death march in the striking summer heat with little more than what they could carry, toward Jordanian lines. When they got there, they were told they were no longer taking refugees. Unable to go back to their home and unable to make it to the Jordanian line, they became IDPs (internally displaced persons). Down the road from their own home, which they were denied return to, [they were] forced to live in a ghetto. For months, Jiddo Said’s family journeyed north from camp to camp in Lebanon. They settled to the extent they could settle in a tent in Shatila, in south Beirut.
[Two years later,] the occupiers created laws that allowed them to launder land. This included something called the Absentee Property Law. The law said if the owners of the land were “absent” then the state would take over the land. (twitter: @YousefMonayyer and @tarekzismail)
Many years later, they were “mopped out” again from Shatila camps, in massacre leaving up to 3,500 deaths, but that story is another story.Nakba is an Arabic word, meaning cataclysm or catastrophe. In Persian, we use the term more frequently referring anything hideous and undesired.Every year around middle of May, the Palestinian exodus and wars and events of December 1947-January 1949 is being commemorated in mourning.
This is Nakba. This is what it means for a society to be torn from the earth. (twitter: @tarekzismail)