The Kronos Quartet performs its new program, Music For Change: The Banned Countries.
This season invites us to consider music’s relationship to the circulation of humans across time periods and continents.
By Emily K. Holmes
Whether we move across the globe for an indefinite stay or just cross the street for the afternoon, we are creatures who live in states of near constant transit. Our experiences of, and reasons for, travel from one place to another are as innumerable and varied as we are ourselves: we might change locations briefly to travel, when afforded a chance at leisure—or to evacuate in urgent search of safety, when in peril. When considering why and how people move and migrate, it is essential to avoid what contemporary Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “the danger of the single story” in her eponymous 2009 TED talk. Adichie reflects on the impossibility of “engaging properly” with a subject without taking into account “all of the stories of that place and that person.”
As daunting a task as this imperative might seem, the stakes of minimizing the diversity of our collective individual experiences into one dominant narrative are high: “The consequence of the single story is this: it robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult.”
For, as Adichie astutely notes, dominant narratives are related to power and For, as Adichie astutely notes, dominant narratives are related to power and privilege. “Power is the ability to not just tell the story of another person but to make it the definitive story of that person,” she observes. Such defining statements—dependent on intentionally selective information that denies nuance and omits room for difference—can be more easily weaponized against vulnerable targets. One might consider the current American administration’s aggressive anti-immigration rhetoric, which has slung denigrating language as verbal assault against migrants and carried out policies that enforce traumatizing treatment of asylum- seekers, including young children, among other harmful practices. The antidote against such attempts at myopic representation, to work towards restoring dignity, Adichie concludes, is to make room for multiple stories, to be keenly hungry to engage with the many stories that comprise any issue, group, or location. Making room for multiplicity creates a verdant new potential for rebalancing justice, equality, and human dignity—and this upcoming season at Stanford Live features a much-needed and nuanced counterbalance to the shortsighted view towards topics of migration, movement, and immigration in the public realm, using music as a catalyst for empathetic connection.
Offering a thoughtful complement to last season’s theme of contemplating what makes us different and how we shape our unique identities, this season invites us to consider music’s relationship to the circulation of humans across time periods and continents. This topic opens discussions of the universal qualities of navigating a course through life, finding connections, and enduring through profound loss. These are no small topics, and these performances together attend to the relevant social, political, and historical contexts surrounding the creation of music and our varied life journeys.
Catalan composer Jordi Savall leads The Routes of Slavery
These sonic stories use innovative approaches to explore the ideas of circulation with all complexities intact—even the most painful sides of human history. Catalan composer Jordi Savall, who has long been known in his prolific career for his attention to the cross-pollination of music between cultures and time periods, remains committed to telling multilayered musical histories with poignant awareness of cultural and social roots. His latest composition, The Routes of Slavery, showcases the varied musical traditions impacted by—and created in resilient response to—the trauma of enslavement. Beginning with a reading of a text by Aristotle and continuing with written narrative interludes across many eras, the composition centers on music created during the transatlantic slave trade between 1444 and 1888. The performance additionally highlights musical evolutions from the intercultural exchanges with music in the Caribbean and Central and South America, acknowledging the many locations impacted by slavery. Though the performance is deeply historical, it additionally highlights the ongoing consequences of slavery, such as present-day racism, the refugee crises in relation to the Mediterranean Sea, and the continued existence of human trafficking. With a cast of 32 musicians from 15 countries and three continents, The Routes of Slavery exemplifies a remarkable creative approach that doesn’t shy away from the full complexity of human history and evidences music’s role as healer, community builder, and a tool for change.
"In these troubled times, no one other than the inimitable Kronos could help us recognize and celebrate the dignity, humanity, and joy in the now sadly ‘banned’ cultures and people.”
Presented in close partnership with the Hamid and Christina Moghadam Program in Iranian Studies and Stanford Live, Music for Change: The Banned Countries, from the Kronos Quartet, includes a selection of pieces by composers from countries originally included in the 2017 Executive Order, or travel ban: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. The program features works composed specifically for the performance, new collaborations with musicians from several of these countries (a frequent practice and core value for the group), and signature works from the quartet’s extensive repertoire. The director of the Hamid and Christina Moghadam Program, Professor Abbas Milani, comments: “For more than four decades the Kronos Quartet has been a source of sublime music, an indispensable beacon of exhilaration and healing, a shining example of art as the embodiment of the better angels of our souls. In these troubled times, no one other than the inimitable Kronos could help us recognize and celebrate the dignity, humanity, and joy in the now sadly ‘banned’ cultures and people.” In addition to the performance, the musicians are developing resources to further share the work with the campus community and have been integral partners in fostering conversation about the travel ban’s impact on cultural exchange.
Jimmy López, composer of Dreamers (Image credit: Franciel Braga)
The new oratorio Dreamers, by Cuban-American playwright Nilo Cruz and Peruvian composer Jimmy López, likewise uses its stage as a platform to shine light upon overshadowed voices. Performed by soprano Ana María Martínez, a chorus, and Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra of London, the piece is based on interviews with undocumented young people living, working, and studying in the United States. López recently told the New York Times that the play’s mission evolved and adapted over the last year in response to the unpredictable changes in immigration policies, which further sparked a sense of urgency; he became further committed to portraying the stories shared with him as a grounding and humanizing response to representations in the mass media and politics.
In Inua Ellams’ Barber Shop Chronicles, the Nigerian-born and London-based playwright cleverly anchors the stories of his characters—African men and men from the African diaspora—in barber shop scenes set in six cities. Each rotating vignette is played by the same actors and singers and poignantly showcases the barber shop as a space for gathering in community. Through song and speech, the Barber Shop Chronicles portrays witty, raw, and heartwarming stories of friendship, family relations, identity, and intercultural exchanges, with region-specific musical interludes to transition between locales. The importance of the barber shop as a core space for community for African-American men (as well as for folks of other genders) may be better established stateside, and Ellams’ global narratives add to the richness of multiple stories centered on key gathering spaces for connection like this one.
Original company of Barber Shop Chronicles at the National Theatre, London (Image credit: Marc Brenner)
For so many of the pieces described above, another thread beyond the varied experiences of global movement and migration is memory. Music—a form of communication not tethered to language—is heard, felt, and embodied by both performers and listeners.
The multifaceted musician, producer, and composer Nitin Sawhney is keenly aware of this relationship. His persistent passion for intercultural musical exchanges was once the subject of a miniseries of his own design for BBC Radio 2’s Spin the Globe program, and his own practice prominently addresses his personal relationships to immigration. Influenced by his Indian heritage, the British-born musician has explored Indian independence, drawing from his parents’ and his own experiences, in his previous compositions. After more than two decades of composing, producing, and performing, Sawhney puts his own life on center stage in a new orchestration reflecting upon his past, developed during his residency at Stanford; the composition, which features tabla artist Aref Durvesh and vocalist Eva Stone, showcases a blend of music, memories, and the inseparable points of intersection.
Music is a creative medium particularly well-suited to multiplicity. Whether started by a singular author or not, performances are most often made manifest through collaboration. To truly work together—to make something, one might say, great—requires self-awareness, acknowledgement of and respect for individuality, and an openness to constant learning. But it is not every collaboration that results in a performance that moves us, shakes us to our core, and stirs up our own memories of making our way through life, loving in all its forms, and coping with loss as we grow. Embracing the strength found in rejecting the single story doubtlessly requires repeated attempts and flexibility and no small amount of patience; the stories of migration, movement, and displacement deserve this, and more. And it’s worth the effort—for, as Adichie tells us, “when we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.”
—Emily K. Holmes is a freelance writer and editor based in Oakland.