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Peabody musicians highlight human migration at D.C.’s Direct Current festival

Palestinian video artist Khaled Jarrar (left) and Du Yun, who is part of the composition faculty at the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University, will present "Where We Lost Our Shadows" this weekend at the Direct Current festival in Washington, D.C.
Palestinian video artist Khaled Jarrar (left) and Du Yun, who is part of the composition faculty at the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University, will present "Where We Lost Our Shadows" this weekend at the Direct Current festival in Washington, D.C. (Handout)

Musicians from the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University head to Washington, D.C., this weekend to take part in Direct Current, the Kennedy Center’s two-week festival of contemporary and interdisciplinary performance.

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Led by conductor Joseph Young, the Peabody Modern Orchestra will present the U.S. premiere of “Where We Lost Our Shadows,” a multimedia collaboration between Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Du Yun, who is also part of the composition faculty at Peabody, and Palestinian video artist Khaled Jarrar. The premiere will take place March 31.

Now in its second year, Direct Current offers a lineup that turns the nation’s capital into at least a temporary destination for world-class experimental productions. Many of the works programmed this year reflect creators’ desires to use art to offer new perspectives on pressing social and political issues.

With footage shot by Khaled Jarrar while he accompanied a Syrian refugee family on their crossing through Europe in 2015, “Where We Lost Our Shadows” frames displacement as a global issue, and one requiring the affirmation of migrants’ humanity. Du Yun’s score combines raga, text by Palestinian poet Ghassan Zaqtan, percussion by Shayna Dunkelman of art-rock band Xiu Xiu and performances by vocalists Ali Sethi and Helga Davis.

The premiere also represents the culmination of a project many years in the making.

In a recent phone interview, Khaled Jarrar recounted spotting an ad in a local Palestinian newspaper in 2015, placed by a woman named Mona Zamel. “She was appealing to President [Mahmoud] Abbas because [she and her family] were stuck in Istanbul after escaping the war in Syria.”

Mona’s mother, 76-year-old Nadira, was now twice a refugee, her first displacement occurring when she fled Nazareth for Syria during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.

“I got in touch with them because I thought [Nadira’s] story was incredible and had to be told,” said Jarrar. She also reminded Jarrar of his own grandmother, who fled Haifa in 1948.

Jarrar met up with the Zamel family on the island of Lesbos, Greece. He traveled with them for 31 days as they made their way to Germany, documenting their journey with the “intention to make a film” about Nadira.

To do so, Jarrar had to travel as a refugee himself, going so far as to buy fake papers and to apply for asylum in six different countries.

The difference, said Jarrar, was that “I was lucky enough to come back to my home town in Ramallah, where my friends hugged me and gave me time and space … to recover.” But Jarrar “was traumatized by the images [he saw] and … the inhumanity, how we were treated.”

Despite having hours of raw footage, he could barely bring himself to work on the film, or even talk about it.

One of the people he did manage to talk with during this time was Du Yun. The two had met some years earlier, and in early 2016, Jarrar began telling her about his experience. After showing her some of his footage, Du Yun proposed a collaboration.

For nearly a year, they discussed the project, but “with not much clarity,” said Jarrar. “We needed to find a language.”

The breakthrough came when Du Yun started working with Pakistani singer Ali Sethi on a different project; Sethi had trained in different styles of raga in his home town of Lahore, Pakistan. “Not only did I fall in love with his voice, but I was also very energized by his thorough understanding and care of how raga came to be,” said Du Yun.

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Roughly, a raga is a set of melodic intervals akin to a musical scale, but which also comes with rules that allow for performers’ improvisation. There are hundreds of different kinds of ragas, each with their own particular moods and associations. They form the basis of classical music from India and some Arabic-speaking countries.

When Sethi began to discuss rain ragas, Du Yun said, “It just clicked for me. I needed to engage [Sethi] in this … and if I could use water as a thread in this piece, then structurally everything made total sense to me.”

Using water as a through line was something Du Yun and Khaled Jarrad had previously discussed, as water crossings proved one of the biggest obstacles to the refugees and often claimed their lives. Music around this theme had already inspired Jarrar in his work — namely, the lyrics from the David Bowie song “Heroes”: “I wish you could swim / like the dolphins / like dolphins can swim.”

At the same time, the ragas infuse the piece with a sense of hope. “The other side of that is I [didn’t] want to write a piece just about suffering,” said Du Yun. “A lot of rain ragas [belong to] the women’s way of singing, where they’re dancing in the rain. It’s about ecstasy and the way of hope.”

Thus, a series of ragas — some about rain, some about thunder and clouds gathering — provide the structural framework for the piece. At the world premiere in London, Du Yun specified that “Where We Lost Our Shadows” is “not a piece for raga;” rather, its use serves to underscore the work’s theme of migration and the convergence of different, though related, cultures.

The result of the collaboration is a somewhat impressionistic work, with Du Yun and Jarrar focused more on creating an atmosphere than relaying a point-by-point narrative of the Zamel family’s journey. Light, or rather the lack of it, is an important element of the performance, as much of Jarrar’s footage shows refugees making their journeys in darkness.

It also factors into the title of the work. “Where We Lost Our Shadows” refers to Jarrar’s experience of walking with the refugees. “We were so tired, so hungry, so dehumanized by the police,” Jarrar said. “I felt like I was not human anymore. When you lose your shadow, you’re not there anymore.”

However, the film resists the images of death and suffering that Western viewers may have come to associate with the Syrian refugee crisis. When the subjects of Jarrar’s documentary appear, they are frequently smiling and discussing their hopes for the future.

Moments of anxiety and suspense are more likely to arise in the music, and especially through the virtuosic percussion solos by Shayna Dunkelman that bookend the piece.

Soon after Direct Current, “Where We Lost Our Shadows” will enjoy another performance in April, this time at New York’s Carnegie Hall. For Du Yun, though, it’s particularly meaningful that the Peabody Modern Orchestra will give the work its U.S. premiere.

“I want our younger generation to be part of that,” she said. “I remember when I was a student and involved in these big performances — it really stays with you.”

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As part of the Sunday program, The Peabody Modern Orchestra will also perform orchestral works by American composers Jessie Montgomery and Julia Wolfe.

The Peabody Modern Orchestra’s membership is rotating, according to Joseph Young, the artistic director of ensembles at the Peabody Institute and conductor for the Direct Current performance. Each Peabody ensemble “serves a distinct purpose and explores different types of repertoire in varying sizes. I love discovering new music, and this ensemble has the ability to stimulate the curiosity of young musicians [as well as] myself, who are going to champion this living art form.”

Khaled Jarrar certainly intends for this particular work to keep living. He is working on a feature-length documentary about his journey called “Displaced in Heaven.”

As for Mona Zamel and her family, Jarrar reports that “they are doing okay. They are still finding their way and trying to integrate within the German culture.” Nadira, however, passed away last year. Her final resting place is near Dortmund, Germany.

IF YOU GO:

“Where We Lost Our Shadows” will be performed at 5 p.m. Sunday, March 31, at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater in Washington, D.C. The show will be followed by a discussion with the artists. Tickets are $29.

Elizabeth Nonemaker covers classical music for the Baltimore Sun as a freelance writer. Classical music coverage at The Sun is supported in part by a grant from the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation, the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The Sun makes all editorial decisions.

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