For Tenor and String Quartet
I have only visited Damascus once, twenty years ago, on the way to Palmyra. I had a purpose (I was writing music for a play about Palmyra’s Queen Zenobia) but essentially I was a tourist. Like any visitor, I was thrilled to step out of the noisy modern city into the magical ancient world of the walled Old City, its vibrant souk leading to the magnificent mosque, and a labyrinth of winding, narrow streets filled with the smell of unleavened bread.
In Palmyra, I was met with extraordinary kindness everywhere. On one occasion, a little Bedouin boy noticed that I was risking sunstroke wandering bare-headed among the spectacular ruins: he showed me how to tie a turban, then took me to have tea with his family in their tent.
Since then, I have watched helplessly as these places of wonder have been devastated and their inhabitants scattered and killed. When the Sacconi Quartet suggested that I might choose a Syrian poet for our collaboration, I welcomed the idea.
I searched for a long time to find a contemporary poet whose work might gain from any music I could imagine. I felt it was important to find first-hand accounts of the Syrian experience – but, of course, I was always reading them in translation. In an anthology called Syria Speaks, I was astonished to read something that looked like prose, but was full of poetry. It was Anne-Marie McManus’s fine translation of Ali Safar’s A Black Cloud in a Leaden White Sky – an eloquent, thoughtful, contained yet vivid account of life in a war-torn country, all the more moving for its restraint.
In setting these words, I have not attempted to imitate Syrian music. However, there is what might be called a linguistic accommodation in my choice of scale, or mode. Several movements are in a mode that I first discovered while writing a cantata commemorating the First World War: it has a tuning that I associate with war, its violence and desolation. This eight-note mode is similar to scales found in Syrian music. I did not choose it in the abstract: it emerged from the harmonies I was exploring in the earlier work, and emerged again as I was looking for the right musical colours to set Ali Safar’s words. In this work, its Arabic aspect is more prominent.
Text by Ali Safar
Translation by Anne-Marie McManus
Commissioned for the Sacconi Quartet and Mark Padmore by the Friends of the Sacconi Quartet, the Michael Cuddigan Trust and the Vernon Ellis Foundation
First performance: 20th May 2016, Sacconi Quartet and Mark Padmore, Sacconi Chamber Music Festival, Folkstone.