bilingual +

One of the most meaningful concert experiences I’ve ever had was a few years ago with the LA Opera: a rare staging of Arnold Schoenberg’s unfinished operatic masterpiece, Moses und Aron. Austere and deeply stirring in its musicality, it relies primarily on text from Exodus to tell the story of the two brothers whose sacrifices and symbolic identities (of ‘righteousness’ and ‘peace’, respectively) lie at the foundation of Judaism.

"more than bilingual" exhibit brochure

"more than bilingual" exhibit brochure

The opera’s backstory is just as interesting. It’s the work of a displaced German Jew who returned to his faith in 1933 just after he finished work on the opera, even as the drums crescendoed with the advance of the second World War. It’s thought that Moses und Aron represented Schoenberg’s attempt to work out the problems of a Jew in the modern world*.

Today I visited Burlington’s Fleming Museum for “more than bilingual“, the new collaboration between poet Major Jackson and Peruvian visual artist William Cordova. There is a natural affinity in their work, and I found it to have the same kinds of dynamics at work as those in Moses und Aron. The obvious comparison here would be the juxtaposition of Major Jackson’s spoken words with William Cordova’s visual narrative, much as Moses’ spoken role in the opera is offset and complemented by the fluid artistry of Aron’s singing tenor.

But the comparison also works on another level, and that’s with the common underlying themes of cultural memory and disenfranchisement, societal labels, and racial identity.

One panel of Cordova’s 25-piece grid Sangarara is covered by the repeated single word “Landó”, the West African music/dance form that came to South America with slaves in the 1800s. The piece is paired with Major Jackson‘ s poem ‘Toro Mata‘, itself named after the classic (landó) Peruvian folksong, and referencing the makeshift instruments the slaves created to disguise their music in the face Spanish prohibition. Can’t use drums, because they’re too resonant of the African music from home? Alright then, how about a Spanish shipping crate rigged to work as a drum? Enter the cajón, the box drum that’s now a staple of the Afro-Peruvian sound.

Literature and music, words and art. Whether it’s Moses und Aron or poetry paired with paintings, there are infinite connections to be made – and found – in the name of artistic pursuit.

More than Bilingual runs through May 10th at Burlington’s Fleming Museum.

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* Aaron Tugendhaft, Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron

For listening:

Novalima: Coba Coba – Cumbancha, 2009

Peru Negro: Sangre de un Don – World Connection, 1999  *includes “Toro Mata”

Schoenberg: Moses und Aron – Chicago Symphony Orchestra & Chorus/Georg Solti/Decca 00994102

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