hevron-deir yassin (2011) for several instruments

I may have finished a new work that has been percolating for awhile, but am giving myself another day or two to be sure. The piece is something people will either really like or really despise. And yes, I mean “despise.” First, there’s the title. I had thought for a bit to write a piece that, while not at all programmatic, would invoke the name of a massacre against Palestinian civilians that remains debated, contested and denied among many. That is the massacre of Deir Yassin, a village that was essentially destroyed during the 1948 War of Independence or Naqba-take your pick of which term you wish to use to refer to that event. I’ve been intrigued by Deir Yassin for some time, in large part because whether or not it was a massacre, whether or not it was “justified,” and how many people actually did die there remains a very major debate, to the point where just saying the words Deir Yassin is apt to provoke an argument.

At the same time, I’m also very familiar with the history of the 1929 Hevron Massacre, in which nearly 70 Jews, all of whom were living side to side with their Palestinian neighbors, were killed as a result of the general milieu and hysteria relating to increased levels of Jewish immigration to Mandate Palestine. This event, in my opinion, really changed everything in the Middle East. It led to much more violence, and signalled the clear end of peaceful coexistence between Arabs and Jews. Truth be told, many Hevron Palestinians risked their lives to shelter and protect their Jewish neighbors, and to this day, many of the living survivors express dismay at the militancy, violence and racism of the current Hevron settlers, along with their neighbors in Kiryat Arba.

Which also brings up another Hevron massacre from more recent times-the killing of nearly 30 innocent Palestinians at the al-Ibrahimi Mosque in Hevron at the Maras HaMachpelah, which is believed to be the site where Abraham and Sarah are buried. Whether or not that is true, it is an important archeological site and also a building that has been a flashpoint for centuries. Jews were banned from entering the synagogue there during Islamic rule, although their status was still much better than that of Jews under many Christian societies in Europe. In the 1990′s, a physician, Baruch Goldstein, gunned down over two dozen Muslims during prayer there. His burial site in Kiryat Arba has become a shrine to militant settlers, and represents the failure of coexistence.

So I’ve been struck by the duality of both Deir Yassin and Hevron, and didn’t want to exclude one for the other, since they represent an unfortunate continuum. Both Deir Yassin and Hevron contained good people who did nothing wrong, and who were murdered due to a failure of coexistence. The mob who killed Jews in 1929 Hevron was reprehensible. So were the Jews who killed Palestinians in Deir Yassin. And so was Baruch Goldstein, in particular since he was not only “religious” (I’m told that religion gives rise to moral behavior, despite the obvious counterarguments) but was also a physician.

There it is; take your pick of massacres. All are shameful, and all should be remembered. One is not worse than any of the others; they are all disgraceful. The title hevron-deir yassin is not meant to imply that both are equivalent. Each represents unique people.

But enough of history, since that only provides a pretext for the music. The work provides a lot of latitude to the performers. For starters, the instrumentation is not specified. Depending on the range of the instruments, six or perhaps 8 instruments would work, and probably 4-5 if played by strings. So this is an open score work. The tempo is not specified, except to say that it is slow (I play it around quarter note = 55-60, but that is not a hard and fast rule). And the durations of the notes is also free-while everything is either a whole or half note, not all whole notes are equal to one another nor are all half notes equal to one another. To borrow from George Orwell, “All notes are equal, but some are more equal than others.” So the duration of each note can vary, even repetitions of the same chords. Same with the rests-not every whole rest need be as long or as short as the others.

That posed a challenge. In a few sections, the time interval between notes needed to be shorter, and so I placed quarter note rests between them. That seems to have worked well, at least for me. There is thus no right or wrong performance; if something seems to be dragging, one can speed things up, and vice-versa.

In practice, the piece can be performed anywhere from 45-60 minutes by my estimates. At the same time, the last measure is identical to the second measure, which comes after a rest, so the piece is actually cyclical and could theoretically keep going ad infinitum (or ad nauseum, depending on how much you like it). That’s about as programmatic as I’ll get with this piece-just as mass murder seems to be a cyclical event that never stops, so is this composition.

I will be posting the score and a MP3 soon, but think it will be best to wait a bit to make sure I don’t want to make any edits. The piece was entirely improvised in one sitting and then tweaked a bit into a score, but probably 99% of the improvisation remains in the score. I improvised it in Palo Alto, did some scoring in Wyncote and then in Amsterdam Zuid.

But yeah, the title will provoke a lot of comments, I’m sure.

UPDATE: the score is here. The audio is here. I realized the audio on the flight home from Amsterdam today using Reason 4.0.1.