‘Orient/Occident’ Unites East and West

Since long before the era of so-called “globalization,” different nations have been commingling. Alexander the Great and his successors founded Greek cities in Afghanistan, and Arab traders set up enclaves in cities from China to Kenya. Cultural cross-fertilization has been going on for centuries, and as people travel and interact with each other they create pieces of art that draw from disparate roots and blossom into something unique. One of the latest in a long line of transnational artistic conversations, the show “Orient/Occident” at the New England Conservatory on Saturday explored the connection between eastern and western music through the subjective experience of the different musicians.

The performance was organized by Tanya Kalmanovitch, the assistant chair of the Department of Contemporary Improvisation at the NEC. Her department focuses on teaching its students performance and improvisation drawn from a wide range of musical styles. “Every year, I produce a concert that largely features student-led projects,” she says. “But because our department has such a broad constituency, choosing a theme for the concert can be an interesting challenge.” Kalmanovitch, who is an accomplished violinist in her own right, also studies music known as “exotica” that comes from non-western counties but is represented—or more often misrepresented—in western musical forms. This academic interest helped to inform the theme of the “Orient/Occident” project. “What I was interested in doing was [to] have people examine these lenses that we use but never really think about,” she says.

The idea for the concert grew out of the experiences that Kalmanovitch had teaching music in Afghanistan alongside NEC doctoral student and instructor Eden L. MacAdam-Somer. “We were doing a concert at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul when I got an email from one of my students, Yasmine, who was in Tunis in the middle of the Jasmine Revolution,” Kalmanovitch said. This direct interaction between the NEC community and other nations influenced the conception of ‘Orient/Occident.’

Some of the music in “Orient/Occident” was inspired by this sense of travel and displacement. MacAdam-Somer played with this idea in her piece “Going to the West,” a song that connects the stories of an Indian couple, an Afghani orphan, and MacAdam-Somer’s own move to Ohio as a child. “It is bluegrass combined with music from Afghanistan that my students had taught me when I was over there,” she says. “For every musician, it is really important to draw on your own life experiences. It is something that is really important about our program here.” Her piece combined a traditional American form with Afghan themes played on the sitar, a traditional Indian stringed instrument, and featured lyrics that discuss her experiences as a child moving to a town that did not have any Jews outside her family.

“Orient/Occident” was not just a vehicle for exposing the western notion of the east. It also offered a chance for Middle Eastern students to reflect on their homeland’s recent history. “As you know, Tunisia was the first country to kick out its dictator, and right now, one year on, it’s a total nightmare” says Yasmine Aziez, a Tunisian violinist who studies at NEC. “I’ve just been back to Tunis, and I go back very often. And I just wanted to do a piece that was meaningful that incorporated the happiness and the sadness felt one year after the Revolution.” Her piece incorporated melodies from famous North African musicians such as Umm Kalthum, as well as themes characteristic of Arabian orchestras.

Rachel Panitch, a violinist at NEC, composed a piece based on the similarity she heard between the chants of the protesters in Tahrir Square and those of American stadiums during sporting events. “Most of our focus was around how these four violins can create a crowd and also the individual voices within it,” she says. During her performance, four violinists chose themes to play from a list of pre-determined melodies. These themes were interwoven with each other like independent voices coming together to create the roar of the crowd. “Everyone was making choices about what they were going to play, and all of a sudden we were all playing the same thing,” she says.

For people like MacAdam-Somer, it is this diversity in both students and musical styles that makes NEC such a dynamic place to work and study. “It is so great that we have concerts like that where no two things are the same—where everything is different,” she says.

—Staff writer Noah S. Guiney can be reached at nguiney@college.harvard.edu.

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