Sunday, December 2, 2007

The Skies are Weeping - The April 8 2004 Speech


Good Friday, 2004

I’m a composer in Alaska, and have recently completed a cantata, called “The Skies are Weeping,” about Rachel Corrie.

The work, scheduled for premiere at The University of Alaska Anchorage on April 27, 2004, had aroused controversy in a segment of Anchorage’s Jewish community between completion and the beginning of rehearsals. At the end of March, an Anchorage Rabbi invited me to discuss the cantata’s texts over coffee. I was enthusiastic about an opportunity to relieve this gentleman’s concerns. At the coffee house, we agreed to a public meeting, to be held on Thursday, April 8. In the ten days between that agreement and the meeting, some members of the ensemble whose names and e-mail addresses had been made public, began to receive an enormous increase in unwanted e-mails and virus upload attempts.

Meanwhile, I prepared a paper, which I intended to read at the meeting. It is a 6,000-plus-word document which I believe defines the work’s context, integrity, unity, and structure, and also defends “The Skies are Weeping” from the Rabbi’s claims that it is anti-Semitic and supports terrorism.

By Tuesday, April 6, my concerns about student performer safety, based on increasingly specific threats to publicly known participants, prompted notification of UAA security and appropriate administrators. By Thursday, the day of the meeting, I was increasingly convinced professional educators, no matter how firm their belief in freedom of expression is, couldn’t risk students to the growing level of insecurity some of us were enduring.

The most bizarre e-mail I received, at least which is printable in polite company, was this:

Subject: for Philip Munger
Date: April 6, 2004 3:52:05 AM AD

Hello Philip,
My name is Jeff Pezzati, I am a professor of composition at the University of Southern California. My pieces have won ACSAP, BMI prizes and the Prix di Rome. I have been informed of your anti-Semitic cantata that is to be performed. This will not be tolerated by the American composer community. The suicide victim "Rachel Corrie," who you are apparently trying to honor in this piece, killed herself for the cause of promoting Arab terrorism and murder against Jews. I have discussed this with such colleagues as John Corigliano, John Harrison, John Adams, etc. We have all agreed that your music is to be banned from performance in the continental United States. Consider yourself blacklisted.
-Dr. Pezzati

It turns out that this person or internet character is not connected with USC, nor did he contact the composers he claimed to have resonated with.

On Thursday evening, I delivered ‘On Writing “The Skies are Weeping’” to about 80 or so people in the band room of UAA. t was the saddest evening I have had to endure in a public or creative role.

When applause or quiet hissing occurred during the early part of my address, I chose an occurrence of applause to announce that any further interruptions of my address, pro or con, would result in the appearance of campus security and the eviction of the disturber. Things quieted down until I had concluded.

Before I ended my speech, the Rabbi who had earlier proposed the meeting took the floor, pacing around, waiting for me to finish. He then proceeded to denounce the work as supportive of suicide bombers and terrorism. He began repeating himself. As he began the third rotation of his arguments, I asked him - politely, yet firmly - to please return to his seat, as he had agreed to do before the evening’s event began. The audience erupted in shouts.

Things rapidly went downhill from there. I guess, beforehand, I should have thought of providing a neutral moderator.

The low point of the evening, the point at which I finally started to quietly weep and whisper to myself "Oh, dear God!" was when a courageous young Palestinian-American man was shouted down, with one of the shouters yelling something along the lines of "Shut up, you're not even human." Several people then applauded. I observed two high Republicans, a state representative and a former state party treasurer, apparently nodding affirmation.

Soon afterward, campus police showed up and what looked like a six-pack of deans speeded the proceedings to their close. People were shouting, leaving, arguing, interrupting me, as I tried to deliver this prepared statement:

“Over the past five days local artists preparing for the premiere of "The Skies are Weeping" have been subjected to a growing crescendo of internet virus attacks, hate mail and bizarre religious-political polemics. It appears to be orchestrated. Some of the incoming venom is quite threatening.

After consulting with staff here at the University of Alaska Anchorage Department of Music, I have decided that I cannot subject sixteen students, whose names, fortunately, have not been released to anyone, to any possibility of physical harm or to the type of character assassination some of us are already undergoing.

Performance of "The Skies are Weeping" at this time and place is withdrawn for the safety of the student performers.

This decision has been mine alone, with no pressure whatsoever from the school or university.”

Anybody who went into that meeting thinking my concerns for student safety to be exaggerated or unwarrented, and who also left the meeting feeling the same way, should not be making such safety decisions.

Here is the lecture I delivered on April 8, 2004:


On Writing The Skies are Weeping

Philip Munger

Introduction: I have been asked here to defend my most recent work, a cantata, inspired by the life and death of Rachel Corrie, for soprano solo, chamber choir and percussion ensemble, called The Skies are Weeping, my Opus 75. Although I’ve spoken about many of my musical works before, this is the first occasion on which I stand in front of a community group who are seemingly appalled by the prospect that my music will get a hearing. Although a longtime friend told an acquaintance last week that “Phil doesn’t have an anti-Semitic bone in his body,” I’m here to defend my art against the accusation that The Skies are Weeping is anti-Semitic, and the implication that the composer, and perhaps some of, if not all, of the contributing artists are such people.

Since commiting myself to writing the cantata in its present form, I’ve known I might be asked to do exactly what we are doing here tonight. Last week, when I was meeting with Rabbi Yosef Greenburg of Congregation Shomrei Ohr-Chabad and the Lubevitch Jewish Center of Alaska, Rabbi Greenburg, I suspect kidding me a bit, said, “You’ll get a lot of publicity, a good thing, no?” I don’t know.

I love talking about music, as some of my friends here tonight know full well. And I always appreciate a forum in which I can describe the processes of my craft. Just a month ago, I addressed a more sympathetic audience of a couple hundred – some of you were there - in a pre-concert lecture at the Anchorage Symphony’s premiere of my Piano Concerto.

But this is hard. As much as I have dreaded the thought throughout the composition of The Skies are Weeping of alienating friends with whom I agree on virtually everything, by bringing up the one thing which separates us, I feel strongly that this work resonates on several levels, and speaks the truth.

1. For 45 years, I have kept myself informed of the history of modern Israel. In 1960 one of my closest friends, Garry DeWeese, left Seattle for a year to go to Israel. His father was Boeing’s supervisor in Israel for that company’s oversight of El Al Airline’s use of two 707s. Garry and I corresponded weekly. What he wrote about fascinated me enough to read my older sister’s copy of Exodus, the novel by Leon Uris, which had just been published in paperback. The book made such a romantic impression on me that I told my mother I wanted to convert from our Lutheran faith to Judaism. Mom laughed heartily. I was a bit confused. She explained to me that a part of my conversion would have to involve circumcision. I blanched. She did take me seriously enough to let me know soon afterward that her boss, Marty Rind, owner of Milwaukee Sausage Company in Seattle, had told her he would be happy to discuss Judaism with me anytime.

Around this time, 1961 and 1962, any of us born in the mid-1940s and before followed the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, either in the print media, or on television.

From then through the summer of 1982, my readings on Israel were mostly concerning religious and military history. In November, 1982, a Palestinian friend invited me to an exhibition of art rendered by recently orphaned children who had survived the Shatila refugee camp massacre in Beirut. This Seattle exhibit opened my eyes to sociological aspects of the growing Mid-East tragedy for the first time. My previous interests in subjects like “Israel’s defensible borders” or fascination with the Battle of the Chinese Farm during the Yom Kippur War were completely overshadowed by developing friendships with Christian and Muslim Palestinian Americans.

Through the 1980s and 1990s, my interest in the lack of peace in the Holy Land was largely fueled through reading widely - articles in such periodicals as Commentary, National Review, Foreign Affairs and The New York Review of Books, for example. My serious reading began to include topic specific works about the plight of Palestinian refugees. I re-read texts in my library about Islam and Judaism.

From the mid-1980s, I began composing music again after a lapse of 10 years. In 1989, in the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez oilspill, I composed my first protest work in seventeen years, an orchestral movement titled Sphinx Island Elegy. From the early 1990s, in collaboration with three sculptors, James Acord, Karen Stahlecker and Peter Bevis, I have devoted about a third of my output to my impressions of injustices to entities under relentless siege - animals, people, peoples - the planet itself.

I’ve addressed my work as a composer in detail through essays and speeches over the years. Rather than devote space to that general subject here, I hope to keep to the specific immediate background of the cantata, “The Skies are Weeping.”

To help in this task, I’ve sought here to try to find fitting words uttered or written by others also attempting to understand the current lack of and wishes for peace in the Israeli-occupied territories of the west bank of the Jordan River and the Gaza Strip, or in other contexts germaine to the work’s premise.

2. I began looking for material for a song cycle for soprano Mari Hahn and the University of Alaska Percussion Ensemble in February, 2003. As the American media so ably prepared the way for the American-led invasion of Iraq, I was drawn toward the song cycle convention known as “Songs of Love and War.” As I was reading and beginning to choose from immensely contrasting poems and studying earlier composers’ approaches to the subject, I was simultaneously being drawn into the internet, both in my research and as a news source.

I had just become aware of the International Solidarity Movement, through a link provided from a Tikkun website, when Rachel Corrie was killed on March 16, 2003. Within days of her death, about a week before the opening American attacks on Baghdad - other members of the ISM were involved in similar “incidents.”

And, within days, three memorial websites for Rachel, two of them entirely spontaneous, showed up. Memorials in many forms poured in. What interested me were the poems and songs coming from all around the globe: School kids and octogenarians, Jewel wannabes and established songwriters, student writers and poet laureates , Jews and Muslims from all continents; Christians, Buddhists, sectarians.

One thing which saddened me as much as Rachel’s death was the fact that I hadn’t noticed such a genuinely unorchestrated, nor widespread worldwide outpouring after any of the many awful violent events in Israel or Palestine involving Israeli or Palestinian casualties.

As I began to familiarize myself with what you could call “Rachel’s mission,” I caught on to the fact that her purity of purpose and innocence in the face of the violence around her were tremendous factors in the magnetism her seemingly receding aura presented.

I wrote to poets, explaining what I was thinking of doing, and received permission for use of their texts as lyrics. Once the texts were together, I wrote to the Corrie family, and received permission to proceed, along with their wishes and prayers for success.

During the eleven months since I considered writing music about Rachel, much contradictory material has been written about aspects of her life, both before and during her short time in the Gaza Strip. Basically, what she was in the Gaza Strip to do was to help establish a sister city relationship between Rafah and Olympia, Washington. Additionally, she participated in some of the International Solidarity Movement’s local activities, which included accompanying ambulances, assisting farmers in reaching their crops, protecting water wells from demolition and walking children to school.

3. In addition to the poems and songs about Rachel which helped inspire my work, much has been written about her in the press. Like another young woman trapped last spring in the mythmaking machinery of worldwide media, Jessica Lynch, Corrie’s image and distorted accounts of what those images meant abounded. She certainly can’t be blamed for any of that. One image, however, that of her burning a paper effigy of an American flag during a large demonstration in Gaza City against the impending Iraq war, has led to accusations against Corrie which she might have found hard to parry were she alive today. One correspondent critical of my work has singled that event out to reach the conclusion that

Mr. Munger’s cantata glorifying Rachel Corrie is a cantata glorifying anti-American and pro-terrorism activism.

American Flag burning and flag effigy burning are not illegal acts, even if some of us find the act repulsive – I do. But to claim a young woman is anti-American because of this is a pretty high standard to hold her to. If you’re going to hold citizens to such high standards, I’ll make a comparison:

Imagine, if you will, a young man, born to privilege, accepted into the National Guard ahead of several hundred other applicants, given flight training, even though he scored below the minimum on his pre-testing, going through that training at a cost to U.S. taxpayers of about $600,000, using that expensive, fuel hungry plane to fly flowers from Texas to Florida for political buddies, and then, at a time when hundreds of soldiers and up to dozens of pilots per month are dying in Vietnam, at a time when the U.S. Air Force is in desperate need for combat pilots, that young man simply fails to show up for a required flight physical, explaining later that “I decided not to fly any longer.” This is very thoroughly documented, by the way.

What is actually more anti-American, Rachel Corrie’s burning of a paper effigy of the American flag, or George W. Bush’s dereliction of duty.

The largest circulation article about Rachel Corrie was an unfortunately inaccurate and plagiarism-riddled article in the September/October 2003 edition of Mother Jones magazine. The Death of Rachel Corrie by Newsweek Jerusalem bureau reporter Joshua Hammer and his article’s incredible lapses have been covered by Phan Nguyen in his article, Specious Journalism in Defense of Killers, published in the September 20, 2003 edition of Counterpunch.

Hammer’s Mother Jones article concluded “Corrie herself has faded into obscurity, a subject of debate in internet chat rooms and practically nowhere else.” Phan Nguyen, in his critique of Hammer, noted instead that

Her letters from Rafah have now been published in mainstream English-language media such as Harper's and The Guardian. They have been translated into numerous other languages and have been reprinted in publications throughout the world. In the Arab world, her name continues to resonate as a reminder that not all Americans support the policies of their president. Documentaries have been made about her in the US, Japan, the Middle East, and elsewhere. Around the world, including in Israel, songs and poems have been written about her. Participation in ISM has risen as a reaction to her killing. Memorials, scholarship funds, and humanitarian centers are being established in her name and in her honor. ISM has even been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, with special recognition of Corrie, Brian Avery, and Tom Hurndall. Arab parents are naming their children after her. Veterans for Peace has awarded her with a posthumous membership. Susan Sontag recognized her as she presented the Rothko Chapel Oscar Romero Award to Ishai Menuchin of Yesh Gvul, and Israeli conscientious objectors have evoked her name when they explain their refusal to serve in the Occupied Territories.

That was almost seven months ago. Since that time many other recognitions and posthumous honors have been made. March 16 was the one year anniversary of Rachel Corrie’s death. Vigils and other events of remembrance were held around the planet. In the United States, over one hundred activist organizations participated, including

Arab/Jewish Peace Alliance, Albuquerque, New Mexico
Faculty for Israeli-Palestinian Peace
Jewish Voice for Peace
Jewish Voices Against the Occupation, Seattle
Jewish Witnesses for Peace & Friends, Ann Arbor, Michigan
Jewish Women for Justice in Israel/Palestine
Jews Against the Occupation, New York, New York
Jews for a Just Peace, North Carolina
Jews for Peace in Palestine and Israel
Olympia Jews Against the Occupation, Olympia, Washington
Philadelphia Jewish Peace Network
Tikkun Community, Los Gatos, California Chapter

One might venture to say that the cantata The Skies are Weeping is but one of thousands of items commemorating or noting the humanity of this young woman. Here’s an example from a recent speech made by U.S. presidential candidate Ralph Nader, as quoted in the Irish Journal Handstand’s April 2004 edition:

Criticism of Israeli actions in Palestinian areas is often chilled by the phrase anti-Semitism. When that word was used during and after World War II, it had a gravity following the Jewish Holocaust. It not only had a gravity, it elicited sympathy, support, grief. The increasingly cavalier use of the term anti-Semitism increasingly focused on criticism of the present government of Israel, cheapens that term. Turns it into a censorious device. Turns it into the very suppression of dissent, which in any democratic society is most often the mother of future assent. It stifles people in our government, in our business world, at our universities. And it becomes not just what it was grief, awe, sympathy. It's increasingly becoming an object through its reckless use of subdued derision. It's also broadly used where it shouldn't be used. Arabs are Semites. Jews who came from the Middle East are Semites.

It's time to call the vicious discrimination when it occurs against Arab Americans, the other anti-Semitism. As Jim Zogby pointed out years ago in an article, it's time to use it with prudence, not as a censorious device, but it's time to use it in a way that will send a message to those who recklessly use it to stifle dissent, to stifle the recognition of the facts, to stifle the criticism of the Israeli present day military government.

In almost the exact words that Israelis use in Israel where there's far more freedom to criticize their government than there is in this country to criticize our government for not properly criticizing their government.

You only have to read the writings of Peace Now, of Rabbis for Justice, of the human rights group Beth Salem, which has documented atrocities against the Palestinians in a highly specific and authentic manner. All honor to them. They document atrocities on all sides.

But they're taking a lot of heat for documenting the far greater civilian casualties and children casualties on the Palestinian side. This very idea of debating equivalence of violence is anathema. Nonviolence should always be the top priority in resolving disputes. Once one or both sides devolves into violence, all their violence can be rationalized. All their violence.

We rationalized Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 200,000 dead civilians, they were deliberately targeted to terrorize the population and destabilize the emperor and military regime. I've seen rationalizations of people who think they have justice on their side go to such extremes as to question the stability of the minds that tried to explain it away.

When Rachel Corrie was killed by that bulldozer, there were some people who were saying, it was her fault. She asked for it. She shouldn't have been there. That's how far people will go once they use that as the overwhelming instrument of policy.

Mr. Nader is just one of many people who have found that Rachel Corrie has become a symbol representing something new in the dynamics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

4. Choosing texts for individual movements of the cantata was difficult. Indeed, I attempted setting four texts not now included in the cantata. My hope was that the progression of the texts would reflect an arc of hope for peace emerging from a climate of hatred and violence, a climate which produces such meaningless cruelty as the destruction of over 1,000 houses in South Rafah in a hunt for smuggling tunnels which has yielded between five and 60 such tunnels, depending on which source one uses.

Some of the texts which I used lent themselves well as lyrics. Others seemed to set tortuously, and I hope they don’t jar one’s sense of melodiousness too much when heard.

[The six texts of “The Skies are Weeping” appear at the end of this article.]

A. The first setting is of Psalm 137. This is the second time I have set this particular Psalm, the first being January or February, 1967. The text is from the King James Version of the Christian Bible. This is my tenth setting of a Psalm, the most recent before being a setting of Psalm 100, which has been sung a number of places now, including the National Cathedral in Washington, DC.

Psalm 137 was the first music written for the cantata. I began composing it as U.S. Marines were fighting for bridges across the rivers near the ruins of Babylon. I felt I had picked an important text, which related to the war and the war’s relationship to some Bush administration neo-conservative idealogues’ dual personal alliances to the U.S. and Israel. For instance, in A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm, a 1996 report prepared for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a group of American and Israeli opinion makers opined

Israel can shape its strategic environment. This effort can focus on removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq — an important Israeli strategic objective in its own right — as a means of foiling Syria’s regional ambitions.

The chairman of this group was the increasingly notorious Richard Perle, and a prominent member of the panel was Douglas Feith, who while serving as under secretary of Defense in the run-up to the Iraq War, was noted for allowing Israeli visitors to violate strict security procedures regarding classified material access in the Pentagon. The following is from an article, titled Open Door, by former United States Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Karen Kwiatkowski, in the January 19, 2004 issue of The American Conservative:

In early winter [of 2002], an incident occurred that was seared into my memory. A coworker and I were suddenly directed to go down to the Mall entrance to pick up some Israeli generals. Post-9/11 rules required one escort for every three visitors, and there were six or seven of them waiting.

The Navy lieutenant commander and I hustled down. Before we could
apologize for the delay, the leader of the pack surged ahead, his
colleagues in close formation, leaving us to double-time behind the
group as they sped to Undersecretary Feith's office on the fourth
floor. Two thoughts crossed our minds: are we following close enough to
get credit for escorting them, and do they really know where they are
going? We did get credit, and they did know. Once in Feith's waiting
room, the leader continued at speed to Feith's closed door. An alert
secretary saw this coming and had leapt from her desk to block the
door. "Mr. Feith has a visitor. It will only be a few more minutes."
The leader craned his neck to look around the secretary's head as he
demanded, "Who is in there with him?"

This minor crisis of curiosity past, I noticed the security sign-in
roster. I asked the secretary, "Do you want these guys to sign in?" She raised her hands, both palms toward me, and waved frantically as she shook her head. "No, no, no, it is not necessary, not at all." Her body language told me I had committed a faux pas for even asking the question.

From LTC Kwiatkowski’s statement, it appears we are now in a reverse of the predicament of the Babylonian captivity referred to in Psalm 137 – that is, the USA, being the captives of the Israelites.

Regarding the final lines of Psalm 137, on April 1, 1988, the New York Times noted Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir as stating to a group of Israeli West Bank settlers that

"The Palestinians" would be crushed like grasshoppers ... heads smashed against the boulders and walls."

Concurrent with these discoveries, I searched the web for as many commentaries on Psalm 137 as I could find – from Jewish, Catholic and Protestant sources. I had read the standard Lutheran commentaries on Psalm 137 back in 1967, when I first set the text. This Psalm alludes to the Babylonian captivity, to the return to Jerusalem afterward, to the reclamation of Jerusalem, and, according to some commentators, the prophesies of Isaiah, Chapter 13, Verse 16. Apparently, concern over my use of a Psalm which is tied in, through its ending, with the so-called imprecatory or cursing Psalms (Psalms. 7, 35, 59, 69, 70, 83, 109, 137, 140) has been raised. In the context of the cantata, my mixing of images from several different interpretations of Psalm 137 over the past 2,500-plus years may seem to some confusing or confused, to others blasphemous, and perhaps to others, pointless or amateurish. However, I can point to well-known commentaries which permit me the leeway to treat this Psalm as an introductory movement to the topic at hand, that is, the plight of disposessed Palestinian Arabs, their sadness at losing their homes and land, and the irony of only the last, cursing element of the Psalm being turned back against them.

Some commentators link the context of the captivity to Israel’s venality and carelessness in the eighth through sixth centuries B.C.E. For instance, Dr. Walter Brueggerman states

By its stubbornness, its refusal to heed the purposes of Yahweh and its resolve to act against neighborliness, Israel brought upon itself the great crisis of 587 B.C.E.

I feel that too is the present situation in which Israel has placed itself.

B. The second movement, Dance for Tom Hurndall was the last piece to be conceived. It was written shortly after Mr. Hurndall died on January 13, 2004. Hurndall, according to Tovah Lazroff of the Jerusalem Post

was hit in the head [by an IDF soldier in April, 2003] as he pushed children out of the line of fire in Gaza's Rafah refugee camp. He lay in a coma for nine months.

I’m not sure that Hurndall’s death will spur nearly as much art as did the death of Corrie. However, I received a copy of a poem written in Tom’s memory by Phil Goldvarb the other day:

Last Breath
For Thomas Hurndall

our children wait in great fear
until their last breath is absorbed
by the butchers of hope,
they tremble in this place
where escape is a ride with death,
no choice exists
except split second evaporation,
rescue is a man of good heart
that will not let him be blind or deaf
to a child's terror filled plea,
rescue is not acceptable to this killer,
too much blood has been shed,
so many children passed from this land,
hate has been nurtured,
trained to pull triggers,
victims become faceless,
rescuers a future threat,
man of good heart
takes his last breath,
content that rescued child
is still breathing without fear.

C. The third movement, God the Synecdoche in His Holy Land i.m. Rachel Corrie was solicited from Alaska poet Linda McCarriston in June, 2003. She completed it in August, and I began setting it soon afterward. It was the easiest of the lyrics to work.

Synecdoche \sin-EK-deh-kee or sehn-EK-deh-kee\ (a noun) - Metaphorical technique of naming a specific part when referring to the whole, or, conversely, naming the whole to indicate a part.

I am not going to set about explaining Ms. McCarriston’s title. The words of the poem seem to do this quite plausibly. However, it is important to realize that the poem in its opening lines

Around you the father gods war. This
Father. That father. The other father

is not mocking God, but mocking our abuses of God, most notably in context of what was happening during the time of the poem’s creation: the uncommon claims by religious, political and military demagogues to each have God exclusively on his side, or to be acting upon direct communication with God, as in the continuing delusional episodes Americans are having to endure from our president.
D. The fourth movement, Rachel (for Rachel Corrie) is by Phil Goldvarg, a Sacramento poet, known especially for his readings, clinics and workshops on the craft of poetry in area schools. I’ve set his poem as a blues song.

Mr. Goldvarg uses imagery which one Jewish friend of mine commented on thusly:

I am also frightened by the texts' Judaizing of Rachel. I don't know if she was actually Jewish or not, but she would not be the first Jew to betray her people to do the "right" thing.

Mr. Goldvarg is Jewish, and I feel I must defend him from the inference that by creating a metaphor from the Old Testament about a Gentile, he has done something treacherous. The use of imagery from both testaments of the bible is a convention in Western literature, extending over centuries. Increasingly, sectarian authors using Old Testament imagery are being called into question by fundamentalist Christian and Jewish critics. The examples of this attempt at thought control are numerous. Most notoriously, movie director Mel Gibson was forced to excise quotes from a New Testament Gospel in his setting of the Passion, which J.S. Bach and dozens of other Baroque composers had been allowed to use in their Passions.

My friend quoted directly above, in his reference to Jews who are perceived to betray their brothers and sisters through lack of blind faith in Israel, brings up a point alluded to by Mr. Nader in his speech. During my web searches I have found many sites which spew hatred. One of the most shocking is called Self Hating and/or Israel-Threatening LIST, or SHITLIST. This site lists over 6,000 American Jews, who, in the words of the site’s owners, “act like they are the enemies of Israel because they ARE the enemies of Israel.” The site calls these people “Kapos” and “Judenrats,” and asks Jews to turn in liberal Jews to the site for treatment the site owners leave to the imagination.

E. The fifth movement, I Had no Mercy for Anybody is a set of excerpts from a long interview with Israeli Defense Force D-9 bulldozer driver Moshe Nissum. Several things struck me the first time I read the long article about him in the May 31, 2002 edition of Yediot Aharanot, a wide circulation Israeli newspaper.

I worked for several years in counseling and community corrections. It struck me that nobody with as many chronic dysfunctions as driver Nissum should be put behind the controls of a sixty-ton armored bulldozer, especially in a populated area like Jenin. Those of you unfamiliar with the tactics of the IDF when engaging in urban demolitions may take Nissum’s statement as myth rather than drunken exaggeration.

Directly below is a map made by the United Nations of the building destruction during the 2002 Jenin incursion, much of that destruction caused by Nissum and his colleagues.

Over 140 buildings, mostly multifamily dwellings, were completely destroyed (green) in Jenin and more than 200 others (red) were seriously damaged . Hawashin district, where more than 100 buildings were razed, is at the center of the map.

The desperate venality and selfishness of Nissum’s occupational life and the coarseness of his nature seemed to me a metaphor for the unpleasant aspects of the personality of Ariel Sharon. Nissum’s lack of true solidarity with his fellow soldiers and willingness to despise authority, illustrate what can happen when officers hesitate to discipline sociopaths in their units.

Is the acceptance of Nissum’s sociopathy indicitive of the present state of the Israeli Defense Forces? I think not, but anyone studying the varying records in the occupied territories from one unit or one sector or one checkpoint to another, knows some units are simply loose cannon, or to direct the analogy more closely, loose gigantic blades, cutting swaths through peaceful areas about four feet wider than the alleys the bulldozers enter generally are.

During composition, I felt uncomfortable when reading Nissum’s statement, worried that American forces in Iraq, as the situation would inevitably deteriorate, would undergo their own degradation of morale, morality and effective command and control. Sure enough, Yahoo carried a report on April 3, 2004 of Marines preparing revenge missions to Fallujah. Tank barrels in Baghdad are embellished with slogans like “bloodlust” and “kill them all” as our troops prepare for the next stage in our efforts to bring democracy to the Middle East.

I couldn’t set all of Mr. Nissum’s long statement, so I had to edit. I understand my editing of Mr. Nissum’s words has aroused some readers of the cantata texts. I’ll give one example, hoping this specific cite will illuminate the process I used throughout this dreadful song.

Mr. Nissum said the following in his interview:

I didn't see, with my own eyes, people dying under the blade of the D-9. and I didn't see house falling down on live people. But if there were any, I wouldn't care at all. I am sure people died inside these houses, but it was difficult to see, there was lots of dust everywhere, and we worked a lot at night. I found joy with every house that came down, because I knew they didn't mind dying, but they cared for their homes. If you knocked down a house, you buried 40 or 50 people for generations. If I am sorry for anything, it is for not tearing the whole camp down.

Here is my text:

I didn't see, with my own eyes, people dying under the blade of the D-9. But if there were any, I wouldn't care at all. If you knocked down a house, you buried 40 or 50 people.

Mr. Nissum stated “I am sure people died inside these houses,” which I didn’t put into the lyric. By distilling his wishes (“I wouldn’t care at all”) into the phrase “you buried 40 or 50 people,” and leaving out “for generations,” which refers to his hope of harming people more by destroying their dwellings than by killing them, I have been accused of taking his words out of context. If anything, I have let this man off easy. For instance, in the same paragraph from which I didn’t use his reference to his conviction he had wantonly killed, I also didn’t set his obviously racist canard “I knew they didn’t mind dying, but they cared for their homes.”

Such statements are all too common as one reviews documents from the Israeli press. You don’t even have to go so far as the Palestinian press to find horrible racist comments by Israeli public figures and media commentators which illustrate similar derision of Palestinians as an ethnic sub-human group. Here is a comment from the New York Times on April 14, 1983, made by Raphael Eitan, then Chief of Staff to the Israeli Defense Forces:

When we have settled the land, all the Arabs will be able to do about it will be to scurry around like drugged cockroaches in a bottle.

To reiterate, I feel strongly that my extracts of Moshe Nissum’s interview, used as lyrics for my cantata, are reflective of the tenor of his remarks as a whole, are in no way taken out of context, and are a useful metaphor to encapsulate my feelings about the current demolition policies of the Israeli government.

F. The sixth movement, The Skies are Weeping is by Thushara Wijeratna. I haven’t corresponded much with this poet about his eulogy. Mr. Wijeratna is a Sri Lankan poet, and a distinguished programmer and educator in computer fields.

I decided to set it as a stark contrast to the horrific content of the preceding text. The instrumental accompaniment is entirely of vibrating metallic substances – strings, tubes, the resonating chamber of a timpani body, and so forth. Vague references to other musical works abound, in this, the only openly referential movement of the cantata. Some may notice allusions to my earlier funerary cantata, Some may detect quotes from the sixth of Arnold Schoenberg’s Sechs Kleine Klavierstucke.

This airy, yet mostly atonal movement links what are probably the two most emotionally packed vocal settings I have ever dealt with as a composer.

G. Finally, Rachel’s Words is a setting of extracts from Ms. Corrie’s last e-mail to her mother. The harmonic structure is based on a chordal portrayal, that is a verticalised rendition of the sequence of the horizontal 12-tone row (or set) to Arnold Schoenberg’s penultimate choral work, Dreimahl Tausand Jahre.

I sought, in searching through Rachel Corrie’s e-mails available on the web, to underscore her youth, her fears, her hopes, and the perceptive observations she made about the Palestinians she was meeting. Some of the material I used is remarkably unpoetic, such as

basic ability for humans to remain human in the direst of circumstances


bulldozers come and take out people’s vegetable farms and gardens

but the line

being doted on all the time, very sweetly, by people who are facing doom

struck me as immensely poetic and poignant.

The cantata ends with Rachel Corrie’s plea to you and to me

I wish you could meet these people.
Maybe, hopefully, someday you will.

5. In the Saturday April 3, 2004 edition of Ha’Aretz, Knesset member and Hebrew University Law Professor Amnon Rubinstein was quoted as stating

In its policy of establishing settlements in the territories, irrespective of the policy's political wisdom or absence thereof, Israel has clearly violated international law: It has violated the prohibitions concerning an occupying power's transferring nationals to the territory it occupies and concerning the expropriation of land for purposes unrelated to the local population's well-being. Regarding these two categories of violation, Israel's High Court of Justice has been unable to restrain the executive branch of Israeli government - perhaps because of the court's awareness of the issue's political nature.

My view is that political and military entities in Israel have used sophisticated, naked immoral agression against poorly organized people, who were, at the onset of their oppression, predominantly peaceful. Increasingly desperate over the years, the Palestinians have increasingly resorted to tactics which also cannot be defended morally.

With that in mind, am I on firm footing believing that my setting of Psalm 137 and of extracts from Mr. Nissum’s interview are strictly not “Anti-Semitic”? I have to ask, “by whose standards?”

Composer Dmitri Shostakovich, widely regarded as the greatest Russian artist of the Soviet period, was attributed by Solomon Volkov , in his book Testimony, to have reminisced about his preoccupation with facets of anti-Semitism in the USSR. Volkov quotes Shostakovich telling the following story:

Recently, I went to the Repino station to buy a lemonade. There’s a little store, a stall really, that sells everything. There was a line, and a woman in the line, who looked very Jewish and had an accent, began to complain out loud. Why is there such a line, and why are canned peas only sold with something else, and so on.

And the young salesman answered along these lines: “If you’re unhappy here, citizeness, why don’t you go to Israel? There are no lines there, and you can probably buy peas just like that.”

Shostakovich goes on to explain that this particular incident illustrated to him the waning of anti-Semitism in Soviet society in the late 1960s. He states

So Israel was pictured in a positive way, as a country without lines and with canned peas. And that’s a dream for the Soviet consumer, and the [people in the] line looked with wonder at the citizeness who could go to a country with no lines and with more peas than you could want.

However, if we were to apply current standards as applied by such people as Abraham Foxman or organizations such as CAMERA (the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America), Shostakovich would be stopped in his tracks once he uttered the phrase “who looked very Jewish and had an accent.”

Israeli poet Israel Shamir observed in a widely published essay, Acid Test Failed, penned in 2000 that

In 1968, a young Jewish Russian kid, I wrote on the walls of my native Russian city, 'Hands off Czechoslovakia'. The beautiful deep voice of a Jewish Russian poet Alexander Galitch intoned: Citizens, our motherland is in danger, our tanks are on foreign soil! Some Russian Jews demonstrated on the Red Square against the invasion, and were beaten up by the police. We protested against the presence of the Russian tanks in Budapest, Prague and Kabul as Russian citizens who value honour above the ill-understood loyalty, humankind above blood ties. In the same time, Jewish American kids demonstrated against their country's intervention in Vietnam, while Jewish boys and girls in Europe fought against racism. Years passed by, and now our Jewish tanks are on the foreign soil.

By applying the standard apparently being used against my work, is Mr. Shamir’s observation anti-Semitic? Probably.

6. Let us look at three recent events in Europe in an effort to better understand the context of The Skies are Weeping. Quite recently, accusations of anti-Semitism have been leveled against a French performance artist, a Norwegian painter, and an Israeli-born Swedish conceptual artist.

A. In the first instance, as reported in the journal Islam online,

A French Comedian whose performance was taken off stage shrugged off anti-Semitic allegations and regretted the entire episode as a blow to freedom of expression by radical Jews.

Dieudonne M'Bala M'Bala told the crowd outside Paris Olympia theatre on Friday, February 21, that he was fighting for freedom of expression. The play was cancelled after French Jewish organizations accused the French comedian of anti-Semitism. Flooded with daily angry calls, Olympia management called off Dieudonne’s show on safety grounds.

Last December, Dieudonne performed a sketch on Channel 3 featuring a "Nazi rabbi" advising Moroccan youths in the Paris suburbs to embrace Judaism in order to join "the U.S.-Zionist axis of good".

He was referring to the axis of evil, in which the U.S. bracketed Iraq, Iran and North Korea, and Washington’s blind support to Israel against Palestinians.

A number of Israeli officials have repeatedly claimed that the growing number of Muslims in Europe "could endanger life of Jews there" - an allegation vehemently repudiated by Muslims. As part of the sketch, Dieudonne also addressed the audience with a "hi Israel" salute, which Jewish protesters said was reminiscent of the infamous "hi Hitler." Ridiculing the charges, Dieudonne said the sketch was meant as a criticism of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's policies toward Palestinians.

Acknowledging the sketch was rather satirical, the comedian stressed that criticizing Israel’s policy - which he said based on a violation of human rights - could not be synonymous with anti-Semitism.

B. The second event has been summarized by the same journal thusly:

A Norwegian gallery removed a painting from an exhibition designed to challenge anti-Semitism after the Israeli ambassador said it offended Jews.

The controversy centered on a red-and-white picture, entitled Anti-Semite in the Name of God, that contains the words "USA" and "Israel" with the letter-S in both replaced by a swastika, reported the BBC News Online Friday.

Israel's Ambassador to Norway Liora Hertzl said it was unacceptable to link Israel and the United States to Nazism.

The artist, Chris Reddy, accused the diplomat of using the fascists' own tool, censorship.

Reddy defended his painting, saying his art challenged the most important source of conflict in the world, nationalism, adding that "totalitarian and extreme regimes can't tolerate criticism".

C. The third event, truly bizarre occurred in January in Stockholm:

Israel's Ambassador to Sweden, Zvi Mazel, was kicked out of a Stockholm museum after he had destroyed an artwork depicting a female Palestinian [suicide bomber] as Snow White.

The incident, widely reported in the Swedish media, occurred at the opening Friday, January 16, of the "Making Differences" exhibit at the Museum of National Antiquities, part of an upcoming international conference on genocide hosted by the Swedish government, reported Agence France-Presse (AFP).

The [art work], located in the museum's courtyard, featured a basin filled with red water, designed to look like blood.

A sailboat with the name Snow White floated on the water, and placed like a sail was a photo of a smiling Hanadi Jaradat, the female lawyer who blew herself up in the Haifa bombing attack in October which killed 21 Israelis.

Mazel was captured on video unplugging electrical wires around the exhibit's basin and pushing a spotlight into the tub, causing a short-circuit and endangering the lives of the audience.

The exhibit is the work of an Israeli expatriate musician and artist, Dror Feiler, who has been active in "Jews for Israeli-Palestinian peace," a Stockholm-based group opposed to Israeli activities in the Palestinian territories under Israeli occupation.

As background music to his exhibit, the Tel Aviv-born Feiler mixed music from Bach's Cantata #199, "My Heart Swims in Blood."

"If our nation cannot realize its dream and the goals of the victims, and live in freedom and dignity, then let the whole world be erased," read a heartrending line of the text that accompanied the artwork.

Jaradat was avenging her brother Fady and husband Saleh who were gunned down by Israeli occupation forces in June last year.

Compared to any of the three above examples, I believe The Skies are Weeping is tame indeed.

Conclusion: My father has always said “Anything less than a full explanation is no explanation at all.” I pray I haven’t bored you stiff with this somewhat long defense of a set of musical episodes. To honor my father, I’ve broken one of my salient rules, that is to never let the explanation of a piece of music last longer than the music itself.

Despite what has been asserted about this cantata, I hope I have shown to you that the musical setting does not, as has been widely alleged, claim Rachel Corrie was murdered, that my use of Psalm 137 is not outside the bounds of previous creative settings, that I understand my use of Mr. Nissum’s interview as a lyric to be metaphor, and that I haven’t flippantly engaged in an activity which I viewed as having no consequences.

To anyone still offended by this particular composition, which, by the way, hasn’t been heard yet, I can only offer my humble apology.

To those who feel I should have been “fair and balanced,” I can only say that had I known earlier about the story of Abigail Little, the 14-year old American girl killed by a suicide bomber while involved in a peace program at the Jewish-Arab Center for Peace, I may have composed a simultaneous parallel work or this work might have progressed differently.

There will be more music from me, more music of protest. Anybody here who wants to enlighten me further about Israel is welcome to come forward with an invitation for me to go over and see with my eyes, hear with my ears and learn. I only ask that I be allowed to go where I choose as well as where you choose.

April 8, 2004

Texts for the Cantata “The Skies are Weeping”

1. Choral Prelude: Psalm 137 (King James Version)
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, "Sing us one of the songs of Zion."

How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.

Remember, O Lord, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem; who said, "Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof."

O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us. Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.

2. Aria-Lament: Rachel
(For Rachel Corrie)
with the name Rachel,
she would be matriarch of the people,
those suffering a fearful life of drought,
loss of home and land,
history of ancestors
buried in heaps of disrespected earth,
she had no choice
but to follow her heart,
faith must have filled her soul,
that she could hold a child's tears
in the cup of her hand,
that her small body
would take the form of her spirit,
large enough to protect those
she felt connected to,
she risked her last breath
against the hardness of steel,
her arms
became wings of resolve,
she was the laughter of wind,
offering joy to those in lament,
this is my song to you young sister,
you have touched this world
with your strong voice
crying for justice.
Phil Goldvarg 3/18/03

3. Song: God the Synecdoche in His Holy Land i.m. Rachel Corrie
Around you the father gods war. This
Father. That father. The other father.

What more dangerous place could
A woman stand, upright, than on that sand, as if
She were still antiphon to that voice, the other
Mind of that power. The very idea!

Crush her back in to her mother!
Crush her. Crush her. Consensus. War.
Linda McCarriston

4. Recitative: I had no mercy for anybody
I would erase anyone with the D-9, and I have demolished plenty. I wanted to destroy everything. I begged the officers, over the radio, to let me knock it all down; from top to bottom. To level everything. When I was told to bring down a house, I took the opportunity to bring down some more houses. For three days, I just destroyed and destroyed. The whole area. I wanted to get to the other houses. To get as many as possible. I didn't see, with my own eyes, people dying under the blade of the D-9. But if there were any, I wouldn't care at all. If you knocked down a house, you buried 40 or 50 people. If I am sorry for anything, it is for not tearing the whole camp down. I had lots of satisfaction in Jenin, lots of satisfaction. No one expressed any reservations against doing it. Who would dare speak? If anyone would as much as open his mouth, I would have buried him under the D-9". from: - edited by Philip Munger

5. Song: The skies are weeping
The birds have flown away
With rain-sodden flowers in hand
I wait for you, Rachel…

The rain drops trickle
Washing the scent off the mourning tulips
Pounding the healing earth
The howling winds and trembling blades of grass
Calling for you, Rachel…

Dust dancing around my knees
Walling me in, and my grief
From the weeping heavens faintly at first
I hear you, Rachel…

You give strength to my tears
And resolve to my limbs
As I stand up with my broken tulips
The skies are clearing
The earth is sprouting fresh blades of grass
That whisper your name, Rachel…

The winds are gentle
Reassuring in their calmness
Heaven and earth rejoice today
As you’re with me again, Rachel…
Thushara Wijeratna

6. Chorale with soprano solo:
Rachel’s Words (edited by Philip Munger)
Feel sick to my stomach a lot
from being doted on all the time,
very sweetly,
by people who are facing doom.

You can always hear the tanks and bulldozers
passing by.
I have bad nightmares about tanks and bulldozers
outside our house
and you and me inside.
Tanks and bulldozers destroyed 25 greenhouses
the livelihoods for 300 people.
Then the bulldozers come and take out
people’s vegetable farms and gardens.

This happens every day.

I think that I should at least mention that
I am also discovering a degree of strength
and of basic ability for humans to remain human
in the direst of circumstances.

I think the word is dignity.

I wish you could meet these people.

Maybe, hopefully, someday
you will.


seamus said...

A microcosm of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict that continues to worry at the soul of world peace. Rachel Corrie was a genuinely good person, a citizen of the planet who wanted only to end the suffering in the West Bank and Gaza. Her crime was to be unarmed.

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