Contemplating Bethlehem

 

 

 

 

Your salty tear quietly bleeds into mine,
Gently seasoning our shared joyous anguish.
from Making Sense – taste

 

Bethlehem from the rooftop

Bethlehem from the rooftop

As I launch a month living in Bethlehem, West Bank, Palestine I find myself wanting to bring the highest possible level of awareness to this remarkable opportunity to be with my close family and my new extended family, to welcome new friendships into my life, and to discover new sights, sounds, smells, tastes, sensations and consciousness.

I arrived in Bethlehem and was immediately immersed in a close knit group of people, deep in conversation about life, politics, family and community. Awakened at 4am after a mere 4 hours of sleep, following days awake, by the howling and fighting of feral dogs in Dheisheh Refugee camp, shortly followed by chanting from the minarets over loud speakers calling people into the day. Two hours later the cock crows, light begins to bleed into the sky, and I wonder what the new day will bring.

I am trying to remember some of what I have learned recently from my feeble attempts to learn some Arabic, hopeful that my learning a bit of the language will shorten the distance between us, and that practicing some of their music in recent months will be received in the intended spirit of respect and curiosity, and not appropriation. I quickly find out that much of the language I practiced is formal and from a different part of the region, so I either sound like a traveler from the northern region speaking Arabic badly, or I sound like I’m reciting from 200 year old texts – a humbling experience. Some people speak English here, and are graciously translating for me, helping me to convey my thoughts as I try to communicate.

Families are large here – both in size and importance – and clearly the fabric that holds these communities together, a reality that makes me nostalgic and sad about what has been lost, perhaps never to be recaptured, in our modern ‘civilized’ western society. They are right to be cautious here of the dismembering nature of modern society’s call to join the future, unless somehow they are able to learn something from our mistakes, and consciously walk a path that preserves what is precious, rather than blindly follow the shiny objects that call them to join from a different tower, also amplified and creating a palpable dissonance that screams for resolution.

There are three minarets in different places in Dheisheh camp, and the mosques have agreed to coordinate the amplified chanting by synchronizing to specific radio frequencies. They each have their own chants, however, so it seems they take turns – a powerful tenor voice, followed by two that are more like baritones. One minaret is very close to where I have been sleeping, so that’s the most prominent sound. The same chant emanating from different sound sources causes a fascinating delay/chorus effect, nearly polyphonic, with gentle echoes trailing off at the ends of phrases. This effect is created in part because of the distance between the minarets, which synchronize amplification, but without the kind of technological mastery that is commonly used in the west for theatrical sound amplification, for example, to align sound sources so it sounds like a single voice. In this context the sound quality to me is both beautiful and poignant in its hearkening to the past, reflecting of the present, and pointing to the future.

 

 

Thoughts of Bethlehem and the minaret chanting remind me of my choral work “Babel Lament,” from my Five Books Choral Suite, and “Babel Clarion,” my composition for Carillon and Choir based on “Babel Lament” that I created for the Marcy Holmes Neighborhood Carillon Commission in Minneapolis. I was creating “Babel Clarion” around the same time of my last trip to Bethlehem in 2013. In these works I explored the Tower of Babel story from the Old Testament, a narrative that appears in the stories of many cultures highlighting the goal to unify as people to build a tower high in the sky to see far together; to reach our highest selves individually and as people; to tackle the challenges that are part of such a broad community endeavor; to discover and explore our joint humanity; to battle against hubris; and to address the reality of failure to reach the intended goal, yet retain some sense of accomplishment in the attempt, or at least share our grief.

In creating “Babel Clarion” my goal was to bring attention to the story, and to provide a new call for the community to come together once again to “build the tower” – to reach for our highest selves, surmounting the challenges that divide us, and even if we fail, to find unity and common purpose in the trying.

The contrapuntal layers of the text in the composition tell the story:

 

Come. Make Bricks.
Build a city, a tower in the sky.
Make a name, or scatter over the earth.

One language. One purpose. Nothing out of their reach.

Limit their reach. Confound their speech. Scatter over the earth.

 

 

These stories are not mere reflections of past experiences or historical records. Their true meaning and their sustained presence through the ages are revealed in what they tell us about humanity – then, today, and tomorrow. We may never succeed in building the tower that gives us the vision and understanding that is reflected in the goal.  But there is deep meaning and significance in the process – in joining together to make the attempt. Each successive attempt may or may not exist in a teleological framework eventually leading to success after numerous attempts over several millennia. Even achieving the perceived goal may only represent the beginning of a new challenge to build beyond what we thought was the ultimate goal – to explore that which is beyond our current vision. The story doesn’t end; rather, we are called to make the attempt, to fail, to try again, to continue reaching far together, and perhaps to refine and redefine the goal as we learn together. Most importantly and relevant today, the story is a warning not to allow our differences to define us – our different languages, cultures, fears and purposes.

We have learned over the years that yesterday’s dissonance often becomes tomorrow’s tonal center. Certainly that is revealed in the evolution of Western music over the last millennium. Experience throughout history also shows that discovery and understanding often occur through the mixing and sharing of different ways, especially when we are receptive rather than fearful. This is the call that I hear, that I wish to amplify from the tower that I look forward to building and climbing with you.

 

You can learn more about the “Babel Clarion” project here:

Babel Clarion, for Carillon and Chorus

 

Babel Lament” and “Babel Clarion” was made possible through a grant from the University of Minnesota Good Neighbor Fund and the Marcy Holmes Neighborhood Association, and in part with the support of Rimon: The Minnesota Jewish Arts Council, an initiative of the Minneapolis Jewish Federation, and the Howard B. and Ruth F. Brin Jewish Arts Endowment Fund, a designated fund of the Jewish Community Foundation of the Minneapolis Jewish Federation.

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