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I had a purpose (I was writing music for a play about Palmyra’s Queen Zenobia) but essentially I was a tourist. Like any visitor, I was thrilled to step out of the noisy modern city into the magical ancient world of the walled Old City, its vibrant souk leading to the magnificent mosque, and a labyrinth of winding, narrow streets filled with the smell of unleavened bread.
In Palmyra, I was met with extraordinary kindness everywhere. On one occasion, a little Bedouin boy noticed that I was risking sunstroke wandering bare-headed among the spectacular ruins: he showed me how to tie a turban, then took me to have tea with his family in their tent.
Since then, I have watched helplessly as these places of wonder have been devastated and their inhabitants scattered and killed. I searched for a long time to find a contemporary poet whose work might gain from any music I could imagine. I felt it was important to find first-hand accounts of the Syrian experience—but, of course, I was always reading them in translation. In an anthology called Syria speaks, I was astonished to read something that looked like prose, but was full of poetry. It was Anne-Marie McManus’s fine translation of Ali Safar’s A black cloud in a leaden white sky—an eloquent, thoughtful, contained yet vivid account of life in a war-torn country, all the more moving for its restraint.
In setting these words, I have not attempted to imitate Syrian music. However, there is what might be called a linguistic accommodation in my choice of scale, or mode. Several movements are in a mode that I first discovered while writing a cantata commemorating the First World War: it has a tuning that I associate with war, its violence and desolation. This eight-note mode is similar to scales found in Syrian music. I did not choose it in the abstract: it emerged from the harmonies I was exploring in the earlier work, and emerged again as I was looking for the right musical colours to set Ali Safar’s words.
The work is in eleven movements, the first opening with a brusque and weary series of dissonant chords for the string quartet: these contain in embryo much of the musical material that follows. Dove’s dramatic mastery is soon in evidence with the opening lyrical recitatives, describing children not waking but floating away—only at the end do the narrator and the quartet vent their anger. The second song And what if you weep alone is an extremely simple lament, with a dragging chordal accompaniment.
A weary rising theme depicts refugees queuing to leave the country in the third, which is another variation on the opening chords. The mood brightens in the 4th song: Here and now in Damascus, which shows everyday life proceeding, though it is dramatically shattered by the expectation of new bombs falling. The following number tensely peruses the suffering faces in the crowds, and the tension is further ratcheted up by an instrumental number, which culminates in anguish and dissonance. No 7, Soon, we will be free, is a numb and extremely simple plaint in the face of annihilation, accompanied by a spare chordal accompaniment on the quartet. A lengthy fugal passage, lost, meandering and ambiguous, preludes No 8: I don’t think any nations in existence will match Syrians in their expressions of sadness, their airing of grief. In No 9: On all my travels, I’d take a book and No 10: My heart is a black lump of coal, Dove takes a leaf out of Arvo Pärt’s book in contrasting expressive cantilenas supported by the simplest and most unobtrusively minimal of accompaniments. The conclusion: My country, please wait a little longer is a numbed, shattered plea for hope. One senses, in this work, Dove striving to pare his language back to the absolute minimum, to achieve the starkest expression possible: anything else, in these circumstances, would seem an impertinence.
from notes by Julian Grant © 2017