Ensemble Pi is an unusual new-music collective, in that all its concerts have a socially-conscious bent and feature composers whose work seeks to open a dialogue between ideas and music on some of the world’s current and critical issues. The ensemble’s Dancer on a Tightrope will take place at The Cooper Union’s Great Hall on Saturday, March 13 at 8 p.m.  Cooper Union is located at 7 East 7th Street at Third Avenue, NYC. Tickets are $15 ($10 for students and seniors).  For more information, call (212) 362-4745 or visit their website. We asked for a little background on the concert, and recevied some words from the ensemble’s founder and two of the evening’s composers:

Idith MeshulamIdith Meshulam (pianist and founder of Ensemble Pi):

Composer John Harbison expressed Ensemble Pi’s mission for the Peace Project best when he wrote that performing these pieces “is not a protest or a moral lesson. These would require little bravery. Instead it seeks music in a moment when words can fail.” Ensemble Pi offers music in conjunction with other arts and ideas as an alternative to the constant clash of angry and frustrated voices that need to be heard.

For the sixth installment of our Peace Project, we wanted to address the courage and compassion necessary to fight for one’s belief with works celebrating life as risk and art as flight into another existence. As a commemoration for the invasion to Iraq, we open with a short video of the historical society of Iraq, showing the irreversible damage to the historical buildings in Baghdad. The concert will then begin with two works commissioned by Ensemble Pi: Karim Al-Zand’s  Swimmy, the famous children story by Leo Lionni with projection of Dave Channon; and Kristin Norderval’s A Remarkable Failure – a setting of prominent Israeli journalist and author Amira Hass’s acceptance speech for the 2009 Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Women’s Media Foundation. The evening also features the New York premiere of Frederic Rzewski’s Whangdoodles (1990) as well as Sofia Gubaidulina’s Dancer on a Tightrope (1993), and Behzad Ranjbaran’s Shiraz (2006).

When we started planning the concert, we naively thought we would be out of Iraq by March 2010. We still felt we needed to commemorate the destruction and pain inflicted upon the Iraqi people, so we kept the commemoration of in March we Remember, and expanded it into a human rights concert.  Our disappointment and frustration on the current situation is best expressed in A Remarkable Failure — Kristin Norderval’s homage to Amira Hass, who is one of my heroes.  The piece addresses “the frustrations of not getting the real stories behind the stories” in the press. The second commission is the setting of a children masterpiece, that we hope will inspire and charm people of all ages.

The performers for this concert will include Kristin Norderval, voice; Airi Yoshioka, violin; Idith Meshulam, piano; Monique Buzzarté, trombone; Florent Renard-Payen, cello; Carol McGonnell, clarinet; and Nathan Davis, hammered dulcimer.

Composer Karim Al-Zand:

Karim Al-ZandSwimmy is scored for narrator and ensemble (a quartet of piano, clarinet, violin and cello) and is based on the picture book of the same name by Leo Lionni. As a child I knew Lionni’s book and its poignant story, and now my own children have come to know it as well. It’s the story of a little fish who discovers the beauty of the ocean around him and manages to confront his adversaries through ingenuity and resourcefulness. Like many of Lionni’s books for children, Swimmy can be appreciated on several levels, something which has made it interesting to return to as an adult. My setting tries to complement Lionni’s elegant and colorful artwork with music which supports but doesn’t overwhelm the story’s simple narrative. The clarinet is the most prominent of the instruments and its quick-moving lines represent, in a way, the main character, Swimmy. Lionni’s story is a parable really, a tale which illustrates the power of cooperation and of collective effort.

Composer/performer Kristin Norderval:

Kristin Norderval“A remarkable failure” is the phrase that the Israeli journalist Amira Hass used to describe her work when accepting the 2009 Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Women’s Media Foundation for her reports from Gaza.  Why?  Because she felt she had failed to get the media and the public to use “correct terms and words which reflect reality”.  Her words could not compete with language adopted by the mass media which she felt was used to “disportray” reality.  Listening to Hass’s speech I was struck by the parallels with Harold Pinter’s Nobel Lecture in 2005 – “Art, Truth and Politics” – another dissection of the Orwellian speech used by politicians and the mass media to cover up illegal actions and unpleasant truths.  A Remarkable Failure for voice, trombone and laptop uses excerpts from the awards speeches of both Hass and Pinter, and explores the way corrupted and euphemistic language has been embedded in the mass media and seduced us into accepting torture, murder and war crimes as inconvenient necessities that need not be investigated nor prosecuted.

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