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Jiyeh – New CD release!

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July 24th, 2013

britten-berger-960Jiyeh is a town on the Lebanese coast, 27 km south of Beirut and 10 km north of Sidon. The town is built upon the ancient city of Porphyreon, where a giant fish was purported to have delivered Jonah to the shore. On July 14th 2006, the third day of the military conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, a rocket hit the fuel storage area of an aging power station in Jiyeh causing over 20,000 tons of oil to spill into the Mediterranean Sea.

Jiyyeh oil spill 2006 (NASA)
Jiyyeh oil spill 2006 (NASA)

On July 15th BBC news reported an oil spill on the Lebanese coast apparently caused by an air or ship based missile attack on Jiyeh. In the days that followed, little information was forthcoming despite alarming estimates of the amount of oil spreading along the coast. The potential ecological disaster unfolding without attention had an urgency and poignancy of its own. However, in the context of the rapidly escalating conflict the event became a metaphor of the absurdity and tragedy of this, and of all war.

Despite Jerusalem’s fragile position as the contested capital of two people – at that moment it appeared eerily quiet – both distant and detached from the conflict. Like many people in the city we were housing refugees from the north who fled Hezbollah missile barrages as we watched, often in real time, massive destruction of a country held hostage in conflict.

And no place seemed so painfully caught in the middle of war than poor Jiyeh, whose predominantly Maronite population had suffered from decades of attacks at the hands of Muslim fighters, whose liturgical Aramaic was identical to that used in key Jewish prayers including Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, and Kol Nidre, invokes the Day of Attonement.

That September I asked my colleague Jeffrey Koseff, an environmental scientist at Stanford, if he had any information about the spill. He replied that, to his knowledge, the only information available was from satellite photographs and that those were yet to be carefully analyzed.

I became somewhat fixated on studying the satellite images – gathered by NASA’s ASTER, the Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer flying aboard Terra, a satellite launched in 1999 as part of the National Aeronautic and Space Administration’s Earth Observing System program.

The images struck me as strangely beautiful as they were frightening. The contours of the oil spill seemed to dance with the coastline as if attempting to break free of its partner. Despite their composition, the patterns seemed ornate, flowing and remarkably graceful.

These images became objects of considerable contemplation and of great meaning, both for the information they provided and for their poetic symbolism of the tragedy of war. Throughout much of 2007 I worked on ways to create a musical statement about the senselessness of war using these images – resulting in 2 works, one electroacoustic and the other a concerto for violin, string orchestra, cimbalom and percussion, as well as a museum installation for an exhibition at the Pasadena Museum of Art in California.

Mapping the data from the satellite photos of the Jiyeh oil spill involved a three approaches.
The first method involved measuring the shape of the boundary of the spill measured against the coastline provides setting for digital filters that shape the sound. In these examples each burst of sound represents an individual image. The width and shape of the spill and its distance from the shore all provide settings for filters that shape a single burst of noise.

Another approach involved interpolating the dynamic changes between the images to create a sense of development over time. In the first movement of the concerto, the string orchestra has segments in which the divide into multiple parts whose shape and gesture reflect the spreading shape of the oil spill between sequential images.

The third approach considered the ornate, Baroque like designs of the oil spill, rather than the distance or spread are used to generate melodic materials.

The first two approaches were used in a work for 8 channel computer generated sound in which the audience was progressively enveloped by the sound of the spreading oil – as if they were witnessing the following eight minute compression of a month of images 20 km out at sea.

The Jewish Day of Attonement is marked by a day of fasting and contemplation. It begins with the Kol Nidre – the Aramaic legal formula about vows and obligations and repeats a prayer in which the congregation faces their sins – both individually and collectively. One of the prayers, the Ashamnu (we have sinned), comprises a list of such sins is followed by a prayer in which we atone for each sin individually.

The 3 note Ashkenazik melodic motive that incants the ‘Ashamnu’ became the melodic core of the computer piece, while a more florid 6 note melody that ornaments the word ashamnu from an Italian Sephardic tradition became the basis of the second movement of the concerto.

My obsession with Jiyeh fortuitously coincided with an opportunity to write for violinist Livia Sohn, who is, without question, the finest musician I have had the privilege to work with. I am deeply grateful to her for her leading role in this project, to the Banff Centre for the Arts and to Barry Shiffman for producing and recording the project.