Manel (photo courtesy of Austin Classical Guitar)
Can you imagine how it feels to leave everything behind?
For some Texans, that feeling is a recent memory. Refugee Services of Texas helps refugees from war-torn parts of the world resettle in cities across the state. Refugees leave their home countries not because they want to live somewhere else, but because they face persecution and violence on a day-to-day basis.
The Bullock Texas State History Museum marked World Refugee Day with a program that included an hourlong naturalization ceremony. The schedule read: “Help us welcome the newest Texans.” Some Austin arts organizations have been doing just that with events that focus on refugees and their experiences through music and sound. This Friday and Saturday at the Blanton Museum of Art, Austin Classical Guitar presents i/we, a concert that incorporates recorded interviews with refugees into the performance. i/we follows in the footsteps of the Blanton’s SoundSpace: Refugees event that took place earlier this summer.
Such programs might be easily interpreted as the result of a political agenda; after all, art doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and Austin is a place where “sanctuary city” policies and protests against the current administration’s travel ban have drawn political fire. And yet it’s impossible to identify a distinct political stance in any of them. As composer Brent Baldwin says, “It’s a humanitarian, not a political issue.”
“The [refugee’s] words are a door that open up into a space, and that space is created by the music. The listener and the performers – everybody is part of that space.” – composer Joseph V. Williams II
ACG Education Program Director Travis Marcum got to know those humanitarian issues in the interviews he conducted with refugees he contacted through Refugee Services of Texas. He recalls a Syrian woman named Mai saying, “Nostalgia for us, it’s like an arrow to the heart. Your land, your home, your neighborhood … it’s like your family. I miss the smell of the soil.” Iraqi refugee Manel dreamed of coming to the U.S. all his life. First he fled from Iraq to Turkey. There, agents told him he could move to Texas but couldn’t say where. “I asked God to send us to Austin,” Manel recalls.
ACG Executive Director Matt Hinsley says of the interviews, “I am struck by the voices themselves – the tones, the inflection, the physical production of sound. I hear the reality flowing from someone who has seen and experienced things I cannot imagine.”
Joseph V. Williams II, Austin Classical Guitar’s composer in residence, sat in on the interviews and used his time with the refugees as inspiration for an original piece of music. i/we begins with a series of solos that introduce each voice in the ensemble. These songs include themes of mercy and humanitarian crises. At the top of the second act, the audience will hear the first audio excerpt from the interviews. This is followed by Williams’ ensemble piece.
It’s a complex idea, using music to add to the conversation around someone’s story. As Williams says, “The [refugee’s] words are a door that open up into a space, and that space is created by the music. The listener and the performers – everybody is part of that space.” He’s careful about how he describes his work, saying, “The music is not telling their story. The music is facilitating space.”
Baldwin wanted his contribution to SoundSpace: Refugees to give as much space as possible to refugee voices, so that we as Americans can hear their experiences. “We should become better listeners,” he says. “One of the best things we can do is sit down, shut up, and listen.”
Baldwin’s “The Least of These” opened with his Panoramic Voices chorus singing words from a Ysaye Barnwell poem of the same title: “Would you harbor a Christian, a Muslim, a Jew, a heretic convict or spy? Would you harbor a runaway woman or child? … Would you harbor me?” This is a simple question, but one that is often without an easy answer.
Director and violinist Roberto Riggio, who performed in SoundSpace: Refugees alongside members of the University of Texas Middle Eastern Ensemble, felt a personal connection to the program: “I know and work with many musicians in Austin who are so-called ‘refugees.’ We are really blessed to have the opportunity to welcome these artists into our community.” Performers sang songs of their choice from Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Iran. Riggio says many of the songs were “gut-wrenching expressions of separation from a lover or from a homeland.” He feels they transcend language, and “the emotion in the music speaks for itself.”
This past election left many Americans ready to flee political noise, and the arts offer a place to engage without arguing. Riggio says he was eager to participate in the Blanton program, because the museum “is a place where you are allowed to leave behind day-to-day life and immerse yourself in art, humankind’s messages to eternity.”
When confronting a reality you can’t imagine, take a moment to listen. Let nostalgia for a place you’ve never been pierce your heart, as you hear the sounds and smell the soil of a far-off land.
Austin Classical Guitar presents i/we July 28 & 29, Fri. & Sat., 8pm, at the Blanton Museum of Art Auditorium, 200 E. MLK. For more information, visit www.austinclassicalguitar.org.
A version of this article appeared in print on July 28, 2017 with the headline: Listening for Lost Homes