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Singing the Syrian

Walking with Earthworms

Does an earthworm deserve death
after deluge makes it homeless?
Or are careful footsteps sacred?
If bombs rain as gas and dust flood lungs
Shall we trample those who can’t go home?

Krystal J. F. Grant, April 16, 2017

 

An earthworm’s return home after this morning’s deluge became the climax of my reflections on the recent headlines of powers outside Syria choosing multiple conflicting sides to attack and to protect within the country. A few years ago when the death toll in Syria was about 100,000 rather than today’s more than 400,000, I thought about applying for a residency to make an electroacoustic piece about the conflict. I imagined reserving a recording studio for various times throughout one week and inviting the public to come say sets of numbers:

  • zero, hundred, thousand
  • 10, 20, 30… 90
  • 1-9
  • 100, 200, 300… 900
  • 1000, 2000, 3000… 9000
  • 10000, 20000, 30000… 90000
  • 100000

I would spend a second week splicing together the recordings to count each number from 1 to 10000. I envisioned creating large-scale structure in the piece by moments of layering different voices. For instance, 10479 could use all these clips:

  • 10
  • thousand
  • 10000
  • 4
  • hundred
  • 400
  • 7
  • 70
  • 9

The project would conclude with a presentation of the piece as a sound installation.

I never proposed this project or made this piece, but I am aware that the Syrian conflict is not resolved. The government has attacked civilians with chemical weapons. Hospitals and schools have been bombed. In addition to the deaths and injuries, there are 5 million refugees.

When I asked the director of Lancaster Bible College Choirs if I could write a new piece this year, he mentioned a theme of international music. Having already written a piece based on a text by Spanish poet Gustavo Becquer, I thought of Syria. I remembered being moved by the images and adages of ancient Ephraim the Syrian when I read Lauren Winner’s book Wearing God a couple of summers ago. I sought texts by the 4th-century hymn-writer and found a collection of English translations. For a couple of days this winter, I probed these texts and found 13 that moved me. I set them aside for a couple of months as I finished other projects then returned and picked one. Too Little for Thy Praise will be premiered on May 2, but as I finished writing it, I wanted to steep longer in Ephraim’s words. I am now in the midst of composing two more works to complete a set of three women’s choir pieces.

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Although there is nothing I can do toward solving the complex Syrian conflict, I am grateful to know that some Syrian refugees have been welcomed in the city where I work. I have bought local meals and desserts made by refugees from many countries. Amidst the suffering, these texts of Ephraim the Syrian remind me that hope is present and that justice will come:

Who has seen these two marvels, that for him whose hope was cut off, hope has sprung up and increased; the hour of mourning has been turned into good tidings?

The happiness that my persecutor has gained, woes are hidden in it…

Ephraim the Syrian (4th cent.), translated into English (19th cent.)

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