BEIRUT: St. Joseph’s Church will host something of a homecoming Friday evening. There, the Lebanese Philharmonic Orchestra will perform “Le Fantome de Rebecca Griffiths” for wind, brass and percussion, by London-based Lebanese composer Bushra El-Turk.
The concert will mark the first time one of Turk’s works has been played in Lebanon.
The five-minute-long piece will provide a strong contemporary backbone to a program of older works, including Omar Rahbani’s “Orchestral Cocktail,” Brahms’ “Double Concerto” in A-minor and Tchaikovsky’s “Slavonic March.”
Turk spoke to The Daily Star from New York, where her “Marionette” for flute and piano had its U.S. premiere at the Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center Saturday.
“Marionette” was part of “Nearer to East: Chamber Music from the Arab World,” a concert of Arabic-flavored Western chamber works by Syria’s Kareem Roustom, Zaid Jabri and Kinan Azmeh, Iraqi-Canadian Karim al-Zand, Egypt’s Halim El-Dabh Palestinian-Egyptian Mohammed Fairouz, and Turk herself.
She believes her work was well received. “It was a full house,” she says. “They laughed and responded very well to the shock factor ... The New York audience are very well informed ... It’s different from London audiences [who] are very reserved ... Coming out of the concert hall, the New Yorkers are like ‘We loved your piece so much!’”
Written in July 2006 “Rebecca Griffiths” was commissioned by the City of London Festival as part of the Hidden Cities project, which saw seven composers invited to create works “based on a building that once had been.”
It seems the Liverpool Street Train Station is the former site of the First Hospital of the Star of Bethlehem, an insane asylum where Rebecca Griffiths was a patient between 1780 and 1812.
Griffiths was known for peering through the cell windows of other inmates and causing upset. And she compulsively clutched a coin throughout her internment. It is said Griffiths was buried without this coin, and so the area of Liverpool Street Station is still haunted by her wails.
“I was always interested in the insane and the paranormal,” Turk says. “This was a hidden place in London that combined the two – the insane and mental illness and institutions and the concepts behind them ... But I haven’t explored it in more depth – maybe an opera one day.”
Turk says the most distinctive instrumental element in the work is her use of a reed-only oboe – the mad cicada-sound that careers through the work.
“The standard oboe has the reed attached to the rest of the piece of wood,” she clarifies. “If I was to liken a reed-only oboe to an Arabic instrument, I would say it has a nasal, almost mizmari sound. It’s a kind of cliche used in Orientalist Western classical pieces.
“When ... you look at things the other way round, it changes everything. The oboe takes on a different kind of role, in relation to how it blends in with all the other instruments.”
Turk says that when she was working on her dissertation at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, she was especially interested in the musical representation of mad women – and 19th century representations of the feminine generally.
“All witches,” she says, “and mad women in the attic.”
Aware of the politics underlying notions of feminine insanity, she acknowledges that it’s tempting to read “Rebecca Griffiths” in autobiographical terms.
“I feel like an other in every environment I’m in,” she says. “There’s this sense of alterity. First of all, being British in a Lebanese context, having Lebanese roots in England – everyone’s an ‘other’ in England – and also within the Western classical canon.
“I guess that’s what I must be expressing, and my frustrations with being understood within that. And expressing yourself through a very abstract art.”
Turk says one of her bulwarks against the weight of her large, conservative Zahle family was her uncle, Fouad El-Turk – poet, intellectual and former Lebanese ambassador to the U.N. – who suffered a stroke and died in July, 2012 at the age of 80.
“He was my godfather and like a second father to me,” she says. “He was very influential in my life. He was a humanist. He didn’t believe in all this sectarian crap ... He believed in co-existence ... Since his death, he’s hugely influenced my writing ...
“I’m interested in exploring my sociocultural and political principles and traditions within contemporary Western contexts, [and through] musical collaboration with other arts, to try to wake people up to certain issues that are so easily brushed under the carpet, whether in Lebanon or elsewhere in the region.”
Turk is intrigued to see how the Beirut audience will react to “Rebecca Griffiths.” Given her druthers, she would have debuted in Lebanon with “Of Laughter and Forgetting,” a piano concerto for qanoun, darbuka, nai and orchestra that she wrote and debuted in early 2012.
“It’s another dramatic, very kaleidoscopic piece,” she says “The pianist is a wailing, young Levantine woman with this conflict and torment inside her, with ululations and fragments ... I bring in [a tune by] Zaki Nassif fragmented throughout the piece in different ways ... fragmented so it’s almost unrecognizable. Then it’s directly recognizable, as a hook.
“Then I take people away, tease them with it, obviously using my own harmonic language. There’s elements of improvisation always present ...”
Composing for Middle Eastern instruments is one of the elements making Turk’s recent work distinct from “Rebecca Griffiths.” The composer herself notes a different change in direction.
“As a language [my work has] become tighter and less suppressed,” she says.
“I’m less fearful and ... less controlling of it ... When integrating improvisation with written notation, you’re giving some freedom to the performer. Sometimes I find too many notes restricts them, especially from the whole overview of the piece ...
“It’s more of a direct relationship in terms of groundwork with the performers, rather than what’s on paper.”
The Lebanese Philharmonic Orchestra’s performance of works by Turk, Rahbani, Brahms and Tchaikovsky will be held at St. Joseph Church in Ashrafieh Friday at 8:30 p.m. For more information on Bushra El-Turk, see http://www.bushraelturk.com