The Kennedy Center & National Geographic "The Human Journey: Du Yun and Khaled Jarrar on Where We Lost Our Shadows"
August 9, 2019
Where We Lost Our Shadows (2019)
حيث لا ظل لنا
About the Work
Where We Lost Our Shadows حيث لا ظل لنا is a collaborative work between the composer Du Yun and the Palestine filmmaker Khaled Jarrar, for orchestra, video, and soloists that focuses on human migration as a question of perpetual movement and exodus that repeats throughout history, passing on collective and individual traumas and rejuvenations from generation to generation. The music uses a collection of ragas with references to rain and water as a symbol, from its historical provenance in the ancient time (Pre-Islamic period), and its subsequent migration through space and time (Arabia, Persia, Central Asia, Indo-Pakistani desert, and the global South Asian diaspora), as well as its migration through genres forms, and techniques by both genders and in settings both devotional and secular. It also sets text of the poem “Pillow” by Palestinian poet Ghassan Zaqtan, who has lived in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Tunisia. The video explores the meaning of home, belonging, and identity, inspired by the artist’s journey with a group of refugees—a journey driven by love for his late grandmother, who left him the trauma of displacement. It portrays human reactions to these concept in abstract and specific ways.
Where We Lost Our Shadows recognizes and depicts the timeless struggle of human migration and its many effects, while celebrating the resilient human spirit that instigates and survives it.
Video by Khaled Jarrar
Where We Lost Our Shadows was co-commissioned by Carnegie Hall, and American Composers Orchestra (ACO) with lead funding from Morgan Stanley, and additional funding from the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation, the Howard and Sarah D. Solomon Foundation, and ACO’s 2019 Commission Club.
First Performance: Queen Elizabeth Hall, January 20, 2019, as part of SoundState Festival at the London Southbank Centre, with the Aurora Orchestra.
Describing all the elements risks ending up like a table of world flags. The experience was quite different: unifying and powerfully resonant
With its highly emotional, deep and truthful subject matter, the work welcomes its viewer-listeners to confront for themselves the contemporary experience of refugees.
Stephanie Ann Boyd, I care if you listen
…these raga-inspired passages were sung by Mr. Sethi on Thursday with both rawness and plaintive delicacy…
… Shayna Dunkelman, a dynamic percussionist, drove episodes of the piece with pummeling drum bursts one moment, tingling effects the next. The vocalist Helga Davis brought radiance to Ms. Du’s tender, high-pitched setting of the Palestinian poet Ghassan Zaqtan’s “Pillow.”
The Southbank’s five-day SoundState festival presented music by 50 composers from nearly as many countries, including Pakistan, Turkey and Bali, as well as Europe. Eclecticism doesn’t begin to describe its multifarious ambition. A central event, in a concert on a theme of migration and exodus by Aurora Orchestra, was the world premiere of Where We Lost Our Shadows by Du Yun, the Shanghai-born composer and performance artist now based in New York, in collaboration with the Palestinian film-maker Khaled Jarrar.
Thunderous, virtuosic gusts of percussion, played by the Japanese-born Shayna Dunkelman, heralded this composition, in which the Pakistani singer Ali Sethi embroidered exquisite raga material around the colours of western orchestral sounds, eventually joined, to ethereal effect, by the British mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnston (who also sang, terrifically, Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen). The film element, showing young Syrian refugees on the road, was overwhelming, nearly threatening to topple the music but done with beauty and seriousness. Describing all the elements risks ending up like a table of world flags. The experience was quite different: unifying and powerfully resonant.
Star Ratings (Out of Five) Aurora Orchestra ★★★★
Review: A Refugee Journey Inspires a Musical Collaboration
In 2015, Khaled Jarrar, a Palestinian artist and filmmaker living in Ramallah, read an ad in a local newspaper. It was an appeal for assistance placed by a refugee from the war in Syria who was stuck with her family in Istanbul — including the writer’s elderly mother, who was a refugee for the second time, having been forced to leave Nazareth for Syria during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.
Moved by the story, Mr. Jarrar spent 31 days traveling with the family to Germany, living as a refugee and filming the journey. This experience inspired “Where We Lost Our Shadows,” a multimedia work for orchestra, video and three soloists that Mr. Jarrar created with the composer Du Yun. The American Composers Orchestra, which commissioned it with Carnegie Hall, played the premiere on Thursday at Zankel Hall.
Ms. Du and Mr. Jarrar decided to broaden the work’s focus to encompass timeless themes of human migration, exodus and refugee flights. Ms. Du, who won the Pulitzer Prize in Music for her 2016 opera “Angel’s Bone,” an allegory of human trafficking, turned to the heritage of ragas, a structure for melodic improvisation that itself migrated over centuries throughout Arab, Central Asian and Indo-Pakistani regions. Working with the Pakistani vocalist Ali Sethi, she chose ragas dealing with themes of water, rain and thunder; these raga-inspired passages were sung by Mr. Sethi on Thursday with both rawness and plaintive delicacy.
These elements are integrated into a score that shifts and heaves, qualities captured in the restless performance led by George Manahan. There are stretches of misty orchestral sonorities in which fidgety figurations get batted around over dense harmonies. Shayna Dunkelman, a dynamic percussionist, drove episodes of the piece with pummeling drum bursts one moment, tingling effects the next. The vocalist Helga Davis brought radiance to Ms. Du’s tender, high-pitched setting of the Palestinian poet Ghassan Zaqtan’s “Pillow.”
In the accompanying film, we see images of a family traveling at nighttime on stony paths; women in hijab emerging from shelter underground; and endearing short scenes of children trying to be hopeful as they talk of heading to Germany or Sweden. But overall the footage is murky, atmospheric, even abstract — which actually enhances its power.
The program opened with an intensely focused performance of Morton Feldman’s “Turfan Fragments” (1980), inspired by knotted carpets discovered on an archaeological expedition in East Turkestan. They struck Feldman as a metaphor for his music, which tends to unfold in subdued bits and chunks — wheezing sonorities, pungent cluster chords, repetitive figures — that only suggest a larger structure.
Mr. Manahan also led a vibrant account of Gloria Coates’s Symphony No. 1, “Music for Open Strings” (1974), a work that uses some unusual tunings and the notes of a Chinese scale in a compact four movements. The music abounds in swaying riffs, bare melodic ideas, dramatic glissandos and stretches of perky, twanging energy.
American Composers Orchestra Confronts Glaring Truths of the Refugee Experience
[…] Du Yun’s Where We Lost Our Shadows, created in conjunction with filmmaker Khaled Jarrar, felt less like a piece for orchestra and vocal soloists with visual accompaniment and more like a grand concerto for audience immersion, video, orchestra, percussion, and two voices with remarkably different skill sets. With its highly emotional, deep and truthful subject matter, the work welcomes its viewer-listeners to confront for themselves the contemporary experience of refugees. The piece’s 25 minutes are filled with the loud, forceful, and spectacular percussion solos of Shayna Dunkelman; ragas that discuss forms of water (remember that bodies of water present some of the most difficult barriers for human migration), sung by the radically talented Ali Sethi; and a setting of the poem “Pillow” by Palestinian poet Ghassan Zaqtan, sung by Helga Davis in her frightfully gorgeous ochre tones. The film’s scenes stand alone like an intermittent series of cadenzas tracing a family through the harrowing experience of crossing an unforgiving desert at night by flashlight and the painful optimism of children eager to talk about the places they know their family is journeying towards.
A clip of pomegranate seeds is a recurring theme; first, they appear on screen so blurred that one might instead make out a flurrying of bright red birds scuttling across an azure sky. At the end of the piece, they appear in full focus, surely hinting at something difficult and biblical, followed by soloists and orchestra members reaching down to grab large cardboard circles covered in gold foil and holding them up to the light: the audience, now, is subject to the uncomfortable glare of flashlights in a darkened space. We’ve been made to feel a spectrum of emotions that cannot come from news clips or click-bait headlines; they can only come from immersion.
Strong, singular statement from Du Yun at Carnegie Hall
Migration has become a hot-button issue in recent years, and is a compelling one around which to build programming. Carnegie Hall is in the midst of three months of concerts, screenings and talks at various venues around New York City’s five boroughs, all under the banner Migrations: The Making of America. Oddly enough, though, the concert by the American Composers Orchestra in the basement of Carnegie Hall wasn’t a part of that series. The concert included the New York premiere of Pulitzer-winner Du Yun’s ambitious 2019 work Where We Lost Our Shadows for orchestra, two vocalists and percussion solo, along with older pieces by Gloria Coates and Morton Feldman.
[…] Instead of an intermission, there was a panel discussion featuring the collaborators who created the evening’s main event, the New York premiere of Where We Lost Our Shadows (2019). Composer Du Yun was joined by filmmaker Khaled Jarrar, ACO Artistic Director Derek Bermel, and vocalist Ali Sethi. Du Yun talked about how she crafted the work with these specific soloists in mind, instead of casting them later. Having already decided that ragas would be incorporated into the piece, Sethi became a real asset as he guided her through 800 years of music from the Indus region. Sethi also demonstrated some of the basic Qawwali forms he would be using, giving the audience a sneak preview of his wondrous voice. Jarrar described his way of embedding himself with immigrant communities, gaining their trust and getting a view of the extremes of their experiences. Author Didier Fassin, whose book, Life: A Critical User’s Manual, informed some of the thinking behind the piece, was also on hand to offer some sobering facts about migrant mortality: It has been on the rise worldwide for decades and many deaths go uncounted with even the names of the dead unknown or unrecorded.
According to the program notes, “Where We Lost Our Shadows is a piece for orchestra, video, and soloists that focuses on human migration as a question of perpetual movement and exodus that repeats throughout history, passing on collective and individual traumas and rejuvenations from generation to generation.” That measured explanation barely hinted at the deeply emotional combination of sound and vision that transpired over the half hour of the piece, which literally started with a BANG, struck by percussionist Shayna Dunkelman on an enormous side drum. I know Dunkelman as a member of avant-rock band Xiu Xiu but was unaware of the breadth of her musicianship, which became stunningly apparent during the heart-stopping solo that began the work. When the orchestra came in, accompanied by what I believe was an electronic tanpura (Sethi seemed to be holding one during the panel discussion), it was almost a relief from the tension built up by the drums. Sethi began singing in his rich, slightly husky voice, seeming to craft his ancient melodies out of the air with his hand gestures. There was a chaotic darkness on the screen, which eventually gave way to an interview on the streets of Turkey with a family overjoyed because they had just gotten their authorization to travel to Europe, where they would find a new home after leaving Syria. They kept smiling even when saying they had been living in the streets while waiting for their papers. Their sweet, shining faces stood as a testament to the indomitable human spirit – and an indictment of what people do to other people.
Helga Davis, the third soloist and an incredible singer and performer, then stood up and unleashed all the pain and sorrow that lay behind those smiles. There was another percussion interlude, even more intricate than the first, and further explorations of Qawwali, leading to a stunning duet between Sethi and Davis. Just as there are no easy answers to the refugee crisis, …Shadows ended without a sense of closure – it just stopped. The audience caught their breath and then stood for a generous standing ovation. While it’s hard to be entirely sure based on one performance, I feel fairly certain that the music, in which I sensed a new level gravitas for Du Yun, will more than hold its own without the visuals. I urge the powers that be to record it as soon as possible!
Du Yun was born and raised in Shanghai, China, but moved to the United States at a growing age. She won the Pulitzer Prize for Angel’s Bone opera in 2017, where trafficking is the theme. Along with filmmaker Khaled Jarrar, Du Yun has created the concert Where We Lost Our Shadows, which deals with the refugee crisis and human migration throughout all times. Du Yun is thus a composer who tackles large and difficult social themes in her art.
At the Context conversation before the concert, Du Yun highlighted being curious as a decisive factor for her artistry. That is where the key lies – in being curious, there is also a respect. Then you do not go into the theme, traditions or culture and think you have understood them beforehand.
In front of her, percussionist Shanya Dunkelman holds a circular plate of a kind of gold-colored cellophane. It is barking like wind. The video shows glimpses from a tent in a refugee camp. It goes in black, and the man on the video goes into the night. We see lights in the distance and hear loud bangs from Dunkelman’s drums. We follow a Syrian family crossing the Aegean. It’s dramatic, gloomy. But Jarrar has focused on his family’s glimpses of joy, hope, dreams of the future.
When the entire Oslo Sinfonietta joins, we hear this focus in the audio car as well. It’s dense, windswept sound. Blow from blowers. Abrupt and fluid sounds about each other. The music is ambiguous and questions – we see the pictures from unexpected angles. It is a complex sound image that moves like an organism.
The music is human in many ways. The public is the way soloists Ali Sethi and Sofia Jernberg are used. Sethi’s qawwali raga saw traces in the strings that floated around in a strange mournful song. Sofia Jernberg with her elaborate, almost extreme song techniques whines and screams, cuts through the orchestra.
As Jarrar peeks at the individual in the video, Du Yun peeks at the individual in the music and has given all the sounds a strong identity. The orchestra, from the winds, from the double bass, the violins, the percussion – there are sounds with a face. This is not a concert that, with an exclamation point, points to the painful. What is painful to meet in this concert is the beauty of the single person.
Before the concert, Du Yun and soloist Ali Sethi gave a brief introduction to the context of this work and how Sethi’s rags are used. We who were also on the call earlier in the evening, now have many things to listen for. This is something that some people find problematic, like forced signposts. Initially, I experience the listening knocks as positive this time. Du Yun wants to tell.
What is happening now? If I had a few listeners on Where we lost our shadows, I was completely on the ground when OK Miss put in the gong. Art pop is someone who calls it, but it’s not a good word. It may well be called everything else and can’t manage to find the right booth for. Everything happened at one time during this set.
The first thing I think – with wide-open, positively tuned ears – is that this is lousy free-improv with zero consciousness around sound and direction. The weird thing was that it was not anti either. Or meta. And it’s not witty. In fact, it is not interesting at any time! In the beginning. Because I reset me. Or rather – she resets me. The word uncompromising has been coined in music texts. You Yun is doing exactly as she wants. So – totally for real who she wants.
Back on the bar hill I hear… backing track ?? Karaoke? We go from free improv to karaoke to tacky elevator blues to punk to what-happens-no-happens. It’s almost like I want to write “A crazy performance!” But I don’t.
OK Miss makes me smile, first and foremost I enjoy that – no, you haven’t actually heard everything.
Let me just listen Even in the evening started with complete chair rows, there were not many souls left in Jakobskirka until the last set seen in the gong at 22. Ali Sethi opens his trio-set of showing a music video he made, and tells about how this was done in courage on social media as a message of peace between India and Pakistan. As the media in the country covered the flare-up of conflicts, Pakistanis gathered and pondered the video and commented with messages of love.
This is a beautiful and important story, but it is a bit strange to watch a music video with audio tracks, in the city to right the live version. We also get an introduction to the traditions, and Sethi tells the story behind the song he sang. Again – this can be important. But I have to admit that now it starts to get enough talk. It’s not Sethi’s fault. But after such a long evening, with so much context, I wish we could just listen.
That said – the voice of Ali Sethi hits far into the chest. It is enormously rich. This is precisely why I want to listen.
Drummer Shanya Dunkelman was, as Ali Sethi called it, “the powerhouse of the evening”. She participated in all three concerts and I recommend an exploration trip in her catalog. She has a crazy creative and varied game. She sounded just as good a home no matter what expression.
This evening was long. The three concerts are in team, under the same ticket, same tagline – traditions under pressure. But there were actually three freestanding concerts I would rather have left alone.
Ultima 2019: Musikk med ansikt
Du Yun’s “Where we lost our shadows” er eit døme på korleis musikk kan vise oss enkeltmennesket i flyktningkrisen. Med hennar nysgjerrige øyre finn ho lydar med ansikt.
Du Yun er født og oppvokst i Shanghai i Kina, men flytta til USA i vaksen alder. Ho vann Purlitzerprisen for operaen Angel’s Bone i 2017, der trafficking er tema. Saman med filmskapar Khaled Jarrar har Du Yun laga konserten Where We Lost Our Shadows, som tek for seg flyktningkrisa og menneskets migrasjon gjennom alle tider. Du Yun er altså ein komponist som tek for seg store og vanskelege sosiale tema i kunsten sin.
På Context-samtalen før konserten løfta Du Yun fram det å vere nysgjerrig som avgjerande for sitt kunstnarskap. Det er der nøkkelen ligg – i det å vere nysgjerrig ligg det også ei respekt. Då går du ikkje inn i tema, tradisjonar eller kulturar og trur du har forstått dei på førehand.
Framfor seg held perkusjonist Shanya Dunkelmann ei sirkulær plate av ein slags gullfarga cellophan. Det blafrar som vind. På videoen ser vi glimt i frå eit telt i ein flyktningleir. Det går i svart, og menneska på videoen går inn i natta. Vi ser lys i det fjerne og høyrer høge smell frå trommene til Dunkelmann. Vi fylgjer ein syrisk familie som kryssar Egeerhavet. Det er dramatisk, dystert. Men Jarrar har fokusert på familien sine glimt av glede, håp, framtidsdraumar.
Når heile Oslo Sinfonietta blir med, høyrer vi dette fokuset i lydbiletet også. Det er tette, vindskeive klangar. Støt frå blåsarar. Brå og flytande lydar om kvarandre. Musikken er tvitydig og stiller spørsmål – vi ser bileta frå uventa vinklar. Det er eit komplekst lydbilete som rører seg som ei organisme.
Musikken er menneskeleg på fleire måtar. Det openbare er måten solistane Ali Sethi og Sofia Jernberg blir brukt. Sethi sine qawwali raga set spor i strykarane som flyt rundt i ein skeiv sørgesong. Sofia Jernberg med sine utvida, nærast ekstreme songteknikkar hviner og skrik, skjærer gjennom orkesteret.
Slik Jarrar peikar på enkeltmenneske i videoen, peikar Du Yun på enkeltmenneske i musikken og har gitt alle lydane ein sterk identitet. Orkesteret, frå blåsarane, frå kontrabassen, fiolinane, perkusjonen – det er lydar med ansikt. Dette er ikkje ein konsert som med utropsteikn peikar på det smertefulle. Det som er smertefullt å møte i denne konserten er det vakre i det einskilde mennesket.
Før konserten har Du Yun og solist Ali Sethi holdt ei kort innføring i konteksten dette verket står i og korleis Sethi sine ragaer blir brukt. Vi som i tillegg var på samtalen tidlegare på kvelden, har no mange knaggar å lytte etter. Dette er noko som somme finn problematisk, som tvangstrøyer. Eg opplever i utgangspunktet lytteknaggane som positivt denne gongen. Du Yun vil nemleg fortelje.
Kva ER det som skjer no? Om eg hadde nokre lytteknaggar på Where we lost our shadows stod eg heilt på bar bakke då OK Miss sette i gong. Kunstpop er det nokon som kallar det, men det er ikkje noko godt ord. Det kan ein jo godt kalle alt anna ein ikkje klarar å finne rett bås til. Alt hende på ein gong under dette settet.
Det første eg tenkjer – med vidopne, positivt innstilte øyrer – er at dette er elendig fri-impro med null medvit rundt lyd og retning. Det rare var at det ikkje var anti heller. Eller meta. Og ikkje er det vittig. Faktisk, så er det ikkje interessant ein gong! I starten.
For eg nullstiller meg. Eller rettare sagt – ho nullstiller meg. Ordet kompromisslaus har blitt utslitt i tekstar om musikk. Du Yun gjer akkurat som ho vil. Altså – heilt på ekte som ho vil.
Tilbake på bar bakke høyrer eg…backing track?? Karaoke? Vi går frå friimpro til karaoke til tacky heis-blues til punk til kva-i-alle-dagar-skjer-no. Det er nesten som eg vil skrive “En helsprø forestilling!”. Men eg gjer det ikkje.
OK Miss får meg til å smile, til å først og fremst glede meg over at – nei, du har faktisk ikkje høyrt alt.
La meg berre lytte Sjølv om kvelden starta med fullsette stolrader, var det ikkje mange sjelene igjen i Jakobskirka til siste sett som set i gong klokka 22. Ali Sethi opnar sitt trio-sett med å vise ein musikkvideo han har laga, og fortel om korleis denne vart teke i mot på sosiale medier som ein bodskap om fred mellom India og Pakistan. Då mediene i landa dekte oppblussinga av konflikta, samla pakistanarar seg og inderar om videoen og kommenterte med meldingar om kjærleik.
Dette er ei vakker og viktig forteljing, men det er litt underleg å sjå musikkvideo med lydspor, i staden for å høyre liveversjonen. Vi får også ei innføring i tradisjonane, og Sethi fortel historia bak songane han syng. Igjen – dette kan vere viktig. Men eg må innrømme at no byrjar det å bli nok prat. Det er ikkje Sethi sin feil. Men etter ein så lang kveld, med så mykje kontekst, skulle eg ønske meg at vi berre fekk lov å lytte.
Det sagt – stemma til Ali Sethi treff langt inn i brystkassa. Den er enormt rik. Nettopp difor vil eg berre lytte.
Trommeslagar Shanya Dunkelmann var, som Ali Sethi kalte det, “the powerhouse of the evening”. Ho var med på alle tre konsertane og eg anbefaler ei oppdagingsreise i katalogen hennar. Ho har eit vanvittig kreativt og variert spel. Ho høyrde like godt heime uansett uttrykk.
Denne kvelden vart lang. Dei tre konsertane står i lag, under same billett, same tagline – traditions under pressure. Men det var eigentleg tre frittståande konsertar eg heller skulle opplevd kvar for seg.
Oslo Sinfonietta at Ultima 2019
September 2019 Ultima festival Oslo
Du Yun: Where We Lost Our Shadows (2019) Oslo Sinfonietta Sofia Jernberg – mezzo soprano Ali Sethi – male voice Shayna Dunkelman – percussion Christian Eggen – conductor Khaled Jarrar – film
An urgent new work by New York based Pulitzer Prize winner and Chinese composer Du Yun investigates the plight of refugees, in myth, history and the violent present.
Where We Lost Our Shadows is a powerful and timely new work for orchestra, including disturbing film sequences of a Syrian family crossing the Aegean Sea, shot by Khaled Jarrar, a Palestinian visual artist based in Ramallah. His footage shows just the most recent example of human migration that Yun’s composition explores, as well as expanding into a vision of human movement as a perpetual factor in world history.
Du Yun’s emotive music itself follows the migration of a musical language – devotional qawwali music that travelled from medieval Muslim India to Central Asia, Bengal, and South Asia – and incorporates text by the Palestinian poet Ghassan Zaqtan.
Together with Oslo Sinfonietta, Sofia Jernberg (Norwegian jazz/experimental singer), Ali Sethi (Pakistani vocal star) and New York percussionst Shayna Dunkelman perform this urgent and important musical testament that shifts between political reality and allegorical representations of global exodus.