Putting work into context is exactly what vocalist and concert presenter Haleh Abghari is looking to accomplish. Her recent performance piece Republic in Ruins (an evening of artistic “call and response”) and the 2003 event she organized, Breaking the Silence: An Evening of Music and Discourse for Peace and Democracy, were both offered as a venue for classical musicians and audiences to meet and speak to issues not usually associated with a night in the concert hall.
“I found that we all shared the same concerns and complaints and the same political issues were on our minds but, especially in classical music, there is no direct tool to get involved in this sort of dialogue,” explains Abghari. “It seemed like everyone wanted to get involved but there was no way and everyone was so frustrated. I thought, why not create a space for this voice, for this community of musicians, for them to have a space to step forward and voice their concern and be active citizens. No one is going to do it for us, so we’ll have to do it ourselves.” Abghari was already involved with Mouths Wide Open, a political consciousness-raising group of artists and others who got behind the performances. The Nation Institute co-sponsored both events.
Molly Sheridan: What personally compelled you to produce these concerts?
Haleh Abghari: I have no personal political aspirations, but I was born and raised in Iran until I was 15. There was a revolution there in ’79—it was a bad government already but then a really bad one came in. My whole family tried to get out to come to a place [in the U.S.] where there’s a better quality of life and more freedom and just a more reasonable political/social situation. But I see the same resonances, the same kind of propaganda, the same symptoms that I saw in Iran being propagated here. It really bothered me and I found that I couldn’t just focus on my own work. Just seeing the same parallels was pretty frightening because it’s on a much larger scale—it’s a much more powerful government.
When I did Breaking the Silence, one of the most interesting parts was invisible to everybody else—my personal conversations and emails with all these musicians. We were all talking on a level that we usually don’t. We share the same concerns and there’s common ground but there are a lot of different shades within that. I tried to make it as broad as possible so everyone felt comfortable stepping in and feeling supported. I’m not looking for agreement so much as dialogue.
Haleh Abghari: I didn’t know what the turnout would be, but I actually got overbooked immediately. I would ask one person and they would give me ten more names! Up until two days before the show, people were contacting me. I even had someone show up at the concert with their instrument wanting to play. The response was overwhelming and I was not expecting that.
Molly Sheridan: With Breaking the Silence I even noticed that there were a number of artists listed in the program who were not actually on the program but who wanted to be part of the experience.
Haleh Abghari: The purpose was to make our work relevant, because everyone has the same things on their mind, but how do you do it? My goal was to get as many voices on that stage as possible—not even playing whole pieces, just movements, segments, just have their voice heard. And the fact that it was classical musicians doing it, in a way that gave us access to talk to some people who would not be so receptive to the stereotypical hippies and anarchists, but they see people with violin cases getting involved and that made them curious.
Molly Sheridan: Taking off from there, how do you make abstract work, drawn from the past and present, relevant in this circumstance?
Haleh Abghari: No one was in their element in a way, everyone was kind of stretching, but it was exciting. You hear the news and you kind of become numb to it—it’s kind of abstract too. What really made an impact on people was the attack on the World Trade Center because it was right here. When war is happening away from your home and you just see edited versions on TV the impact isn’t as deep. So for us it was important to get rid of that filter, to bring that conversation into the room and create a deeper experience for the audience. You have the expert commentary of journalists and those who speak from experience and you juxtapose that with art and music and performance so that it’s not an abstract notion.
Afterward, there was time for the audience to mingle and talk. There was one speaker who probably created more controversy than anyone, and there was a great dialogue around it. I was quite happy about it. Sometimes the harder conversations are the more important ones. If our goal was to give room to different voices, then we did that. Maybe not everyone agrees with what is said, but it should be heard as opposed to denied.