an article was published in El Pais on the projects of Music Fund in the Middle East and Africa. and the journalist of this article, Jesus Ruiz Mantilla, just spent 4 days with me in Israel and Palestine. he is planning to write more later on.
I dream of a city in which we can be a bit more happy with what there is.
in which we get rid of what we do not need,
sweeping clean, yes, in our own homes, before our own doors,
in which I myself and many others just do their work,
what we have to do, each our thing,
as good as we can.
where we can be here and now, as we are,
who we are, whatever our origins.
a city which calms down,
and gives rest to those who visit her
or to those who come here for the first time
and want to stay.
little step by little step.
je rève d'une ville dans laquelle nous serions
un peu plus content avec ce qu'il y a,
où nous lachons tout ce dont nous n'avons pas vraiment besoin,
un grand nettoyage, oui,
dans notre propre maison, devant notre porte,
où moi-même et d'autres font ce que nous avons à faire,
comme nous devons le faire,
comme nous pouvons le faire,
le mieux possible.
où nous sommes, ici et maintenant,
telle que nous sommes,
peu importe nos origines.
une ville qui se repose,
et donne du repos à ceux qui la visite
ou à ceux qui la visitent
ou à ceux qui souhaitent y rester.
au pas, petit pas par petit pas.
ik droom van een stad waarin we wat meer tevreden zijn met wat er is.
waarin we het overtollige wegwerken, verteren,
grote kuis van ons eigen huis, voor eigen deur.
waarin ikzelf en vele anderen gewoon hun werk doen,
zoals we dat horen te doen, ieder het zijne,
zo goed als we kunnen.
hier en nu en gewoon zijn zoals we zijn,
wie we zijn, waar we ook vandaan komen.
een stad die tot rust komt,
en rust geeft aan die haar bezoeken
of aan die er voor het eerst toekomen en er willen blijven.
stapvoets verder, stapje voor stapje.
A third party for the Middle East
I would like to express a personal point of view that nowadays seems too rarely expressed on the conflicts in the Middle East. I have since 2002 been carrying out projects in the Palestinian territories and in Israel, both with the music ensemble Ictus and with Music Fund, an organisation created by the Belgian NGO Oxfam-Solidarity and Ictus. We have built bonds of friendship in the region with Jewish and Arab Israelis and with Palestinians in the territories. Musicians of Ictus have since 2002 visited the region already 13 times for work periods of 7 to 14 days and Music Fund has organised several deliveries of musical instruments, as well as started the establishment of training for the repair and maintenance and repair of music instruments.
What concerns me most of all in this context is the following question: “What is it that we, Belgians and Europeans, can do for the inhabitants of this region?” or “In what way can we give them support as a third party?” This question seems to me far more poignant than idle chatter in our European living rooms about who is to blame on what, without understanding much about what is going on over there. What can one do as a simple citizen? Undoubtedly, we cannot make nor break peace, yet what we can try, as Belgian and European citizens, is to play our role as third party to the full. We have at least one right that they do not: We are free to cross borders. It would be a pity not to avail ourselves of this freedom. We are faced with only a few minimal constraints: waiting at checkpoints or at borders. Palestinians and Israelis cannot cross to the other side though, unless they have a special permission. They are carefully separated, one of the reasons that this conflict goes on.
But to play a role of third party effectively, it is necessary to be accepted as a partner. To succeed, we must establish contacts, build partnerships and create bonds of friendship, not only with one party, but with all the parties in the region.
I am disturbed by the current demonisation of Israel. As if it were the only one responsible for the wrongs of this region. Being a friend of Israelis does not hinder me from being very critical about the occupation and the recent war in Lebanon, and to talk to them about it. And as a friend of Palestinians, I have no difficulty in being as categorical about the destructive place accorded to ‘martyrs’ in the Palestinian society, as if, there too, violence was a way to peace and freedom – nor to discuss the matter in their company. Although it is not really our principal aim, building bonds of work and friendship also gives us the liberty to address these issues. On the other hand, I do not think it is right to take sides and to represent the ones as the personification of the devil and the others as simple victims. And yet that is precisely what is happening a lot at this time. I understand very well why it is that sides are taken when so much violence is all around this region. But still, I would like to know, with whom should the Palestinians and the Arab countries make peace, if it were true that the Israelis are devils and assassins?
In recent times, we have been confronted by unilateral indignation. This indignation is not fair; it does not reflect the reality, and does not get things moving a single inch. In this context, the idea of boycotting Israel is often advanced, in particular in the cultural sector, in which I work. It think that quite the contrary should be achieved: we must get to know the men, women and children in the region. My colleagues and I are neither peace activists nor politicians; we work through music, we play together and hold music workshops for children and university students. The boycott option is depressing and desperate, but also harshly unfair for an entire people. It fuels even further incomprehension, hate and rage. Reaching for one’s cheque book and resorting to arms again are the solutions put forward all too often. And yet, it is only when we realise that money and bombs are not enough that it becomes possible to consider peace.
By keeping contact in a selective, but also very intense and committed manner, by putting together projects with all those who are victims of the conflict in the region – Palestinians in the occupied territories, the Arabs and the Jews of Israel – we show our solidarity with those who, in spite of everything, continue to dream of peace in future, even if that future seems remote.
I cannot imagine reducing the work of several years to projects only with Palestinians in the occupied territories. It would be as if all of a sudden, we chose a side in this conflict, and abandoned all vision and all hope for peace.
The Jews with whom we work in Israel also dream of peace and security. Our educational exchanges give them immense comfort, because very often, in other contexts, people turn to look the other way when they are there.
So let us behave towards the Jews and Palestinians the way we want others to behave towards us: like people who have to stay in contact, no matter how bad things get, with what is best in life. Through solidarity we, as Belgians and Europeans, endorse this role of that third party, which may then come to mean something in these difficult conflicts.
This is not a neutral attitude at all. It is a strong commitment, where strong human bonds are established but are constantly at risk of breaking; where dangerous words are exchanged, and where no one can emerge unscathed. This is precisely the risk to take in order to build a better existence in trying moments. That is why I shall continue to cross the borders.
Een derde partij voor het Midden Oosten
by Lukas Pairon
published in the Belgian newspaper De Standaard in August 2006
Ik wil in dit opiniestuk in De Standaard een persoonlijke stem laten horen die misschien te weinig aan bod komt als men de afgelopen weken en maanden spreekt over wat in het Midden Oosten gebeurt. We zijn met het muziekensemble Ictus sinds 2002, en met de organisatie Music Fund - opgericht door Oxfam Solidariteit en Ictus - sinds 2005, actief in het Midden Oosten, in de Palestijnse grondgebieden én in Israel en hebben in deze regio vriendschappen met Joodse, Arabisch-Israelische en Palestijnse mensen die zoals wij ook werken in de muzieksector als muzikanten of als managers of leraars in het muziekonderwijs. Muzikanten van Ictus zijn zo sinds eind 2002 al 13 keer voor werkperiodes van 7 tot 14 dagen naar de regio getrokken en Music Fund heeft naast grote leveringen van muziekinstrumenten ook een aanzet gegeven tot een opleiding voor het herstellen en onderhouden van muziekinstrumenten.
In dit alles stel ik mij vooral de vraag wat wij vanuit België en Europa kunnen betekenen voor die mensen ginder. Hoe kunnen wij hen als derde partij helpen om uit deze conflicten te geraken? Hoe kunnen we als buitenstaanders mensen überhaupt helpen die in een conflict verwikkeld zitten? Dat is toch zoveel belangrijker dan te weten wat wij of anderen vanuit onze salons over dit conflict denken en vinden.
Als gewone mensen die geen vrede kunnen maken of breken, maar alleen maar met muziek bezig zijn, kunnen we niet veel, maar toch wel iets.
Wat we vanuit België en Europa kunnen en moeten doen is onze rol als derde partij voluit spelen. Wij hebben de vrijheid die zij niet hebben om grenzen over te steken en het zou jammer zijn als we die vrijheid niet zouden nemen. Wij hebben alleen maar een beetje de last van wat wachten aan checkpoints en grenzen. Zij (Palestijnen en Israelis) kunnen niet naar de andere kant, tenzij ze speciale vergunningen hebben. Zij worden netjes uit elkaar gehouden. Het zorgt er mee voor dat het conflict in stand gehouden wordt.
Maar om echt een rol te spelen, is het nodig om als gesprekspartner aanvaard te worden. Daarvoor moeten we contacten leggen, partnerships uitbouwen, vriendschappen smeden, niet alleen met één van de partijen, maar met alle partijen ginder.
Hoewel ik het gezien de situatie goed begrijp, stoort het me dat Israel wordt voorgesteld als de duivel, alsof zij alleen verantwoordelijk zijn voor al het kwade in deze regio. Als vrienden van Israelis heb ik er geen moeite mee om heel kritisch tot vernietigend te oordelen over het geweld van de bezetting van de Palestijnse grondgebieden én van deze oorlog in Libanon, maar als vrienden van Palestijnen heb ik er ook geen moeite mee om net zo vernietigend te oordelen over de plaats die de martelaren in de Palestijnse samenleving toebedeeld krijgen, alsof ook daar geweld een weg naar vrede en bevrijding zou geven. Het ziet er zo langs beide kanten uitzichtloos uit. En omdat we vrienden zijn, kunnen en mogen we er niet over zwijgen, niet naar de Israelis toe en ook niet naar de Palestijnen toe. Wat niet juist is, is om partij te kiezen en de enen voor te stellen alsof ze de duivel zelf zijn en de anderen alsof ze alleen slachtoffer zouden zijn. Dat is wat nu te veel gebeurt. Want met wie moeten Palestijnen en de Arabische landen vrede maken, als de Israelis duivels en moordenaars zijn?
Deze eenzijdige verontwaardiging waarmee we de afgelopen weken en maanden geconfronteerd worden, is niet juist, komt niet overeen met de realiteit en brengt ook geen aarde aan de dijk. De idee van een boycot van Israel wordt hierbij snel als een mogelijke oplossing naar voor geschoven, vanuit de culturele sector, maar ook in andere sectoren. Een land of een bevolking de rug toekeren, is echter geen juiste optie. Het tegenovergestelde moet gebeuren: contacten zoeken met mensen ginder is de boodschap. Vermits wij geen vredesactivisten of politici zijn, doen we dat door samen muziek te maken, workshops te geven aan jongeren en universiteitsstudenten.
De boycot-optie is deprimerend en hopeloos, maar ook onfair hard voor een heel volk. Het leidt naar nog meer onbegrip, haat en nijd. Aleen de vinger op de knip van de portemonnee en op de trigger zouden in deze analyse voor een oplossing kunnen zorgen, maar het tegenovergestelde klopt beter: het is pas wanneer beseft wordt dat geld en wapengekletter alleen niet helpen, dat misschien aan vrede kan gedacht worden.
Door op een selectieve manier, maar heel intensief en geengageerd, contact te houden en projecten te ontwikkelen met alle mensen die in dit gebied slachtoffers zijn van het conflict (Palestijnen uit de bezette grondgebieden, Palestijnen in Israel en de Joden in Israel), tonen we solidariteit aan al diegenen die ondanks alles ginder toch blijven dromen over een mogelijke vrede in de toekomst, zelfs al lijkt die toekomst alsnog veraf.
Ik kan me niet voorstellen iets anders te doen dan wat we de afgelopen jaren deden, want alleen met Palestijnen in de grondgebieden projecten ontwikkelen, is als een kamp kiezen in dit conflict en ook de mogelijkheid van vrede opgeven.
De joodse mensen met wie wij in Israel werken snakken ook naar vrede en veiligheid voor zichzelf en hun kinderen. Ze zijn zo blij met onze projecten daar, want gewoon omdat ze jood en israelisch zijn, worden ze dikwijls met de nek aangekeken door een stuk van de wereld.
Met neutraliteit heeft deze opstelling niets te maken, wel integendeel: Laat ons Israelis en Palestijnen behandelen zoals we zelf zouden behandeld willen worden: als mensen die er het beste van willen maken, en daarvoor vriendschap en steun verdienen, maar in relaties die veeleisend zijn en dus steeds op het scherp van het mes, met het risico dus om verbroken te worden, omdat eerlijk en rechtuit met elkaar gesproken wordt, en dat kan pijn doen. Vanuit deze solidariteit kunnen wij als Belgen en Europeanen als derde partij misschien iets betekenen in deze ingewikkelde conflicten. Het is daarom en op die manier dat ik deze grenzen wil blijven oversteken.
"Une tierce partie au Moyen-Orient"
par Lukas Pairon
publié dans le journal belge Le Soir en août 2006
Au sujet du Proche-Orient, je voudrais faire entendre un point de vue personel qui ne s’exprime plus guère qu’à bas bruit. Je mène depuis 2002 des projets dans les territoires palestiniens et en Israël, autant avec l’ensemble de musique Ictus qu’avec l’organisation Music Fund, créée par Oxfam-Solidarité et Ictus. Nous avons construit des liens d’amitié dans la région autant avec des Juifs qu’avec des Arabes israéliens ou palestiniens. Certains musiciens d’Ictus ont déjà fait 13 fois le voyage dans la région pour des périodes de travail de 7 à 14 jours et le Music Fund a organisé plusieurs livraisons d’instruments de musique, tout en stimulant d’autre part la création d’une formation en lutherie (réparation et entretien d’instruments de musique).
Ma réflexion a comme point de départ la question suivante : « Qu’est-ce que nous, Belges et Européens, pouvons signifier pour les habitants de cette région ? » De quelle manière pouvons-nous les soutenir en tant que tierce partie? Ces questions me semblent beaucoup plus poignantes que les opinions de salon. Que peut un citoyen ? Sans doute ne pouvons-nous ni faire la paix ni la briser, mais notre devoir en tant que citoyens belges et européens est de jouer pleinement notre rôle de tierce partie. Nous possédons un droit dont eux sont dépourvus : nous pouvons en toute liberté traverser les frontières. Il serait dommage de ne pas user de cette liberté. Nous ne sommes confrontés qu’à quelques minimes contraintes : l’attente aux checkpoints et aux frontières. Les Palestiniens et les Israéliens ne peuvent se diriger de l’autre côté, sauf s’ils possèdent des permissions spéciales. Ils sont séparés minutieusement. Et c’est une des raisons de la pérennité de ce conflit.
Pour jouer effectivement un rôle, il est nécessaire d’être accepté en tant qu’interlocuteur. Pour y parvenir, il faut nouer des contacts, construire des partenariats et créer des liens d’amitié, non pas avec un parti mais avec tous les partis sur place.
L’actuelle diabolisation d’Israël me dérange. Comme s’il était le seul responsable du mal dans cette région. D’être l’ami d’Israéliens ne m’empêche pas de juger de manière critique la violence de l’occupation des territoires palestiniens et celle de la guerre actuelle au Liban, et d’en parler avec eux. En tant qu’ami de Palestiniens, je n’ai aucune difficulté à juger tout aussi destructrice la place donnée aux martyrs dans la société palestinienne, comme si là aussi, la violence était une voie vers la paix et la libération - et d’en discuter en leur compagnie. Construire des liens de travail et d’amitié nous donne la liberté de les interpeler. Par contre, je pense qu’il n’est pas juste de prendre parti à toute vitesse et de représenter les uns comme la personnification du diable et les autres comme de simples victimes. C’est pourtant bien ce qui se passe pour l’instant. Qu’on me dise : avec qui les Palestiniens et les pays arabes devraient-ils faire la paix, s’il est vrai que les Israéliens sont des diables et des assassins ?
Nous sommes confrontés, ces dernières semaines, à une indignation unilatérale. Cette indignation n’est pas juste, elle ne correspond pas à la réalité et ne fait pas avancer les choses d’un seul pouce. Dans ce contexte, l’idée d’un boycott d’Israël est souvent la solution avancée, notamment dans le secteur culturel où je travaille. Tourner le dos à un pays ou à un peuple est injuste. Je suis d’avis que bien au contraire, il faut apprendre à connaître les hommes, les femmes et les enfants sur place. Mes collègues et moi ne sommes ni des activistes de la paix, ni des politiciens, nous oeuvrons par la musique, nous jouons ensemble et nous donnons des ateliers de musique aux enfants et aux universitaires. L’option du boycott est d’une part déprimante et désespérante, mais elles est aussi durement injuste pour un peuple entier. Elle engendre encore plus d’incompréhension, de haine et de rage. Boucler son portefeuille et s’en remettre aux armes sont trop souvent les solutions avancées. Pourtant, ce n’est qu’au moment où l’on se rend enfin compte que l’argent et les bombes ne suffisent pas qu’il est possible d’envisager la paix.
En gardant contact de manière sélective, mais aussi très intense et engagée, en construisant des projets avec tous ceux qui dans la région sont victimes du conflit – Palestiniens des territoires occupés, les Palestiniens, les Juifs d’Israël -, nous montrons notre solidarité avec ceux qui, malgré tout, continuent à rêver d’une paix future, même si ce futur semble lointain.
Je ne puis m’imaginer de réduire le travail de plusieurs années aux seuls projets avec les Palestiniens des territoires occupés. Ce serait comme si tout à coup nous choisissions un camp dans ce conflit et que nous abandonnions toute vision, toute attente de la paix.
Les Juifs avec qui nous travaillons en Israël rêvent eux aussi de paix et de sécurité. Nos échanges pédagogiques leur donnent un réconfort intense, car trop souvent dans d’autres contextes, les regards se détournent en leur présence.
Comportons-nous envers les Juifs et les Palestiniens comme nous voudrions qu’on se comporte envers nous : comme des personnes qui doivent garder le contact, au pire de l’épreuve, avec le meilleur de la vie. Par la solidarité, nous pouvons en tant que Belges et Européens endosser le rôle de cette tierce partie et peut-être alors signifier quelque chose dans ces conflits difficiles.
Cette attitude n’est pas neutre. Il s’agit d’un engagement fort, où se construisent des liens humains exigeants, en perpétuel risque de se rompre, où s’échangent des paroles risquées et dont personne ne sort indemne. C’est avec ce risque que se construit une existence meilleure dans les moments d’angoisse. Voilà pourquoi je continuerai à traverser les frontières.
by Noam Ben Ze’ev
published in Haaretz, 21 June 2006
The Balata refugee camp near Nablus is not known for its cultural life. Yet, despite the poverty and ruin there - thousands of families survive on food stipends and hundreds live in shacks - residents of the camp find solutions to their hunger for culture and art. There are programs in community centers for women and youth and in schools to meet this need. Now, a new program has been added to the curriculum : music education, including instruction in musical instruments.
This week 11 children from the camp, ages 7-13, are visiting the French city of Lille. During the first days of their visit, they received intensive musical training from Ictus, a contemporary music ensemble, and today they will appear in a festive concert in the city’s opera house. The concert will be the culmination of an extraordinary effort to collect instruments for Palestinian and Israeli children. Ictus leader Lukas Pairon, who founded the complex project, may now gaze in satisfaction at the realization of his dream - a dream many of his friends considered absolutely unrealistic.
Two or three times a year, for more than three years, Pairon has been coming to Israel with members of his ensemble to work with Tel Aviv University students and children from Nazareth and major cities in the West Bank. Their determination to stay with friends rather than in hotels made Israel and the territories their second home. Refusing to settle for one-off expressions of identification, they devote themselves to continuous field work, which produces intimate ties with local musicians.
"We are neither peace-minded politicians nor promoters of an ideology of coexistence," Pairon says. "We are working within the context of independence on both sides. Thus, when peace comes, we will be at a better starting point than others."
On one of their visits, Pairon came up with the idea of collecting instruments. "I mentioned, during a Belgian radio interview, that Palestinian children lack instruments and asked for donations. Within a short time I received dozens of instruments at my private address," he says. "That encouraged me to found a special non-profit organization devoted to this."
Leading Belgian musicians supported Pairon’s Music Fund, and the first collection campaign yielded hundreds of instruments. "Donating an instrument is unlike any other donation : It is highly personal and very emotional," Pairon says. "There is a story behind every instrument. The donor imagines the child who will play the instrument, and thus people take an imaginary trip from Belgium to Palestine and Israel to bond with the children."
Pairon decided to escort personally the instruments to their destination. He learned to drive a truck and embarked last winter : He crossed the frigid European continent, hopped on a ferry from Italy to Greece, sailed all the way down to Piraeus, and from there boarded a ship that docked in Haifa in January.
People watched the enormous truck emblazoned with the message "Give Music a Chance" traveling the length and breadth of the nation to unload its bounty : flutes, clarinets, percussion instruments, string instruments of all sizes, five pianos and guitars. All were handed to outstretched hands to the resounding echoes of the truck’s message.
"I was afraid of what I would find here after Hamas rose to power and elections were held in the territories and Israel, but I do not believe our projects are in any danger," Pairon says, on his latest visit to Israel. In addition to musicians from his ensemble, two experts in instrument repair joined him to conduct workshops in the territories, "so that a league of instrument builders and restorers will evolve there independent of Europe," Pairon explains. Pairon also inspected the level of music education during this visit - particularly in the Balata refugee camp, where four music teachers arrived from Lille.
The mood in Nablus has deteriorated following arrests and funerals. Won’t your musicians be affected by that ?
"To tell you the truth, yes," Pairon admits. "They are worried, depressed and irritable. We want to work at a high musical level, and under current conditions I can’t blame them if they fall apart."
A visit to the Nablus casbah with Pairon reveals a determined, fearless man disturbed only by the posters of martyrs in every corner of the city. "I decided to express my shock in response to this, and repeated over and over that the immortalization of these suicide bombers makes me sick," he says. "I was happy to discover, among the Palestinians, wonderful people who also oppose this and support only non-violent protest."
On the way back to the Green Line we pass through Ramallah, where Pairon’s colleagues repair instruments with pupils at the Al- Kamandjati School of Music. Back in Nazareth, Pairon is thrilled by progress made there by students at the Al-Mutran School since he and the ensemble began teaching.
Why don’t you introduce them to students in Nablus, Ramallah and Bethlehem ?
"We intended to do exactly that," Pairon sighs. "The plan was to have Arab-Israeli pupils join the current trip to France so that both sides could meet for the first time. But the school canceled at the last minute."
Making Gaza history
A year ago, a few months before the instruments arrived, Pairon first visited Gaza to prepare for his project. His hosts’ requests appeared reasonable, in European terms : Meet with everyone involved in music education in the Gaza Strip in order to distribute the instruments best. It sounds simple - but given Gaza’s harsh socioeconomic situation, it is extraordinarily difficult to promote music education. Pairon stood firm and for the first time in the costal strip’s history, musical figures from all four corners of Gaza assembled to discuss music.
"We need much more than musical instruments : We need teachers to instill the population with a sense of the significance of music," one of the participants said. "Give us [fishing] rods - not fish. If you want to help, bring us people to teach us how to teach."
Controversy surrounded the issue of who would take responsibility for the project in Gaza, and one of the teachers suggested the Ministry of Education, in line with a Western conservatory model. Pairon opposed the idea and presented the example of Belgium, a nation that permits bureaucracy and clerks to interfere with music despite their lack of understanding, he says.
"We established an association of musicians first, and only later turned to the government," he says, making it clear that the Music Fund would only provide instruments to institutions where it had direct supervision. Finally, they decided to house the instruments in two main institutions : The Al-Qattan cultural center and the Gaza Broadcasting Service, which sponsors an orchestra and a choir.
The musical instruments arrived a few months later. Pairon was not permitted to enter Gaza with the Give Music a Chance truck, and the instruments were unloaded and packed into vehicles at the Karni crossing. At their destinations, the vehicles were greeted with tears of excitement : Guitars were pulled from cases, wind instruments were polished, and the piano was rolled to a place of honor on the auditorium stage of the Al-Qattan Center for the Child - a cultural center that serves a fifth of the 750,000 children in the Gaza Strip under the age of 15. The center provides them with books, audiovisual and reading rooms, an extensive garden, a theater and musical performances. The Gaza Broadcasting Service’s own Arabic orchestra, accompanied by eight male and female singers, welcomed the instruments in a moving concert in a densely packed room, where classic Arabic music rang in a professional, stirring, emotive performance.
Despite deteriorating conditions in Gaza, Pairon does not surrender : While Gaza does not appear on his current itinerary he continues collecting instruments in Europe at an avid clip, and he will return in December to distribute them. "We will not give up on Gaza," he says. "There is still a lot of work there." Meanwhile, he continues to meeting with the mayor of Ramallah, local Belgian Embassy officials and Israel Embassy officials in Brussels, among others. All of them, except Israeli security figures, go out of their way to help him and the diplomatic and institutional front he has established here appears steadfast.
As someone who works on both sides, aren’t you disturbed that the instruments are mainly given to Palestinians ? There are certainly needy Jewish Israeli children who lack them.
"I do not oppose also giving to Jews. Our job is to help musicians and if there are those in Israel who make a request [for instruments], we will certainly provide. The instruments are intended for anyone who needs them.
© 05/03/2005, Noam Ben Ze’ev - Haaretz
Almost secretly, without a lot of flag-waving, the Belgian Ictus ensemble for contemporary music - three instrumentalists who are among the best in their field and the international composer Georges Aperghishas - has been giving master classes and concerts for children and students in Israel and the Palestinian Authority for three years now. Tonight they will play a final concert of modern music at the Clermont Auditorium at Tel Aviv University, tonight at 6:30 P.M. after a busy week.
The ensemble returned this week for the 11th time to work with composition students at Tel Aviv University and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and to teach and give master classes to students in Nazareth and Bethlehem. Unlike other groups of "do-gooder" artists, explains ensemble director Lukas Pairon, the members of Ictus do not confine themselves to a one-time expression of solidarity with the peoples of the region. "Our intention is not to establish `musicians without borders,’ but rather to devote ourselves to active field work - in one place, over a prolonged period and with a high frequency. An intimate acquaintance has already developed between the musicians and many children and students, Israelis and Palestinians, in the workshops and not just from concerts. This is my aim."
The status of the Ictus ensemble in Europe is similar to that of other famous contemporary music ensembles. It is invited to festivals with Intercontemporain from Paris and the Ensemble Moderne from Cologne, it has already issued 10 discs of works within a broad stylistic spectrum, and it serves as the house ensemble of the Opera de Lille.
"Brussels was one of the first meeting places of Israeli and Palestinians before Oslo," says Pairon, "and to a large extent the inspiration comes from that. I find that Europe is anti-Israeli and people ask me why I’m going to Israel, why I have chosen to be active there instead of boycotting it. But our project in its essence is opposed to a boycott. I don’t believe in an intellectual and cultural boycott : Anyone who is thinking about peace and wants to achieve it has to speak, to be in touch - this is the only way."
Pairon, 46, studied philosophy, education and political science in Switzerland and at the University of Paris and worked in the field of adult education, among other things on a UNESCO project for teaching reading and writing. With time, he moved into the arts management field, gathered young artists around himself and when Ictus was established in 1994, he was appointed its first director.
"Israel and Palestine have become our second homeland," he says, "and over time we have become your ambassadors : When I came here for the first time, at the beginning of 2002, I was interviewed every day for the Belgian classical music station, and I succeed in making the situation real for the Europeans. For many of them the reality here is abstract, without nuances and fine discriminations, and the terrible reports that flow out of the region cause them to shut themselves off in the best case - and usually to draw a prejudicial and distorted picture of what is happening.
"Ictus and its members are famous in Belgium, and therefore my descriptions carried weight," he continues. "And when in one of the conversations I mentioned that the Palestinians lacked musical instruments, I received dozens of instruments at my home address. From this was born the initiative for the campaign to collect instruments for needy places around the world." The large collection project, for which Pairon initiated the establishment of a special foundation headed by Belgium’s leading musicians - among them Philippe Herreweghe, Gérard Mortier and José van Dam - was announced a few months ago and ended two weeks ago. "One hundred collection points in Belgium yielded about 400 instruments," says Pairon, "among them 30 pianos and dozens of string instruments, some of them excellent and some of them of real value. I discovered that donating musical instruments is something very personal. It isn’t money that people are giving, or something they are getting rid of. Behind every instrument there is a story. Sometimes it belonged to a family member who played it and is no longer alive, and its owner is always emotionally connected to it and it is hard to separate from it.
Therefore anyone who donates an instrument imagines the person who will play it ; thus, hundreds of people are now taking the trip in their imagination from Belgium to Palestine and Israel, connecting to the children who are playing instruments that were once theirs." The concert program for the members of the Ictus ensemble, a clarinetist and bass clarinetist, a cellist and a pianist, includes works by the Greek Iannis Xenakis, the Japanese Toshio Hosokawa, the Finnish Kaija Saariho and the Greek-French Georges Aperghis. When the Ictus ensemble stays here, its members never live in hotels but are hosted in the private homes of their partners, mostly educators ; on both sides of the border they conduct their work independently.
"I am not a peace politician, and my aim is not to bring Israelis and Palestinians or Jews and Arabs closer together," says Pairon. "We are not pushing for cooperation, like many Europeans who think that they always need to intervene and bring the sides closer together at any price. We don’t. We work in both places, with both sides, from within the independence of each of the sides, without promoting an ideology of coexistence. But when the day comes, when peace does arrive, we will be in an excellent position to start doing this."
Opera Houses Under Fire
a manifesto for a living lyric drama
by Lukas Pairon
Brussels, 17 April 2001
published on www.culturekioskque
"The trouble with music appreciation in general is that people are taught to have too much respect for music; they should be taught to love it instead." - Igor Stravinsky
Considering the pioneering work of so many performers outside the established institutions in recent decades, the time is now ripe for major opera houses to become participants in this field. The opera house of the future must include the production of newly-written works as a substantial part of the programme. What follows is an invitation to join in the reflection on new organisational models for the opera house of the near future and to put this question at the top of the agenda. György Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre at the Flanders Opera and the success of Philippe Boesmans' Wintermärchen in Brussels, Lyon and Paris, alongside such other successful large-scale operatic productions as Peter Eötvos' Trois Soeurs and Helmut Lachenmann's Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern, all seem to indicate that the acceptance of new works by the opera houses cannot be halted. Appearances can, however, be deceptive. It is true that many opera directors shudder at the label "museum art" and for this reason sometimes take sound initiatives and opt to present world premieres or produce recent works once again, but this option remains extremely limited. Either the opera houses of the future will succeed in rejuvenating and restructuring themselves, or else we had better close them down, with a few fortunate exceptions that we can then cherish as museums of lyric drama. At present they are almost all museums. Despite the current debate, and contrary to appearances, most opera houses suffer from the same malaise.
1. Making a living art
Many of the contemporary operas performed in opera houses are not really "contemporary", though I do not want to open up a discussion as to what may or may not be called "avant-garde". If, however, devotees and critics had to judge these "contemporary" operas on their "contemporaneity" in terms of music, theatricality, production and so forth, it would soon become obvious that many of these "new" productions would not qualify at all. Why are the criteria for the evaluation and appreciation of new opera still different from those applied to new works of music, theatre, dance, the plastic arts, etc.?
The most important reason is that many intendants of opera houses are completely out of touch with what is going on in contemporary music and the visual arts, and present-day performing arts in general. It is precisely because of this lack of contact with current developments that many new operas are extremely dated in aesthetic and artistic terms and that to many people opera therefore remains a moribund art. But opera does have a future if we will pay more attention to a younger generation of worthwhile composers, writers and artists who propose new models for music theatre.
Opera houses that intend to produce and perform new works in the near future will also have to allow for a serious renewal and restructuring of their production methods. It is no longer sufficient to put the occasional new work on the bill, as now happens. We should be able to expect from each intendant a plan in which new creations occupy a central position. This is far from the present situation, where opera house directors are appointed or reappointed without complying with this condition. It is also difficult to enter into fundamental discussions with the present heads of opera houses precisely because too many interests and resources are involved. However, in several decades operatic institutions as we know them will no longer exist, and we must reflect on the best form an establishment for the production of the "music theatre of the future" should take. It is essential to launch as broad a social debate as possible on this topic in order to generate a well-thought-out new model in which we can in future offer lyric drama a place, without the repertoire of one particular period excluding all the rest, as is now the case. Considering the enormous investment society puts into it, we can and must no longer tolerate that wherever we go in Europe-and beyond-it is always the same repertoire that is performed, in different, sometimes more "modern" guises.
2. The intendant / devotee
In order to take a sound approach to new work, the intendant must himself be a devotee of contemporary music and performing arts. Only then will he wish, regularly and in the long term, to develop new works as an essential part of an opera season. Being in touch with these arts is the absolute precondition for persuading the public to discover and appreciate newly-created works. There is a substantial potential audience that is sufficiently interested to discover new forms of music theatre. It appears abundantly clear from the experience of the Nederlandse Opera that this sort of attitude can in the long run actually convince a broad audience. This company has invested more than any other in Europe in the creation of new works: its intendant and resident stage director, Pierre Audi, is one of the few opera house directors who is a real enthusiast of contemporary music, and thanks to his personal contacts with composers and writers he has succeeded in keeping abreast of the latest developments and thereby in creating in just a few years a dynamic which also draws in a substantial proportion of the Dutch public.
3. Rethinking structure and working methods.
It is only those intendants who are true devotees of the contemporary arts who will be able to change the structure and working methods of the opera houses. Although there are certainly interesting examples of collaboration between major operatic institutions and independent, performer-based ensembles and production centres, this sort of operational model is not ideal. The production methods in the respective organisations are so different that it becomes extremely complex to work smoothly together. It is therefore essential that in addition to such joint ventures, opera houses also start to play an independent and more active role in the field of creation.
Performers who wish to put together a new work should not be saddled with a large orchestra, chorus, a fixed rehearsal and production schedule, classically-trained singers who have little experience of contemporary practice in acting and/or movement or of contemporary music, etc. The makers of new music theatre will not always want performers with the musical and educational backgrounds (singers, musicians, actors, dancers) with whom opera houses are accustomed to work. One characteristic of much new music theatre is that those who create the works do not necessarily follow the standard production schedules of most opera houses (neither the composition of the production team, the timing and planning, nor the type of working spaces and theatres). By nonetheless accepting such conditions, the result is in fact often far removed from the original vision or concept. Those who reject the restrictions imposed are unfortunately rare. The appeal of working for a major organisation and the respect and recognition it brings are often too attractive to refuse.
4. In anticipation: a "special task force"
"Opera" means "the works". So it should involve more than one sort of music theatre. We have to abandon the methods of the 19th and 20th-century opera house as soon as possible so that there is space to create works that do not fit into the present very limited production and artistic "corset" of the majority of opera houses. Every opera house director who wants to take up the challenge of adapting the existing operatic institution, so that a greater variety of new projects can be carried out, should in the transitional period at least make a start by forming a special team responsible for keeping track of the special needs of the new works being created. This team should definitely not function as an independent unit, but must be fully integrated into the organisational structure of the operatic institution. It is no solution to attach laboratory-like units to the major institutions, because of the danger of ghettoization and the possible disappearance of this sort of unit when times are hard. We should see it rather as a "special task force" in a transitional stage to a situation where the "art of the repertoire" is in less of a majority and there is more openness to differences of intention and approach shown by artists of the past and present.
5. New infrastructure.
The opera houses are themselves a matter for discussion (stage infrastructure, audience areas, electronics, multimedia, etc.). Theoretical work has been going on for some time among architects and music and theatre artists. Most existing opera houses date from the 19th or early 20th centuries, or earlier, and are suited to the performance, in ideal circumstances, of just one particular repertoire. On the other hand, not everyone feels at ease in the velvety surroundings in which the middle classes-past and present-like to be. If we want to bring music theatre to a broader, but not necessarily "larger" audience, it would be a good thing to make the theatres more accommodating not only to those who work in them, but also to the public. Instead of building enormous auditoria where more people can see more of the same, it would be better to work on theatres better suited to showing a variety of art forms. It is after all well known that good theatre is not well served by the distance necessarily created between stage and audience in big theatres. Question Peter Brook about this. Huge spectaculars can be put on in sports halls and similar large spaces, as they already are. For the other theatrical and musical works, a different, not necessarily very large infrastructure must be considered.
6. Chorus and orchestra.
The future of the chorus and orchestra is also open to discussion. A recurring argument against reshaping the opera from the inside is the need to keep the orchestra and chorus in work. Yet here too a great deal of fascinating thinking and experimentation has been going on in various parts of the world. A recent example is the project at the Opéra de Rouen, which now, under its new name of "Leonardo da Vinci", presents a programme in which fewer works from the standard repertoire will be seen and heard and where the doors will be opened to the other arts, while the orchestra and chorus will be employed in completely different fields than simply accompanying opera productions, and will even serve several other establishments and festivals. Another example is the programme of the Nederlandse Opera, where such chamber music ensembles as ASKO and the Schönberg Ensemble, which concentrate on first performances of new music, will make regular appearances.
7. Invitation to reflection and dialogue.
Artists and producers who work on new opera and music theatre outside the major institutions should be able to participate in this reflection. At the moment they do this too little or not at all. They often adopt a subservient attitude, with a hand outstretched to the opera houses in the hope of catching a few crumbs or leftovers from the well-laden table. Another common attitude is the utter rejection of everything to do with the operatic institutions, as if the "outsider experiment" was above it all. It is here that we encounter the sterile discussion about the "avant-garde". Does this intransigent refusal by certain artists and producers to enter into dialogue with their colleagues in the opera houses have something to do with maintaining a sort of "protected environment" of so-called experimental, new or avant-garde art? What is going on outside the opera houses is not all trouble and affliction, but it would be equally untrue to claim the opposite. But what is much more important is the discussion that should be carried on with the broader public, and also with the politicians who at present prefer to keep everything as it was by granting billions to institutions that will thereby be able to continue almost exclusively to show art from the past, with a paper-thin coat of modern varnish.
Although I have here spoken only of the creation of new works, it is by no means my intention to argue for an artificial and superficial division between "old" and "new". Although I am surrounded at all times by new music and contemporary forms in the performing arts, I am also a great fan of much that is beautiful in the operatic repertoire. But what I am pursuing is dialogue, with the emphasis on a future for newly-written works, with the clout of the opera houses being employed to produce genuinely new operas.