The relationship of art to music is as inextricable as the relationship of war to art and war to music.
In music, whether tunes stem from a classical or folk environment, there's a legacy that sketches details of life in the trenches that otherwise would perish in the memories of the veterans who valiantly served the missions of their troupes.
In fine art, works of Jacques-Louis David, Paul Rubens and Francisco Goya commented on heroic aspects, passion as well as the horrors of destruction. With the advent of the photographic camera, witnesses of military action could document the struggle just as it was — unadorned — from everyday banal activities to tragedies to the psychological aftermath.
Now, if there were an opportunity to survey the complexity of warfare through art and music simultaneously . . .
There was. University of Texas at Austin graduate student, flutist Natalie Zeldin was in the ideal position to assemble such an exploration. She took on the massive challenge.
"Music and the Journey of War: A Three-Part Concert Series" emerged from her unique combination of studies, work and personal curiosity. The performance series begins Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and continues on Dec. 2 and Dec. 16.
When Zeldin was an undergraduate student at Rice University working on a double degree in music and in art history, she interned at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston where she worked alongside the curators of the exhibition WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath — photography curator Anne Wilkes Tucker, curatorial assistant Natalie Zelt and Will Michels of the Glassell School — on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston through Feb. 3, 2013.
The process of assembling the 280-plus photographs took more than 10 years, and Zeldin was involved in supporting the last portion of the planning. The internship was extended into a summer job, which included collaborating to pen part of the collection's catalogue.
"It was such an monumental feat," Zeldin says. "During it, I was thinking about how there were certain aspect of the curation that could also be commented on musically.
"The point of the exhibition is to show how photographs are used functionally for mundane activities — like documenting equipment — in addition to displaying artistic photos that one typically imagines of war, like the raising of the American flag at Iwo Jima in 1945. There are iconic war photographs and examples of photojournalism for the purpose of disseminating information."
"I am trying to reflect a general trajectory and progression of war — and not the history of war. The music journeys from before war, during the war and after the war."
The show travels through 28 nations and time, from 1846 and the Mexican-American War through 2011 in Libya. But WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY isn't organized chronologically, rather, it's assembled thematically.
"Similarly, I am trying to reflect a general trajectory and progression of war — and not the history of war," she says. "The music journeys from before war, during the war and after the war."
That was a challenge.
Zeldin didn't take the easy way out; she didn't opt for the obvious connections like Olivier Messiaen's Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Music for the end of times), Krzysztof Penderecki's Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima or a transcription of Gustav Holst's Mars, the bringer of war from the orchestral suite The Planets. That would be like playing Debussy, Ravel or Fauré adjacent to Impressionism's greatest visual hits. Surely there's value there, but that just begins to scratch the surface; there's more to be discovered.
Instead, she adopted a curatorial strategy to research archives and uncover unknown and seldom played oeuvres that didn't merely compliment what's on view. The music appends rich, thoughtful dialogue in response to the ethos that fumes from the interaction between the viewer and the images. After all, the curation of WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY was unconventional; it spotlights photojournalism in an fine arts focus.
Inspired by method, Zeldin sought out compositions that delve deeply on the leitmotifs hidden behind the pictures.
The music of war
"On the first concert, titled 'Before the War,' there's music by Komitas Vardapet, an Armenian composer who championed folk music of his homeland," she says. "After he witnessed genocide, he went insane. There're also compositions by Nikolai Roslavets that were suppressed by the Soviet government."
Roslavets' Piano Trio No. 4 will be performed by violinist Yi Zhao, cellist Coleman Itzkoff, recent winner of the Young Texas Artists Music Competition, and pianist Hui Shan Chin.
"I found Chilean revolution folk songs by Violeta Parra and Luis Advis (transcribed by Nicolás Emilfork) that were banned during the Pinochet regime. The songs were the basis for a whole genre of music, the Canción Nueva, which were used as recently as in the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine. As such, they've had a meaningful layered life."
"WATIV is a veteran, a soldier in Iraq who was a jazz musician before he went to war. He couldn't stand not being able to compose, so from his computer he recorded found sounds from the war and developed electronic music."
Apuntes for solo piano was written by Rodolfo Halffter, who was part of the propaganda ministry of the Spanish republican government during the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s. Because Halffter brother supported the opposition, he was exiled Mexico.
For the second concert of the series, titled "Music in the Face of War," Dmitri Shostakovich's Piano Trio No. 2 in E Minor, performed by violinist Eric Siu, cellist Evan Leslie and pianist Jeewon Lee, anchors the playbill.
Shepherd School of Music's Karim Al-Zand, who's of Iraqi provenance, wrote a sextet honoring a cousin who perished in Baghdad during the invasion, she says. Lamentation on the Disasters of War is mused by a series of Goya prints, which will be on view at MFAH as part of Portrait of Spain: Masterpieces from the Prado, on display from Dec. 16 through Mar. 31, 2013.
Zeldin says the most bizarre in the piece on the program is by William A Thompson IV.
"The composer also goes by WATIV, an acronym for his initials," she says. "He's a veteran, a soldier in Iraq who was a jazz musician before he went to war. He couldn't stand not being able to compose, so from his computer he recorded found sounds from the war and developed electronic music. He released his first album, The Bagdad Music Journals," from Iraq.
WATIV will be present at the concert to perform Post-Election News and to discuss his personal trials and tribulations and how they manifest through his music collages.
"His music is creepy, though it's interesting to listen to as we just went through our own election," she explains. "The music includes sounds from Iraqi radio, so all you hear is static, Arabic and the word Bush, because it was after Bush's reelection."
The third concert, "Music in the Aftermath of War," includes music by two veterans.
When singer/songwriter Jason Moon returned from war, he experienced posttraumatic stress disorder, and his symptoms included suicidal tendencies. Though he's not a formally-trained musician, he found music to be a conduit for healing. Today, he plays at veterans' centers to share his experience and connect with others with similar stories. Moon will perform selections from his recently-released an album, titled Trying to Fine My Way Home.
Houston-born Jason Sagebiel is a classical trained guitarist who, while serving in Iraq, learned the ut from locals, one of whom made an instrument for him to take back home. Sagabiel's friend died in the war, and Two Iraqi Songs: Salvation and Rosary is written in his memory.
Aaron Alon's Hibakusha for solo flute reflects on posttraumatic stress disorder. The Chiara String Quartet will perform Steve Reich's Different Trains for string quartet and tape and the Fischer Duo, cellist Normal Fischer and Jeanne Kierman, takes on John Harbison's Abu Ghraib, a work that's divided into scenes and prayers.
"Music and the Journey of War: A Three-Part Concert Series" begins Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and continues on Dec. 2 and Dec. 16. Tickets are $15 for MFAH members, $30 for adults. Discounts are available for seniors and youth. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling 713-639-7771.