I wrote this note shortly after a suicide bombing took place in Kabul on December 11. This, sadly, is no rare occurrence in Kabul these days, nor, indeed, in many parts of the world, but it came close to home for me, because several of my students and colleagues from the Afghanistan National Institute of Music were there. As I talked over the event with friends, questions about our tolerance for violence came up: why are we vocal about violence overseas, but less so when it is right in our own backyards? More importantly, we began a serious discussion about our ability, as artists, to speak out and call for change. If we can strengthen the community around us, surely this will facilitate change. So this note is really the beginning of my thoughts in moving towards that goal…
On Thursday December 11, a bomb was detonated at the French Cultural Center at Esteqlal High School in Kabul, Afghanistan. The bomb went off during a production of Heartbeat: Silence After the Explosion, a play condemning suicide attacks. This incident touches especially close to home because many of the students playing music in the production are our personal friends – young artists at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music.
Our schools have been linked since the ANIM opened its doors in 2010, with NEC alumna Robin Ryczek as its first cello teacher. Since then, many other NEC faculty and alumni have taught at the ANIM, some, like Derek Beckvold and Bob Jordan, as resident faculty, others, including myself, Tanya Kalmanovitch, Eric Lane, and Danilo Henriquez as guest artists. In February of 2013, ANIM students visited NEC on their first US tour for a three-day residency, in which students and teachers from both schools took turns sharing our different musical cultures, performing together and strengthening enduring friendships.
Thankfully, no students were physically injured during this recent attack. But the horrors that they witnessed are far beyond what anyone, let alone children, should have to cope with. Unfortunately, they are forced to encounter these horrors on a regular basis. Dr. Ahmad Sarmast, Founder and Director of the ANIM, received a head wound and is in the hospital. We are all praying for his speedy recovery. His determination to continue fighting for music in Afghanistan is stronger than ever.
Our hearts go out to all of our dear friends at the ANIM, and to all those in Afghanistan who are enduring these horrible attacks.
NEC students come from all over the world. Unfortunately, many of us are watching violence unfold in our homelands every day: Syria, Iran, China, Ukraine, Venezuela, Columbia, not to mention right here in our own back yard, in Staten Island, in Ferguson, Missouri…
As we watch the news, as we attend rallies and march in protests, we are taught to think of these incidents as categorical: terrorism attack; racially-based; politically-charged. We often assign ourselves roles: “I’m not Afghan, I’m not Black, I’m not Chinese, but I will stand up in support of my friends.” The truth is that violence anywhere impacts us all – I’m standing up for myself just as much as I am for anyone else.
I don’t want violence in my back yard. Not here, or in Kabul, or in New York. I don’t want it down at the end of the street, or in the park, or in the neighborhood next to mine. These are our concerns. This is our world. This is where we live. We need to keep violence out of our home.
As artists, we are in an ideal position to speak out for social change. We work with audiences; we reach beyond linguistic boundaries; we are able to transcend the physical, tactile world. Our work needs to begin right here, through every single one of us reaching out to our local communities and welcoming our neighbors in. By pushing ourselves to look beyond individual concerts and performances to long-term commitments towards social change, like Kim Kashkashian’s Music for Food series, our Community Performances and Partnerships programs, our El Sistema Fellows.
How can we each help NEC become a more welcoming center for the arts for Boston’s entire community? How can we carry that communal support out into the world? If we don’t ask these questions of ourselves and, even more importantly, take action, we are allowing the opportunity for change to slip right through our hands.
Just before I went to sleep last night, I learned that Laszlo Varga, world-renowned cellist and a dear family friend, had passed away. I grew up with Mr. Varga as a musical mentor. Like many of my students at the ANIM, he spent much of his childhood in an orphanage, where he had the chance to study music. In 1944 he was interred in a Hungarian-Nazi Labor Camp, where he managed to survive for several months before escaping to Budapest. After the war, he came to America with the Léner Quartet and acted as Principal Cellist of the New York Philharmonic for 11 years, working under Dimitri Mitropoulos and Leonard Bernstein.
I think of him, and of the struggles that he endured as an artist. I think of my students in Kabul, of Dr. Ahmad Sarmast, the excellent ANIM faculty, and of all of the others who are fighting every day to keep art alive in Afghanistan. I think of the families here who are afraid for the safety of their children, and who continue to stand up for what they know is right. And I know that this is the time.
Artists, speak up! If we communicate, if we truly act, if we take part in our global community, we will see the changes that so badly need to come. Music is a powerful voice in this discussion. It is time for each and every one of us to seriously decide what we have to say.
Dec 12, 2014