Kinan Azmeh, a Syrian composer and clarinetist, and Kevork Mourad, a Syrian-Armenian painter and visual artist, completed their weeklong residency this weekend. The artists were on campus as part of the MusicUnitesUs Intercultural Residency series, directed by Prof. Judith Eissenberg (MUS). As a culmination of the residency on  Saturday evening in Slosberg Recital Hall, Kenan and Mourad performed “Home Within,” their new hour-long audio-visual project. The piece is an abstract telling of the themes and effects of Syria’s revolution and delves into recent events of the revolution. The Lydian String Quartet also performed a world premiere work by Azmeh and Khalil Younes, written specifically for the Brandeis visit. 

Azmeh was previously at Brandeis as a clarinetist in a group called New Sounds from Arab Lands. “[Azmeh] spoke about his feelings about what was happening in his home country, Syria.  He shared his piece “A Sad Morning, Every Morning” with us.  It was the eloquence of his playing and his speaking that led me to ask him to come back,” said Eissenberg in an email to the Justice.

The artists were on campus for the week, giving select classes and other audiences previews of their performance before their final Saturday performance. At these small previews, the artists answered questions from the audience about their work and discussed and reflected on the Syrian revolution. 

At one such performance in Prof.   Sarah Lamb’s (ANTH) Intro to Anthropology class, it was evident how skillfully their performance combined different artistic mediums. Azmeh played the clarinet while Mourad created imagery using only a black inkbottle and his hand as tools. While Mourad drew freehand, his work was projected on a larger platform that magnified the work. 

The real-time drawings were overlaid on a video with pre-made animation that interacted with Mourad’s illustrations, which lent to the performance being both surreal and mesmerizing. Adding a layer of intrigue was the fact that for many of the drawings, Mourad made deliberate choices about which parts of the image to draw first. And it was unclear what the final image would be while it was being produced. As Eissenberg said, “This all creates a feeling in the audience of being creators as well ... as we watched, wondering what would happen next, creating our own narrative to what was being revealed. It was very compelling artwork; the best art requires the audience to be makers as well.”

Improvisation played an intricate role and added a level of emotion in the performance. Eissenberg commented in an email, “As Kinan would improvise musically, Kevork would paint, projected on the screen so we could watch, improvising as well. So there is a feeling of creation at the moment with what the do - as the artists respond to their own feelings, to each other, and to the energy of the audience.” Azmeh responded to a question on the level of improvisation in their work saying that he thinks it is a sign of success when an audience cannot determine whether a musical piece is improvised or pre-determined, and that there is a little bit of both in his playing. 

Mourad responded similarly and explained that some details change based on recent events of the revolution. For example, one drawing depicted abstract figures pulling a boat containing a cluster of domed buildings presumably representing a Syrian city. Mourad noted that in past performances, the boat had been a cart, and that the change was due to recent happenings in the revolution. 

The multiple drawings that Mourad created through the course of the piece effortlessly matched the tone of the music produced by Azmeh’s clarinet. Azmeh’s playing was incredibly soulful, and it transported the listener to the heart of Syrian culture and right to the edge of the events influenced by and surrounding the Syrian revolution. The different mediums smoothly combined to produce a strong sense of emotion, especially sadness, as well as emitting a sense of hardship. The piece particularly evoked a strong sense of empathy for all of the people whose lives have been affected. Eissenberg commented, “It was about what is happening in Syria.  But even then, there was a certain abstraction so that the story was really a larger story that relates to all humans who have faced violence, and the loss of their homes.”