“Between Heaven and Earth”

On Friday and Saturday, February 2 & 3, 2018, the Louisville Orchestra presents a newly-commissioned work by Sebastian Chang titled “Between Heaven and Earth.” Created for the concert titled “War & Peace,” the work is based on the paintings of Iraqi artist Vian Sora and features orchestra and chorus. LO’s Director of Education Deanna Hoying interviewed the composer, the artist, and conductor Teddy Abrams about the conception and creation of the new work. Here is the full transcript of that conversation.

Our interview took place on a cold, rainy November afternoon at the home of artist Vian Sora. We were immediately greeted with the offer of coffee, tea, and cake as Vian explained she is from the Middle East and hospitality is everything! Her beautiful home is filled with her artwork and elements of her upbringing in Baghdad, Iraq. We had a chance to visit her basement studio where we got to see more of her work and meet her cat Lilou, who could not have been less interested in our presence other than we interrupted her nap. After a brief photo shoot, we all settled in her kitchen to discuss the “War and Peace” concerts including the new collaborative work Between Heaven and Earth, composed by Sebastian Chang and as Chang noted in the score “set to original oil paintings by Vian Sora.”


DH:         Teddy – the title of this concert is “War and Peace” – what was your inspiration for this concert and what was your thought process in selecting the works for this program?

TA:         This is the second set of concerts we’ve included in our regular season programming that is a big thematic portrait in which we try to look at difficult subjects from different artistic perspectives; last season’s was “Sacred and Profane.” It’s tough to sum up a giant concert concept but the idea is if someone comes to the “War and Peace” concerts, they will get an overview of the kind of art that has tried to explore these complex and often difficult to talk about subject matters. Music is one of the most powerful languages we have in dealing with these types of subject matters because it’s so non-specific; even a piece that has lyrics can still convey a larger meaning than words alone.

Because these are subjects that people are often uncomfortable discussing in “polite” circumstances, I feel it’s particularly important that we take it on from a musical perspective. It’s something that’s very much a part of contemporary life and is something that people have been dealing with throughout human existence.

DH:         And the timeframe of the works in this program spans more than 380 years from the Baroque’s Claudio Monteverdi’s Eighth Book of Madrigals on War and Love to today with the new piece from Sebastian – this really is a timeless subject. So for all of you, what is it about war and peace that has and continues to inspire music and art?

TA:         When I met Vian, I started realizing two things; 1) that many Americans likely don’t know very many people (if any) from Iraq which is surprising considering how important the relationship between these countries has been especially in the past almost two decades. And 2) even if you did happen to know someone from Iraq, the chances that you’ve had an intimate conversation that’s touched on the subject of war is likely minimal. (to Vian) But as an artist, you’re continually exploring that area and opening up the door to have that conversation. And that’s when I realized not only are your personal experiences so directly connected to this subject but your work deals with this very important subject matter in a much more powerful way than simply reading about it in the newspaper.

VS:         I always try to talk about what happened in my country and to decipher what happened in my past life experience that has translated into living here. I want to try to help people connect to the reality of that world and not just the images they see on television. A part of my life in Iraq was spent working with the Associated Press for three years and understanding the inside of how the news was made and how the perception of the world of my country completely changed because of this news. And there are actually great communities of actors, writers, artists, and musicians as well as everyday people who work and thrive there whose lives were interrupted because of the war. And for me, I don’t want to call it a mission, I’m always aware of wanting to communicate between the two worlds; the one I came from and the one I currently live in. So I think this opportunity to share the art with the music is really important. The fact that the music will be played by musicians from Louisville and also from different backgrounds, I think that’s a connection itself.

A lot of the work I do deals with the concept of life and death but also the living in between. VIAN SORA

DH:         Sebastian – you’ve actually added text to the score as well. Tell us a little about the text that you chose and why you chose it.

SC:          I wrote the text. I was originally looking to set text but I realized that if I wrote the text that I would have a lot more control over it. So the value of this was to write the text first and then add the music so that as I wrote the music, I could make the text fit the kind of music I wanted to produce. I felt that way the music would be the most representative of what I had in mind.

DH:         So how important was having text? This could have been music only without text, so what was the layering you felt that text added? Was it a reaction to Vian’s work that inspired you to include text as well or did it just come to you that this needed text?

SC:          Having the opportunity to write for chorus was certainly inspirational as well as having these wonderful singers perform the work that I’ve written. Also English, or any spoken language, is a more direct communicator. Music can embody any feeling and that feeling can sometimes be obscured or misinterpreted. If there’s text, it does make the meaning a lot more clear. In today’s world, we mostly communicate through the spoken or written word. Vian’s story is very powerful; so I wanted to make the intention of this piece as clear as possible.

DH:         So the title of the work is Between Heaven and Earth. Why that title in particular and what does that mean to all of you as it can encompass a lot of things?

SC:          There are considerations of Heaven and there are considerations of Earth and often times they are at odds with one another, so one of the themes of this composition is to reconcile the two somehow.

VS:         A lot of the work I do deals with the concept of life and death but also the living in between. There’s a lot of spiritual narrative in my work and Sebastian and I had a lot of conversations about that. We found that we had a lot of complementary ideas about the subject to the point that we finished each other’s thoughts on it. That became the main realization for me as I was working on this project. In some of the pieces that Sebastian references in the work, I was dealing with the concept of displacement and escaping war into a more peaceful situation. You always think about that concept – that you could lose your life so where would you end up? In my case I always thought about the afterlife – what would it be like – so I created these massive paintings about that concept.  You will never see in any of the paintings that we will feature in this production a work that only has a peaceful kind of mind frame. There’s always an uncertainty of death and life but also there’s that feeling that you could be in heaven, you could be in a paradise setting, but there can be something very dangerous that can happen. So I really wanted to focus on the dichotomy of those two concepts so that fits in with Sebastian’s music as well. The titles in Sebastian’s music come directly from the titles of the paintings.

I would love to see if people would be interested in researching, opening the gates and doors to understanding more about my home country and then understand more about the conflict that is going on. This would create a language not of fear because there’s a lot of fear and a lot of spoken words by the media about how certain people from certain countries should be portrayed.  VIAN SORA

DH:         Teddy, You have selected some works for this concert that were very “war specific” like the Charles Ives’ They Were There that was very much inspired by World War II as was the Vaughan Williams Beat! Beat! Drums! that has its origins in the Civil War inspired poetry of Walt Whitman. So there are lots of pieces in this concert that ask big questions and certainly Between Heaven and Earth sums up everything we’re doing with this concert.

TA:         This is the piece that’s going to bind the whole concert together. As great as these perspectives are from the past (these pieces are incredible), it’s our contemporary perspective on what it means now to still be in a situation where there’s conflict around the world with no end in sight. And I’m not just referring to the United States as there are nations with constantly shifting dynamics that have very uncertain futures for generations. What does it mean to respond to that? There are so many different ways and in some cases, the response can be quite surprising. It’s not just the devastation of war nor is it just the elation when it’s over; it’s the many other emotions that come out of the context of conflict.

One of the fascinating things looking back over the past several hundred years, especially in Western culture, is that wars (as dreadful and horrifying as they are) often produce some of the most interesting periods in artistic history. Artistic responses to war and conflict result in certain pieces of art that often stay with us the longest. Think about pieces like Ravel’s La Valse, which was some kind of interpretation of what happened in Europe after World War I. You certainly think about the shift in American culture after the Civil War, musically. You think about virtually every single conflict in Europe creating sometimes new paradigms for art and the ways different cultures interact with each other. As horrible as it is, wars and conflict often, in the end, provide fertile ground. And one of the issues for me is that a lot of the conflicts that the United States has been a part of have resulted in the incredible distance from the culture of the folks that we would’ve otherwise learned more about. I’ve been shocked at how little cultural history we have absorbed from these countries with which we’ve been engaged.  You know there’s very little cultural absorption that’s come from any of the conflicts in the Middle East – a lot of it is so distant for us right now and that doesn’t result in what could be a learning experience for everybody. So I hope that by creating this work of art, we can create a pathway to learning about these other cultures because it’s of vital importance to understanding.

TA:         Here’s another question (to Vian) – you lived in a very different and difficult situation and (to Sebastian), you grew up in Orange County, California, which was a very different prospect than Baghdad, Iraq. So where do you find common ground or background?

VS:         That’s a great question. Well, we found a common background in martial arts (laughter) in one of our first discussions. I feel like that was one of main interesting points and triggers for me was how different we were but there was a similar passion for art and music. And also it’s an interesting thing that even though we are separated by a decade [in age], that decade for me was defined by my college years and how we survived that time was through listening to American music. So there was a whole underground scene of music — the rest of the world didn’t know that Iraqi teens and people in their 20s were listening to primarily American music. That music was more intense and emotional and that was a way for my generation to cope with what was happening in my country with going under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.  The way for me to think that I was more open-minded was that I took something away from the dictatorship/regime that they could not control. I could listen to heavy metal but I could also listen to classical and this is something that has always made me interested in cultures that were supposedly the “enemy.”  I think also we had a lot of discussions about that. Our first meeting was very interesting because it was mainly like “hey Teddy connected us”

TA:         That’s right you had never met before . . .

VS:         Right – so it was also “hey what are we doing?” But it was very organic and amazing because we were both interested in each other’s art and it was a very easy-going relationship so I think part of the strength of this piece is how different we are but we were able to find a common place of understanding.

DH:         This will be an emotional journey for our audiences – what do you hope they walk away with from this experience?

VS:         I would certainly start with hoping they would be inspired – I don’t think that a lot of people will probably think about survival. But I personally hope that they will consider researching more of the cultural background (not necessarily only Iraq or the Middle East) of countries and nations that were under similar circumstances where it is not just defined war by the media. There was a lot of overlapping consequences of the things that happened in Iraq for example because of what happened because of the initiation of the occupation or invasion, whatever it’s called, it was extended to encompass a different set of proxy wars that took a lot of lives. And so we woke up and it became that my neighbor was now my enemy; a neighbor that had protected me before and just because of their religious background there were political forces that made us look like enemies. I would love to see if people would be interested in researching, opening the gates and doors to understanding more about my home country and then understand more about the conflict that is going on. This would create a language not of fear because there’s a lot of fear and a lot of spoken words by the media about how certain people from certain countries should be portrayed. And this adversely affects, unfortunately, the people from those countries. So basically what we’re doing is an education outreach experience.

SC:          I was thinking a lot about the nature of violence when I was writing this piece. And I haven’t had that much exposure to direct bodily harm having grown up in Orange County – I didn’t grow up in a war zone so I haven’t had any of those experiences. So when you grow up in those types of environments, it’s easy to support violence or it’s easy to just accept what you’re seeing on television, it’s easy to accept the opinion of other people especially if it’s repeated over and over by the media. Every time there’s division in the world, that creates the seeds for conflict and conflict has many ramifications; one of the ramifications is violence. And the human body is incredibly fragile and it is dependent on so many things working well and human life can be snuffed out so easily especially with the advent of firearms (long-range artillery, Howitzers, drones, etc.).  I don’t have any particular applications or aspirations for the piece; and I’m glad that it’s over for me [laughter] -although I am playing the piano part which I’m excited about.

TA :        Are you serious? You’re playing your own piano part?

SC:          Yeah, I’m excited about that.

TA:         Did you write it for yourself?

SC:          Yeah [laughter]

TA:         Is it a solo part?

SC:          No, no, no . . . it’s an orchestral piano part. I’m excited about it – I’ve never done that before.

TA:         So you have no expectations for this piece?

SC:          No, not really and I try not to and that’s how I approach most things in my life. But if I did, since you asked me the question, it would be for people to consider the nature of your own views and the role that plays in justifying violence against people in the world. For Vian, she’s one of the people who made it out – she got lucky. And she’s told me stories about, for example, that guy sitting right there didn’t make it out [points] and then he was gone [snap] just like that. That’s it. And all it takes is you shift some tissue away or a piece of metal flies at three times the speed of sound and it hits you in the aorta and you’re gone. Or maybe it hits the femoral artery and you bleed out in 20 minutes and that’s it. It’s really easy to take life with these weapons nowadays – all you need to do it twitch your index finger. This is not X-box 360 – this is real life. I think one of the tragedies throughout history is when people inherit views that “justify” slaughter and for not particularly good reasons. And then people have to escape that and that’s not a small thing – that’s a big deal.

That’s the great thing about music – we could very well present an experience that does raise some questions or makes people confront an issue or give perspective somehow on something that they were never expecting. And while they may not recognize the moment immediately, over time you have planted something that will very much grow.  TEDDY ABRAMS

TA:         Has writing this piece helped your thought processes about violence?

SC:          I think it’s helped me consolidate my thoughts on the whole thing. I don’t know if it’s had any sea change on how I feel about everything because I think I’ve been consistent about my views from beginning to end. But putting all of this into the composition has helped me cope with what I (one person) or two people or three people, the Louisville Orchestra can do and maybe we can open something up – that’s all.

DH:         Teddy, what about you – what would like people to leave the concert with?

TA:         That’s tough because everyone has their own perspective that they bring to a concert. But in many ways, one of the great things about music is that people find with they want they want to find in the concert. And some other things are almost like the air you breathe – you may not even notice that you’ve absorbed something and that the experience is becoming a part of you and later on that grows and changes with time. That’s the great thing about music – we could very well present an experience that does raise some questions or makes people confront an issue or give perspective somehow on something that they were never expecting. And while they may not recognize the moment immediately, over time you have planted something that will very much grow. And just these combinations of notes or any artistic experience [pointing to Vian] can ultimately lead to a change in perspective. You just don’t know where that’s going to go but that’s why these orchestral experiences are so very important. You can’t prescribe what their purpose is – you just have to provide them and hope that peoples’ hearts are open to the experience. The more powerful the subject matter, the more ambitious it is, the more potential it has to break down barriers and raise important questions and not necessarily provide answers immediately. But definitely open up doors that people may not have even seen before or even know that they were there.

DH:         There is something magical about having a live orchestral experience with that group of people, in that moment, in that time. You have a shared experience that can’t be replicated and can be very visceral and maybe that’s the last bit of this is that this is something you share together.

TA:         Especially something new . . . and that there’s an artist living amongst us. People often don’t realize that living amongst us all, in a city like Louisville, are artists that are creating and thinking about these things. You know they are doing the work that needs to happen, asking the difficult questions that need to be asked and most people have the luxury of not having to think about or address these types of topics. Maybe we should be addressing these things but most people don’t. This is not pleasant dinner conversation but we’re sitting here doing it and thank God that we’re doing that.

VS:         Right and while we might be talking about very normal day-to-day life issues but in the end, we’re trying to, as Teddy mentioned, guide people to having difficult and uncomfortable conversations and get to the depth of the problem. Most of the time, I don’t like to talk about that previous life and I think many people are like that, until they wake up one day and unfortunately find that their life has changed because some political force made a decision for everyone’s lives to change and go on this way. This has happened many times in my country and hundreds of other countries. But sometimes when people live in a peaceful situation they don’t imagine the worst so we have to raise these questions. So that’s why paintings and music and sculptures bring a different view. And as artists, our comfort zone becomes tackling that space of bringing a new narrative that people don’t feel comfortable talking about. That’s what we’re trying to do.

DH:         That’s what art is about, right? Asking the hard questions and not necessarily providing an answer but at least providing a pathway to explore new ways of thinking about sometimes difficult subjects. Thanks everybody!


War + Peace will take place on Friday, February 2 at 11AM and Saturday, February 3 at 8PM.
Read the War + Peace program notes here.