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Beethovenfest

Sounds of the Arab Spring at Beethovenfest

The Arab Spring has changed the Middle East in many ways - and had on effect on the lives of musicians. Six composers from Arab countries met at the Beethovenfest to explore the impact of the revolution.

"I'll just google the Arab Spring," says actor Laurenz Leky, who tonight is playing the role of an interested artist. On December 17, 2010, the revolution began in Tunisia, he tells the audience. To protest random police violence, a vegetable seller set himself on fire and unleashed the first mass demonstration. Corresponding video footage can be seen on the screen behind Leky.

Hope for the Arab Spring

"What does 'Arab Spring' mean and how can we navigate through the overload of information to learn more about it?"

For Turkish pianist Seda Röder, that is a central question during the multimedia piano evening titled "Songs of Spring," which was held during the Beethovenfest in the composer's birthplace, Bonn. This year's music festival is being held under the motto "Revolutions."

Pianist Seda Röder, Copyright: DW/G.Reucher

Seda Röder Plays new music from the Arab world

"I didn't want to look back, at history, but rather to the future," says Röder. That's why she found six musicians from five Arab countries that have composed works about what the Arab Spring, the "Arabellion" means to them.

The works of the two Tunisian composers, Nidhal Jebali and Souhaly Guesmi - both in their early 20s - convey a lightness. "They are young and hopeful," says Röder. They don't carry the bitterness of the past, she adds. Tunisia is the only country in which the so-called revolution led to a new democratic constitution.

But are Tunisians even part of the Arab world? Actor Laurenz Leky googles again. When he enters the word "Are Tunisians…" Google suggests a search question: "Are Tunisians good in bed?"

The role of social media

By this point it's clear that Seda Röder, who was involved in planning the program for this multimedia evening, is not just interested in showing various facets of the Arab Spring. She poses another critical question: How do we inform ourselves in the digital age?

"Information that we access via search engines or social networks is modified according to our behavior. We hardly receive any information that hasn't been filtered," she says.

Demonstration in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, Dec. 2015, Copyright: picture-alliance/AP Photo/H. Dridi

The crowd gathered to mark the fifth anniversary of the Arab Spring; the vegetable seller who set himself on fire can be seen on the poster

Amr Okba from Egypt composed a work for piano, called "F.B.I. Facebook Information," that takes up this point. The melody keeps coming to a halt and elements of the US national anthem break through with increasing clarity.

His hope has been extinguished, he told Seda Röder, who worked closely with the six participating composers. The role of the Americans in the Arab Spring is something Okba criticizes just as strongly as the information that's distributed via Facebook.

Hidden protests

Social networks are both a curse and a blessing. Seda Röder used Google and her Facebook network to contact the six composers, some of whom had taught themselves or took music lessons via Skype.

That's how she reached Hasan Hujairi from Bahrain, who speaks to the audience in Bonn via Skype. "As an artist you're not allowed to talk about politics, religion or gender issues," he says, adding that the people had found a different language.

They honk their car horns to a particular rhythm as a sign of protest, or they go to the roofs of their homes every night at a particular time and shout. "The police have banned honking," says Hasan Hujairi.

The voices of protest on the roofs, however, could not be localized. "I integrated these sounds into my compositions." The honking rhythm, which Seda Röder pounds onto the piano lid, is one example.

Suffering during the war in Syria

Images from the war in Syria then appear on the screen on stage. They have been compiled by Austrian media artist Tobias Hammerle: bombed houses, politicians giving speeches, people fleeing. At the end, there is a handshake in which one of the hands is that of a skeleton.

As complex as the war is, so is the music by Syrian artist Zaid Jabri. "Outside of his country, Zaid has become a superstar of modern music," says Röder. The South African poet Yvette Christianse wrote the text for his chamber music piece, "Variations on (R)evolution" - a text about the suffering and pain of war. It is sung by soprano Kristina Quintabà, who is accompanied by violinist Ekkehard Windrich.

Demonstration in Bahrain, Copyright: Ali Hussain/Pacific Press/ABACAPRESS.COM

Police used tear gas against demonstrators who marked the fifth anniversary of the so-called revolution in Bahrain

Just after their performance, Seda Röder herself appears on screen. "What's it like in your country, Turkey?" asks actor Laurenz Leky. But Seda Röder isn't able to answer. The speakers have been turned off and then the picture disappears entirely.

"After the Gezi Park movement, everyone thought that something would happen, but the opposite was the case," says Röder. Particularly after the recent coup attempt in July, criticism of the government was not tolerated and many have been sent to prison, including some of her friends.

"Erdogan has turned citizens into civilian police, into spies. No one dares to say anything any more," she says.

Arab composers abroad

Turkish composer Togoa Yayalar, a friend of Röder's, dealt with the Gezi Park demonstrations in his work, including the sounds of whispering voices and scurrying feet. After his studies in Boston, he returned to Turkey in order to train other classical composers, which is currently not an easy undertaking in Turkey. Most composers live abroad - including Röder, who has made Austria her second home.

Protests in Turkey in July 2013, Copyright: BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images

The Gezi Park protests in Turkey failed to bring about change

"Making music in these countries is difficult and risky," she says.

During the summer, Seda Röder traveled to Turkey. "For the last time, for now," she says, clearly emotional. Like other musicians, she has also received death threats. For her, it's become all the more important to introduce young Arab composers to the European audiences.

"It sounds banal," says Röder, "but music connects people."

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