The PBS affiliate WGBH Boston/Channel 2 aired the MIT music documentary "Awakening: Evoking the Arab Spring Through Music" on May 31. Several firsts were involved in this event: the broadcast marked the first time PBS has shown an MIT music documentary; this was the first work that MIT Video Productions has produced specifically for broadcast television; and the 30-minute program featured the world premiere of "Awakening," by composer and MIT alumnus Jamshied Sharifi. The work debuted in March 2012, performed by the MIT Wind Ensemble led by Dr. Frederick E. Harris, director of wind and jazz ensembles for MIT Music and Theater Arts.
Music to connect with the world
The music, and ultimately the documentary film, were set in motion by conductor Harris' vision for engaging his MIT music students with the momentous events of the Arab Spring. To encourage his students to contemplate and understand the historical context for the Arab Spring, Harris proposed to Sharifi that he compose a piece that related to the movement sweeping Egypt and other Arab countries.
Harris knew Sharifi to be uniquely qualified to undertake the project: born to an Iranian father and American mother, Sharifi had studied and taught at MIT, serving as director of the MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble from 1985-1992. Reflecting on what the commission meant to him, Sharifi says, “For those of us with Persian heritage who watched the earlier political protests in Iran, initially with hope and then with bitter disappointment, the success of the civil movements in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya were especially gratifying. The labor of developing effective and responsive political systems in those three countries still remains. But something in the Middle East has undeniably changed. And I tried to honor that shift in this piece.”
Inspiring the future
“'Awakening' is in three movements,” Sharifi explains. “The first, 'Maghreb/Bouazizi/The Uprisings;' second, 'Reflection: Let Each One Hear Her Own Thoughts;' and third, 'Ahead: The Real Transformation Has Barely Begun.'
The first movement gives us a sense of place, utilizing maqam Hijaz (a mode often associated with the deep desert), and continues in a somewhat programmatic fashion, touching on the tragic event that ignited the protests, and continuing into the propagation of the revolutions. The second movement is a respite, a chance to contemplate what has happened. And the third hopes to energize and inspire the work that is to come.”
Philip S. Khoury, MIT associate provost and Ford International Professor of History, who gave a special lecture on the Arab Spring during Sharifi’s 2012 residency as a Visiting Artist in the MIT Music and Theater Arts section, describes the collaboration between the MIT Wind Ensemble and Sharifi as "stunning."
“It captures in musical form the great optimism and the great uncertainty unleashed by the Arab Spring, itself the most monumental series of political upheavals since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc regimes more than two decades ago,” he says.
The remarkable collaboration between Sharifi and MIT's Wind Ensemble has had a meaningful and long-lasting affect on all those involved in the project. “Having the opportunity to work with Jamshied really enhanced the process of rehearsing and premiering 'Awakening,'” notes Emily Jackson '12, an MIT Wind Ensemble flautist who majored in chemical-biological engineering with a minor in music. “This piece particularly touched me: it intensely conveys emotion and prompts reflection as it tells a story.”
Sharifi, who has a successful international career as a composer-arranger, producer and keyboardist, describes the project as a career highlight. "Working with Fred Harris and the MIT Wind Ensemble on 'Awakening' was one of the most rewarding artistic experiences of my life. Fred and the musicians in the group were committed, passionate, and unfailingly musical in bringing the piece to life."
"The word 'awakening' conjures this idea that you're coming forth with something, but yet it might not be fully realized," Harris says. "This power of reflection and contemplation is so needed today and I think that 'Awakening' in its own way provides a vehicle for that."
"Awakening" was commissioned by MIT via the Institute’s Visiting Artists Program with additional support from MIT’s Music and Theater Arts Section. The film production was made possible through the combined vision and talents of Executive Producer, Lawrence Gallagher; Documentary Director Chris Boebel; Film Editor Jean Dunoyer; Technical Director Craig Milanesi; and Music Performance Director Bob Comiskey.
Chris Boebel and Jean Dunoyer have each had distinguished careers in documentary and film production before joining the staff at MIT Video Productions, led by Lawrence Gallagher. The production of this program was supported in part through a generous gift by A. Neil (MIT '64) and Jane Pappalardo, long-time friends and supporters of education and the arts at MIT.
About the MIT Wind Ensemble
Founded in 1999 by Dr. Frederick Harris, Jr., the MIT Wind Ensemble (MITWE) is comprised of outstanding MIT undergraduate and graduate student musicians studying a wide range of disciplines. Since 2001, MITWE has commissioned 35 original works for wind ensemble and has worked with Gunther Schuller, John Harbison, Michael Colgrass, Don Byron, and many other prominent composers. MITWE has recorded for Albany and Innova Records, and it has been featured on NPR. Gramophone Magazine called its first CD “an exhilarating range of approaches to the modern wind ensemble.”
Story prepared by MIT SHASS Communications and Arts at MIT