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UBC Reports | Vol. 51 | No. 1 | Jan. 10, 2005

The Harmonies of Human Conflict

By Erica Smishek

Is there a music of human security?

Paul Evans, acting director of the Liu Institute for Global Issues, posed the question to Rena Sharon and Sal Ferreras, teachers at the UBC School of Music and acclaimed performers working in divergent musical styles.

“Over lunch with Dr. Evans, we came to a meeting of minds,” says Sharon.

Teaming up with other musicians, they recently presented an evening of musical and visual interpretations of human security called “Night of a 1000 Dinners” at the Liu Institute. They hope the event, a fundraiser for the Canadian Landmine Foundation, is just the beginning of continued collaboration and exploration in this unusual area.

“It has definitely ignited a certain spark,” Ferreras says.

He and Sharon are an unlikely duo. Born in Montreal, Sharon is an internationally acclaimed pianist who began her life in chamber music at age eight; Ferreras was born in Puerto Rico and has explored his passion for percussion through world, contemporary and symphonic music. But they share a mutual interest in global issues and how music reflects various states of human conflict.

“I have always been interested in the ways that global issues intersect with what we do as musicians,” says Ferreras, who is completing a PhD in ethnomusicology at UBC.

Sharon, meanwhile, has a keen interest in conflict resolution’s role in chamber music. She co-directs the Young Artist Experience with Eric Wilson,pofessor of cello at UBC. It is a unique interdisciplinary chamber music camp for teens that blends intense music study with explorations in art, science, humanities, and global studies. Through it she has made many community contacts and is a supporter of the Liu Institute.

Provoked by Evans’ inquiry, Ferreras considered how you would define the music of human security, how it has been used and how it would be organized. He came up with four pillars of conflict that populations can go through -- catalyst, sustainer, reconciliation and renewal -- and began to collect music that would apply to each pillar.

“Catalyst is the music of action, like a battle cry or a war song,” he explains. “It elicits an adrenaline rush and transforms people from ordinary citizens to warriors or heroes.”

He cites the Olympic theme as an example of a national affirmation linked to competition that helps people connect in an historical way to nobility.

Sustenance includes music that has grown out of national trauma, hardship and sorrow.

“It reinforces the collective spirit of a people,” Ferreras explains. “It is music that joins people together, not so much for a cause, but as a way to identify with each other and to try to overcome the same trauma.”

Examples include Argentine music from the 1970s, Central American music created during the civil wars of the 1980s, and most national anthems.

The music of reconciliation, Ferreras says, “is nostalgic, faith-based, often slow and repetitive like a sedative, it puts you in a state of receiving.”

Examples at the Liu event included The Last Post, a traditional composition played at most Canadian Remembrance Day services, and a composition performed live by Persian tar master Amir Koushkani which is evocative of music prohibited in Iran and took the form of a set of notes designed for a very specific emotional expression and response.

“For countries that have gone through trauma, it’s a question of what’s left over? How do you forgive?” Ferreras explains. “In the case of South and Central America, people who were the oppressors are still there and people have to learn to get along with them. Music is one of the only devices that can bridge that gap, that polarity.”

In the fourth stage -- renewal -- populations have gotten past the reconciliation stage and are seeing a real sense of transformation.

Ferreras points to the South African national anthem, which was written in the 1880s. Suppressed during Apartheid, it became very popular with the black population as a rallying cry and song for liberation. It eventually become recognized throughout the world and is now the official national anthem of the country.

Another example is On the Transformation of Souls, a John Adams work commissioned by the New York Philharmonic for victims of 9/11.

“It has a text built from the names of people who were the victims,” he explains. “It is a huge expression of sentiment, an affirmation of values and recognition.”

For the chamber music portion of the concert, Sharon was joined by her colleague Andrew Dawes, members of the Infinitus Quartet, and UBC opera student Mike Broder. The Brahms Piano Quintet was chosen for its diverse echoes of lamentation, ferocity, solace and energetic resolution. Sure on this Shining Night, Samuel Barber’s luminous song, closed the evening with a contemplation of a place for humanity within a mysterious cosmos.

While Ferreras says there is no single approach to this musicology, he looks forward to further research on the

The Lessons of Chamber Music

Rena Sharon would love to see diplomats and world leaders engage in a drumming session before any discussions or negotiations.

“It could become common international practice! Sal Ferreras could be the UN facilitator of Musical Unification Sensitization for Intuitive Communication, ” Sharon says with a chuckle. “Everyone gets a drum and they just start a fabulously raucous musical dialogue. The collective sound is irresistible. You can’t participate without feeling happy and energized. It breaks down verbal barriers and elevates the sense of the communal.”

Sharon, a professor of collaborative piano studies at UBC, has been fascinated by the role of chamber music interaction as a model of conflict resolution and peace-making since fall 2001 when she met General Romeo D’Allaire at a luncheon, hours after his lecture on his experience as the Canadian General in charge of the UN troops during the Rwandan genocide.

D’Allaire asked the pianist about her work and what makes chamber music creative. She told him how four musicians, who often don’t know each other and may have very different interpretive ideas, come together to perform a piece of music that they all love. She explained that “there is no leader in chamber music -- everyone gets an equal vote. Decisions must be arrived at through collective agreement, with no primary spokesperson, no veto powers, no hierarchy.”

“Yielding to our colleagues can be emotionally, philosophically, and to a small degree even physically excruciating. And yet we all agree to compromise because the consequence of those concessions can be breathtakingly meaningful. You can’t get there by yourself. Chamber music only really works when our most complex insights and most intimate emotions are shared and exchanged.”

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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