REVIEW: Bejan Matur and Stefano Battaglia - The Sea Opens at Kings Place

L-R: Anna Madeley, Bejan Matur and Stefano Battaglia
after the show
Photo courtesy of William Ward

REVIEW: Bejan Matur and Stefano Battaglia - The Sea Opens 
(Kings Place Hall Two. 1 March 2018. Review by AJ Dehany)

“And as we fall/the sea opens/it opens to Being…”

The contemporary refugee crisis is the focal point for considering whether we, as the individuals that make up societies, can individually and collectively express empathy: /em/ means inside and /pathos/ is pain—the word literally means “I am inside your suffering.” Turkish-Kurdish poet Bejan Matur, introducing her collaboration with pianist Stefano Battaglia, asks us to consider how we would feel if we were in the position of a refugee: “If it were you, what would you want another country to do for you?”

“What is happening in the Mediterranean now is devastating,” says Stefano in his recent interview with William Ward for LondonJazz (link below). “Once the open forum of peaceful cultural and lively commercial exchange, it has now been reduced to a watery grave, like in the times of Homer's Odyssey.”

Homer’s Odyssey is the starting point for Turkish-Kurdish poet Bejan Matur’s 2010 book Kader Denizi (Sea of Fate). She wrote the six chapters of the book in just one week in cafés in Istanbul, driven by the severity of the crisis in the Mediterranean. An epic conception rich with contemporary detail, it is written in Kurdish, which is an official language in Iraq but prohibited in Syria and severely restricted in Turkey. She started writing in Turkey in 1988 while imprisoned, suspected of being part of a Kurdish political movement, creating poetry in her head during solitary confinement. She is the author of ten collections including 1996’s prizewinning collection Rüzgar Dolu Konaklar (Wind Howl Through the Mansions). Her poetry has a potent combination of both otherworldliness and a down-to-earth material sensuality.

In conversation with writer and academic Yasmin Gunaratnam at London’s Kings Place, Bejan said “Writing about this tragedy cannot be poetry. Journalists can do that, or politicians. Poetry must have the solution within it. Tragedies are always happening. I try to put light in. Life is heavy, being is heavy. That's why poetry must come with new answers. Poetry is about finding another way.”

Her collaboration with pianist Stefano Battaglia is an interfusion of poetry and music mutually inspired by the Mediterranean Sea and the current refugee crisis that seeks out answers in ways that transcend how we ordinarily understand meaning in poetry or music. Bejan and Stefano have a shared cosmic sensibility. For each, language and sound are merely vessels that transmit but can’t contain bigger, more fundamental messages. “When he plays,” she says, “my words become more vivid.”

Stefano said that when he first heard Bejan read a poem, without knowing a word of Kurdish, he was crying: “It was so strong and melodic. Very precise and direct.” In writing, Bejan starts with rhythms in nature, and the words follow. It’s undoubtedly musical in the interaction of metre and syllabic colour, but to listen without understanding the words is of course problematic. It was beneficial to have Anna Madeley read from Jen Hadfield’s English translation of Sea of Fate before and after the main performance with Bejan reading the words in Kurdish with Stefano’s music.

Since 2004 Stefano Battaglia has recorded seven albums for ECM. The performance at Kings Place was his first appearance in London for 28 years. His playing is a marvel of restraint and spontaneity. He plays so softly yet with such articulation, tone and clarity. The subtlety and delicacy with which he inflects the main melodic notes with surrounding chromatic colour gives his music a level of carefully balanced detail. Meaningfully, the music has elements of Mediterranean music, particularly those situated at the confluence of African and European influences, like Andalusian and Ottoman. It’s intense, austere and involved. He said, “I would like to play piano like an empty watermelon or just a piece of wood or two stones. I would like to be an instrument, to feel myself as an instrument…”

The coda and highlight of the evening (a Poet in the City event), was a special surprise, a setting of a Kurdish lullaby and eulogy sung by Bejan’s grandmother, sung plainly and movingly by Bejan and reharmonised beautifully by Stefano with a burnished palette that enriched the mystery of the simple folk melody, a tune that has been handed down through the oral tradition of generations of Kurdish women, now finding itself far away from its origins… and welcomed, wholeheartedly, with empathy.

AJ Dehany is based in London and writes independently about music, art and stuff. ajdehany.co.uk

LINKS: LJN interview with Stefano Battaglia 
Poet in the City

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