Countering patriarchal cliches

Focusing on music from the Levant to Central Asia, Osnabruck's Morgenland Festival occupies a special place in the German festival landscape.
Focusing on music from the Levant to Central Asia, Osnabruck's Morgenland Festival occupies a special place in the German festival landscape.

Focusing on music from the Levant to Central Asia, Osnabruck's Morgenland Festival occupies a special place in the German festival landscape. Prior to the 18th festival, which begins on 21 June, Stefan Franzen spoke to festival manager Michael Dreyer about the musical concept, the political dimension, and whether the term 'Morgenland' [engl. 'the East', 'Orient'] is still in keeping with the times

الكاتبة ، الكاتب: Stefan Franzen

Mr Dreyer, how did Osnabruck – 'City of Peace' – come to the festival, or rather, how did the festival come to Osnabruck?

Michael Dreyer: The festival was born here, because it's where I happened to be living at the time. I had a lot of contacts who were musicians in Iran, and a number of people asked me, "Why don’t you do a festival with them in Berlin or Hamburg, where there are big Iranian communities?" But as it turned out, Osnabruck, because of its manageable size, works well for both sides of the festival.

The musicians and the audiences come into contact with one another in the shopping zone after the concerts, everything is walkable. Over the years, the number of people attending the festival has grown. Where else can you find hundreds of people listening to traditional Uighur music? Probably not even in Urumqi. And of course, the name 'City of Peace' is brilliantly fitting, but it was actually a coincidence.

On the festival website, it says the term 'Orient' immediately calls to mind both positive and negative cliches. But can't the same be said for the term 'Morgenland'? And is such a fantastical term still appropriate in this day and age?

Dreyer: When I started looking at the region in 2005, you would only ever hear negative political news coming out of the Middle East, but you knew little about its people. Most people had no idea about the broad spectrum of music in the region, with everything right through to hip hop. The name emerged out of an optimistic play on the term's lexical ambiguity: 'Morgenland' [lit. tomorrow land], looking towards tomorrow.

 musician Melisa Yildirim (image: C. Nilay Islek)
Musical encounters across cultural borders: Turkish kamancheh player Melisa Yildirim will perform with Indian tabla artist Swarupa Ananth at the opening concert of the Morgenland Festival Osnabruck. Yildirim studied in Istanbul and her compositions are inspired by the traditional music of Anatolia. She has since expanded her repertoire on many trips. Most recently, she released a collaborative album with Swarupa Ananth called "Hues of Imagination"

English-speaking festivalgoers also call it 'Morgenland' now, so the name's stuck and I can’t get away from it. And we're not presenting the entire Islamic world; I've left Maghreb out as far as possible, because there are already enough African festivals that cover Maghreb and Mali. A more accurate name would be the 'West Asian' Festival. And musically, the area covered is one where the music is based on the maqam.

Women driving change

It's noticeable that there are many young, female artists on the bill at the 2023 festival. Is this a deliberate choice?

Dreyer: The Morgenland Festival has always been about countering cliches, and one of these cliches is that everything in Islamic countries is shaped by patriarchy. But what we've seen in Iran, even prior to the unrest in the country, is the precise opposite; we've seen the immense power that young women, in particular, hold there. In Iran, the best-educated people are young, smart, energetic, confident women, they are the ones who will bring about societal change. The large number of women at the festival seeks to accommodate this.

Cooperation between musicians from 'the East' and musicians from 'the West' is at the very heart of the festival. What does that look like in a globalised world? Is there more of a blending of music, or, in contrast, an appeal to their respective musical traditions?

Dreyer: I wouldn't say it's the latter. All the artists in attendance this year are very open. What used to often happen in the past was musicians from different cultures would get together and at the end of a piece, there would be an insanely long drone, a bordun, everyone would do great solos and people would think, "Wow, what a brilliant exchange!" But that way of doing things is pretty narrow. I invite musicians to try out an exchange that goes beyond that. It works with Early Music, because it doesn't employ an equal temperament either, and with jazz, because the musicians are natural improvisors, and therefore very open. What I'm interested in is not breaking these encounters down to the smallest common denominator, where both sides lose their complexity and beauty; both sides must retain their identity and create something new out of it. That's the utopian dream, as far as musical dialogue is concerned.


Musical encounters between East and West

It's not just early music and jazz that can be found in these encounters between East and West we see at the festival; the orchestra plays a role too. This year, the Kurdish singer Aynur even took to the stage with the entire Osnabruck Symphony Orchestra.

Dreyer: The idea can be traced back to my putting Daniel Barenboim in touch with Iranian musicians for the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. At the time, I thought, "Now Jewish and Arab musicians are getting together and playing Schubert, Brahms, Schoenberg. It’s completely crazy! Why don’t we invite musicians, soloists, and conductors from among their ranks and arrange something with music from their traditions?" Then I founded the Morgenland Chamber Orchestra, mainly with students from Iran, Azerbaijan and Iraq, and a couple of people from the Osnabruck Symphony Orchestra too. As part of this set-up, we held concerts with Alim Qasimov, Djivan Gasparyan and Aynur. And she always thought that we ought one day to put on a show with a big orchestra. The arrangements were by Wolf Kerschek, a gifted musician, who actually also works for Helene Fischer, and who had a lot of fun with the work.

Another of the classical encounters involves vocal music. Cappella Amsterdam will be performing pieces by the Lebanese violinist Layale Chaker and the Iranian composer Aftab Darvishi. How are the two pieces connected?

Dreyer: Layale Chaker has created this piece for choir and violins based on texts by the Iraqi poet Nineb Limassu, who writes in Modern Assyrian. We actually wanted to juxtapose this composition, called "The Bow And The Reed", with a concert with the Syrian specialist for early Christian, Aramaic music, Nouri Iskandar, who has performed with us before; he is 85 now.

It turned out to be too complicated for the choir, and it couldn’t be shortened because it was religious music. Then Cappella Amsterdam suggested grouping together a commissioned composition by the Iranian composer Aftab Arvishi with choir, duduk, and kamancheh; it's also a poem set to music, by the Iranian poet Hooshang Ebtehaj. It's far better suited to this year's programme, which features a lot of women.



We don't make political statements

This year, the festival is hosting many artists from countries experiencing particular political turbulence: Iran, Turkey/Kurdistan, Palestine. Does the Morgenland Festival aspire to intervene in political issues?

Dreyer: No, precisely the opposite. Once, when we had just got back from Iran, Henryk M. Broder wrote a long article about how we were producing propaganda for the mullahs. I received hundreds of angry emails as a result; people were asking me, "How can you still look your kids in the eye?" You realise you're being exploited by all sides. I have to stress that – by all sides. At the time, we had a piece by Frank Zappa in the schedule and I thought, 'There's no way the Iran government will be able to use us for propaganda purposes if we’re playing something by Zappa!' We had hundreds of artists here from countries which are not known for having friendly ties with Israel, but there wasn’t the slightest hint of any anti-Semitic remarks. If there had been, it would have been my job to intervene. Besides, we were also playing host to Israeli artists. We run a music festival, we don’t make political statements anyway. Of course, I have an opinion on the matter, but that doesn’t belong in the festival. And of course, it's already a social statement if we focus on Uighur music or Kurdish music.  

How would you sum up your motivation when it comes to organising this festival?

Dreyer: Politically speaking, you can always look at things negatively and say, "All this eurocentrism, isn’t it awful!" And that's definitely true. But you can also say, "There's so much brilliant music in the world, wouldn't it be stupid if people didn't hear it?" And I like to operate on the basis of this positive motivation. In that regard, little has changed for me since I was 11 years old, when I ran over to my neighbour and said, "Hey, I've been listening to this record by AC/DC, it's so great, you’ve got to give them a listen!"

Interview conducted by Stefan Franzen

© 2023

Translated from the German by Ayca Turkoglu