(Updated September 28, 2020) Since March of this truly awful year, I’ve had the very good fortune to be working on a new work co-commissioned by the Shobana Jeyasingh Dance company and the historic Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London. Originally conceived of as a response work to Monteverdi’s Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, this project (yet to be named), has taken on a life of its own. I’ve written for two outstanding vocalists: Dima Orsho and tenor, Ed Lyon. The text was in 16th century Italian, and was the same text by Torquato Tasso that Monteverdi set for Il Combattimento, and 11th century Arabic poetry by Al-Abiwardi that begins:
مزجنا دمانا بالدُّموعِ السَّواجمِ
We have mixed blood with flowing tears,
For none is left among us to be a mark for the catapults.
The idea of this new work is to take the character of Clorinda and re-imagine her as a current day refugee who has arrived in Europe. Tancredi’s character has been combined with the narrator (Testo) and is both a seeker and observer of Clorinda; he is desperate to know who she is, but struggles to understand her. The plot of Monteverdi’s Il Combattimento… is often misunderstood; as the NY Times’s Seth Colter Walls mistakenly describes it “This short narrative about warriors in the Crusades is, at heart, a tale of star-crossed lovers.” The Crusades bit is correct, but the rest is way off the mark. The truth of the matter is that Clorinda has little interest in Tancredi, who is really nothing more than infatuated with someone he does not understand or comprehend. Tancredi is an orientalist who wants to idealize and exoticize Clorinda into something that she isn’t. He keeps asking, “who are you?” and she continually rebuffs him by replying, “Indarno Chiedi” (in vain you ask). Our twist on this was to take the Tasso text that Monteverdi set and to translate all of Cloridan’s lines into Arabic. This actually provided quite a few options of Arabic lines that meant, “in vain you ask”.
This work is also scored for string quartet and some electronics. The string quartet writing is, perhaps, more straight ahead than other quartet music that I’ve written but it lends support to the vocalists as well as providing a rhythmic bed for the dancers. One recent dance is inspired by the musical rhythms and dance movements of the Iraqi Chobi dance, which can be very acrobatic.
One result of this project is that I’ve already planned a new work for string quartet based on some of the dances. More on this soon.
As far as a world-premiere date for the new work with singers and dancers, it isn’t clear just yet. Like most of everything in 2020, we must wait and see. If we ask now we may as well be greeted with the reply, Indarno Chiedi.