Artist Propulsion Lab, S1 E1 - Layale Chaker
July 7, 2022
John Schaefer: Hi, I’m John Schaefer, and from WQXR, you’re listening to the Artist Propulsion Lab, our program to support emerging and mid-career artists. Each year, the APL as we call it, gives musicians the chance to commission work and engage with collaborators, as well as taking advantage of the platforms that the station offers, like this podcast. And every other Thursday for the next few months, one artist will explore a topic important to them.
In this episode of the Artist Propulsion Lab, I’m talking with one of the members of this year's class, the Lebanese American violinist and composer, Layale Chaker. One of the things that struck us about Layale's music is its relationship to some of the big fundamental questions facing us today. Questions about our relationship to the planet, our stewardship of it. I began our conversation by asking why she decided to tackle such a huge subject as climate change in her music.
Layale Chaker: As a composer, as a musician and a performer, one of the core subjects and concerns I often reflect on through my work is environment and climate change. To me, it is the ultimate cause, the mother cause, and it sublimates every other political, ethical, moral, cultural struggle we are facing right now as a human race.
So there is this undeniable sense of urgency that I feel, and that many of us do as well in the artistic and musical world. And it is only natural that this urgency takes more and more center stage as I'm witnessing it right now through the works of my colleagues as well.
John Schaefer: Let me introduce a couple of your colleagues. One from the arts -that is Fabian Almazan the Cuban American pianist and composer who has shared some of your interests and actually incorporated sounds of endemic birds from Cuba and to some of his music. Fabian on welcome.
Fabian Almazan: Hi, John, pleasure to be here.
John Schaefer: And from a completely different circle of academia, David Lenz from the University of Cincinnati, whose specialty is paleo-botany, and even more specifically in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. David, thank you for being with us as well.
David Lentz: Thank you, John, for having me.
John Schaefer: And, I'm guessing that one of the reasons you wanted us to include Fabian in our conversation today is that, Fabian, you too are interested in incorporating the sounds of the land, the sounds of nature in your own work, on your album called This Land Abounds With Life, which is a very telling title right off the bat.
There's a piece called “Songs of The Forgotten,” which actually incorporates sounds of birdsong.
CLIP: The Songs of the Forgotten by Fabian Almazan
What was your intention in actually creating a piece of music like that?
Fabian Almazan: Well,ever since I was a child, I've always felt this sort of innate attraction to the natural world which I later came to learn - EO Wilson has a theory called “biophilia,” which is that human beings are innately attracted to nature, which explains why people pay crazy amounts of money here in New York City to live right next to Central Park. There's just something about that, that we all can relate to.
And yeah, it was a multi-layered project for me because broadly speaking as a member of the world, I care very much about sustainability.
I was born in Cuba and I lived there till I was nine years old. And going back to Cuba was a very emotional thing for me. It had been 23 years since I was able to go back for many complicated reasons. And there were a lot of practices in Cuba that resembled those of the Soviet Union, which were very harmful to the environment.
So, for me as an artist, it was a very personal project and it was something that I wanted to do just because I felt throughout my life, this calling, this sort of responsibility and speaking with some of my peers, it became clear to me that I felt this passion for the natural world that maybe others around me didn't demonstrate as much. And as an artist, I think it's, it's our duty that if there is something that really resonates with us, we need to pursue that, wholeheartedly so that the art form that we are emanating is honest and truthful.
Music is such an abstract art. So that's what I do as an artist. I try to really lean into the abstract nature of sound and that you just have to tip into it and just, not really question too much about it, other than just going with what your heart is telling you to do. And that's what my heart was telling me to do. I felt a sense of responsibility as an artist and as a human being, which has actually evolved even more now that I'm a parent. It's vital, I think, that we do everything that we can for future generations.
John Schaefer: Fabian, you mention, you know, that music has an abstract sound. But, when you incorporate, as you did, actual concrete recordings of nature, of bird song - that's a different thing, which neuroscientists will tell you that that strikes the ear and the brain differently. It provokes a different response. So the idea that music is completely an abstract thing, you are actually kind of blurring that distinction when you do something like, you know, the Songs of the Forgotten.
Fabian Almazan: To me, it's, it's all music, the bird songs I would classify as music as well.
John Schaefer: Yeah.
Fabian Almazan: I lived in Australia for a year and a half and the bird songs, there are very different. Sometimes when I take my son to the zoo here and we walk past, the Australian fauna, it just triggers a lot of memories. So, I guess you're completely right John, because the connection of nature, bird songs, just, it just made me connect on to something else,
John Schaefer: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, that's why we call it tape music, musique concrete you know, because they're concrete sounds that are around us we know what they are. They do provoke some kind of emotional response, some kind of memory as, as in your case.
Now, Layale you and David met before. And it was at, was it Dumbarton Oaks? Is that where the two of you met?
Layale Chaker: That is true. Yes, we've met at Dumbarton Oaks, which is a residency, at Harvard Library situated in Washington DC. And, for me, it was the very first time that I spent three, four months on end surrounded by scientists. I was the only artist in residency and it was very intimidating for me, of course, but it was very educational as well. And, it just resonated with all of the questions that are in my mind right now. From my end and for many artists and a common wish to serve facts, data science,through what we do in order for us to better grasp and understand the subject and communicate it better. From the standpoint we are in through music in my case.
So, I've had many conversations, with many scholars, including David, and it was very inspirational and it was very moving. There's a sense of storytelling, especially in what David does.
John Schaefer: Now David, the story is one of doom and gloom it seems, if you read the headlines. But your work, looking at the history of what has happened in Central and South America, suggests that there are patterns that offer a glimmer of hope, right?
David Lentz: That's right. I work with archeologists a great deal. And one of the great things about archeology is you can study cultures over large timescales. So we can look at the Maya civilization where I work primarily, and we can see how they changed over time. And we're not talking over a couple of weeks or a couple of quarters on the business cycle, but we're talking over thousands of years. And this gives you a greater perspective on really who we are as a species.
Are we simply big-brained jackals who were plundering the landscape? Or do we evolve as cultures into more nurturing societies that see the Earth as our mother and as the source of our existence, which is absolutely true.
John Schaefer: And do we, I mean, is there a record of our species actually treating the earth that way?
David Lentz: Well, we see that in the Maya, That they, the Maya, began as farmers about 3000 BC. Initially what they did was they practiced what we call “slash and burn” or “swidden agriculture”, and slash and burn agriculture is fine. When populations are low, you can actually do that sustainably. But as populations grew, as they did for the Maya, they began to have problems with erosion and other things. But their societies began to compensate for that and they adapted many other kinds of land use practices. And so, they developed more sustainable agriculture and agroforestry techniques that would control erosion and intensify food production at the same time.
For example, they protected forest tracks to maintain major amounts of tree cover and conserve habitat. And they did this because these were important sources of timber and medicinal plants.
John Schaefer: So, Layale, I mean, there are big ideas there in what David is saying. How do you, as an artist, as a composer, a musician, what kind of practice can you put those ideas into in your area of endeavor?
Layale Chaker: So, thanks to people like David, who make this information available to us we have a better knowledge as witnesses and actually as protagonists in it and at the same time being the antagonist, we understand first our role better. And in turn we strive to communicate better. Um, I think the role in the arts generally is that we are capable of creating empathy. And I think empathy is what can make people relate to a story or understand it. And so this is, I think, where our role is to amplify and to create this layer of empathy that would provoke action.
John Schaefer: So the idea that, “Yes, there is a crisis, but that we, as people can do something about it,” that second part of that message is just as important as crying out that there's a problem.
Layale Chaker: And I think it's also, reconnecting with the role of musicians as people who are involved in the livelihood and the passing of season and the harvest seasons of their communities. I think, somehow even musicians were more involved in the agricultural life of their communities as well. And we're much more in touch with nature and of course, musicians are only just part of their society. So it is in a way also a role that musicians had before the migration of the musical ritual to a concert space.
John Schaefer: David, the Mayans… I'm wondering if we were able to get a sense of the flora and fauna with which these people lived back then. And if you have any way of comparing it to what's there today to kind of see the impact of a thousand year long calendar civilization on the surrounding area, on the environment, and on the flora and fauna that lived there.
David Lentz: Well, exactly. That's my job to understand all of these things. and yes, we do see how they modify their environment, and they did many beautiful things. For example, they protected sacred groves and they planted parks around reservoirs. And we can see by measuring the forest and looking at the plant remains that we find archaeologically, we can see that they did a very good job at maintaining biodiversity. The forests that are there now are very similar in composition to the forests that were there in the past. So the Maya had many conservation-oriented tendencies. However, they did some things that were more complicated. For example, at Yaxnohcah we see that the Maya converted some of their tropical forest into pine savannas. And this happens when you repeatedly burn tropical forest and you do it so frequently that the tropical forest doesn't come back.
So, they may have deliberately changed their environment. And, one of the interesting aspects of this is that even though they created pine savannas, those savannas are all gone now, so the land is resilient. So the tropical forest will come back, if left alone for long enough.
And this is interesting because we see down in Amazonia where this sort of the same thing is happening, where they are burning tracts of the tropical forest. And some of that land has been converted into pine savanna. So, the message I want to give here is that there is some hope - that even though some of that land in Amazonia has been degraded, what we see in the Maya areas, if we can leave it alone long enough, then these forests will return.
John Schaefer: It's like a little miracle, which Layale, goes to a piece of music you suggested we might profitably hear during this conversation, Milagros by Gabriela Lena Frank, a series of literally miracles. One of which is “Milagrito: Danza de Tingo Maria”, tell us what “Tingo Maria” is. It sort of goes to what David was just saying, right?
Layale Chaker: Exactly. This piece actually resonates a lot with what David is talking about, and it is inspired by the Peruvian border jungle-town Tingo Maria , and this surrounding, uh, that is impenetrable, that Gabriela was inspired from, especially from the sounds during the rainfall. It’s very evocative and very much in tune with what we were talking about.
John Schaefer: We are speaking with Layale Chaker, the Lebanese American violinist and composer member of the WQXR Artist Propulsion Lab this year. The APL, along with the Cuban American pianist and composer Fabian Almazan and professor David Lentz from the university of Cincinnati who specializes in the paleo botany of pre-Colombian America.
And we're talking about music and nature and environment and stewardship really is what all three of you are talking about historically artistically. And, Layale as a parent yourself - stewardship - it's funny how becoming a parent seems to kind of take what could be a sort of abstract construct. And we were talking about the difference between abstract and concrete before it takes that abstract construct and makes it very concrete and important doesn't it?
Layale Chaker: Absolutely. And it compels us to ask all of these questions. maybe it is why all of this is at the forefront of my mind. It is because of this awareness that we need to learn from the mistakes of the past, in order to better move forward. That is why the historical context that David is providing is so invaluable, because it does help us to shape and inform our present, our future, and our interaction with our land and our oceans. And that is why also, Fabian, I think you are also a new parent.
Fabian Almazan: Oh yeah.
Layale Chaker: And I think, I believe that we probably share that perspective of that will and that wish to leave a better place for our children.
Fabian Almazan: Absolutely.
John Schaefer: Well, Fabian, you mentioned before that there was a span of over 20 years, between the time you left Cuba and the time you were able to go back, did you see, when you returned, a dramatically different approach to the land, did you see effects of 20 years of continual human impact on the land? What was that like?
Fabian Almazan: Well, one area that was interesting is called Las Terrazas which is, if you go west from Havana, it's there. in the 1970s…It's I mean, I'm a musician, I don't know exactly, ecologically speaking what happened, but, it sounds very similar to what David is describing and they had overused the land. So with Las Terrazas , what they did is just start from scratch and they planted endemic trees and as far as I can tell it’s a very vibrant natural landscape now. So that was a very interesting thing to see. Though granted, I left when I was nine years old so my interests were very pure back then. Just having fun outdoors as a child. But just to speak to what Layale is saying as far as being a parent, and something that for me lately has become, more of, t's inescapable it's in my mind, constantly now is the, the idea of environmental justice.
I actually wanted to ask David because in modern society, there are these pockets throughout the world that some people call "sacrifice zones," which are essentially where low-income communities are the victims of either big corporations or governments. That just because of zoning laws and zoning practices, the majority of the pollution that society takes in ends up in these sacrifice zones. And it's, you know, historically in the United States that has a lot to do with Jim Crow laws and things like that. So I'm just wondering if you saw any similarities with Mayan culture, where there were these ‘quote unquote’ sacrifice zones back then.
David Lentz: Well, we didn't see it, in the way you're describing it. When one interesting case that pops up in my mind is, it was almost a reverse sacrifice zone. We did a lot of studies at Tikal, which is one of the major cities of the ancient Maya and the most polluted areas seem to be right next to the palace of the rulers. And one of the reasons for this is the rulers painted their buildings with cinnabar, which is a mercury containing pigment. And then the heavy seasonal rains wash the mercury into the reservoir. So the rulers were drinking water and eating tamales that are laced with mercury. And also they had a kitchen right along the reservoir and they uh, apparently the cooks threw out kitchen scraps. And these would wash into the reservoir and this created a sort of rich nutrient broth. And what happened is they had a number of bouts of cyanobacteria, or they had blue-green algae blooms and these blue-green algae produced very toxic compounds so that their water would become green and impossible to drink.
John Schaefer: Yeah, Fabian you're correct in pointing out that a lot of, you know, environmental issues are bound up in political socio-political things like red lining and Jim Crow.
Fabian Almazan: And it’s sad because it's the children, for the most part that really experienced the hardship of that. That that's the connection in my mind because the adults, uh, you know, we can…
John Schaefer: Right.
Fabian Almazan: …we have a little more agency, a child is just brought into the world and she just has to exist in this place. And it's heartbreaking for me to read more and more about this.
John Schaefer: What is the musician's role? I mean, you asked that question earlier in our conversation, you know, “what is our role in this?” Have you, in addition to framing the question, have you considered what a possible answer for you might be?
Layale Chaker: Again, I think just our role is basically to act as witnesses. The witnesses that we already all are as citizens. And to present a frame of mind that would inspire action. I think it would be very utopian to say that we can act, we cannot act, we can inspire for action and we can inspire for more information or more involvement that is our role, ultimately.
John Schaefer: Composers like Olivier Messaien - who documented as Fabian has done - documented bird song in his pieces. And maybe not with actual recordings, but, you know, uh, although Fabiana in some of the right-hand part of the piano in a Songs of the Forgotten, it sounds like you're kind of imitating bird song?
Fabian Almazan: Yeah, that's the chichinguaco. That's the name of the bird.
CLIP: The Songs of the Forgotten
John Schaefer: And of course, you know, the Catalog d'oiseaux, the catalog of the birds by Messiaen, Layale, is a kind of documentation. It's an audio documentary by a pianist composer of the sounds of nature around him
CLIP: Les courlis cendre by Olivier Messiaen
John Schaefer: Things like that works like that have a kind of a meaning and a potential utility that goes beyond the notes on the page, right?
Layale Chaker: Well, yes. I mean, in Messiaen's, situation, it is slightly different, he identified or presented himself very specifically as an ornithologist. He does enact with that documentary sense of mind. Like he thinks that his work is documentary. And in catalog d'oiseaux, you actually have a listing of 12 birds. I thought that this specific catalog d'oiseaux is very interesting because I went and looked, actually, at the different birds, most of them are, it's a funny way of describing, to the conservation status, but basically the birds who aren't threatened are categorized as of “least concern.”
And then in this one, bird, one of the last birds, le courlis cendré uh, the Curlew. It is actually the only bird from the catalog that is now categorized as near threatened. So even though he did think of himself, very questionably, as a documentarist, maybe somewhere along the, along the years, it will actually be seen as a piece of documentation or evidence of what was there.
John Schaefer: Yes. I mean, I mean, near threatened is a little bit of a warning sign. I mean, you know, if the Curlew ever disappears, we will now have actual documentation of what its song sounded like, but we'll also have this pianist slash ornithologist’s slash whatever else, whatever other titles Messaien gave himself, to tell us a little bit - not just about what the bird sounded like, but what it meant to him. And that too is, is part of the function of, of the artist is, it's “what does it mean? What does it make you feel,” that, that seems to be part of the point of this.
Layale Chaker: Exactly.
CLIP: Les courlis cendre by Olivier Messiaen
John Schaefer: So David, do we, do we look to history for causes for continued optimism?
David Lentz: Well, I think we do. And, I want to say that the ancient Maya and other ancient cultures present very good examples for us. Yes, the ancient Maya had problems and eventually their society collapsed, but they did try to develop sustainable land use practices. Unlike us, they were unaware of the long-term impacts of some of their problematic activities. We, on the other hand, know much more explicitly what lies ahead for us. And we know how to correct our environmental challenges. We just currently lack the political and socioeconomic will to do so.
So in short, we have a lot to learn from the Maya and other cultures but it is our responsibility to learn from those successes and failures of the past. So our descendants can inherit a healthy and sustainable planet.
John Schaefer: And Layale, to wrap this all up, what does all of this thinking on your part, all of this pondering of our place in the world as artists, as witnesses,what is this doing for the works that you're currently in the process of writing?
Layale Chaker: There's this real life metaphor that happened, during the civil war in Lebanon, my home country, that I always like to refer back to. The Capitol Beirut, was divided between east and west. And there was a border of of no crossing between the two. Beirut is a very, is an urban jungle. And during those 15 years where one could not cross that no man's land between east and west, the vegetation lurked back on that very fine strip between east and west Beirut, basically because the land has been left alone. And so even within this urban, crazy jungle, even amidst a civil war that was pure bloodshed for 15 years, nature managed to resuscitate, just because it was left alone, just because man created this area where no one was allowed. So I think this metaphor of resuscitation amongst such desolate conditions and such ruins, is a lesson to behold for all of us on how we can move forward and just learn from our mistakes. And in order to be able to leave a better future for our children.
John Schaefer: And do you expect that this idea will sort of impact, um, you know, the next composition that we hear from you?
Layale Chaker: Like I said, it is always at the forefront of my mind. So, it is a subject that is reoccurring. It is going to be one of the main storylines for Radio Afloat, which is a commission I am, uh, creating right now for WQXR which basically revolves around songs of harvest from the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. And it is also at the forefront of a chamber opera that I'm composing right now called Ruinous Gods. This opera actually was, in development during my time at Dumbarton Oaks. It talks about seven children who are suffering from this resignation syndrome, basically children, go to sleep, willingly, like in a state of coma and some wake up after a few months and some after a few years and some never do.
And it mainly affects children who have been through lots of trauma due to migration or forced displacement or war. And this opera is basically a mythology of dreams where we follow those children who are slipping all the way to their dreams and trying to understand why children who symbolize the future choose to divest from it. What does it say about the state of the earth and life as we're leaving it to them? What does it say about the environment that we are leaving to them in which state? And the political issues, the sociological issues, everything we have been dealing with or not dealing with basically.
So of course, climate is one of the main subjects of this opera.
John Schaefer: Violinist and composer Layale Chaker, member of this year’s Artist Propulsion Lab, along with pianist and composer Fabian Almazan, and paleo-botanist David Lentz.
Next time, baritone Justin Austin sits down for a conversation with audio engineer Josh Berg, his collaborator with whom he worked on the album Donda, by Ye, the artist formerly known as Kanye West.
Thank you to Bright Shiny Things for allowing us to use the Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival’s recording of Gabriela Lena Frank’s “Tingo Maria,” also available at brightshiny.ninja.
Thanks also to Pentatone Records, for the recording of Messaien’s Les courlis cendre, performed by Pierre Laurent Aimard, and to Fabian Almazan, for the recording of his piece “The Songs of the Forgotten.”
The Artist Propulsion Lab is a production of classical New York, WQXR. This episode was produced by Max Fine, and me, John Schaefer, and edited by Matt Frassica. Our production team also includes Hanako Yamaguchi, and Jade Jiang. Thanks for listening!
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