Columbia University’s Musicians Stand Against the Executive Order
Tonight, in the ornate Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America, the Columbia University Department of Music and Music Performance Program hosted a special event of music making. The program entitled, “Musicians Against the Executive Order,” was a fundraising concert for the American Civil Liberties Union to “support defenders of those barred entry to the United States by the Executive Order.”
The event was personal for the department of music. Ashkan Behzadi, a composition DMA student who I had the pleasure of having as a TA in my first-year Music Theory class, was almost affected by the new executive order. Because he is an Iranian-Canadian dual citizen, the department had doubts over whether he could return to Columbia. Luckily, this weekend, while in preparation for this concert featuring his music, the department learned that Behzadi can in fact return on account of his dual citizenship.
The concert was striking for its musical diversity. Spirituals, Schumann, and electronic music synchronized with lighting effects were performed by Columbia students and faculty. With their programming, the music department showed that if music from diverse cultural sources can exist in harmony in one concert, then so can the people who make it.
The performance featured many heartfelt immigration stories. Emily Shyr and Cindy Liu, two Columbia College musicians who performed the first of Schumann’s Drei Romanzen for Oboe and Piano, shared their identities as daughters of immigrants. Both described the sacrifices their parents made and humbly thanked them for their support. Joseph Morag, a junior violinist in Columbia College, also expressed gratitude towards his parents, observing that he wouldn’t be on the Italian Academy stage without them. And Mario Diaz de Leon, a Core Lecturer in Music Humanities who received his DMA in Composition from Columbia in 2013, verbally dedicated the electronic improvisation he performed to his father, who emigrated from Mexico City forty years ago. By presenting their identities, these musicians infused their performances with gravitas and emotional weight.
Tonight, union despite diversity emerged through music making. The final performance by the Columbia Arab Music Ensemble epitomized this phenomenon. The group, directed by Taoufik Ben-Amor, consisted of musicians of different ages and ethnicities. Some played instruments like the oud and the tar while others performed on flutes, violins, cellos, and accordions. The synthesis of both traditional Arabic and Western instruments defied preconceived notions of who can play together. Through collaboration, the ensemble asserted a multicultural, international musical perspective.
Before their second song, Ben-Amor invited the audience to sing along with the refrain, “As-salamu alaykum,” which he explained as an expression of peace. Although the audience was timid at first – public singing at a concert?! – Ben-Amor’s happy demeanor and encouraging “Come-ons!” raised up a chorus of affirmative sound. In that moment, unity emerged through collective singing. Sounding together removed us from temporality, making us forget the painful order against acceptance we were all responding to.
The song ended with sustained, reflective applause. Ben-Amor’s young daughter (born in NYC to a Tunisian father and German mother, who Ben-Amor described as belonging here) rushed to her father and embraced him. Turning to us, she smiled. Hope danced throughout the hall, from one lightened face to another. Tonight, music united for peace.