Saturday, July 10, 2010

Vedran Smailovic: Cellist for Sarajevo

Vedran Smailovic
(Image from Wikipedia)

On May 27, 1992, I was living in Germany and already aghast at the incipient siege of Sarajevo. That date was the day, at 10 a.m., when a Serbian paramilitary shell, fired at the besieged city Sarajevo, struck a line of people that stretched from a bakery out into the street and killed twenty-two individuals waiting for bread.

At that time, early in the war, I still expected the UN, the EU, NATO, the US . . . somebody, to do something to stop the carnage. But the shelling went on and on and on, despite the pleas for help -- even despite the street performances on cello by Vedran Smailovic of the Adagio in G Minor, played every day for 22 days, one for each victim of the attack.

I read of Smailovic's courageous stand for civilization in the International Herald Tribune, in the Guardian, in various other papers, and I was heartened . . . to no avial. The siege continued for another four years. By 1994, I'd had enough with European pusillanimity in particular, so I wrote a poem for "Sarajevo":
Scenes of fallen tranquility
And the silence that follows lies:
Words fail, would sound obscenity,
Would flail against uncaring skies
That answer not to your demise.
No answer give to your demise.

Yet other words betray you still,
Worn words so cheap, not worth a dime:
Thus even now they bode you ill,
This evening of your sad decline,
With promises of peace in time.
Peace in their own, serene, sweet time.
As you can see, I was angry and cynical, but the war finally did come to an end through NATO's untimely but effective intervention. I had already left Europe by then, but I never forgot the tragedy of Sarajevo.

I grew up without an education in classical music, so I often don't know the music pieces by name, but at some point, possibly since the advent of You Tube, I listened to Smailovic playing the Adagio, and I recognized the music, for it was the same tune that I had heard the progressive rock band Renaissance use back in the 1970s for their song "So Cold is Being":
So cold is being lonely
Behold the feeling lonely
The living part is done
The dying has begun
The world is spinning slow
So tired slow

So cold is being sadness
Behold the feeling sadness
Oh how can we believe
We earn what we receive
The pain it overflows

Lord won't you help us realise
See through your eyes
Within our lives
The earth grows old
The earth grows cold

So cold is being tired
Behold the feeling tired
Stand quietly at the side
Watch darkness open wide
The light is growing dim
So dim within
Annie Haslam did the vocals on this melancholy, even lugubrious piece, and the album was loaned to me in 1977 by my friend Margaret Robinson when we were both students at Baylor University. I haven't found a performance on You Tube, so you'll simply have to imagine these lyrics sung to the famous adagio.

Anyway, the original piece itself, by Tomaso Albinoni -- or rather than by Remo Giazotto (as the tale turns out) -- was played by Smailovic out in the open in Sarajevo, amid the mortar shells and sniper's bullets, to commemorate those killed in that shelling of May 27, 1992.

I was reminded of these things recently because in my course at Ewha Womans University this summer, the students are reading about the cellist of Sarajevo himself, Vedran Smailovic. To supplement the reading, I've used You Tube, so they've heard this version of the Adaigo with photographs of Smailovic, as well as of Sarajevo before, during, and after the four-year siege.

The British composer David Wilde was so touched by Smailovic's courage in risking his life daily for 22 days playing out in public amidst the gunfire and mortar shells that he composed The Cellist of Sarajevo, which is a nearly seven-minute piece for cello that occasionally, distantly echoes the famous Adagio but is harsher, more discordant, in its evocation of the shelling that rained down on Sarajevo, destroying a beautiful city and killing so many people. The piece was played by Yo-Yo Ma at the International Cello Festival in Manchester, England, in 1994, with Smailovic present, as described in Reader's Digest by the pianist Paul Sullivan in this excerpt:
When he had finished, Ma remained bent over his cello, his bow resting on the strings. No one in the hall moved or made a sound for a long time. It was as though we had just witnessed that horrifying massacre ourselves.

Finally, Ma looked out across the audience and stretched out his hand, beckoning someone to the stage. An indescribable electric shock swept over us as we realized who it was . . . .

Smailovic rose from his seat and walked down the aisle as Ma left the stage to meet hin. They flung their arms around each other . . . everyone in the hall erupted into a chaotic, emotional frenzy . . . .

We were all stripped down to our starkest, deepest humanity at encountering this man who shook his cello in the face of bombs, death, and ruin, defying them all.
Also inspired by Smailovic, the writer Steven Galloway wrote a novel, The Cellist of Sarajevo, which can be heard in part as an audio book through You Tube by Gareth Armstrong reading a passage from the book's opening:
[A]t four o'clock in the afternoon, twenty-four hours after the mortar fell on his friends and neighbours while they waited to buy bread, he will bend down and pick up his bow. He will carry his 'cello and stool down the narrow flight of stairs to the empty street. The war will go on around him as he sits in the small crater left at the mortar's point of impact. He'll play Albinoni's Adagio. He'll do this every day for twenty-two days, a day for each person killed. Or at least he'll try. He won't be sure he will survive. He won't be sure he has enough Adagios left.

The cellist doesn't know any of this now, as he sits at his window in the sun and plays. He isn't yet aware. But it's already on its way. It screams downward, splitting air and sky without effort. A target expands in size, brought into focus by time and velocity. There is a moment before impact that is the last instant of things as they are. Then the visible world explodes.
The novel has been highly praised, but somewhat diconcerting on this You Tube reading is the advertisement for the audio book at the end of the reading, raising the question of whether or not Smailovic's courageous act has been co-oped and commercialized. Smailovic certainly thinks so -- and says so in a number of videos confronting Galloway, such as this one, where he insists, "I am not fiction."

I understand Mr. Smailovic's complaint. He is not fiction. He is not even dead, but very much alive. Yet, his act has been fictionalized, for the book itself cautions its readers to understand that it is fiction:
The Sarajevo in this novel is only one small part of the real city and its people, as imagined by the author. This is above all else a work of fiction.
Undoubtedly, Steven Galloway meant to honor Vedran Smailovic, just as did David Wilde, but a novel is vastly different than a musical composition for the cello, and I can see why Mr. Smailovic has raised a strong note of protest. Writers, more than musicians, need to take care in fictionalizing contemporary events, lest they hit a false note.

The story hasn't ended yet, and the music goes on, so I'll just have to leave this piece unfinished . . .

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At 12:41 PM, Blogger Hathor said...

More than just fictionalizing an event, the writer cannot describe the expression of the music. Smailovic chose that particular piece as his expression. I think it is hard for another to know why.

Sometimes I have thought of an event and I hear certain music.

At 12:58 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Yes, it is hard since every one of us makes different associations.

I cannot hear the Adagio without recalling Annie Haslam's voice as she sang "So Cold is Being" -- and remembering how I felt to be genuinely in love for the first time in my life.

Not with Ms. Haslam, by the way, though her voice was great.

Jeffery Hodges

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