Symphony for a fallen leader

Baltimore Sun, February 11, 2004
By Tim Smith

On Sept. 9, 2001, two days before the rest of the world was changed forever, the country of Afghanistan was changed forever - and by the same agent of death, Osama bin Laden. On that day, some of his followers, posing as TV journalists, carried out a suicide bombing. Their target was Ahmed Shah Massoud, leader of the Afghani resistance against the invading Soviets during the 1980s and then against the repressive Taliban regime that sheltered bin Laden.

Massoud, already a hero among freedom-seeking countrymen before his assassination, became the equivalent of Afghanistan's patron saint afterward. His life and death have had an influence far beyond his struggling nation's borders.

One example of this can be heard tonight at the Peabody Institute, when the Peabody Wind Ensemble gives the premiere of The Lion of Panjshir (Symphony No. 2) for Narrator and Symphonic Band, composed by Peabody alum David Gaines. The narrator will be Haron Amin, a former colleague of Massoud and currently Afghanistan's ambassador to Japan, who worked closely with Gaines to help select the texts.

"I wanted the music to be specifically evocative of Afghanistan and that part of the world," says the composer about the 20-minute piece. "There are traces of Iran, Uzbekistan, even India in the score. I use some very generic Persian and Middle Eastern scales, as well as one I created myself."

Gaines also had in his head music that Massoud liked - the Afghan Embassy in Washington sent the composer some of Massoud's favorite CDs - as he fashioned the score, which has a good deal of Arabic flavoring in some of its melodies and dance rhythms. "But I didn't want this piece to sound like a pastiche, the work of a white American guy who doesn't know anything about the music of that region," Gaines says. "Aaron Copland, a Jewish guy from New York, created music that suggested the Old West. I'm not comparing myself to Copland at all, but I do think it's possible to evoke another style."

The orchestral portion of Gaines' work fulfills multiple functions - protagonist, commentator, background mood-setter - while the text paints a portrait of Massoud the man, the warrior and the humanitarian. (He became known as the Lion of Panjshir for having repelled the Soviets from his home base in the Panjshir Valley of Afghanistan.)

Before beginning the project, Gaines knew little about the subject. "It all started literally in my living room," he says, "when I saw a National Geographic special not long after 9/11 that featured Sebastian Junger's reports about Massoud. That was the first time I heard of him."

Some of Junger's writing about Massoud would eventually be incorporated into the composition, along with additional material gleaned from conversations the composer subsequently had with the reporter. Passages from a book and documentary film about Massoud also are in the text. But The Lion of Panjshir contains few of Massoud's own words; he did not leave a substantial body of writing behind.

"The text contains only about half of what I started out with," Gaines says. "I had to chop and chop and chop. But a lot had to be in, including some Persian poetry, which Massoud loved."

Among the lines Gaines could not part with when it came to editing the narration were those from a press conference Massoud held in Paris in the spring of 2001. "He warned President Bush to clean things up in Afghanistan, or it would come back to haunt him," Gaines says. For that passage in the score, "the woodwinds are very low and ominous, with very fitting chords," says Harlan Parker, conductor of the Peabody Wind Ensemble. "David has a real knack for orchestrating for winds. He's written a great part for contra bass clarinet, which makes a cool, eerie kind of sound. From the first time David came to me about the piece in the spring of 2002, I thought it was extremely intriguing."

For Gaines, 42, who received his doctorate from Peabody in 1998 and lives in Northern Virginia, this new work represents a departure from his usual, more abstract compositional style. But it is very much in line with his own beliefs. "I'm a political person," he says, "so for people who know me, this new work makes perfect sense. I'm a Green Party person. I worked for Ralph Nader. This piece is not so much a case of siding with one ethnic group over another, but about being pro-tolerance, pro-freedom, about being for progressive ideals in a part of the world where that has not been very popular."

Gaines is a longtime proponent and fluent speaker of Esperanto, the language that aims to create an inclusive internationalism; his first symphony, composed for his doctoral dissertation at Peabody, has a vocal part in Esperanto. So it's not surprising that he should have been drawn to Massoud. "Both liberals and conservatives are intrigued by him," Gaines says. "The committee that signed his nomination for Nobel Peace Prize reflected a remarkable range of people. And although Afghans are linguistically divided, they all had the same reaction to Massoud's death. This speaks to his universal appeal."

Underlining that point in The Lion of Panjshir is a quote from an aide to Massoud after the assassination: "Now we are all Massoud."