Composer Inspired By an Unlikely Muse

Afghan Hero Subject of New Symphony

By Grace Jean
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 8, 2004; Page LZ03

While most Americans were transfixed by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, David Gaines found himself also fixated on a country 7,000 miles away, searching for more information about an Afghan leader wounded in an assassination attempt two days earlier.

Gaines said he had never heard of Ahmed Shah Massoud, Afghanistan's famed resistance leader -- "and I keep up with international news more than most people do" -- yet was mesmerized by his story.

"I couldn't believe this guy -- the life he led, what he accomplished and the type of person he was," said Gaines, 42, of Ashburn. "And I thought, somebody's got to do something about this person. So I stood up and said, 'I'm going to write a piece. I'm doing something musical.' "

So in fall 2001, the composer began working on what would become "The Lion of Panjshir (Symphony No. 2) for narrator and symphonic band."The symphony premieres Wednesday at the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Massoud was among the young Islamic guerrillas who fought to drive Soviet troops out of Afghanistan in the 1980s. He became known as the "Lion of Panjshir" because he never allowed his home region, the Panjshir Valley, to be taken by Soviet forces. In the 1990s, he united several Afghanistan's warring factions into the Northern Alliance and prevented the Taliban from gaining control of the entire country.

Massoud, 48, died hours after two men posing as journalists detonated a bomb during an interview, an attack that many people have blamed on Osama bin Laden.

Gaines, who was awarded a doctor of musical arts degree in composition from the Peabody Institute, had already written more than 20 works, including another symphony and a euphonium concerto.

Hoping to spark interest in his project, Gaines wrote to various Afghan organizations in the United States, but none responded. Then, in spring 2002, one of his letters reached Haron Amin, then Afghanistan's acting ambassador to the United States.

"I was absolutely surprised," recalled Amin, who fought under Massoud's leadership and acted as his spokesman and is now Afghanistan's ambassador to Japan. "Who would have thought that here [in the U.S.], Massoud is being honored in a Western symphony?"

Amin immediately jumped on board, relating his stories to Gaines and putting him in touch with journalists who had spent time with Massoud -- American Sebastian Junger, author of "The Perfect Storm" and "Fire," and Iranian photographer Reza, who had a 20-year friendship with Massoud.

"If I'd written to a thousand people looking for information about this, and if two people out of those thousand had written back to me, I would've wanted the two to be Haron Amin and Sebastian Junger," Gaines said in an awed tone.

Through meetings with Amin and Junger, Gaines learned how Massoud carried 20 books at a time in his backpack and read Persian poetry aloud in the mountains; how he yearned to build schools, hospitals and art centers; how his compassion for living creatures made him insist on humane treatment of his war prisoners; and how his peaceful quest for equality and freedom caused him to wage war to end all wars.

Gaines started composing the music, incorporating elements of Massoud's life into the symphony's narration as Aaron Copland had done with Abraham Lincoln's writings in "A Lincoln Portrait."

"It was very difficult to write," said Gaines, who composed between his day job in accounting at a Herndon information technology firm and teaching a music class at the University of Maryland University College.

Those familiar with modern music will hear the influence in "The Lion of Panjshir" of composer Alan Hovhaness, an American of Armenian extraction, Gaines said. He said the 20-minute piece, in four movements, is based on a musical scale often heard in Middle Eastern and Indian music. Gaines's previous symphony, "Esperanto," used Bulgarian rhythms, reflecting a strong interest in the music of other countries.

Gaines said that because his compositions are often influenced by other cultures, especially Brazilian and Bulgarian, the harmonies and rhythms sometimes sound foreign to Americans. "Some people listen to my music and are surprised that it was written by an American," he said.

The Peabody Wind Ensemble will perform Gaines's work Wednesday. Ambassador Amin will be narrator, and Reza's photographs of Massoud will be projected above the stage.

Harlan Parker, director of the wind ensemble, said: "Many times music is functional or artistic. This piece is one of those rare pieces that straddles the fence. It's paying tribute to Massoud, and it's a nice piece of music, a very powerful piece."

The premiere of "The Lion of Panjshir" is at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday in Friedberg Hall at the Peabody Institute, 1 E. Mount Vernon Pl., Baltimore. Tickets: $18; $10, seniors; $8, students. For more information, call the Peabody box office at 410-659-8100.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company