Timeless themes of flight and exile

NEW YORK — In 2015, Khaled Jarrar, a Palestinian artist and filmmaker living in the West Bank city of Ramallah, read an ad in a local newspaper.

Timeless themes of flight and exile

It was an appeal for assistance placed by a refugee from the war in Syria who was stuck with her family in Istanbul — including the writer’s elderly mother, who was a refugee for the second time, having been forced to leave Nazareth for Syria during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.

Moved by the story, Jarrar spent 31 days traveling with the family to Germany, living as a refugee and filming the journey. This experience inspired “Where We Lost Our Shadows,” a multimedia work for orchestra, video and three soloists that Jarrar created with composer Du Yun. The American Composers Orchestra, which commissioned it with Carnegie Hall, played the premiere Thursday at Zankel Hall in Manhattan.

Du and Jarrar decided to broaden the work’s focus to encompass timeless themes of human migration, exodus and refugee flights. Du, who won the Pulitzer Prize in music for her 2016 opera “Angel’s Bone,” an allegory of human trafficking, turned to the heritage of ragas, a structure for melodic improvisation that itself migrated over centuries throughout Arab, Central Asian and Indo-Pakistani regions. Working with Pakistani vocalist Ali Sethi, she chose ragas dealing with themes of water, rain and thunder; these raga-inspired passages were sung by Sethi on Thursday with both rawness and plaintive delicacy.

These elements are integrated into a score that shifts and heaves, qualities captured in the restless performance led by George Manahan. There are stretches of misty orchestral sonorities in which fidgety figurations get batted around over dense harmonies. Shayna Dunkelman, a dynamic percussionist, drove episodes of the piece with pummeling drum bursts one moment, tingling effects the next. The vocalist Helga Davis brought radiance to Du’s tender, high-pitched setting of Palestinian poet Ghassan Zaqtan’s “Pillow.”

In the accompanying film, we see images of a family traveling at nighttime on stony paths; women in hijab emerging from shelter underground; and endearing short scenes of children trying to be hopeful as they talk of heading to Germany or Sweden. But overall the footage is murky, atmospheric, even abstract — which actually enhances its power.

The program opened with an intensely focused performance of Morton Feldman’s “Turfan Fragments” (1980), inspired by knotted carpets discovered on an archaeological expedition in East Turkestan. They struck Feldman as a metaphor for his music, which tends to unfold in subdued bits and chunks — wheezing sonorities, pungent cluster chords, repetitive figures — that only suggest a larger structure.

Manahan also led a vibrant account of Gloria Coates’ Symphony No. 1, “Music for Open Strings” (1974), a work that uses some unusual tunings and the notes of a Chinese scale in a compact four movements. The music abounds in swaying riffs, bare melodic ideas, dramatic glissandos and stretches of perky, twanging energy.

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Event Information:

American Composers Orchestra

Performed on Thursday at Zankel Hall, Manhattan.

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