The Arab Apocalypse, based on the cycle of poems L’Apocalypse Arabe by Etel Adnan, was performed in a production stage directed by Pierre Audi, with the Ensemble Modern under Ilan Volkov. "When I met Etel Adnan in 2001, she gave me the book, in Arabic and French," explains Samir Odeh-Tamimi. “Even then I already thought I would like to compose this work. To read and understand it, I learned French. And since then I've been dealing with it almost every day, although I've composed many other works in the meantime."
A first compositional attempt on parts of the cycle was premiered in 2016 at the Klara Festival in Brussels, embedded in director Pierre Audi's music theatre version of Bach's St. John Passion. "I had no idea that Pierre Audi has known Etel Adnan for 30 years and holds her work in high esteem", Samir Odeh-Tamimi remembers when they first discussed this commission. „He reacted enthusiastically and gave me the go-ahead straight away." Both artists quickly agreed that they would plan a larger musical theater work together based on texts by the poet who was born in 1925 and grew up as the daughter of Greek and Syrian parents in Lebanon, went to a French school there and later lived in the USA for a while.
"Her way of portraying and formulating things appeals to me. She's a very astute observer“, explains Samir Odeh-Tamimi. "The Arab Apocalypse is a work that she wrote between 1979 and 1980 – in one breath, as she says. I find it intriguing how she manages to describe this apocalypse, back then referring to the Lebanese Civil War, in linguistically abstract images. The whole story of the Middle East becomes visible in an unbelievable language that is also very clear."
“The rhythm of this text is fascinating”, he continues. "Her work is actually already great music." Samir Odeh-Tamimi sees Etel Adnan's poetic technique as reminiscent of her mother's language Greek, which he therefore also incorporated into the libretto. "She expresses what she wants to say using very simple means that always repeat themselves. For me, this reduction is the Greek in her coming out and it really speaks to me personally. Xenakis' music was also developed in this way: there is an element that is continuously varied while always retaining its individuality."
At the same time, the composer is fascinated by the content of the cycle. "Etel Adnan goes back to the origins, to Gilgamesh and the Phoenicians, but it is not just about the Arab, the Mesopotamian world, but about the history of mankind up to the Mayas and the ancient Egyptians." Nevertheless, the Arab Apocalypse is not an abstract work on history. “I find it fascinating and almost insane that Etel Adnan shows herself as a prophet in this work. She wrote it in the late 1970s, when the civil war was raging in Lebanon. And it is sometimes frightening how precisely she describes the Arab situation today. There are chapters in which she talks about the dead who were massacred in Syria. And that's real today. She writes about the conflicts in Lebanon, back then already latent, and today Lebanon is again in a state where it could explode at any moment. The conditions in Palestine, Iraq and the entire Arab world also come to life in this work."
Samir Odeh-Tamimi doesn't want to see the principle of hope as utterly destroyed by his composed apocalypse. "Adonis, the Syrian poet, says that he believes in her Arab Apocalypse insofar as in his opinion the Arab world is doomed to be destroyed, a dead culture. But I don’t believe that. There will be a new form. The Middle East is full to brim with cultural treasures and one can see traces of these all over the world. That is also my hope: that the spirit of this culture is reborn. I know that flowers will once again bloom after this catastrophe."
Nina Rohlfs | translation: Celia Wynne Willson