In the summer of 2014, I was commissioned to write a piece for the Carillon (bell tower) in the Tiergarten in Berlin. Two concerts were planned for Whit Sunday and Monday of 2015, which were to feature not only the piece I had written, but also two older compositions by other composers.
Given the circumstances - namely the bell tower's symbolic association with the church - and the date (Pentecost), addressing the religious context of the event was unavoidable. I was very concious about the contextual relevance of the project.
I live in Berlin-Neukölln, surrounded by people with various religious and cultural backgrounds. The question of openness in central European societies has become increasingly controversial in recent years and it was against this backdrop that the commission took on even greater potential.
The resulting piece, "Adhan" (Arabic for "call to prayer"), consists of an Islamic call to prayer doubled in sync by the bells of the carillon, and supported by a recording of an ancient Jewish wind instrument - the shofar. The recording of the muezzin was transcribed and arranged for the carillon, the bells of which play synchronized to the vocals. The vocals and the shofar are played back from a loudspeaker positioned at the top of the bell tower. The world's three largest monotheistic religions woven into a single musical gesture: The call of the muezzin, doubled by a Christian bell tower, supported by the Jewish shofar, on a Judeo-Christian holiday.
However, out of fear of islamist-motivated attacks, the piece was removed from the program by the carilloneur and organizer, Jeffrey Bossin. Public reactions to the removal resulted in the program temporarily returning to its original form before the concerts were finally canceled altogether.
The history of the carillon is intertwined with that of the church. Although the tradition of the carillon is a secular one, primarily in the Benelux countries, bells bring about an almost automatic association with the tradition of the church and with Christian society. For hundreds of years, the bell tower was - and continues to be - a keeper of time and a distinctive mark of Christian society, easily recognizable from a distance.
A functional equivalent to the bell tower and the muezzin, found in the Jewish tradition, is the shofar - a wind instrument made out of the horn of a ram. The shofar is traditionally blown to celebrate the new year and on a handful of other Jewish holidays.
The histories of the instruments used in a piece are not the only layers of meaning expanding into it. The context within which the performance takes place can be equally important. The significance of a particular date adds contextual significance to a concert, which in turn can have a considerable effect on the piece. A piece of music performed on Christmas, for example, is contextualized differently than one played on the 9th of November (or September 11th).
The Christian celebration of Pentecost takes place around the same time of year as the Jewish feast of Shavuot. Occassionally they actually coincide. Shavuot, in addition to its other significances, is celebrated as the day upon which God revealed the Torah. According to the Bible, it is precisely during this celebration that the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles and granted them the ability to speak in all the tongues of Jerusalem. Pentecost is, therefore, a sort of adapted Jewish holiday, representing at once the "birth of the church" and the antithesis of Babel: common understanding between different cultures.