BY ARAM KOUYOUMDJIAN
Syrian-Armenian visual artist Kevork Mourad joined the Los Angeles Master Chorale to present a multi-sensory rendition of Handel’s “Israel in Egypt” on February 11, enhancing the concert with haunting illustrations, created both before the performance – and during the course of it, in real time.
“I illustrate sounds,” Mourad said in a pre-concert lecture appearance at the Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Handel’s oratorio – essentially, an opera sans staging – is a biblical composition that recounts the exodus of enslaved Israelites from Egypt after God rains down a series of plagues upon that land to punish its pharaoh. Performed by 80 singers and a 42-piece chamber orchestra under Artistic Director Grant Gershon’s baton, “Israel in Egypt” resonated as a timely and relevant selection for the world-class Chorale, offering, as it does, myriad parallels with present-day refugee migrations around the globe.
That resonance was amplified by Mourad’s involvement. His images echoed not only the exodus that formed the subject of the oratorio, but the forced displacement of his own ancestors during the Armenian Genocide, as well as the current Syrian crisis. “I am addressing the crisis as a Syrian Armenian,” he was quoted as saying in the press materials, “as a descendant of people who were saved by the Syrian people during the genocide of 1915 by being welcomed into, and nurtured by, Syrian society.”
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Mourad – born in Kamechli, educated in Yerevan, and now based in New York – has performed at such leading venues as the Art Institute of Chicago, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and the Metropolitan Museum; in fact, the Met has commissioned him to create a performance piece as part of its exhibit on historic Armenia, slated to open this fall. Mourad has also been a member of famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble as a visual artist for over a decade.
Predominantly using black and white ink, Mourad collaborates with musicians by responding to their performance through real-time painting. He squeezes ink onto a canvas, which he then quickly smears with his fingers; the rapid process leads to images that bear attributes of calligraphy. Of course, the real-time endeavor leaves no room for revision; as Mourad explains, the markings cannot be erased, just like sound cannot be unheard.
For the Master Chorale performance, Mourad spent a year creating animations, which were computer-projected onto a vast screen towering over the Disney Hall stage. Using a foot-controlled device, however, Mourad had the option of activating a camera over his canvas to capture his on-stage creations. His ingenious software even allowed him to overlay the computer projections with real-time drawings.
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“Israel in Egypt,” a chorus-heavy work, begins with songs of lamentation, so Mourad’s images were frequently of anguished bodies – masses of them. These oppressed beings were rendered as shadows, at times simply dissolving away.
Renderings of Egypt – ancient cityscapes and pyramids – alternated with abstract images, with the latter often proving more impactful than the former. They were peppered with the occasional anachronism; for instance, Mourad’s depictions of the plagues – frogs and flies and locusts overtaking the land – bordered on the humorous until helicopters appeared among the flying creatures, swelled into swarms, and conveyed the devastation wrought upon Syria by the tools of modern warfare. These provocative pieces were among Mourad’s most memorable. Were that the project featured more of them.
Images of subjugation and displacement abounded in Mourad’s work. At one point, the pyramids looked to be constructed of suitcases and packages – the belongings of ousted migrants who built such monuments. Mourad even inserted allusions to khachkars – stone carvings of crosses – incorporating his own ancestors’ experience into the narrative.
Handel’s composition was very much “a thematically challenging piece” (as phrased by Gershon), depicting a vengeful God prone to inflict suffering among the innocent in order to punish the pharaoh; indeed, the only touch of color that appeared in Mourad’s early illustrations was a river of blood that overran the land. At the same time (according to Gershon, again), “Israel in Egypt” was also “about hope and miracles.” Later in the performance, glimpses of blue and amber could be caught in Mourad’s images, and objects became unmoored from the earth to ascend heavenward. Even the hailstones pounding the land seemed to bounce back, perhaps returning to God: a form of exchange, dialogue – or reckoning.
There was an ethereal and ephemeral quality to Mourad’s depictions of lives in transition, which lent poignancy to the oratorio as the Chorale expertly balanced its powerful passages with quiet, nuanced ones. Mourad’s drawings didn’t just enhance the music with a visual dimension but also a political one. As such, the oratorio grew beyond a religious composition into a multi-media opus that will be impossible to hear again without conjuring up Mourad’s visions.
Aram Kouyoumdjian is the winner of Elly Awards for both playwriting (“The Farewells”) and directing (“Three Hotels”). His next production, “William Saroyan’s Theater of Diaspora: The Unpublished Plays in Performance,” is slated to have its world premiere this fall.