ISM Study Tour to the Balkans
A Composite Portrait
compiled by Robert Bolyard
It is hard to describe, and harder still to overstate, the value and impact – educational and personal – of the ISM study trip to the Balkans this spring. To complement the article by Prof. Novakovic in the last issue, we have compiled reflections written by students from both the musical and divinity sides of the ISM aisle highlighting those moments which most spoke to them and their area of study. We hope that Prism readers will get a glimpse of the trip from different perspectives and disciplines, and of the unique views of some of our students.
- Our Balkan Experience: Tourism or Pilgrimage? Jennifer Freeman | read it
- Penzar, Pipes, Performance: Organs in the Balkans John Allegar | read it
- Songs in a Strange Land: Our Balkan Musical Odyssey Robert Bolyard | read it
- Reading the Landscape Noel M. Hennelly | read it
- The Sound of History: A Musical Heritage Melanie Russell | read it
Our Balkan Experience: Tourism or Pilgrimage?
The ISM trip to the Balkans revealed a complex place rich in history, culture, and scholarship, with a beautiful landscape and hospitable people. But to me, perhaps the most striking aspect of our trip was our experience of it—that is, the manner of our encounter.
We began our trip in Sarajevo, where many buildings still remain pockmarked from the war. Aside from the minarets punctuating its cityscape, Sarajevo looks like any other eastern European city. One evening, at the Center for Islamic Studies, we were privileged to have an hour with Dr. Mustafa Ceric, the Grand-Mufti of Bosnia-Herzegovina and one of the signatories of A Common Word between Us and You, the 2007 open letter to Christian leaders and communities from 138 influential Muslim clerics representing every school and sect of Islam from around the world.. During his talk I was struck by the fact that he recommended tolerance in interfaith dialogue even at the “loss of some identity,” because in an earlier interview conducted by Nadeem Azam, which we were given as preparatory material, Dr. Ceric said of interfaith dialogue: “My advice is that everybody should stick to their faith and practice it and not attempt to deny others the right to do the same. People should also be honest and not allow themselves to be intoxicated by the occasion and give in to pressure to water down either their beliefs or what constitutes their basic interests.” When pressed on the apparent conflict in the statements of the interview and that of our current conversation, Dr. Ceric responded that tolerance works as a general concept and that the loss of identity occurs on the particular level. In other words, surrendering a portion of identity in the particular can actually cause a fulfilling of identity on the general, or international, level of the human race.
During our time in Sarajevo, as we met with Muslim professors and students, and toured a mosque and madresa, I observed a tension between our desire to participate in an “interfaith dialogue” and to assert our (Western) conceptions of liberal culture, especially in areas such as women’s roles and rights. The brief discussion in Sarajevo raised more questions than could be answered, such as: what does interfaith dialogue really mean? What are its purposes? Does it have one beyond itself? And how can it be conducted peacefully and respectfully in a way that honors the religions and, just as importantly, the cultures involved?
Our visit to the city of Medugorje, in Herzegovina, was another pivotal experience. In 1981, Medugorje became a pilgrimage site (though not officially recognized by the Vatican), when the Virgin Mary appeared and spoke to six children on top of a large hill. To this day she still appears to the pilgrims who come from all over the world. Our very evangelistic guide led us up the hill, praying the rosary and telling us countless stories of the troubles other pilgrims have endured in order to ascend Apparition Hill, as though she could will us to be pilgrims, rather than mere tourists. The difference between the pilgrim and the tourist, so far as I can tell, seems to be in attitude—the direction—of intent: the tourist consumes while the pilgrim accepts. Granted, a tourist can sometimes become a pilgrim, through an unexpected encounter or experience. The tension of our trip was exactly in this slippage between tourist and pilgrim. There is no doubt that we were first and foremost tourists, traveling as a group of academics and professionals with the purpose of observing the arts and religions of another culture. It was an incredible and unique opportunity through which we learned and experienced a lot. However, there were moments in which my own tourist and pilgrim parts conflicted, or at the very least were uncomfortable with each other.
I think this tension is also present in the realm of interfaith dialogue. That is, the only way to be successful in such a dialogue is to approach it as a pilgrim—humble, open, prayerful, and expectant, rather than as a tourist with the intention to consume or homogenize the other culture to ours.
If I get to choose, I’d rather not be a tourist; I want to be a pilgrim—and not only a pilgrim in other countries and cultures, but in every moment of my own life, wherever I may be.
Penzar, Pipes, Performance: Organs in the Balkans
Boarding the bus on St. Ronan Street, I breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that the academic year had come to a close: in the words of the mystics, that “all manner of thing [was] well,” and that “God moved in the [clean] pots and pans” in my kitchen. Amen. Time now to relax…….
Whether I was ready or not, the study tour to the Balkans kept my mind, feet, and spirit active. Though I was impressed by the well-known choirs and brilliant architecture of these countries, I will focus on the special opportunities to hear and see organs on our trip.
Our expert guide was Mario Penzar, the national organist of Croatia. We first met him and two of his students at a local church in Zagreb, where he introduced us to the small yet rich body of Croatian organ music. I was especially intrigued by the Renaissance music of Andrea Antico, and its strange 8-line bass clef notation. Equally interesting, however, was the lack of organ music after the Renaissance. Penzar noted that organ music came back to the fore around 1920-1950. The music composed then was idiomatically romantic, and for me this seemed to mirror the development of the organ in Spain.
The main excursion for the organists took us high and deep into the mountains. We arrived in Lepoglava, and met again with Mario Penzar at the Church of St. Mary. The brilliant technician played a short concert of early music on a true gem of an instrument. That organ, built anonymously in 1649 in the South German style, made me wonder briefly what was so exciting about the Newberry Memorial Organ in Woolsey Hall! Here, on an organ with fewer than 15 stops, exists everything needed to create subtly breathtaking pieces. Listening, and later trying it out for myself, I felt so connected with the history of my instrument and with humanity listening to the music. The stunning frescoes and history of the church coupled with this wonderful early organ made this excursion a truly formative experience.
The ISM’s itinerary in Buje allowed for visiting one last Balkan organ, played by none other than Mario Penzar. I was so pleased that this time the whole Institute could hear him play on this beautiful Callido organ from 1791, restored in 2000-2001. Before leaving Penzar gave me a brochure about an international organ competition, the “Andrea Antico da Montona.” I realized then that the Balkans, and in particular, Croatia, are committed to the preservation of their tradition of organ artistry. Perhaps some of the Institute’s lovers of early music will enter this competition in the near future.
Vaughn Mauren, MM-o ’09, spearheaded a trip that didn’t show up on the official itinerary. He had a contact for churches in Venice, and so during our stopover there on the way home, a small group of us had the good fortune to hear a spectacular Italian organ played by the church’s young organist.
Again, just touching this instrument and considering what we as organists do gave me a great sense of purpose and gratitude. I may have thought I was ready for a break from academics and music, but this tour energized me for more. For those of us who work in the church it might seem ironic, but perhaps Isaiah 43:19 best sums up my spirit: “Behold, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs forth; do you not perceive it?”
Songs in a Strange Land: Our Balkan Musical Odyssey
Our study trip brought many intriguing and enlightening experiences to us all, but undoubtedly the most exciting for me were the musical offerings. We experienced these in almost every sphere, from the professional to the wholly amateur, from indigenous to Western classical music, and each time it was presented with a warmth and generosity that made the music all the better to experience. The performance spaces ranged from basements to cathedrals, and the settings from impromptu demonstrations to lectures, but the sense that music so easily bridged the cultural gap and brought us together was truly amazing.
We attended a folk mass on the second day of the trip, followed by a series of demonstrations of various folk music traditions from nearby regions: it started in the sanctuary with groups of singers in traditional garb singing religious (but not liturgical) songs in various styles. It was very heartening to know that these traditions were being kept alive in spite of so many factors which could so easily extinguish them, and the music itself was rich and performed well. Equally impressive was the spread that awaited us below the church in a dining room, where the music continued as we feasted on local food and liquors. And then the dancing began…
A more sober demonstration of the local musical culture was presented the following day at the Academy of Music, where students presented music from the local culture and beyond. It was inspiring to see so many students involved in art-centered programs, and despite their nerves, their eagerness was infectious. We also heard portions of the Qu’ran recited in a mosque in Sarajevo by a small choir, which was a truly unforgettable experience and an opportunity that I never would have imagined I would get. We had heard, and would continue to hear, many people speak about Islam, but hearing that music in that space spoke so much more directly to me about the similarities to be found in all religious expression than any lecture on the subject ever could.
The concert presented by the Faros Cantors from the island of Hvar was, I dare to say, generally considered one of the highlights of the trip. This group of trained singers presented a traditional style of male a cappella singing that has flourished on the island for centuries, and the seamless transitions between each beautifully-programmed piece made the concert in itself a work of art of the highest quality.
But the most emotional musical moment for me was back in Sarajevo, where we were treated by a performance by the Interreligious Choir Pontanima. It was a transcendent experience all around, not only because the story behind the choir is so inspiring, but also because the music they made was so refined and a true joy to hear. Just as I became hypnotized by the seemingly magical transformation of this group of people from different religious and ethnic backgrounds coming together to sing, as Friar Markovic put it “the songs of their enemies,” my attention happened to be drawn to a woman in the front row. I knew nothing about her, and I was encouraged by the fact that, like everyone else in the choir, she could have been Catholic, Muslim, Orthodox, or none of these and I wouldn’t have known the difference. I noticed her solely because during the Muslim pieces the word Allah was repeated many times in unison, and every time it was her mouth hung in a neutral position to pick up the following words. In so doing, she allowed me to glimpse the reconciliation process not as a miraculous cure, but as a process that is still very much incomplete, and thereby allowed me to appreciate just how much good has been done, and is still being done, to bring peace to this part of the world.
Reading the Landscape
Noël M. Hennelly
Some images cannot be conveyed in photographs; they need to be experienced, with embodied perception, in three dimensions, in a living world, their meanings uncovered over time, in conversation and in study.
Landing in Sarajevo Airport, one first encounters a hedge of empty rusting flagpoles surrounding the parking lot, which must have held international flags for the 1984 Winter Olympics. Our guide points out the seven major mountains ranging from 4900 - 6850 ft., where the ski jumping and giant slalom competitions were held. The city itself, surrounded by mountains, is situated in a hanging box canyon at 1640 ft. above sea level.
At the time of our visit in May of 2008, it had been twelve years and five months since the signing of the Dayton peace agreement of December 1995, the accord that ended the three-and-a-half-year war in Bosnia. The siege of Sarajevo itself – one of the longest sieges in the history of modern warfare – ran from April 1992 to February 1996. 85% of the estimated 12,000 people killed were civilians, with an estimated 50,000 wounded. All major roads to the city were blockaded, including any shipments of food or medicine, and many residents often went without electricity or water.
All of this information was available to me before our visit. None of it sank in until we drove past row after row of apartment buildings riddled with bullet holes. You could almost “read” the traces of gunfire, concentrating on the higher floors where snipers positioned themselves, or the mortar marks on the pavement where a frightened civilian, desperate for food, had dashed across the street. Perhaps nothing can get your attention like a bullet hole in a wall, at about the same level as your head, your heart, your child.
Was it an impulse from my past artist’s work in repairing Brooklyn’s century-old brownstones, or was it the instinct for healing and reconciliation that brought me to ministerial studies, that wanted to know what kept these residents from repairing the scarred walls and mortar holes? A Croatian native mentioned that the reason for delay in the repairs could be attributed to simple economics, a factor which hit home to me as we visited the more prosperous western and northern parts of the peninsula. But also I think there is a deliberate impulse to remember, to keep the physical marks that become an outward validation of the psychological marks within. Even as we know that forgiveness and forgetting are an important part of the Christian life we are called to, in order to heal we also have a need to remember for a time, to place the past in perspective, to know that the peace we keep can be fragile.
Even so, during the course of our visit, repairs were slowly taking place: a choir of singers from all walks of life came together to sing their own songs and the songs of their enemies; Islamic theologians studied mystic poetry as the root of a common ground between faiths; army barracks were transformed into a university where intellectuals and students come together to embark on the work of reconciliation.
More disturbing was the, to my mind, insidious misuse of religious symbols, an example of which can be seen towering over the nearby city of Mostar. An American student, uninitiated in tactics of this kind, saw the large concrete Latin cross on Hum Hill as a sign of hope. Local residents were not so quick to agree. Hum Hill was the site of one of the heavy artillery positions from which Serbian, and later Croatian Nationalist, forces bombarded the city, including the deliberate targeting of the 16th-century Stari Most Bridge. The Hum Hill cross dominates the landscape for miles around and is floodlit at night. International petitions to remove the cross have been resisted. The Hum Hill cross has been cited by Michael Sells (in his 2002 Paul Hanly Furfey Lecture published by the Association for the Sociology of Religion) as a “triumph shrine… meant to sanctify acts carried out on the site and to inscribe a new historical, religious and territorial text into the area.” It is evidence of the deliberate use of religion in the service of politics, of how governments construct what Chris Hedges, in his 2002 book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning has called a “mythology of war,” where governments have a stake in co-opting a nation’s idealism in the service of sometimes selfish political and economic goals. As people of faith, we are not strangers to the human impulse to use religion in order to alienate ourselves from one another. We need to seek out ways to find common ground, inspiration, hope, and enrichment from the diversity of humanity’s struggle to understand the ineffable mystery of God, and to carry out a shared message of love and healing.
We have seen firsthand that the cultural heritage of southeastern Europe is incredibly rich. The legacy of diverse forms of Christianity, Islam, Judaism and other faiths form deeply textured interrelationships and contrasts. True culture stems from the generative forces in mankind, toward beauty, reverence, celebration and community. When these markers are taken over and used to create division, we are screened from the mundane and base motives toward power and greed that are more often the true cause of conflict. On our trip, we were blessed by our exposure to the incredible music, art, architecture, history and hospitality of this region. The lessons begun here will continue to bear fruit with further reflection. I look forward to deepening my understanding and hope to have the opportunity to return soon.
The Sound of History: A Musical Heritage
As I reflect on my experiences in Eastern Europe, memories as varied as the region’s history begin to surface. Without a doubt, there were spiritual and sensory feasts aplenty for every taste. Traditional choral music not unlike that to which we are accustomed was followed by exuberant call-and-response psalms ending in major 2nds; the haunting Muslim call to worship in Sarajevo’s hills gave way to voice students working through Donizetti arias, and Verdi performed in Zagreb; a traditional Folk Mass preceded a party in the church basement where savory cured meats and baked goods accompanied homemade liquors, beer, and gleeful circle dances; organized tours through museums, churches, and art galleries alternated with spontaneous adventures along Croatia’s stunning coast and visits to open-air markets, and all the while each of us was stirred in very different ways by this pilgrimage.
For me, some of the most memorable moments of our group excursions were those during which we were privileged to hear live performances and demonstrations of the region’s musical traditions, while the times when I had the chance to walk quietly about an area, such as the stone wall surrounding Dubrovnik or the sweet-smelling lawn of an Eastern Orthodox monastery in Montenegro, provided opportunity to absorb and process all that was presented. In these more secluded minutes, I put together fragments of what I had seen and heard, trying to make sense of its poignancy in words rather than just feelings. One of the first times that I remember being tearful was during a familiar part of Mass in which the “sign of peace” is given and received. At a Roman Catholic cathedral in Sarajevo, a small portion of restored, painted walls was left exposed where the image of Christ had appeared in its bomb-shattered stone. Here, standing below such a symbol of faith in the aftermath of horrible conflict, I was aware of the great significance of exchanging peace with my neighbors, most of whom addressed me in Croatian while I responded as graciously as I could in English. In keeping with the theme of peace, the Pontanima Interreligious Choir was uniquely assertive in its efforts to perform interfaith repertoire to “promote positive provocation” among Muslims, Catholics, and Serbs in Bosnia. This choir meets the challenges of Bosnia’s interfaith culture by illustrating that God can be praised even with the songs of one’s enemies. To hear these people speak of the unthinkable horrors they had witnessed firsthand, and then to listen to them explain their determination to promote peace through song is simply magnanimity beyond my own limited comprehension. But then to hear them sing – it is a moving experience of music indeed transcending language and cultural/ religious misunderstanding. Several of my colleagues were so overwhelmed by the still prominent signs of war throughout Sarajevo that they had to take time at the end of the day to unwind, to try to comprehend the living history around us, even to cry.
I was very much struck by the fact that much of the Bosnian and Croatian folk music requires two vocal parts, and that when two men or two women find that their voices blend well, they will form a lifelong partnership in song. To their ears, the major 2nd is a consonant sound, often emerging from unison at or near the end of a phrase. It seemed to me that this sonority honored and made prominent the importance of the “other” in a spiritual sense. At what interval can one be more aware of singing with another person than at the interval of a 2nd? Of course, not all the vocal music we heard was in this liturgical tradition. In Dubrovnik, we heard an evening concert of klapa music in the form of traditional Lenten chants. The concert began in from the back of a darkened cathedral with a solo chant that was swiftly and powerfully joined with by fifteen other male singers as they processed with the cross, candles, and palms to the front of the Church. The rest of the concert held us spellbound in its rich and more Western-sounding “chordal” harmonies, and in the liturgical movements incorporated to reflect the significance of each Lenten text in the setting of the Mass. In Medugorje, a group of Polish pilgrims sang familiar Marian hymns in improvised harmony as their priest strummed a guitar. Students at Sarajevo’s Academy of Music performed folk music of both sacred and secular styles from both Muslim and Catholic traditions in addition to classical repertoire on violin and piano. In Zagreb, we learned of a wealth of Croatian Baroque repertoire hitherto virtually unknown in the United States.
The artistic and religious heritage of this region is so very rich, so diverse, and so vast that any one area upon which we touched could be studied at great length. I think what is most valuable, however, is that we were able to experience as much as we did in such authentic settings, both solemn and celebratory. It was because of this immersion that as I strolled blissfully above Dubrovnik’s surreally gorgeous coast, I was aware not only of a yearning to lounge by the water and feast on seafood in true tourist fashion, but also of my own awakening to how art and religion both strive to touch and to express the innermost part of our collective being; they are the essence of Pontanima – a bridge to the soul which we venture to cross.
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