I have always been attracted to trees. My fascination with them has been with me at least since adolescence—walking beneath them, planting them, writing about them, and studying them. I have written numerous musical works about domestic trees, but this piece is my first foray into the foreign. The Middle East is rich with histories, languages, and cultures in which trees and various flora are regularly invoked as symbols—symbols of land, struggle, peace, nationhood, and memory. Recent events have drawn my attention to the region and the trees—the living signs and symbols—that it hosts.
Although any attempt at summary risks oversimplification, the movements of this work for piano quartet have emerged from some of the following ideas:
I. Remembering and Oranges
Orange exports and the “Jaffa orange” were once a symbol of economic prosperity in Palestine. In 1948, Zionist militias appropriated the Palestinian land, the groves, the oranges, and with them, a powerful symbol of Palestine’s identity. Now known as the “orange robbery,” this citrus symbol of prosperity has transformed into a symbol of loss. Ghassan Kanafani wrote a short story titled “Land of the Sad Oranges,” in which he describes being forced out of Palestine through the voice of a young boy:
“When Ras Naqoura came into sight in the distance, cloudy on the blue horizon, the lorry stopped. The women climbed down over the luggage and made for a peasant sitting cross-legged with a basket of oranges just in front of him. They picked up the oranges, and the sound of their weeping reached our ears. I thought then that oranges were something dear and these big, clean fruits were beloved objects in our eyes. When the women had bought some oranges, they brought them over to the lorry and your father climbed down from the driver’s side and stretched out his hand to take one. He began to gaze at it in silence, and then burst into tears like a despairing child.”
II. Children and Olives
Olives are not only a precious commodity to their famers, they encode a history of their caretakers, their groves, their cultures. The fruit yields an oil that, for some, is not only used at every meal, but is the source of light as the fuel for traditional lamps. The Bible and Koran are filled with references to olives and their oil’s worth. Additionally, the regular maintenance of one’s olive trees is a social and family affair. Harvesting olives engages the community, and children can scatter through the groves, sometimes playing, and sometimes picking up fruit that has fallen to the ground which, if sold, can yield a bit of change. An olive grove, with aged trees, and burled ancient roots, is a place of labor, of life, of history, and heritage. The loss of olives, their uprooting, their burning, their displacement, is the loss of that labor, that life, that history, and that heritage.
“If the Olive Trees knew the hands that planted them, Their Oil would become Tears.” — Mahmoud Darwish
In Roots and Groves was commissioned by the Salty Cricket Composers Collective and premiered on March 11, 2016 in Salt Lake City, UT.