Mapping the Journeys of Syria’s Artists

Eliza Griswold

Berggruen Fellow Eliza Griswold is a poet and journalist based in New York. She is the author of Amity and Prosperity: A Story of Energy in America which will be published this year. Griswold’s reportage and poems have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, and Atlantic, among others. She was awarded a 2015 PEN Prize for her translations of the poems of Afghan women, I Am the Beggar of the World, and A 2010 Rome Prize for poetry.

I first heard the oud, a kind of lute that was invented five thousand years ago, one summer night in 2014, in a Turkish teahouse along the Syrian border. The Syrian musician was classically trained. He was also a medical doctor who’d recently been held hostage by isis. A little out of practice, he ran his fingers over the instrument’s strings and talked about where he’d go next. No one wanted to stay for long in Turkey, Lebanon, or Jordan, where it was largely illegal for Syrians to work or to send their children to school. Despite these strictures, many refugees initially waited in one of those neighboring countries for the dictator Bashar al-Assad to fall. When he didn’t, six million Syrians pressed north. Among them were most of the country’s talented musicians and artists, who, like everyone else, were scrambling to rent apartments, find jobs, and learn languages.

Since then, the fall of Aleppo and Russian air strikes have driven Syrians of all kinds from their country. Last year, wondering what it means to be a Syrian artist when Syria in many ways no longer exists, I began to map the journeys of a hundred artists from the country. As I discovered, a large portion of the older guard of artists has ended up in Paris, thanks to visas issued by the French Embassy in Beirut. Many of the younger generation headed for the creative haven of Berlin, where rent is relatively cheap. Only a scant few remained in the Middle East, which proved expensive or unwelcoming.

Read more in The New Yorker.



composed by Arswain
machine learning consultation by Anna Tskhovrebov
commissioned by the Berggruen Institute
premiered at the Bradbury Building
downtown Los Angeles
april 22, 2022

Human perception of what sounds “beautiful” is necessarily biased and exclusive. If we are to truly expand our hearing apparatus, and thus our notion of beauty, we must not only shed preconceived sonic associations but also invite creative participation from beings non-human and non-living. We must also begin to cede creative control away from ourselves and toward such beings by encouraging them to exercise their own standards of beauty and collaborate with each other.

Movement I: Alarm Call
‘Alarm Call’ is a long-form composition and sound collage that juxtaposes, combines, and manipulates alarm calls from various human, non-human, and non-living beings. Evolutionary biologists understand the alarm call to be an altruistic behavior between species, who, by warning others of danger, place themselves by instinct in a broader system of belonging. The piece poses the question: how might we hear better to broaden and enhance our sense of belonging in the universe? Might we behave more altruistically if we better heed the calls of – and call out to – non-human beings?

Using granular synthesis, biofeedback, and algorithmic modulation, I fold the human alarm call – the siren – into non-human alarm calls, generating novel “inter-being” sonic collaborations with increasing sophistication and complexity. 

Movement II: A.I.-Truism
A synthesizer piece co-written with an AI in the style of Vangelis’s Blade Runner score, to pay homage to the space of the Bradbury Building.

Movement III: Alarmism
A machine learning model “learns” A.I.Truism and recreates Alarm Call, generating an original fusion of the two.

Movement IV: A.I. Call
A machine learning model “learns” Alarm Call and recreates A.I.Truism, generating an original fusion of the two.