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Music Based On Trump's Original Travel Ban Gets World Premiere In Hartford

Iranian composer Niloufar Nourbakhsh wrote "An Aria for the Executive Order" in response to President Trump's orginal travel ban.

White House lawyers were in court on Wednesday in Honolulu to argue that President Donald Trump's revised travel ban, issued earlier this month, should be allowed to take effect. But U.S. District Judge Derrick Watson, the same judge who temporarily blocked the travel ban hours after it was issued, decided to extend his first order, which will block the travel ban indefinitely.

Trump's original executive order, which called for blocking refugees and citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries from traveling to the U.S., was issued in late January.

That event is now the subject of a new work by an Iranian classical music composer.

"An Aria for the Executive Order" premieres at the Women's Composer Festival in Hartford this weekend.

On Friday afternoon, January 27, Trump issued his travel ban, and by Saturday, confusion reigned as airports around the world tried to adjust to the new directive.

Many refugees were trapped at airports. Green card holders from those countries, many of them students, were not allowed back into the U.S.

For Iranian composer and pianist Niloufar Nourbakhsh, who is finishing her Masters in Music Composition at SUNY Stonybrook, the executive order hit hard.

"Knowing that I am on list that is banned from the United States was very personal and very shattering, how I can just easily be looked at as a terrorist," she said.

Niloufar is from the city of Karaj. She moved to the U.S. when she was 18 to study music on an F-1 student visa. She said that for the first time in her years living in the U.S., she feels like she doesn't belong here.

Trump's travel ban, and the motives of the Trump administration, has her questioning the entire system.

"Will I be able to stay? Will I have to continue my studies and kind of be in hiding if they are going to deport people?" Niloufar asked. "If I am going to be able to stay here, I'm afraid I won't be able to visit home at all."

Trump's first executive order was quickly blocked, first on a temporary basis by a federal Judge in New York, and later by a three-member panel of judges from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The stay gave Nilou time to think about that day, gathering with other concerned Iranian students, frantic emails and texts from friends and family, and going directly to the president of the university for his help in rescuing a fellow student detained at La Guardia airport.

She decided the events of that day deserved to be depicted in music.

"I'm not directly criticizing a political system or a political ideology, but what I am criticizing is how that political system is affecting people's lives," she said. "So my job as an artist is to tell those stories."

The result was "An Aria for an Executive Order," a work for soprano and piano. Among the texts Nilou choose for this work were words directly lifted from the travel ban.

The music is stark, unfeeling, with a repetitive ostinato in the left hand of the piano.

"I think that ostinato is expressing how I'm dealing with the current political climate," she said. "I feel like I'm constantly struggling with every single news that's coming out. That ostinato kind of represents that constant struggle that doesn't seem to go away."

Then, almost abruptly, the music changes, becoming broader, more lyrical.

The words -- What I wanted, I wanted was the tiniest thing, to be like everyone else -- are from Philip Roth's 2010 novel Nemesis.

"That section, when it goes from the executive order to my understanding of the things that are happening around me, it's just a very simple thing to be like everyone else, but it still seems like such a far-fetched thing to have," she said.

The Women Composers Festival of Hartford will present the world premiere of "An Aria for the Executive Order" Saturday night at the Charter Oak Cultural Center in Hartford. 

Ray Hardman is Connecticut Public’s Arts and Culture Reporter. He is the host of CPTV’s Emmy-nominated original series Where Art Thou? Listeners to Connecticut Public Radio may know Ray as the local voice of Morning Edition, and later of All Things Considered.

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