Cairo composition recalls horror of crackdown

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"It's like making soup," said musician and composer Frank Horvat when describing how he creates his compositions. In Horvat's case, we are talking serious soup. The Toronto-area resident is about to see the premiere of his latest piece, "8/14/13 – Cairo" -- a day that is seared into his memory.

The 12:45 composition, due to be performed in Waterloo on Feb. 27, is an invocation of the bloody Aug. 14 crackdown on supporters of deposed Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi. For his musical soup, Horvat is utilizing three main ingredients: audio from cellphone videos shot that day along with electronic effects and then a live bass clarinet performance.

"I can't get it out of my head," said Horvat. "I heard news about the horrific event and decided to Google it. If you do, up pops what people are shooting on their cellphones. It's almost like you're right there."

On that day last summer, security forces crushed demonstrators encamped at two squares in Cairo, resulting in more than 270 deaths and more than 2,000 people injured. It would mark the deadliest day in a year of violent confrontations in the country.

"I will never forget footage of this guy who was shot. His brains were flowing out as someone was holding him and crying," recalled Horvat.

Horvat says he struggled to create something that would "make the listener feel like they were right there."

"I work in audio form, so I thought about how could I replicate the travesty of this? … with the screaming, the running and the crying and the bullets flying everywhere."

'Clank, clank, clank' incorporated

Horvat said he's used the sounds from about six cellphone videos he saw on YouTube.

He also heard metal sounds in some of the videos and realized it was a way of protesters telling the crowd that security forces were on their way.

"They would bang on the signposts," noted Horvat. "You would hear the clank, clank, clank and it's quite amazing and rhythmic."

Horvat incorporates the "clank, clank" into the composition.

The performance  will intertwine real audio from the day of the crackdown, electronic sounds and a live performance by one of Canada's foremost bass clarinetists, Kathryn Ladano, at a noon-hour concert at Waterloo's Wilfrid Laurier university on Feb. 27. 

Horvat says he hopes to record the performance and possibly put it up on his website.

Ladano -- who teaches bass clarinet at Waterloo University and is the head of the Improvisation Concerts Ensemble at Wilfrid Laurier -- is presenting several pieces during her concert, including "8/14/13 – Cairo."

Horvat, who knew Ladano previously, had wanted to create something for the musician and when the Cairo piece started to form, he thought of using the bass clarinet due to its "very sad tone."

"It doesn't have a bright tone like a violin. It's mellow, so it blends in with what the composition is about."

Musical journalism

Crafting pieces that reflect current events and politics isn't new to Horvat. He's composed works that have criticized Stephen Harper's policies and pieces that reflect an environmental advocacy streak.

 Anita Zvonar

In September, pianist Lisa Tahara played a piece at a Toronto church by Horvat that paid tribute to the community of Lac-Mégantic, which suffered a rail tragedy July 16, 2013 that killed 47 people.

"What really makes it special is when your work touches people," said Horvat. "An old woman came up to me after Lisa's concert and she was crying."

The composer's next challenge is a work that reflects an emotional outburst last November by the Philippines delegate at the Warsaw climate change talks. Yeb Sano, distraught and crying over the recent devastation wrought by Typhoon Haiyan on his country, proclaimed: "What my country is going through as a result of this extreme climate event is madness. We can fix this. We can stop this madness. Right now, right here."

Horvat will also be using some parts of Sano's statement and sound from protests at the conference to accompany a live performance of piano, cello and clarinet. The piece is slated for a Toronto performance in March.

Horvat says he's excited about using other media in his work and is eager to see how audiences react to "8/14/13 – Cairo."

"Maybe it brings a whole new audience to the message," he explained. "I want people to understand what happened. I purposely chose a bland title. It's sort of like a form of musical journalism. I'm not telling you how to feel, I'm just recreating what happened … Everybody can walk away with their own perspective on what happened."


Solo recital by Kathryn Ladano
Maureen Forrester Recital Hall
Wilfrid Laurier University
75 University Ave. W.
Waterloo, Ontario
12:00 p.m.

June Chua is a Toronto-based journalist who regularly writes about the arts for

Photos by Anita Zvonar.

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