Today, Malala Yousafzai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize alongside Kailash Satyarthi. My new work for choir and orchestra, dedicated to Malala, will premiere at the Barbican in London on October 28. Here is my introduction to 'Malala'...
I don’t think I was alone in wondering, when I first heard of the assassination attempt, why the Taliban should feel so threatened by the opinions of a young girl? Why shoot Malala?
An educated mind tends to be inquisitive, doubtful, questioning, innovative, logical, playful and creative. A poorly educated mind is often fanatical, certain of itself, idolatrous, extremist, paranoid, rash, reactionary and violent. An educated mind, because it is questioning and doubtful, is less susceptible to brainwashing by extremists and it cannot easily be radicalised with promises of an eternal bliss in an afterlife. This is the reason why Malala’s message – that every child, whatever their sex, deserves the right to a proper education – poses such a threat to a terrorist organisation, and why we should do all we can to lend our voices in support of hers. As Malala said at the United Nations in July last year, ‘One child, one teacher, one pen and one book can change the world. Education is the only solution. Education First.’
Bertrand Russell (with a hat-tip to WB Yeats’s poem The Second Coming) wrote, ‘The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.’ All of us know that what Malala is saying is a fundamental, self-evident truth. The instant any society in history has provided a proper education for all of its children it has begun to rise out of the dirt, becoming more prosperous and liberal, and less violent. As George Washington put it (in a line that Bina Shah quotes in the libretto), ‘education is the key to open the golden doors of freedom.’
Something else struck me as I began working on this piece. In the areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan where they held sway, the Taliban outlawed music. Why? I think it is because music appeals to both our intellect and our emotions, and encourages us to look at the world anew. In short, it educates us. An uneducated mind is untroubled by self-doubt; music makes us question everything.
When David Temple first suggested the idea of a piece of music about Malala I knew I wanted to do it immediately. But I also knew that I needed to find a writer with an intimate knowledge of life in Pakistan. Bina Shah is an exceptionally perceptive and eloquent writer. When I discovered her blog I was struck as much by her clear, level-headed view of sometimes dizzying political and social events in Pakistan (where she lives) as by her inherent poetic nature. A true poet cannot hide their ability, their feel for the weight and rhythm of every word, any more than an elephant can hide its trunk. I knew that Bina was the writer this project needed. Imagine my delight when she agreed to take part.
But that was just the beginning. I knew I had a great libretto to build on, but still – how do you go about setting real events as powerful and significant as these to music? All of the pieces I’ve written have been difficult. I’ve never been one of those composers who can just rattle something off. Every time I sit down to write a new piece of music I feel as if I’ve never written so much as a quaver before in my life. I ask myself: why am I doing this? This is crazy, trying to lasso sounds out of the ether, and for what? But I think that anyone who has ever created anything has experienced these thoughts, these moments of near-crippling self-doubt, and in fact they may actually be critical to the creative process. They certainly seem to be crucial to mine. The most important thing is to keep pressing on, no matter what. And when an idea does eventually start to flow, and then when that idea is performed with great artistry and commitment by a choir like Crouch End Festival Chorus… well, there is no feeling like it in the world.
This piece is dedicated to my daughter, who has taught me more about life than I am able to fully comprehend. I’m still learning. We are all Malala.
Watch Bina Shah introduce the Malala project below: