The Florida House, the state’s unofficial “embassy” in the nation’s capital, recently hosted the world premiere of a new and unique symphony written by renowned composer and FIU School of Music founding director Frederick Kaufman. It was performed by the university’s Amernet String Quartet.
The event was part of an Arts and Policy conference in D.C. that combined music and medicine by focusing on how music can affect the body. The piece was called “Jacob Wrestling with the Angel” and was named after a biblical passage found in the book of Genesis. This scene is known as a metaphor of internal struggle.
Kaufman translated the biblical story into music by using instruments like the viola and cello to reflect the emotions Jacob experiences throughout his journey.
The biblical tale of Jacob wrestling with the angel is one of struggle and we must understand the context of the story to understand the composition, says Kaufman.
The musical composition is divided into three movements. In the first one, Kaufman portrays Jacob’s relationship with his brother Esau and his anxiety after stealing his older brother’s birthright blessing. The second movement is when Jacob meets with the angel, who Jacob feels is God himself, and wrestles with him. That is represented by cello slides and string plucking noises, called pizzicato.
“Unveiling the piece during a pandemic is meant to reflect that we all are struggling,” said Kaufman.
“Jacob is going through great anxiety and now gets into a wrestling match with the angel,” said Kaufman. “It’s a ferocious match. The second movement is all about that. It’s got a driving energy with lots of dissonance, chords, and pizzicato.”
The second movement concludes with a slap to the cello’s body, which represents the angel, or God, striking him in the hip, crippling him.
Jacob’s third movement is self-realization and self-reflection of the encounter Jacob just had with God. We are left with an uneasy feeling in the music as Jacob is unsure of what comes next. We are thrown back and forth between the viola and cello. He is renamed Israel, which means fighter of God.
Kaufman says his piece depicts our own internal struggles and the struggles facing society today.
“I think we’re all wrestling with life and the decisions we have made,” he said. “It’s about deception and our own anxiety when we do things that aren’t good.”
He also connected the composition to our current dilemma during the worldwide pandemic.
“It’s difficult; we’re probably living through one of the worst periods in the history of this country,” said Kaufman. “This piece is reflecting the anxiety that goes on in society. So I think the piece is relevant to today as we go through this great pain and reflection on where we are.”
FIU’s School of Music current director Karen Fuller agrees. She brought the event to the Florida House because she believes not only that this is a once-in-a-lifetime premiere, but it is a composition the world needs to hear.
“I think that the way I currently relate to it is there’s currently turmoil that the pandemic has created,” said Fuller. “The turmoil in the story in today’s world can be depression and fear or anxiety. I think the piece relates to that as well.”
Fuller also participated in an Arts and Policy panel to discuss the connection between music and medicine, with John Dee, oboe professor at the University of Illinois, and Dr. Beatriz Currier, medical director of Miami Cancer Institute.
FIU’s School of Music collaborates with FIU College of Medicine and Miami Cancer Institute at Baptist Health Systems for this research.
“The research that we have really sees how music can have an impact on anxiety, depression, pain, and fear,” said Fuller.
They spoke about how music’s vibration can affect the human body and how certain music can ease pain, anxiety, or depression. The panel discussed how music should be used during some medical treatments using this knowledge.
After the performance, the musicians received a standing ovation.
FIU senior Camila Castillo helped organize the event. “I am just so grateful to have this opportunity,” said Castillo. “I would love to keep being a part of something that keeps creating moments, these historic moments that really impact communities.”
Castillo also felt connected to the composition and its meaning. “I interpret how we are all constantly fighting with ourselves,” she said. “I think this will help us today with internalizing how we go through these ups and downs.”