Even before you’ve heard a single note of Free Palestine by the composer and instrumentalist John King (b. 1953), the work may well have made an impact for its title alone: a seeming reference to one of the more daunting, divisive sociopolitical conditions in modern global history.
For King—who became politically active during his late teenage years in Minneapolis during the Vietnam War era, participating in labor actions and protests, and later wrote music inspired by the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa—the question of Palestine has been an issue of particular interest. It follows, then, that Free Palestine, a unified sequence of relatively brief string quartet pieces composed from May 2013 to August 2014, is to some extent politically motivated.
Crucially, though, the work—wholly instrumental and essentially abstract in nature—does not convey a specific agenda. It is neither overt protest, nor a rallying cry. Instead, what Free Palestine ultimately represents is a kind of personal idealism, expressed in the action of a North American composer in the twenty-first century negotiating a new personal relationship with traditional Arabic music: experimenting with melodic modes (maqam’at) and rhythmic cycles (iqa’at), and transforming those elements for conventional Western instruments—personalizing the music, in a very real sense, in order to embed it within his own cultural milieu.
The work’s lesson is not a blunt statement urging some particular form of action, but rather a simple acknowledgement of the invisible strands binding us in common humanity and intrinsic dignity, couched in a musical idiom invented not just to accommodate that commonality but to celebrate it.