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Dance of Terror: A musical expression of tragic laughter?

Updated: Sep 10

The third piece on the Orchestral Music of Afghanistan: Looking Forward concert and the focus of this blog post, is Arson Fahim’s Dance of Terror, which received its world premiere with the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra and rubab soloist, Saphwat Simab on 5 July 2022 at the Spitalfields Music Festival in London.

Arson wrote the piece just this past spring during his second semester at the Longy School of Music in Massachusetts, USA — less than 10 months since he flew out of Kabul on his way to take up his scholarship at the school. I have worked closely with Arson since December 2021 to co-curate this commissioning project, and it was a true pleasure to bring his newest composition to life at the concert.


Dance of Terror is an intriguing composition in that it explores a rather complex emotional space we don’t encounter very much in instrumental music: tragic laughter in response to overwhelming pain.


Arson writes about the work:

“Sometimes when pain becomes overwhelming, humour becomes a defence mechanism. When you live in a place where at any moment a bomb or a terrorist attack can kill you or much worse, someone you love, you have to laugh at the face of death to make life bearable - it’s the most deeply tragic kind of laughter. […] Looking back at the 20 years of the US war in Afghanistan, it looks like an episode of Tom and Jerry – the war being a playful game, and the news being entertainment to spectators.”

Anxiety is the undercurrent of the first and third sections of this tri-partite composition.

The music makes complete sense when you understand it as the music that accompanies—rather controls—the bodies of dancers who are trapped in its influence. Written in 3/4 metre and underpinned by a driving castanet-inspired rhythm (says the percussionist) played by the strings, sudden tempo changes toss the dancers to and fro as if they were on the ends of puppeteer’s strings with outstretched limbs pulling bodies, hair and clothes behind them. The tempo changes themselves have a pattern about them which starts to make them predictable—in itself, something of a cruel joke. There are moments of repose and winding down, when one can be fooled into thinking the dancers might have a moment’s rest, but this is quickly interrupted with passages of halting uncertainty until they are pitched back into the whirling and distorted dance.



The middle section of the composition is a world unto itself. Strings and then winds hold long soft chords underneath an extended rubab solo. It is easy to feel this section as the emotional counterpoint to that tragic laughter, the interior sorrow and nostalgia that is interlaced with bittersweet memories of love, life and loss. It has a sense of the fundamental core of our dancers, their strength, spirit, and resilience. But this is only an interlude, and the distorted dance sequence returns, this time at an even faster tempo and hurls our dancers into their frenzied fits until the music comes to a triumphant and ironic stop.


Performing Dance of Terror presents challenges for the orchestra and conductor alike. Staying together during the frequent and sudden ritardandi and acclerandi which in some cases are meant to take place over only two to three beats, takes some ensemble technique and not just a little trust. Somewhat unfortunately perhaps(?), the OPO makes it sound quite easy and elegant!



You can read more about Arson Fahim and the composition here. If you want more information about how to programme this composition with your own ensemble or to be in touch with Arson Fahim to discuss possible collaborations, please be in touch!

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