Poetry Despite/Music Despite (Eternal War Requiem) connects artists across time and place, from World War I to the “Global War on Terror,” from the UK to Iraq. These connections acknowledge the recurring traumas of war and, conversely, the human connections that happen despite the pain. 

The project emerged out of my personal reflections on Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem (originally written for the 1962 consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral), the nine poems by World War I poet Wilfred Owen featured in the War Requiem, and maestro Karim Wasfi’s “spontaneous compositions,” solo cello performances held at sites of recent bombings in Iraq. These works, along with my own memories of being a US soldier in Iraq in 2003-2004, resonate with each other. They facilitate connections between our current state of endless war and its historical antecedents. Aptly, Wasfi has said of his cello performances: “I was connecting everything: death, spirits, bodies, life.” I was inspired to do something similar.

Building off these connections, Poetry Despite/Music Despite (Eternal War Requiem) is comprised of three core elements. The first re-imagines each of Owen’s War Requiem poems, placing this historic work into a contemporary context. These re-imagined works of poetry and hip-hop are accompanied by solo cello performances by maestro Wasfi and presented within the structure of the traditional Latin Mass for the Dead, the same structure Britten used for the War Requiem.

 The second element of the project includes nine large-scale woodblock prints that visualize the relationship between the horrors of World War I and the ongoing “Global War on Terror.” The prints respond to Owen’s nine poems in the War Requiem, while exploring current issues, including state-sanctioned extrajudicial killing, torture and detention, the refugee crisis, the rise of extremism, and the failure of states. 

The third element reflects on the music and poetry created by those most impacted. In a humble gesture towards reparation for the destruction and instability that has resulted from the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, I donated my artist fee to maestro Wasfi. I invite members of the public—especially those from countries that supported the invasion of Iraq—to join me in this gesture by supporting Iraqi musicians who play on, despite.

—Aaron Hughes, 2019


I. Requiem aeternam

Anyone There

I have come to talk about Syria and all that has occurred

Syria is torn as whether to cry for us or the land 

I swear I don’t know what to say and what to choose

The screams of the martyr’s mother or the sounds of destruction

Aleppo was paradise yet now it’s all destroyed 

Children died of hunger and the reason is the siege 

In brief, this is what happened

Syria nestled all religions 

Now it fights in the name of Islam

Good heavens, hearts turned into stone

Syria is calling, injustice has propagated

Injustice prevails and kills people*

I already feel like I’ve lost my place

My hometown has gone without a trace

Looking for something I can’t replace

Hoping I can find a better place

I can’t see my family at home

But I can still see them on my phone

It doesn’t really stop me from feeling alone

I’m carrying this sadness in my bones

The memories I have will never go away

When I go to sleep they start to replay

I’m never going back I’m here to stay

Gotta keep going to find another way

I’m starting to feel like people don’t care

I’ve got a story to tell, it’s my turn to share

I offer this dream, this hope my prayer

I’m shouting this out, is there anyone there

By Ahmed and Hussein, with contributions from Jowan, Ali and Mohammad; supported by GemArts music leaders Izzy Finch and Pawel Jedrzejewski

* First stanza translated from Arabic

Anthem for Doomed Youth

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?

— Only the monstrous anger of the guns.

Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle

Can patter out their hasty orisons.

No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells; 

Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—

The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;

And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?

Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes

Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.

The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;

Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,

And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

By Wilfred Owen