Ever since the first of their three West Meets East collaborations was released in 1966, many other musicians from both East and West have attempted to follow in the footsteps of violinist Yehudi Menuhin and sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar’s attempt to find common ground between the two musical traditions. While there’s no question the results have always been intriguing none of them have found a way to merge the two with any real success. Usually the results have been the superimposing of one over the other with either switching to conform to the harmonics and rhythmic patterns of the other.
If one were to think of it in terms of linguistics, it would be the equivalent of trying to merge Farsi or Hindi with English or German and creating a language with enough elements in common speakers of the original languages would be able to understand the new tongue. This is what classical Persian composer, Iranian Hafez Nazeri has attempted to accomplish with his latest composition, Untold: The Rumi Symphony Project. The new work, released on the Sony Masterworks label reflects the poetry of the 13th century Sufi mystic and poet Jalal as-Din Muhammad Balkhi, better known as Rumi in the West, as his inspiration for the music and the themes it expresses. To accompany the new release, Nazeri is also touring North American concert halls throughout March and April.
While the choice of a medieval Persian mystic’s poetry might seem an odd one to serve as a bridge between Western and Eastern classical traditions, it’s important to remember some of the most awe-inspiring classical music in European history have been spiritual works. Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Bach, and many others all wrote pieces glorifying spiritual love in much the same vein as Rumi’s poetry. If you think, well one is Muslim while the others are Christian, the following Rumi quote included in the liner notes show you the poet didn’t make that distinction, so maybe we shouldn’t: “We dance behind veils/Muslim, Christian, Jew are the masks we wear/in truth, we are not here/This is our shadow dance.”
However, even with the establishment of thematic common ground Nazeri still had to find a way of blending the musics of two cultures with vastly different histories and means of expression. Aside from undertaking an extensive study of European classical music, he also took the extraordinary step of modifying a traditional Persian stringed instrument, the setar, to work as the bridge between the two forms. Working with Iranian luthiers, and 40 prototypes later, he added two strings to the lute like instrument to increase its range and allow it to play both polyphonic sounds and harmonies, two integral elements of Western classical music lacking in its Persian counterpart. He named the new instrument after another great 13th century poet, the man he was named for, Hafez.
The setar has always been a key element in Persian music with its distinctive sound being central to most classical pieces. The modifications Nazeri introduced to the instrument have done nothing to change the way it sounds, but has expanded its abilities. Instead of being a solo instrument, it can now played in concert with others and be part of a larger ensemble. In the case of this piece that consists of cello, violin, viola, tabla, udu drum, frame drums (hand held drums), choir and solo voice.
Untold is divided up into four chapters with each of the chapters: “Creation”, “Existence”, “Untold”, and “Eternal Return” representing a different aspect of the spiritual history of life on both a cosmic and human level. According to Nazeri’s liner notes the first and second chapter deal with first the creation of the universe and life respectively. The third chapter deals with the steps humans take on the road to spiritual enlightenment while the fourth is about the possibility of exploring new horizons and finding the means to combine traditions in order to create a “new consciousness, a new experience of self-identity, a new whole that is larger than the sum of the parts.” (Hafez Nazeri)
As to the music itself, I don’t have sufficient knowledge of Persian classical music to comment on how successful Nazeri has been in bringing about its union with its European counterpart except in the broadest of generalities. What I did notice and appreciate was how he has managed to keep both their unique voices alive instead of allowing one to drown out the other. Take for example the use of the string section, (cello, violin and viola) when accompanying the work of both Nazeri and his father, the world renowned Iranian tenor Sharam Nazeri, as solo vocalists. Instead of their voices being alone in carrying the melody with the instruments providing a rhythmic counterpoint, they, and the hafez, play either harmony or melodic support.
Improvisation around specific themes has always played a major role in the music of South East Asia. We are probably most familiar with this as it is practiced in the classical music of India where the sitar plays ragas which are improvisations based on a set of previously determined notes in a specific scale. (That’s a very simplistic way of describing what is an incredibly complicated process that can take years to master) Allowing the Western stringed instruments to improvise in the midpoint of Chapter Two, “Existence”, is a daring move which preserves the form of its Asian heritage while utilizing the sounds of instruments familiar to Western ears.
In the classical music we’re most familiar with, percussion hardly ever plays more than a supporting role. Except in very specific instances, we hardly ever notice kettle drums and similar instruments amidst the massed strings, brass and woodwind instruments of an orchestral or chamber piece. The same cannot be said for Eastern music, where instruments like the tabla play a prominent role. Normally, a tabla player works within certain pre-existing parameters to provide the rhythmic accompaniment for either voice or instrument. However, in this piece, the tabla plays a mixture of melody and rhythm with added textures being supplied by both the cello and the hafez resulting in a collage of sounds both beautiful and astounding.
However, technical details like those described above, fade into the background as one listens to the results created by Nazeri and his fellow musicians. The true mark of his success is how quickly you forget about the different styles and instruments and how easily you’re captivated by the music. From Sharam Nazeri’s stirring voice in the second and fourth chapters, the intricate and beautiful instrumental magic provided by all the musicians, to the choral accompaniment at various points throughout, Untold: The Rumi Symphony Project is a constant source of awe and wonder.
There’s no way of knowing how it will resonate with specific individuals on a spiritual level, but emotionally is a different matter. You’d have to have ice in your veins and a heart of stone not to be moved while listening to this music. Without a doubt this is one of the most beautiful pieces of music I’ve heard in a long time. Hopefully this marks the beginning of a brand new musical tradition, one with the ability to move audiences no matter what their religion, cultural or ethnic background.