Friday, May 15, 2015

That's not entertainment

The initial spiritual idea, that music was an explanation of the divine universe, has a long and distinguished history. The symmetry of numbers presents itself as both an attractive way to account for an underlying structure in apparently chaotic nature and a fitting way to think of the beauty of God's creative mind; the important idea of music as perceptible numbers, which exemplifies this symmetry, thus stretches through history from Pythagoras and his followers to Plato, Boethius, the Corpus Hermeticum, the Camerati, Vincenzo Galileli, Ficino, Fludd, Kircher, Newton and Freemasonry. The writings of Hindemith, Schoenberg, and Stockhausen are not far removed from it either. The idea of music as being essentially entertainment was as alien to such people's attitudes as the idea of philosophy or psychology being essentially entertaining today.
That is Jonathan Harvey writing in his exploration of music and spirituality In Quest of Spirit*. My first two photos were taken at the Bab Mekina in Fez, Morocco during the recent Sufi Culture Festival which had as its theme 'The Religion of Love. From Rabiaa, Ibn Arabi, Rumi, to the present day…' Attending the Festival was a richly rewarding experience. But it must be said that the performances in the capacious open air Bab Mekina auditorium sometimes crossed that crucial dividing line between art and entertainment, and were not helped by a disappointingly sub-standard sound system.

The Bab Mekina concerts were also marred by the very intrusive use of mobile phones and cameras throughout the performances. Writing about the Bristol Proms in 2013, Norman Lebrecht opined: "Photography, however, was not permitted. Some more taboos may need to fall". Just let me say that, based on my experience in Fez, if audience photography is ever permitted at classical concerts, you will never ever find me at a concert again. (The creation of images of sentient beings is haram - forbidden - in the hadith and sunnah. But alas, like everywhere else, everyone in Morocco has a mobile phone. If you look carefully at my photo at the foot of this post of a munshidin at a Sufi samā in Fez, you will see a phone in his hand.)

Bab Mekina is adjacent to Fez's famous Bab Boujeloud, which translates as Blue Gate, and the barbarians are at the gates all over the world. The Jacksons at the tawdry BBC Proms in the Park is bad enough. As is the 'Symphonic 60s' with the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra playing songs by Petula Clarke, Dusty Springfield, Lulu, Cilla Black, Andy Williams, and The Beach Boys at the all too obviously Roger Wright managed Snape Maltings. But Motown R & B group The Temptations - fronted by septuagenarian Dennis Edwards - at the forthcoming Fez Sacred Music Festival is little short of apostasy.



It was no surprise that there was no music by Jonathan Harvey in the Sufi Culture Festival. But Jonathan set Rumi's verse in How could the soul not take flight (1996) and Ashes dance back (1997). Both settings use translations by Andrew Harvey, and in the anthology Rumi: Past and Present, East and West author Franklin D. Lewis' describes the composer as "apparently a relative of the Rumi exponent Andrew Harvey". In his sleeve note for the 2007 recording of How could the soul not take flight Jonathan does quote from Andrew Harvey's book on Rumi: The Way of Passion, but the mention of a family connection between composer and Rumi translator surprised me. So I contacted Jonathan's daughter Anna, who confirmed that the shared surname was a coincidence and that there was no family connection.

Rumi: Past and present, East and West is a valuable if fallible resource. Its survey of composers who set Rumi's poetry includes R. Murray Schafer, Andrew List, Ton de Leeuw, Diane Thome and Ben Johnston. Also highlighted is of one of the more unlikely Rumi settings: the 1996 album Three Fish - named after the Sufi tale - by the eponymous band led by Pearl Jam's Jeff Ament. But the 2001 publication date means that Philip Glass 2007 opera Monsters of Grace, which uses Coleman Barks' Rumi translations, is omitted, as are John Tavener's 2002 The Veil of the Temple (All night vigil) and 2007 Requiem, both of which also set Rumi.

In another survey of the great Sufi poet titled Rumi and His Sufi Path of Love Şefik Can describe how the German poet, translator, and professor of Oriental languages Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866) translated forty-four of Rumi's odes into German, and describes him as "a great Sufi". Rückert also translated Sa'di, Jami and Hāfez, and in the nineteenth century Sufism had a considerable influence on German literature: Goethe lyrical poems in the West-östlicher Divan were inspired by the Persian mystic Hāfez. Franklin D. Lewis' Rumi: Past and present, East and West quite correctly lists Richard Strauss, Franz Schubert, Josep Soler and others as setting Rückert's Rumi influenced anthology Östliche Rosen (Eastern Roses). But it misses an intriguing connection between the trending poet and a trending composer. Gustav Mahler's Rückert-Lieder are considered by Mahler authority Donald Mitchell to be composed in an "Orientalist" style. It is not my purpose to propose anything as rash as an Islamic interpretation of Mahler. But the thought of a Catholic convert from Judaism being influenced by Islam's greatest mystic poet in a transcultural Abrahamic trilogy is appealing. Because as Rumi tells us** in Ode 31 of the Dīvāni Shamsi Tabriz, which Rückert would have known:

What can be done, O believers, as I don't recognize myself?
I'm neither a Christian nor Jew, Magian nor Moslem.

I'm not of the East or West; neither land nor sea;
I'm not of Nature's mine; nor the stars in Heaven.

I'm not of earth, water, air or fire;
I'm not of Heaven, nor the dust on this carpet.

I'm not of India, China, Bulgaria nor Saqsin;
I'm not of the kingdom of Iraq, nor Khorasan.

I'm not of this world, nor the next, Paradise nor Hell;
I'm not of Adam, nor Eve, Eden nor Rizwan.

My place is in the Placeless, my trace in the Traceless;
I'm neither body nor soul, as I belong to the soul of the Beloved.

After this exceptionally overgrown path the blog will lapse into silence for a while as I depart once again in search of the placeless. As Rainer Maria Rilke says in The First Duino Elegy, "Listen to the news that ceaselessly arises out of silence". Let's hope that silence is not shattered by a Sufi ringtone.

* In Quest of Spirit by Jonathan Harvey was published in 1999 by the University of California Press this very important book is long out of print, difficult to find, and long overdue for republication.

** This translation of Ode 31 is from R.A. Nicholson's Selected Poems from the Divani Shamsi Tabriz

All travel and tickets for the Fez Sufi Culture Festival were paid for by me. This post is also on Facebook and Twitter. Any copyrighted materialis included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).

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