Saturday, December 17, 2016

Why music is called the divine art


Philip Glass, Karol Szymanowski, John Tavener and Jonathan Harvey are among the composers who have set the poetry of Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī. Books of Rumi's poetry as reimagined by Coleman Barks have sold more than half a million copies, and in 1994 Publishers Weekly announced that Rumi was the bestselling poet in America. But the marketing of Rumi to Western audiences all too often severs him from Islam, and Stephen Schwarz has lamented the reduction of the Sufi master's metaphysics to the idiom of a gift card. Other less sanitised settings of Rumi that have featured On An Overgrown Path over the years include Ali Reza Ghorbani's Songs of Rebirth, the Firebird ensemble's L’Oiseau de Feu, Doulce Mémoire's Laudes, Ali Keeler's Ruh, Sheikh Hassan Dyck's The First and the Last and Trio Chemirani's Dawâr.

Rumi is, of course, celebrated as the founder of the Mevlâna Order of Whirling Dervishes. My header photo shows Julien 'Jalal Eddine' Weiss (extreme right) and his Ensemble al-Kindī performing at a Sufi Sema. Born in Paris in 1953, Julien Weiss studied classical guitar and spent time on the fringes of the counterculture. In the 1970s he began studying the oud and then the qanûn (Oriental zither). He became a virtuoso of the qânun and an authority on Arab classical music, and in 1983 he converted to Islam and took the name Jalal Eddine in homage to Rumi. His conversion to Islam was by his own refreshingly candid admission "partly social - I wanted to be more than an outsider and become part of the Sufi community...". In a Telegraph profile Peter Culshaw wrote of divorcee Weiss that "While he may not be the most devout Muslim (expecting a Frenchman to give up women and wine would perhaps be a tall order), Weiss's spiritual path is through music".

Julien Weiss made his home in a 14th century Mamelouk residence in the then important Arab cultural of Aleppo in 1995. It was in Aleppo that he recorded the influential Ensemble al-Kindī albums such as 'Aleppian Sufi Trance' and 'Whirling Dervishes of Damascus' that shrewdly combine rigorous musicology with Western-friendly titles. It is a mixed blessing that he did not live to see the tragic wanton destruction of Aleppo in the Syrian civil war. He succumbed to cancer in 2015 aged just 61 and is buried alongside many other great musicians in Paris' Père Lachaise cemetery. His last concert in the UK was in October 2013, where he played solo at the genre-busting Aberdeen Microtonal Festival after his Syrian musician were denied UK entry visas.

On December 17th, 1273 CE Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī died in Konya, and the day is known as his Sheb-i Arus - Wedding Night - in recognition of his union that day with his Beloved. Each year around the world Semas are held on December 17th to celebrate Rumi's Wedding Night. As a small contribution to the celebrations I am posting a video of a complete performance of Julien 'Jalal Eddine' Weiss' last major project*, his homage to the Muslim and Christian Mary Stabat Mater Dolorosa. In this performance at the 2008 Fès Sacred Music Festival Julien Weiss at the qanûn drives the music forward like a mystic DJ working his turntables at a dance club. As a result this is music that transcends genres and cultures to confirm Sufi master musician and teacher Hazrat Inayat Khan's assertion that:
Why is music called the divine art, while all other arts are not so called? We may certainly see God in all arts and in all sciences, but in music alone we see God free from all forms and thoughts. In every other art there is idolatory. Every thought, every word has its form. Sound alone is free from form. Every word of poetry forms a picture in our mind. Sound alone does not make any object appear.


Julien Weiss' Stabat Mater Dolorosa has not been released as a commercial recording. The sound quality on the professionally produced YouTube video from Fès is good, so let's hope Weiss' record label Le Chant du Monde posthumously issue it as a CD together with material from his unfinished solo qanûn project. No review samples used in this post. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

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