Can classical music learn from Rumi?

Coleman Barks' books of Rumi's poetry have sold more than half a million copies worldwide, and in 1994 Publishers Weekly announced that Rumi was the bestselling poet in America. Poetry like classical music is a minority artform; yet Rumi has opened up a new market for poetry, the size of which classical music would die for. So can classical music learn from the Rumi success story?

What is little-understood is that the bestselling volumes of Rumi's poetry from Coleman Barks are not actually his translations, but are in fact very skilled creative interpretations. Coleman Barks makes it no secret that he does not speak Farsi (Persian), the language of Rumi, or that his versions are populist re-writes of scholarly translations. In Rumi: Soul Fury he explains that:
Of course, as I work on these poems, I don’t have the Persian to consult. I literally have nothing to be faithful to, except what the scholars give... What I do is a homemade, amateurish, loose, many-stranded thing, without much attention to historical context, nor much literal faithfulness to the original.
Back-to-back comparisons of Rumi's original text and the best selling interpretations confirm the assertion that there is little faithfulness to the original. Coleman Barks is not the sole practitioner of populist interpretations, nor is the practice confined to Rumi - in Love Poems from God Daniel Ladinsky gives fast and loose poetic interpretations of, among others, Rumi, Hafiz, Meister Eckhart, St Francis of Assisi, and Kabir. And respected classical musicians who are said to have 'set Rumi' have, in fact, set interpretations of varying authenticity. For instance Jonathan Harvey's How could the soul not take flight and Ashes dance back both use Andrew Harvey's very free interpretations published as The Way of Passion. The authority on Sufism Yannis Toussulis - who with some justification questions the separation of Rumi's poetry from roots in Islam - describes Andrew Harvey's interpretations as "both spiritually ecstatic and (homosexually) erotic".

Karol Szymanowski avoided the pitfall of modern interpretations of Rumi in his Third Symphony, Song of the Night, by composing this pioneering setting of the Sufi master's poem in 1916. But Philip Glass' 1997 opera Monsters of Grace uses Coleman Barks' renderings, and the composer's official website erroneously states: "Opera by Philip Glass and Robert Wilson. Poems by Jalaluddin Rumi, translated and adapted from the original by Coleman Barks". While in Dinner with Lenny, Jonathan Cott also confuses interpretation and translation when he describes how a day before Leonard Bernstein died: "A friend came to visit him and, at Bernstein's request, he read out loud Coleman Barks's translations of a number of poems by the thirteenth-century Persian mystic Jelaluddin Rumi, in particular some lines from Rumi's deathbed poem".

On the one hand, an artform where the score is considered sacrosanct can look at these self-confessed homemade, amateurish, loose interpretation, and declare that there, but for the grace of God, go we. But, on the other hand, classical music needs a new audience, and half a million sales of CDs/downloads would not go amiss. Is classical music being unduly anally retentive in its slavish devotion to authenticity? While the score may be sacrosanct, there is an erroneous and dangerous orthodoxy that the attributes of the sound are encapsulated in the score. This has led to the mistaken belief that 'concert hall sound' is also sacrosanct. In fact, the sound of an orchestra is defined by the complex interaction of seven attributes, pitch, rhythm, tone colour, absolute loudness, relative loudness, spatial location and acoustic. The composer's score only defines pitch, rhythm, tone colour and relative loudness (dynamics). This leaves absolute loudness, spatial location and acoustic as non-composer defined variables, and these have been fixed for more than a century by concert hall conventions that no longer reflect how the vast majority of people listen to music.

In her important but overlooked essay in The New Enquiry Elizabeth Newton defines the phenomenon of affective fidelity as "faithfulness to our own pasts, preferences, and principles". There is a persuasive argument that classical music is suffering from a severe case of affective fidelity, which has resulted in changes in consumer behaviour and technology being quashed by a slavish faithfulness to preferences and principles formed in 19th century concert halls. These musings may seem surprising coming from a founding member of the anti-dumbing down movement. But Coleman Barks' genius is to interpret Rumi for modern audiences, and there is a compelling argument that the sound of classical music needs to be re-interpreted for the head-fi generation. The challenge for classical music is to use new technologies to redefine the three non-composer defined variables in a way that appeals to new audiences, while remaining faithful to the score. Rumi may arguably have been dumbed down; but the new audience he has attracted shows the potential of imaginative reinterpretation. As Elizabeth Newton explains in her essay The Lossless Self:
Counterfeit money is real if someone accepts it. Is counterfeit sound real, then, if someone hears it as such? If someone likes it? If someone buys it? If someone shares it with a friend?
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Pliable said…
As is my want I am listening to music mentioned in the post. As I write Antal Dorati's classic accounnt of Karol Szymanowski Third Symphony, Song of the Night' plays. The Polish scholar Wojciech Skalmowski has suggested that Szymanowski, who was gay, was attracted by the concept of the 'yar' - friend - expressed in the Rumi ghazal he set in the symphony. Whether or not that is the case, the combination of Szymanowski's music and Dorati's conducting is certainly both spiritually ecstatic and erotic -

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