Sufism, Islam, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid

Hopefully the canard that music is haram in Islam was has been laid to rest. But misconceptions linger on, so I hope this thread - or rather golden braid - which stretches from a Muslim master musician born in Vadodara, India in 1882 to a newly released CD from an adventurous Western contemporary ensemble featuring, among others, the Iranian classical singer Haleh Seyfizadeh, may bring some light into an increasingly dark world.

The great teacher and musician Hazrat Inayan Khan, who was instrumental in bringing the mystical strand of Islam known as Sufism to the West, was born in Vadodara in 1882. My first three photos show his son Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan. He studied at the École Normale de Musique where his cello teacher was Maurice Eisenberg. Eisenberg was a long-term pupil of Pablo Casals and lived next door to the great Catalan cellist in Spain for fourteen years. Born in the States to German emigré parents, Eisenberg had been the youngest person ever to play in an American orchestra when Stokowski hired him for the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1916, and Eisenberg went on to become principal cellist of the New York Philharmonic under Walter Damrosch.

Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan's sister Noor, like her brother, studied at the École Normale de Musique where her teachers included Nadia Boulanger and for the harp Henriette Renié. In 1943 Noor was sent into Occupied France in 1943 as a radio operator for the Special Operation Executive (SOE), an organisation created to sabotage the German war effort and help the Resistance in occupied countries. She helped a number of agents to escape as the Gestapo closed in on them, arranged the escape of thirty Allied airmen shot down over France, organized arms and supply drops, and transmitted information directly to De Gaulle’s Free French headquarters in London. During this time she enlisted the help of her harp teacher Henriette Renié.

But Noor was betrayed and in September 1944 she and three other women agents were taken to Dachau concentration camp. Her three fellow agents were shot immediately, Noor suffered further torture and abuse by SS guards before being shot through the head; her body was immediately burnt in the camp crematorium. Noor was just thirty years old and one of many Muslims who died fighting with the Allies in two World Wars. (Her tragic story is told in my 2012 post 'She made her life a bridge for others to cross'.)

When Vilayat Inayat Khan discovered the fate of his sister who was very close to him, he was heartbroken. However he found solace by listening repeatedly to Bach's B-Minor Mass of Bach on 78 rpm records. He later explained "I always regard Bach as being a spiritual master, in the hierarchy of masters, who used the language of music". As a member of the Chisti Sufi Order he went on to become a leading figure in the inclusive International Sufi Order and his advocacy of ecumenical spirituality found him favour with the 1960s counterculture movement.

Music played an important role in Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan's teaching: one innovative example was his use of Bach's Concerto for 4 Harpsichords, BWV 1065 for teaching the Sufi whirling made famous by the Mevlana Order. One of pupils Mikhail Horowitz commented that "I thought this a far better choice than the traditional Turkish Whirling Dervish music. Just imagine, had Rumi been able to hear it, people might be whirling in concert halls today!"

This therapeutic use stemmed from Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan's belief that music could help propagate the ecstasy essential to altered states of consciousness. His exposition of this belief contains an important message for contemporary culture where joy - pleasure within a comfort zone - is invariably confused with ecstasy - the priceless emotional fulfillment derived from breaking out of that comfort zone.
We must not confuse ecstasy with joy, although it sounds very much like it. It's something else: there's a combination of joy and pain in it. It's the joy that arises out of the broken heart. So the ecstasy of the Sufi, the intoxication of the Sufi, comes from his particular type of wine. The dervish says, "If I can't dance what can I do?" Intoxication is a state in which one participates in the dance of Shiva - and yet the highest intoxication, curiously enough, is sobriety.
Vilayat Inayat Khan never lost his reverence for Bach. He died in 2004 aged 87 and to mark his centenary, in 2016 Sara Jobin conducted a collaborative performance of parts of the B Minor Mass in New York.

Golden braids weaving together Sufism and Bach have featured On An Overgrown Path in the past. One notable example is 'The Arabian Passion According to J.S. Bach' from transcultural early music ensemble Sarband and Lebanese contralto Fadia el-Hage. Back in 2010 I broadcast selections from this moving re-interpretation of both Bach Passions and juxtaposed them with the same sections performed by King's College Choir, Cambridge conducted by newly-knighted Stephen Cleobury. More recently, in the post 'Sacred drift - music on the margins of Islam' I highlighted the CD Sufi/Bach from Die Freitagsakademie, Bern and conductor Howard Griffiths with a Sufi ensemble led by Burhan Öçal, on which musicologically impeccable performaces of Bach's cantatas BWV 93 and 107 bookend a condensed Sufi semā with ney, quanun and kemençe improvisations.

Now comes another golden braid woven this time from the B Minor Mass by the innovatory Nederlands Blazers Ensemble (Netherlands Wind Ensemble) for the Concertguebouw Amsterdam's 2017 Turning East Festival. This project now released as a CD demands attention on artistic merit alone. But it is also of particular interest for reasons not mentioned in the project's promotional material. These reasons are the strong links between Sufism and the B Minor Mass outlined above, and the connection between the Netherlands and Sufi movements. Followers of Hazrat Inayan Khan built the International Sufi Temple at Katwijk on the Dutch coast: it is seen in the photo below taken by me recently before the concert by the Sufism-energised duo of Avi Adir and Farid Sheek.

For 'Bach & Sufi' Mathilde Wantenaar and Iranian tar player Ali Ghamsari composed music in contemporary Persian style to link reinterpretations of sections from the B Minor Mass. Ali Ghamsari was recently banned by Iranian authorities from performing “until further notice” for refusing to remove female Iranian singer Haleh Seyfizadeh from a concert in Tehran. He was unrepentant for this misdemeanor and this new project is written for her voice and that of Canadian soprano Elisabeth Hetherington.

During my extensive travels it has become evident the appeal of a destination is inversely proportionate to the amount of coverage which that destination receives on TripAdvisor. The small town of Moulay Brahim built around a Sufi shrine in Morocco's Atlas Mountains visited by me recently is a prime example. It does not appear at all on TripAdvisor's tourist traffic control radar, and, probably as a result, is an absolute gem. The same social media-driven law of inversion applies to classical music releases: the less hype an album receives on social media, the more it rewards exploring. So the Nederlands Blazers Ensemble's 'Bach & Sufi' is very well worth exploring as it is released on the Ensemble's NBE Live label and predictably failed to appear on the cultural commentators' mind control radar.

Opening the excellent sleeve essay in this outstanding and rewarding new release is the following quote from 'Music in the castle of heaven: a portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach' by John Eliot Gardiner. Not only does the quote perfectly encapsulate the raison d'être of 'Sufi & Bach', but it also conveys far more eloquently in a few words what I have been trying to say in too many words On An Overgrown Path over the last fifteen years: is typical of the inquisitive yet easy-going pragmatism of creative musicians in all ages that they should wish to source and acquire new techniques regardless of their provenance. [...] Such an exchange of ideas across political and administrative frontiers, and across religious divisions, suggests a parallel with what George Steiner calls the "communitas of the sciences"... the ideal of a commonwealth of positive, beneficial truths, transcending the bloody, infantile conflicts of religious, dynastic and ethnic hatreds... As Kepler (1571-1630) reportedly said, amid the massacres of religious wars: "the laws of elliptical motion belong to no man or principality." The same could be said of music.

Sources include:
Illumination: The Saga of A Spiritual Master by Mikhail Horowitz
Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan by Shrabani Basu
Music in the castle of heaven: a portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach by John Eliot Gardiner

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Thank you, Bob, agan and again. Your posts are a mercy these days.
Sanssouci said…
It appears the Bach and Sufism is trending. Have you heard this yet?
Pliable said…
Qi, many thanks for that and, no, I was not aware of this album. But I am now and I will report back as soon as I have had the chance to hear it.
Thanks again for your constructive and collaborative input.
Pliable said…
Bach & Sufi trivia: Hazrat Inayat Khan's instrument was the veena. There is a plausible transcription for the veena of the first movement of Bach's Double Violin Concerto here -

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