Rumi and Bach

It is a strange experience to see that not only our Western world cherishes fantasies on other civilizations, but they also do on us. True, for most of them the culture of the West is already a reality built in their everyday lives that does not leave much room for fantasy. However, there are also some exceptions like for example Persia.

I do not know whether the story I heard as a teenager that Khomeini, when asked about his opinion on the music of Bach and Beethoven answered like “I do not know these gentlemen” is true or not. However, that much is sure that nowadays there is not much possibility to get familiar with them in Iran.

The furnishings of the CD shops in Tehran are elegant, their supply of CDs majestic, and their assistants are entrancingly friendly. They can compete with any Western shop. We willingly spent several hours in them, listening to Persian classical CDs, slurping tea – in the Siyah o Sefid (“Black and White,” because it shares his premises with a movie theater) there was no tea, so we received peach drink in paper box with straw – and talking about the musicians with the assistants who often play some Iranian instrument themselves. The only thing that struck us was the supply of European classical CDs. Not that there were none, because indeed there were some. But that their supply was just as casual as that of Chinese, Arabic or Persian classical music in most European CD shops. Good and bad ones mixed up, randomly selected, and displayed without any internal principle of organization – we are so much accustomed to these uniform principles of organization applied in every European CD shop that their lack surprises us. All this made us suspect that local public knew this music no better than ours knows Chinese, Arab or Persian music. And we suspected it well.

Still at home we had invented that we would take with us some Bach CDs as a gift. Those musics we love the most and we esteem the highest – the solo violin sonatas performed by Grumiaux and the Art of the Fugue by Sokolov – and through which we can show the very best of our culture to those people whose culture had given so much wonderful music to us in the past years. It was peculiar to watch the faces of the people presented with these CDs. Apart from the novelty that the European man gives – as far as we saw, this was surprising to everyone –, they reflected a deep, but reserved reverence, as if they received the works of a great philosopher in deluxe binding, in the original language. They knew that Bach is a great name for a great civilization, but they had no personal link to him. It happened just in the Siyah o Sefid that talking about what makes good music we put one of the CDs in the player, and while Sokolov was playing, we analyzed why the music he was playing was good. The CD was over the half when the assistant – who was by the way very well versed in Persian classical music – got it that this was also music and not just a cultural icon, and that it can be played and analyzed just like his own well known music. That he can have a personal relation to it.

Davood Azad playing his CD Divan of Rumi and BachDavood Azad has not yet got it. As a well known Persian lute player and singer and, not least, as a real Sufi, two years ago, in the Year of Rumi he published in honor of his master Rumi his CD The Divan of Rumi and Bach, on which he sings the poems of Rumi accompanying himself on tar, the typical Northern Iranian lute of the shape of a number 8, while the ground is given by some piano works of Bach. This could theoretically result in something interesting, although I have never heard any rearrangement of Bach that added something to the value of the original instead of decreasing it. But the result is unconvincing. The music has a grotesque, comic effect. It is split in a strange way. The singing and the tar are up to the standards of Persian music, although their quality is undoubtedly harmed by the fact that they have to give up the meditative rhythm of Persian music and have to adapt themselves to the bound European rhythm. The piece of Bach, however, sounds as mechanical and primitive as a hurdy-gurdy.

Rumi: Blessings unto you + Bach: Third English Suite, Gavotte I and II (7'40")

Jean Durand writes in his great introductory monograph The art of Persian music (Washington, 1991): “When we do not understand a kind of music, we tend to find it monotonous and repetitive. Western music, in fact, seems very monotonous to many Orientals.” If this is true, then on this CD we can hear with our own ears how it seems to them.

It is a strange feeling to hear Bach in the presentation of a musician who is technically qualified enough for the acoustic reproduction of the score, but does not possess the tradition that could lead him how to perform it. In Europe, by the time one learns to master the piano at this level, he has already acquired – to a great extent without being aware of it – this tradition as well. He knows what this music is about, what its inner dynamic – in Bach, the counterpoint – is that he has to unfold in the performance, and how large room it leaves to him to unfold his own personality. He will have a personal relation to it. This relation can be of many kind, from the subtle, signal-like decorations of Perahia through the rich tones of Schiff to the tensions of Glenn Gould. Even the extreme aloofness of Robert Levin is not identical with the mechanical sound of Azad’s hurdy-gurdy: aloofness is also a relation you can like or dislike. (Nevertheless, I find it peculiar that the Bachakademie of Stuttgart selected exactly his performance for the Complete Works of Bach by Hänssler.)

Murray Perahia, Gavotte I (1'32") and Gavotte II (1'38")

Glenn Gould, Gavotte I (0'50") and Gavotte II (1'09")

Robert Levin, Gavotte I and II (3'48")

András Schiff, Gavotte I and II (3'21")

Ivo Pogorelich, Gavotte I and II (4'31")

The question is why one performs a music he has no relation to. By reading the Persian and Western press of Azad I see that most probably for the same reason which encourages European and American groups to perform – completely misunderstood – Tibetan or Arabic music: because there is a demand for it on the market. Persian blogs write with awe about “our son” who was able to put even Western music into the service of Islam mysticism, while Western esoteric circles listen with awe to the shreds of Oriental music, extremely simplified and forced into the frames of Western rhythm and melody, and played with an etherealized expression by an an enchantingly guru-looking Iranian Sufi. How much simpler and more rewarding is this than what the greatest living tar player Majid Derakhshani does, for example, by establishing in Germany an institution for the dissemination of real Persian music in the Western world, and by performing with such musical accompaniment the poems of Rumi, as in the following recording where he performs together with the greatest living Persian singer Mohammad Reza Shajarian.

Rumi - Shajarian, Derakhshani: Ân jâm-e jân afzâi-râ bar-riz bar jân sâqia!
(Pour that soul-increasing goblet in my soul, cup-bearer!)

1 comentario:

Tone G dijo...

i think some musicians that goto the heart of a musical form can do an interesting synthesis. the best example i can think of is Philip Glass. The world would be a dreary place if it wasn't for the pioneering souls like him. but i agree there are also the misguided, i've seen that hare in australia when people try and force aboriginal music into commercial western format. Aboriginal music, and Wadeye in particular, has more in common with indian music.