2020 Musical Week 4: Zikr

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The first time I heard this piece, you could have picked my jaw off the floor. Here was a CD from a group of classically trained male voices from the American Midwest. And here was a religious song in Urdu, with repeated mentions of Allah, being sung with extraordinary intensity and beauty. Call me narrow minded, but to me the two made no sense together. Because didn’t the CD, just a few tracks earlier, have well-known pillars of choral music from the Western Classical cannon, from composers like Monteverdi and Mendelssohn? What was this Urdu piece doing in the middle of all this? Had we slipped into some alternate universe, where all these colors could easily blend on one CD? And then when I read the listing on the CD cover and saw that the composer was one A. R. Rahman, well, since my jaw was on the floor already, it had nowhere else to go, but you get the idea. To mix metaphors quite thoroughly, it made my head spin.

Because sometimes you leave your motherland, come halfway around the world, join a choir, get familiar with Monteverdi and Mendelssohn, start going to all sorts of choral concerts, impulse-buy a CD after a concert because you just love the sound of this all-male choir from the Midwest, and then when you play it, unknown to you, you are suddenly listening to a composer from your motherland, whose songs you have known and loved for years, but that was a long time ago, in a previous lifetime, and in any case you have never heard this specific song before, and honestly, you are struggling to believe that it is on this particular CD, from this particular choir, along with all those other composers, that you just now happen to have impulse-bought. There is coming full circle and then there are these lines from T. S. Eliot, among my favorite lines ever: “We shall not cease from exploration/ And the end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time.” It was a musical homecoming to beat all musical homecomings.

The song was called Zikr, and the choir was called Cantus. Rahman composed it for an Indian movie that came out in 2004, called Bose: The Forgotten Hero, which too I had never heard of. And the path from the original composition to this CD wound through one Ethan Sperry, who had arranged it for male voices, the original having been sung by men too. Know that Rahman is tremendously prolific, very well-loved in India since the 1990s. Millions of Indians up and down the country swear by his music, which has an emotional depth and diversity that gives it universal appeal. So it is not really a surprise that his music has crossed international boundaries in this way, and in the modern world it is also not really a surprise for a Midwestern choir to be singing an Urdu song of religious devotion. In fact this kaleidoscopic mingling of cultures is one of the things I love most about the modern world. So the juxtaposition with Monteverdi and co. was perhaps the most surprising and wonderful part of the whole situation, and for that we have the creativity of Cantus to thank. Their CD called On the Shoulders of Giants, which is worth buying for the artwork alone, is truly eclectic. The word eclectic is vastly overused, but this CD is what the word was originally invented for. I hope Cantus sold a million copies of it.

But let’s turn to the song itself, lest I give you the impression that the context is the most interesting thing about it. Zikr is a song of unbounded spiritual yearning. It starts out as a low but steady flame, with just one voice, and builds gradually but certainly, adding more voices and instruments, increasing in tempo and volume, until it is an all-consuming conflagration. It pulls you into a musical world of religious fervor, and right at the peak, when you expect that there will be a release and a great passage of unwinding, comes the abrupt end. Yes, this leaves the listener with a mild case of whiplash, but more importantly, it also leaves her wanting more, exactly reflecting the feverish aspiration of devotees for complete union with God, which is a goal they can never fully achieve while in this world, and which therefore keeps them permanently on the path of striving. And so this final musical gesture is not only a stroke of genius, it also holds up a mirror to the religious tradition that Zikr represents and is inspired by, Islamic Sufism.

Islamic Sufi tradition is the part of Islam that is concerned with mysticism. A well-known practice of Sufism is whirling dervishes, a form of physical meditation, where the practitioner seeks to forget their bodily existence and desires by spinning fast, going into a deep inward trance. This practice is in fact a form of Zikr, the literal meaning of which is reference, or naming. In the context of the song, it refers to a meditative repetition of the word Allah, which is the holy name of God in Arabic and Urdu. That the lines of the song are filled with praise of Allah is no surprise, but, in a self-referential way, they also contain praise of the act of Zikr itself. Zikr is Peace, Victory, Healing, the Cure. Zikr is better than hatred, ignorance and desires. And thus the song places on par with God the act of Zikr itself, the ecstatic and endless utterance of the name of God. Just as devotees hope to imprint the name of God on their hearts through Zikr, I hope you imprint the soundscape of Zikr on your inner ear.

2020 Musical Week 3: Bogoroditse Devo

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I first joined a choir in my early twenties, never even having seen sheet music before, and one of my earliest and fondest memories from rehearsal is while working on Charpentier’s Messe de Minuit. I happened to be sitting near the center of the entire 80-strong choir, and, just a few weeks into this new endeavor, was doing much more listening than singing. The choir as a whole was still getting familiar with the notes, and while they made noise for the most part, there were already a few moments now and then when the noise dissipated, and they made actual music. I remember those moments so clearly — four independent lines of sound enveloping me, distinct but cohering together, each in need of the rest, and the whole being so much more than the sum of the parts. That feeling of being deep inside a well of sound was the literal experience of surround sound, and it is fair to say that I was hooked.

I do much more singing than listening in rehearsal nowadays, so I have to look elsewhere for my regular fix of the deep-inside-a-well-of-sound feeling, and one very reliable source of it is Rachmaninoff’s Bogoroditse Devo. It helps that my favorite YouTube rendition of this comes with sheet music, but even without that, the enormous musical territory that is covered by this piece is evident. It is a work that is simultaneously grounded and soaring, belonging equally to Earth and Heaven. It has several slowly building crescendos, each more intense than the last, but it also has parts that move faster alongside the long notes. And after the breathtaking climax that comes about two-thirds of the way in, the release that follows is pure, gentle peace. It is a mere three minutes of music, only it encompasses infinity. It is sheer genius.

Bogoroditse Devo, or Hail Mary, is the sixth movement from Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil (often called Rachmaninoff’s Vespers) and sings praise of Mary, virgin mother of God. Composed in 1915, after Rachmaninoff had stopped attending church services, the All-Night Vigil is considered to be the high watermark not only of Rachmaninoff’s oeuvre but also of Russian Orthodox liturgical music. One of its most Russian characteristics is the use of very low bass voices – called basso profundo in Italian, but known as oktavists in Russia – especially in the movement immediately preceding Bogoroditse Devo, where the lowest voices are required to cut through the remaining choir while projecting a low B-flat, a feat that very few can manage.

The history of All-Night Vigil is not straightforward. During the Russian Revolution, religious music was condemned, so the piece went underground, with its first recording being made only in 1965. But in the decades since, it has found well-deserved popularity, and there are recordings of it by several dozen of the most highly regarded professional ensembles from around the world. And Bogoroditse Devo, perhaps the most beloved movement from the piece, is included in the repertoire of amateur and student choirs all over the US.

My favorite recording of it on YouTube, embedded above, uses all-male voices, and is the version I have listened to for years. I had not bothered to find out whose recording it was until this week, and it turns out that it is by none other than the choir of King’s College, Cambridge under the direction of Stephen Cleobury, who were also the featured choir and director in my first post. I love how Stephen Cleobury keeps popping up in my musical life even when I’m not looking for him. (There’s an example of that in the first post as well.) And I love how he balances all the elements in this recording — the tension of the huge forte around the two-minute mark is exactly in proportion to the flowing lines before, after and underneath it, and warrants the release that follows. The pacing is exactly right, slow but still urgent, allowing the music to say what it sets out to say, thus ensuring that it will find its mark with the listener. It always works for me, and I hope it does for you too.

2020 Musical Week 2: Tu Del Ciel

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If In The Bleak Midwinter is a piece of music that can be pulled off convincingly by even an average church choir that is missing half its members because there’s a cold going around and the cough lingers for weeks, Tu Del Ciel is reserved for the best of the best and demands that they be at their most virtuosic while singing it. If I can comfortably hum the former while driving to work, fragments of the latter haunt my inner ear with a mind of their own, materializing at unpredictable moments during the day. The first is a soothing blanket, that warms you to your bones; the second soars effortlessly into the sky, showing you a glimpse of infinity. What they have in common is the depth of feeling that weaves through every note of the music. That, and the fact that I love them both.

If Tu Del Ciel has a soaring quality, it is not by accident. The text is a direct appeal to heaven, and G. F. Handel, ever the masterly word-painter, makes sure that his soprano has a clear line of communication to upstairs at all times. The safety net beneath her vocal trapeze is provided by the string orchestra that consistently underpins her trajectory and occasionally even offers a melody of its own in the violin solo. Well, except for the few moments when the strings are quiet, and she flies free.

The aria is from one of Handel’s works that features capitalized abstract nouns in the title that are personified as characters. This particular oratorio went under the Italian titles of Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno (The Triumph of Time and Disillusion) and Il trionfo del Tempo e della Verità (The Triumph of Time and Truth) before settling on the English translation of the latter in the third and final version. So who are Time and Truth triumphing over anyway? They are triumphing over Pleasure. And who is the singer of this aria? It’s Beauty, who gradually realizes that her loyalty to Pleasure will not nourish her soul, and while she is destined to fade away, Time and Truth are not; they will outlast her. A good portion of the aria is a philosophical argument between Pleasure on the one side and Time and Truth on the other, and Tu Del Ciel is the concluding aria, in which Beauty turns away from Pleasure and commits to a life without vain passion, giving over her heart to God.

It sounds quite abstract and heavy duty for today’s world, but only because we don’t explicitly put such messages in our music anymore, and it’s worth asking whether we are worse off for it. We can be certain, however, that similar spiritual messages – asking us to focus on values that are at the core of our being, rather than focusing on external beauty, which is only skin-deep – have been familiar to many cultures over the centuries.

To return to the music however, and the various versions of it that you can find on YouTube – your loyal interlocutor has trawled through them all so you don’t have to and decided that French coloratura soprano Natalie Dessay is where it’s at with this one. There are two versions from her, and the less viewed one (above), with a static image for the video, is my favorite, though I do recommend looking at the video of the other one at least once, because I’ve never seen anything like it. You can see Dessay physically inhabiting the music in it. I leave it as an exercise to the interested listener to figure out where the two versions differ musically. (Hint: it’s in one of the several ad libbed high portions, but honestly, the whole piece is a high portion, so that’s not very useful.) Making a late great entry in this category and nearly scuppering the front runner but not quite, is a live recording of a 2019 concert by the very excellent Bay Area group Voices of Music, with American soprano Amanda Forsythe as the soloist. This video, in which all the musicians are clearly seen throughout is well worth your time, and comparing and contrasting Forsythe’s chosen variations with Dessay’s is a fun spot-the-ten-differences exercise for the aurally inclined.

As you listen to Dessay’s version linked above, notice how her voice stretches like a gymnast, reaching dizzying heights. Notice that it reaches those heights not because it is light, but because it is powerful and athletic. Let your mind soar with her voice, upwards and further upwards. Admire the swirling arc Handel gives to each phrase, the incredible color Dessay injects into each line, the little riffs that she adds when a first half repeats. Mull for a moment over what might outlast you. Realize that one of the things that will outlast you is this aria, and that this is exactly as it ought to be. Let this be your meditation for six minutes.

2020 Musical Week 1: In The Bleak Midwinter

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Stephen Cleobury conducting the choir of King’s College, Cambridge as they sing the Christmas carol In The Bleak Midwinter is simultaneously the epitome of several things. The text of the carol, a poem by Christina Rossetti, is a vivid image of the scene of the birth of Christ, contrasting his significance with his surroundings — the son of God but born in a stable-place, surrounded by animals. Then there is the setting by Gustav Holst, which creates so much atmosphere that you understand the emotional context without needing to know the words. (Although I do recommend you read the poem below the video as you listen. The last verse is tremendous.) And finally there is the singing itself, melancholy but joyful, gentle but firm, as the text demands, that allows you to access that still place in your mind which is the beginning of hope. And at the helm of it all is Stephen Cleobury, director of the choir for 37 years.

The choir is most famous for its Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, which has taken place on Christmas Eve since 1918, and Cleobury is recognized not only for being a long-time torch bearer of the tradition, but also for commissioning current composers to write music for this service, so it gets performed alongside beloved carols that people have known for centuries. There is hour upon hour of YouTube footage of these services, and I consider it my sacred duty to listen to every minute of it! Jokes apart, the fact that these videos can appeal to someone who was not raised in the Christian faith and is, in any case, a non-believer, might give you a sense of the sheer beauty and the number of feels one can get out of them. Maybe it’s the sweet faces of the boy trebles, maybe it’s the grandeur of the chapel and the robes, maybe it’s the charm of candlelight, or maybe it’s just the unarguable quality of the music itself, you can decide.

In some ways it is unfair that the choir and Cleobury are most known for music that is among the easiest in their repertoires from the point of view of technical complexity. Most things they sing year ’round are likely to be more challenging than the carols. But the connection they have built with audiences over a century of Christmas Eve services is invaluable, and unparalleled in all of choral singing.

After In The Bleak Midwinter, be sure to listen to Ding! Dong! Merrily on High, which they have in settings by David Willcocks (yay descants!) and Mack Wilberg. Gladly, unlike some other composers, who shall go unnamed, when Wilberg sets a traditional carol, he does not try to do something “different” and “experimental”, which oftentimes ends up ruining the very thing that made the carol survive in people’s hearts for centuries. But this also has to be why King’s includes Wilberg at all.

Stephen Cleobury passed away on November 22, 2019. I knew that he had retired earlier that year, and a successor had been appointed. But it was only on Christmas Eve that I found out about his cancer and demise, and it felt like I had personally suffered a huge loss. The next day, on the Classical KUSC radio station, there was a rendition of J. S. Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring with trumpet and choir, and while thinking that it was surely among the most perfect pieces of music ever, I checked whose recording it was. It had Alison Balsom on the trumpet with Cleobury directing the choir of King’s Cambridge, sounding as heavenly as always. Something about that moment felt exactly right.

2020 Musical Weeks

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After several years of half-finished essays and a few years of essays that never got started, I want to attempt a modest writing project in 2020. The goal is to write about one piece of music each week that resonates with me. Because my connection to music is most strongly through singing, much of the music I highlight will be sung. It will always be something I have heard many times, over a period of months if not years; some may be pieces that I was obsessed with a long time ago, that I no longer revisit frequently, but which still mean something to me, if only as personal history. Usually the focus will be on the music itself, sometimes it may be on the performer(s) or director. Even though it will take a lot of restraint, I will try not to make it a collection of Greatest Hits of Handel and Bach. I am also hoping that this will be a way to channel my time on YouTube into something more than wasted hours — although the transcendent joy I often get during those hours makes it somewhat unfair to call them wasted in the first place.

Whenever I post in this series, I will add a link over here, so that the complete list is available in one place. Let’s go!

Week 1: In The Bleak Midwinter

Week 2: Tu Del Ciel

Week 3: Bogoroditse Devo

Week 4: Zikr

Perfection IX

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The main thing I’ve realized is that the sepals of a sunflower — those green petal-shaped things, that lie right under the petals — are the most beautiful part of the whole. The flowers themselves are unambiguously yellow and cheery — bright and turning to face the sun, is there anything more cliched? — but the sepals are more nuanced. The flat portion curls at the edges, and the end tapers to a curvaceous point. It’s like an artist saving the flourishes for a quiet corner of the canvas.

The sepal is the protective layer when the flower is in bud form. As the flower opens, I can picture the sepal tearing open, and with the tension released from the inside, the curls and tapers must form, as if by spring action. Sepals too must obey the laws of physics.

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Amidst their prettiness, it is easy to forget that the primary function of a flower is procreation. And so the stamens and carpels are not to be dissed. These are the fine structures in the middle of the flower, charged with propagating the species, ready to sprinkle all over the surroundings, hoping to bring to life new plants and future flowers with their own stamens and carpels — but their efforts are ultimately thwarted in this case, thanks to being stuck in a water bottle on my dining table.
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Though I call them cliched, I don’t want to give short shrift to the petals. Their yellowness is the kind one wants to swim in, bathe in. For the week that those five flowers were on my table, the entire scene looked so elegant, especially while looking in from the window, that a passerby would be forgiven for thinking that an entirely more sophisticated person than yours truly inhabited that space. That yellow made me appear classy, even to my own eyes. Now that they’re gone, I kind of miss that.

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(Here is the complete Perfection series.)

A neighborhood walk (in the rain)

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I wanted to run this morning, but it was raining, and I decided to walk with an umbrella instead. Rain makes me happy and my umbrella, which is covered with yellow, red, blue, orange flowers, proclaims this loudly.

The students lining up for the university bus were all carrying umbrellas — when was the last time you saw 17 umbrellas all in a row? Of the two hands needed to text furiously, one had suddenly been taken away, but they seemed to be doing fine. The tardy ones who are often seen running as the bus pulls in were today seen running with gumboots and umbrellas.

One runner was resolutely sticking to her morning routine wearing a plastic cover. Parents were inserting children into blue and yellow ponchos. Snails and earthworms had abandoned their waterlogged homes and taken to the pavements.

The grass looked greener, the way it looks in places that get much more rain than San Diego. I don’t know if the grass is actually greener in those places or if the wetness and gray skies make it appear so, but, without question, in my neighborhood this morning, the grass was greener, like it was making a real effort. (Incidentally, the Lake District gets my vote for the greenest appearing grass of all, worthy of inventing a Greenness Index for, just so it can come in first place.)

My inner dialogue in which I often examine every single failure of my life was replaced with an equally ridiculous but entirely more congenial one. “Hi you papaya tree laden with dozens of green fruit, peeping over the fence! Will your offspring turn orange and sweet come summer?” “And you lemon tree covered with fruit and blossoms, you’re very pretty.”

The gardeners were at work through the rain, planting in the flower beds. Tiny cactus, chosen for their red rims, white and purple flowers looking bedraggled even as they added color, hedges and trees chosen for the blossom that exists for three weeks out of 52, all put in by those gardeners. The winner in the color category, as it so often is, was the bright pink bougainvillea. Instead of screaming, “Look at me!” as it does when the sun is out, it was today uttering a rather more coy, “Oh won’t you spare me a glance?” Who was I to refuse?

Yup, rain makes me happy. One look at my umbrella, you’ll know.

Scenes at a neighbourhood park

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Most everyone owns a tree.

Amorous couple #1 gets a liquid amber tree. Tall and thickly-leaved, its shadow is small but dense. As it moves with the sun, so do they.

Amorous couple #2 is way more amorous. They too get a liquid amber. She wears a long, strapless dress and they exchange passionate embraces. I wonder why they don’t get themselves a room. But kissing in the cool, breezy shade of a tree on a hot July day is so much more of a story, a painting, than getting themselves a room. They get points for their art.

I am myself under a sycamore. My novel sits unread while I take in the scenes around me, finally giving in to the urge to put pen to paper.

The conifer and its paltry shadow is owned by four men. By turns they smoke, check their cellphones, joke, take off their shirts and play some soccer.

The largest group is treeless. They play frisbee. They have a mat, some chairs, food, water. One of the girls steps away to do a yoga sequence — crow, head stand, wheel, and back up on her feet. As I watch the group play, I wonder about hierarchies. Do they have a Messi at one end, acknowledged great, and an xxx at the other, whose presence or absence this Sunday barely registers?

A man plays with his little daughter. He speaks Spanish to his wife. Another cycles past, precariously balancing a large plastic bag over one shoulder, steering the bike with one hand, slow, careful. A pregnant woman walks by. So do some people with dogs. One dog has a highly styled tail, and an even more styled head, dyed in three bands from front to back, pink, green, pink. Some teenagers walk in with a bike, and some slurpees. They stand around awkwardly, and I can’t tell what they plan to do. Maybe they don’t know either?

Cars flow relentlessly on the freeway behind, their hum matching the rustle of my sycamore’s leaves. The grass around me — ill-gotten greenery in this drought-ridden state — sways gently in the breeze, a bird chirps.

I get up to walk home, sun beating down.

In praise of… the long haul flight

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Do you think that the world is too much with us? That the constant chatter inside the head of rising, working, eating, socializing, exercising, thinking, laughing, planning and, well, chattering, becomes deafening from time to time? That taking care of things — people, laundry, bills, housework, yourself — all becomes a hamster-on-a-wheel routine where one is running to stay in the same place?

Do you have a palliative for this? A cocoon that you can withdraw to, to rediscover your spirit, to rest and recuperate, to still the mind and body, to reinvigorate before engaging with the world again?

No, I am not writing an advertisement for a yoga workshop or a meditation retreat, although those fit the bill as well. I am talking of a long haul flight, or, perhaps, a long train journey. Heck, even a car drive can sometimes do that for you. The days and hours leading up to a long haul flight can be too full, and so can the days after, depending on the destination, but the flight itself is likely to be amazingly, deliciously boring. [1] And that is the main point — to be bored, and to have no option but to be bored.

The boredom is important to still the constantly stimulated brain and senses. The lack of options not only means a lack of “useless” distractions (cat videos), but also a lack of the means to be productive, or “useful” (washing machines, work email). If most people, most of the time, intend to be the latter and end up being to the former, a state of true freedom is when you have no means to be either. And this blessed state of release comes about in a long, boring, interminable long haul flight. This is when the calm descends, when we have time to focus on nothingness, meditate on it, and find it light and lovely. When we, for a while, disengage from our lives, and see them for what they truly are — an interminable circus, where most of the acts are purely for our own amusement.

And so I look forward to it each time. Being 35000 feet high, with no control over where I am going, my life temporarily fading to a speck down below. Sitting in a cramped seat, packed together like sardines, possibly dehydrated, and finding zen.

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[1] Well, hopefully. For someone who loves the internet, I think that the increasing occurrence of wifi on planes is a terrible thing. I am generally able to ignore the movies on offer (well, mostly) but resisting wifi is a damn pain. I hope it always remains slow and/or expensive, amen.

Beside the still waters

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It is not the nature of the universe to be still. Much of what the wise people say is about change, the eternal constant that is change. It is not the nature of animals to be still, it is not the nature of human minds to be still, it is not the nature of leaves to be still, and it is certainly not the nature of water to be still. Mountains have the right to be still, it sometimes appears, but they move too, if only at the rate of one centimeter a year. Everywhere there is churning, tides rising and falling, and equilibrium, when it exists, is dynamic and merely statistical — inside a solid block of iron, the individual electrons are still going nuts.

And that is why I like the picture on top. Because on one side of that spot right there, is a wonderful and wonderfully busy bakery. On the other is a parking lot. And in the middle of all the chaos that is the hallmark of life, there is stillness. Not just any kind of stillness, a fully vibrant stillness, that includes water, and trees, both of which are changing and yet still. Trees in colour, trees naked, trees green, and water flowing softly below.

I like it because it gives me hope. Hope that what the wise men say is fully true in the end — that in the midst of all the churning chaos, there can be stillness, there can be peace, and not of the stagnant kind, but of the spirited, life-like kind. It gives me hope that we can hear the silence hidden within the discord, if only we keep an ear out for it.