Rumi By Moonlight
Some projects come together quickly and easily, others evolve slowly over time.
Somewhere around 10 years ago, I discovered the quatrains of the 13th century Persian poet Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī. Quatrains are four line poems. There was something about Rumi’s work in this terse, compact format that deeply appealed to me. My initial exposure to these poems was through a book of versions of Rumi by Coleman Barks & John Moyne called “Open Secret”. I ended up composing a piece of music called “Old Statues Watching” which was inspired by one of the quatrains. My band Tumble recorded this piece on our first album “Music for Trio”.
“Open Secret” featured 54 quatrains and I soon learned that Rumi composed over 2000 of these. As sometimes happens to me at times of new discovery, I became a bit obsessed! I eventually picked up a complete volume of Rumi’s quatrains – “The Quatrains of Rumi” which was translated by Ibrahim Gamard & Rawan Farhadi. In the introduction to the book, they expressed that Barks & Moyne’s versions of Rumi were highly poetic and took great liberties with the original text, Gamgard & Farhadi, by contrast, presented literal translations. Although these translations were quite beautiful in their own way, they lacked the poetic qualities that I guessed existed in the original Farsi text. I remember thinking to myself, “If only I could find translations of these poems that are poetically rendered while still being faithful to the original text!”
Through some internet explorations, I discovered a translator named Zara Houshmand whose work was featured on the website Iranian.com. Zara had taken up a practice of translating one of Rumi’s quatrains (from the original Farsi) per day for an entire year. These quickly became my favorite translations!
A few years later my band Tumble was performing a house concert in Nevada City at our friend Ellen Reynard’s home. Local musician/composer Annette Dunklin came to the show and brought a friend along. Her friend Zara really liked Tumble and ended up hiring us to play at her birthday party. During planning for the event, I discovered that she was indeed the same person whose quatrain translations I loved so much! This “coincidence” blew me away!
During the summer of 2020, right at the height of the COVID-19 shelter-in-place, Zara published a book of her Rumi translations, “Moon and Sun”. I spent a lot of time reading and re-reading these poems over the next few months.The feelings and images from specific poems inspired me to compose new pieces of music.
With these pieces, I took sort of a raw approach with little revising or overworking. There is a phase that is attributed to Allen Ginsberg – “First thought, best thought”. My take on it is that there can, in some instances, be a value in spontaneous, unedited creation. Perhaps this approach was influenced by the short structure of the poems in the quatrain form and the sometimes quite raw emotions expressed by Rumi.
As I composed, I had a vague idea in the back of my mind that it would be amazing to put together some sort of performance/reading event with Zara at some point in the future. Since we were in the middle of the shelter-in- place phase of the pandemic, this thought was filed away – WAY in the background of my mind!
Fast forward to early 2022… Zara contacted me out of the blue asked if I might be interested in doing some sort of music and poetry event featuring the Quatrains from her book. She had no idea that I had actually composed pieces based on her translations! This was a moment of bold synchronicity indeed!! I excitedly agreed and we started planning for such an event.
We had made arrangements for a performance at The North Colombia Schoolhouse in the fall of ’22. But as fate would have it, unpredictable life situations arose which made the fulfillment of the event impossible. It had to be postponed! Although this was disappointing, there was something about this event that felt “meant to be”. I had an intuition that “Rumi By Moonlight” (as we were now calling our event) would still happen in its own due time.
I heard from Zara again in early 2023. By this time, things had again shifted and our plan for the event was back on! While planning I discovered that my friend/composer Annette Dunklin (who had originally introduced me to Zara) had also composed a piece inspired by one of Zara’s translations. She had done so unaware that I had also composed pieces based on these quatrains. Another amazing “coincidence”!
I am SO pleased how this has all come together – slowly – organically – on its own time! On Friday, 9/1/23, we will be presenting “Rumi By Moonlight” at the historic North Columbia Schoolhouse in North San Juan.
I have some wonderful musical friends who will be joining me for this special performance. My band for the evening will include:
My Tumble bandmate Randy McKean playing clarinet & tenor sax
my former Boston Ravine bandmate Karl Chelette on acoustic & electric bass
Murray Campbell on oboe, violin & English horn
Tim Bulkley on vibes
I could not be more thrilled to have such a group of fine creative musicians joining me on interpreting these pieces!
The evening will include 6 of my compositions and one of Annette’s compositions – all based on specific quatrains, along with Zara reciting these special poems. We will also do a variety of free improvisational pieces while Zara reads numerous pieces from “Moon and Sun”.