Listen to “A Chickpea” from Rumi and Strings
Devi Mathieu, soprano
Shira Kammen, violin
W. A. Mathieu, piano
Coleman Barks, Translations
Hank Dutt, viola
Jean Jeanrenaud, cello
Ten Quatrains and a Chickpea
One reason Rumi’s poems, especially Coleman Barks’ renditions of them, are ripe for the art-song composer is that the metaphors are so visual and sensual. In the first of these ten brief verses we are shown “the nightsinging birds by the creek,” singing about a flower made of gold and rubies and emeralds. In the second we envision a frantic fish “trying to breathe dry sand.” The third quatrain is one of the most often-quoted, “I have lived on the lip / of insanity, wanting to know reasons, / knocking on a door. It opens. / I’ve been knocking from the inside!” In the eighth poem: “Like a candle, melting is who I am. / Like a harp, any sound I make is music.” In the final quatrain, a cut reed “sips breath like wine;” drunk, “it starts the high clear notes.” You’d have to be completely unconscious not to make good songs out of words like these. For me, the biggest challenge has been to stay out of the way of the words, to present them as a feast of delicacies for the singer, with each note bringing out their deliciousness.
A Chickpea, my favorite of all Rumi’s teaching stories, is a funny, somber, and very beautiful way to be shown the arc of one’s life.
While singing of life in Rumi’s words, Devi Mathieu’s voice is fully alive. Each poem’s epiphany leaps from the singer in the moment of realization, deeply feelingful and intelligent at once. Shira Kammen’s violin is part of the poet’s conspiracy to move and transform us: now cajoling, now startling, now jubilating, drawing us back and forth from inner to outer worlds according to the poet’s vision.
Harmönika was written with Hank Dutt and Joan Jeanrenaud in mind, and is dedicated to them. I wanted to write a piece that makes use of their warm, generous sound and displays, especially, the deep resonances of their ensemble.
Movements I and III are recomposed from modal improvisations played originally on a little Casio keyboard (using the “harmonica” patch), the former at sunset and the latter at sunrise. Movements II and IV each contrast the expressive possibilities of modal modulation with the cool formality non-vibrato playing. Natural harmonics are liberally used, especially in Movement IV, in which the viola solo is accompanied in the cello by a series of ethereal double-stop harmonics. (The spelling used in the title Harmönika refers to a stop on a nineteenth-century organ located high in its “echo chest.”) Movement V uses a ritornello to generate a dance-like series of excursions and digressions. Movement VI is based on measured tremolos and trills.
Although the poetry of Rumi is not a specific source for Harmönika, the constant intertwining in Rumi of human and divine love is qualitatively similar for me to the constant admixture of the programmatic and the absolute in musical narrative. Are the players singing to each other, or are the strings singing to the Beloved?
From an original collection of fifty-three poems, I have arranged the thirteen songs of Birdsong as a kind of soul’s journey from despair to illumination. The first song, a cry to the Beloved, begins “How long are you going to beat me like a drum…” and ends “I feel…like a flute / that you put in your mouth / and then neglect to blow.” The next is a wrenching poem about emptiness:
Birdsong brings relief
to my longing.
I am just as ecstatic as they are,
but with nothing to say!
Please, universal soul, practice
some song, or something, through me!
But in the third song, a voice inside says, “I know you’re tired / but come. This is the way.” The cycle goes on to invoke the spirit toward union: “Don’t sleep now.” “Notice now, this that fills / with new leaves and the roses opening / and the nightbird’s song.” Let the “hurricane of experience lash me out of hiding.” “…I kneel / and take handfuls of earth.” But then the epiphanies begin to appear: “At the end of my life… I’ll sit up and sing.” … “This mud body / is clear epiphany” … “You are the truth from foot to brow. Now, / what else would you like to know?” And finally is the greatest revelation of all:
Your fragrance fills the meadow.
Your mouth appears in a red anemone,
But when those reminders leave,
My own lips open,
And in whatever I say,
I hear you.
One of the most treasured sounds I’ve ever heard is the deeply musical song of the olive-backed thrush. Slowed down, brought into the range of human ears, and transcribed into piano notes, several such calls are scattered throughout the composition, reminders that the Beloved’s voice is everywhere.