Four Song Cycles from the Poetry of Jelaluddin Rumi

Listen to “Don’t Go Back to Sleep” from Say I Am You

Devi Mathieu, soprano
Mihr’un’Nissa Douglass, alto
W. Blake Derby, tenor
Alfred Shabda Owens, tenor
Shabda Kahn, bass, bass solo
W. A. Mathieu, piano, bass solo

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Until the early 1980s, the poetry of Jelaluddin Rumi was known to most English-speaking readers primarily through the sincere but Victorian translations of A. J. Arberry and R. A. Nicholson. I had tried to set some of these poems to music, but my adaptations felt awkward and contrived. In 1984, I read a new volume of Rumi poems called Open Secret, translated by poet Coleman Barks in collaboration with Farsi scholar John Moyne, and my relationship to words changed forever.

Even at first reading, the lines lifted from the page as music itself, curling up as bright tropes and swirling phrases. I sensed these poems would set themselves, and, notwithstanding the detail that goes into any work, that’s what happened. I phoned Coleman Barks in Athens, Georgia, and announced, “You are my brother,” despite which we became long-time friends. In the meantime, I’ve set, with his blessing, dozens of his Rumi versions. Over and over again he shows me how language sings itself.

Rumi (1207–1273) speaks of God as the Friend, the One we recognize in ourselves and each other. His poems were spontaneous, written down by his devotees as he spoke. Coleman brings them into our culture so we can respond to their immediacy. His translations of Rumi are now read by millions of grateful readers.

During the time my ear was being quickened by the new Rumi, Devi and I were courting. We married in 1987, and In the Arc of Your Mallet became a wedding bouquet for each other. Many more songs and performances have followed in the ensuing years.

One of my colleagues from the Sufi Choir days, Alfred Shabda Owens, has a vocal quality so gentle I wanted to write a song cycle for him, The Speechless Moon (1989). And with an extraordinary ability to blend his voice, he joins Devi in the two duets of Say I Am You (1990).

Shabda Kahn, a member of the original Sufi Choir, sings the bass solos of Quatrains (1988). A disciple of North Indian singer Pandit Pran Nath, Pir Shabda is now a greatly honored musician and spiritual guide.

The first song of Say I Am You describes friendship as “made of being awake,” and enjoins friends to “stay here, quivering with each moment like a drop of mercury.” The second seeks unity with the Friend. Image after image invokes the ultimate resonance of divine union: “I am the morning mist, / and the breathing of evening… I am a tree with a trained parrot in the branches…. Rose and nightingale lost in the fragrance.” And then, passionately, the highest prayer: “Say I am You.”

In the Arc of Your Mallet, songs culled from Open Secret, was released in 1988 as a cassette, and is new to CD. The ten songs swing through a tremendous range of feeling. Ecstasy (“God’s joy moves from unmarked box to unmarked box…”) is tempered by longing (“I want to feel myself in you when you taste food, in the arc of your mallet when you work”) in turn giving way to despair: (“Someone comes in and sees me without you and puts his hand on my head like I’m a child. This is so difficult”); incredulity (“After all my lust and dead living I can still live with you”) is trumped by clear revelation (“When you look for God, God is in the look of your eye.”)

The three songs of The Speechless Moon (from the 1988 volume These Branching Moments) are steeped in images so vivid that the tone painting of the music simply arises out of the language. Rumi sees beauty and meaning everywhere: “Steam fills the bath and frozen figures on the wall / open their eyes, wet and round, Narcissus eyes/ that see enormous distances.” Encouraging the surrender of divine love, he advises: “Take an axe to the prison wall. / Escape. / Walk out like someone suddenly born into color.” Composing music to these words is like riding in a glider. In the final song about finding love even in contradictions, he points out: “In a sky so restless and changing/ the moon wears a silver belt.”

The cameo songs of Eight Quatrains are a condensed version of the 1988 cassette. In the bass solos, improvised by Shabda Kahn and me, the influence of our guru Pandit Pran Nath can be clearly felt. Joining Devi in the duets is Mihr’un’Nissa Douglas, and rounding out the quintets is W. Blake Derby.