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Q+A with Moshe Denburg and Farshid Samandari: A new album of choral intercultural music

In May 2015, Vancouver Inter-Cultural Orchestra and Laudate Singers celebrated more than a decade of artistic partnership with a concert of choral intercultural music titled MYSTICS & LOVERS. The next day, those same 50+ musicians gathered again to record two of the featured works on the programme, Ani Ma-amin (I Believe) by Moshe Denburg and Asheghaneh by Farshid Samandari. Most recently, the VICO and Laudate were jointly nominated for a Western Canadian Music Award for this album as “Classical Artist/Ensemble of the Year”. Here’s our Q+A with the VICO’s Moshe Denburg and Farshid Samandari.

VICO has had a wonderful 10 year partnership with Laudate Singers, a partnership that is celebrated in this new album. Can you tell us a little bit about the artistic synergy between the two groups and what makes this longstanding partnership so special?

Moshe Denburg: Since our first collaboration in 2003, the Laudate Singers—and especially its music director, Lars Kaario—have really felt a connection to what we are doing. The intercultural element is very striking; it gives the singers an opportunity to see and hear non-Western instruments and musicians up close and personal. For the VICO, working with choir gives us an opportunity to expand the (25 member approx) orchestra with 25 voices, creating a very impressive sonic and visual experience. It also helps to combine our audiences, a great synergy in the arts, where fans are often hard to find, and harder to hold onto.

Farshid Samandari: VICO basically represents a new aesthetic a new approach to music with roots in many rather than one. As such, our music often might be perceived as “odd,” as our points of reference are as diverse as our musicians and composers. Working with vocals generally makes the complex accessible. So, while we haven’t done so in order to pander to our audience, the works we program—utilizing words and the global element of the human voice—become more accessible. In this vein, our collaborations with Laudate have been successful and accessible for large audiences.

Mystics & Lovers explores the connection/intersection between personal love and spiritual devotion. Can you elaborate?

MD: These two aspects of our human expression are directly represented and expressed by the two works on the recording. My work is an expression of devotion to the ‘messiah idea’—a time of peace and of goodwill, whereas the Samandari work takes as its starting point the yearning of the lover. Both works cross over into the other’s realm: the messianic time yearned for in Ani Ma-amin will ultimately be crowned by the embrace of lovers, and the beloved who is yearned for in Asheghaneh is readily understood as the divine presence. This is the connection, the realms of the mystic and the lover come together.

FS: In mystic literature and tradition, personal love is described as a reflection of spiritual love of human for the Creator, and vice versa. Picturesque descriptions of the lover and beloved in the poems of Baba-Tahir and his descendants such as Rumi and Hafez are all in praise of the eternal Beloved. In sheer contrast with the common, a dry religious approach, where “devotion” and “love” are treated as two distinct if not conflicting entities, mystics would see both as different shades of the same phenomenon.

Can you tell us the process of bridging Jewish and Persian cultures through music? Why was it important for you to bring these two cultures together on this album specifically?

MD: The works themselves are not consciously constructed to bridge Jewish and Persian cultures musically, but there are indeed correspondences between them. To begin with, both musical systems rely upon modes which, though very different, have a very sing-able nature. Certainly the instruments of Persia (Iran) are utilized in Ani Ma-amin, namely: Tar (long necked lute), Oud (short necked lute) and Santur (Persian hammered dulcimer). It is indeed a happy coincidence to have these two cultures represented together on one album, as it illustrates the true freedom of expression we enjoy in Canada, and the Western world more generally.

FS: I didn’t intentionally plan to bridge the supposed chasm between these two ancient cultures, though over the centuries, these two cultures have shared, borrowed and have blended. A study of the rich musical heritage of each culture is a blueprint of the oldest “intercultural” project. Ashiq’s sensibility and musical language, that I have used in my work, has its clear geographical and historical roots in such cultural marriage. So unconsciously, I continued the musical route paved by our ancestors on both sides of the Euphrates river.

These compositions are innovative and important Canadian works. As composers, how do you go about creating new works for voice and instruments from many different countries?

MD: The process of composing for non-Western instruments begins with the study of the technical resources of the instruments themselves. This is standard practice for any composer of any culture. One must familiarize oneself with the sounds of the instruments and learn about their technical limitations. We’ve compiled instrumentation manuals which deal with these resources and much of the information was acquired in information sessions with the musicians themselves. These musicians are also available to consult with on an ongoing basis. Regarding getting singers to sing in languages other than their own, this is done by providing aural study guides which teach the proper pronunciation of the texts to be sung. Generally speaking, singers do this work very well, though there are challenges, and native speakers may from time to time hear certain imperfections. But this does not obscure the meaning of the words themselves.

FS: For me, creating any work of art involves two complementary steps, not in a specific order. One is its raison d’être: what am I trying to say beyond sounds, colour and movements? Good pieces of music, even the abstract works, have a subject beyond the superficial sensibility. One of the recurring themes in my work is “unity in diversity.” For this, VICO is a befitting vehicle.  The other step is the “craft.” To refine the craft, I study the instruments, their limits and potentials, even their timbral spectrum. As well, I study different music and different methods of composing. Obviously, the next phase is to refine the work in consultation with the performers, to allow the musicians to realize the prescribed notes into sounds which reflect my artistic intentions.

Moshe, can you tell us about your inspiration for Ani Ma-amin?

MD: For many years, I was pre-occupied with thoughts that revolved around the concept of Messiah, the final redemption of humanity. Some years ago, I found a book in the library that my late father, Rabbi Denburg, left me. Called The Messiah Idea in Jewish History, it was written in 1906 by Julius H. Greenstone. I do not now recall too much about the details in the book—maybe I didn’t read it from cover to cover—but I do recall that sometime after reading it I embarked upon composing a work for Choir and Intercultural Orchestra based on a text by Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) that was his 12th principle of faith, a principle that is well known to most Jewish people, and which has been an inspiration for many melodies over the centuries.

Can you walk us through the different movements: Graceful, Resolute; Serene; Joyful; Affirming, Fervent; Supplication?

MD: Simply, the names of the movements are meant to express different states of mind, the mind of the one reciting the prayer. The same text is sung in each of the five movements; it is only the inner state that changes. And even though I did not begin composing with these specific descriptors in mind, one can hear these states of prayer in the music itself. In this I am reminded of the raga system of India where I studied for some time. Different moods are associated with different modes (ragas). Musically, I have been strongly influenced by my studies of Indian music, and in Ani Ma-amin, one can hear this especially well in movements 3 and 4.

Can you tell us a bit about the vocal poetry in the composition, as well as a few of the instruments that are of particular significance?

MD: Ani Ma-amin is not a poem, but a textual prayer. Of course, in singing the prayer, meaning is heightened. In describing the prayer in different moods and modes, a certain richness of expression results. The prayer itself, written in the Hebrew language, can be translated as follows: I believe, with an unwavering faith, in the coming of the messiah; And though he may tarry, even so I will look for his coming every day.

About the instruments utilized in the composition, significant roles are given to Plucked and Struck strings: Tar (Persian long necked lute); Oud (short necked lute); Santur (Persian hammered dulcimer); Hand Percussion: Darabuka (Middle Eastern hour glass drum), Tabla (Indian kettledrums), Riqq (Middle Eastern frame drum), Udu (African clay pot); Bowed Strings: Erhu and Gaohu (2-string fiddles from China); Wind: Dizi (Chinese bamboo flute).

What’s unique about our intercultural orchestra sound is that is comprises a significant plucked and struck strings section. This you will not hear in a standard Western orchestra. Significant roles are played also by a variety of instruments from the western world, such as Trumpet, Western Woodwinds, and Orchestral (bowed) Strings. Finally, a most unique instrument from Vietnam, called Danbau, a one string zither, is featured, especially in the second movement of Ani Ma-amin – Serene. The Danbau has a sonic character all its own, a haunting, ‘moog synthesizer-like’ sound.

Farshid, can you tell us about your inspiration for Asheghaneh?

FS: I started composing Asheghaneh as a set of miniature love songs. A simple intimate project of miniatures then turned into a deeper more general venture as I unraveled a linear connection between these seemingly independent quatrains. As a composer, I’m interested in combining the Eastern and Western aesthetics: one depicting a “state” or “mood,” and the other making a “statement.” Soon, I realized that Asheghaneh has the potential to turn these distinct sensibilities into complementary methods. While writing a set of miniatures, these miniatures created an abstract story line describing a day in a lover’s life. Here each quatrain is in its own musical world, as they are treated in literature. They are acting as pieces of puzzle reflecting a lover’s “monologues,” with the unattainable mystical Beloved.

Can you walk us through the different movements: A day time plea; A nighttime agony; A breeze of joy?

FS: The piece begins in midday as the lover, pleas in words and action to reach the true lover’s goal. Different efforts to please the [B/b]eloved, doesn’t seem enough and only turn into different layers of trial and suffering. As the lover reaches the night, desire turns into agony of not being accepted. So the lover continues an almost hopeless but more dedicated efforts. Finally, as night is coming to end and a new day begins, agony turns into joy, as the dawn breezes tantalizing aroma of the [B/b]eloved, promising the hope that the love is attainable.

Can you tell us a bit about the vocal poetry in the composition, as well as a few of the instruments that are of particular significance?

FS: The poetry is my compilation from Baba Tahir’s classic quatrains. His poetry, though old, is in an extremely simple, almost folk, language. But its also extremely deep and complex. The paradox of simplicity and complexity that is found in the poetry is reflected in the chants. I have paired each quatrain with a different gushé in persian music. As the pieces of puzzle are joined, a complexity is born out of novel relation of these chants. So, while the soloist needs to be versed in Persian traditional chant, he also should be open to take unexpected routes introduced in the piece. Most orchestra players, at once, play an integral part in the piece. From the deep plucks of oud/barbat that traditionally accompanies the voice, resembling humans plea and hope, to shimmering sound of santur that reflects the unattainable; from earthly sounds of multi-phonics on oboe, to voice-like chants of multiphonics on flute; from stark agony of the strings to lyrical plea of the solo violin; from mantra-like chants of the choir to their passionate cries all play important part to support the chant with a sophisticated, yet sincere word painting. Screen Shot 2015-09-12 at 10.17.41 AM

MYSTICS & LOVERS | Purchase the album here.

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Moshe Denburg, who hails from a well known Montreal Rabbinical family, came to the west coast in 1982. His musical career has spanned 5 decades and his accomplishments encompass a wide range of musical activities, including Composition, Performance, Music Education, and Artistic Direction. He is the founder of the Vancouver Inter-Cultural Orchestra (VICO) and has been involved in its evolution since its inception in the year 2001.
 
 Dr. Farshid Samandari’s music reflects his interest in contemporary classical vocabulary, spectral analysis, and extended techniques. In addition his profound faith in Unity in diversity stirred him toward utilizing different elements from a variety of non-western music and integrating different cultural music and vocabulary in his compositions. He is serving as the composer-in-residence for VICO.