A new take on Rumi, the popular Persian mystic poet, from Dallas' Verdigris Ensemble this weekend
Rumi was a 13th-century Muslim, but he's the most downloaded poet in America. Now a Dallas chorus - with an Iranian composer and a Syrian digital artist - has created a rapturous version of Rumi's poetry.
These days, Rumi has become something of a New Age-y sage. His almost 800-year-old, Middle-Eastern wisdom has been translated in ways that seem to package it for Twitter feeds and yoga posters: "Patience is the key to joy." "Do not feel lonely, the entire universe is inside you."
But in a world-premiere concert from the Verdigris Ensemble, seven poems of Rumi's are being presented with the utmost seriousness and artistry. The new show, opening this weekend at the Moody Performance Hall, is called Shams. It's a multi-media concert combining choral singing, a Dallas Symphony string quartet and elaborate digital projections, some of which will be painted and improvised live, during each performance.
All this music and electronic artistry concern just two men -- Jalāl al-Dīn Muḥammad Rūmī, popularly known as Rumi, and Shams Tabrizi. The two met in 1244 -- for all of 40 days.
"When we talk about the transformation of Rumi," said Sam Brukhman, director of Verdigris, "we're talking about this aristocratic intellectual that meets Shams, who was like a homeless person that completely changes everything."
Brukhman was familiar with Rumi's poetry, but not the back story, how Rumi was a well-respected Muslim scholar in the 13th century in what is now Turkey. He had his own religious followers. And when Rumi met Shams, who was from Iran, Shams was a Sufi — a mystical form of Islam — and in his case this meant he was a wandering holy man with a more ecstatic view of life and spiritual inspiration than Rumi. Composer Sahba Aminikia called Shams "almost a clown."
Yet when the two met, they talked and drank, talked and danced for 40 days.
Claire Choquette is a singer in Verdigris. She said the seven poems by Rumi that Aminikia has set to music follow the general narrative of the two men, the story of many relationships: "Shams tells the story of infatuation and loss, of losing yourself in another person -- and then Shams vanished."
He may well have been murdered. And Rumi spent the next 12 years writing poetry about him, their joyful interactions, his sense of abandonment, the wisdom he gained.
"Rumi turns into a man of music and dancing," said Aminikia. "And there is always this suspicion, what is the nature of this relationship between these two men? And nowadays in Iran, they consider all this as metaphors for a higher love."
Over the centuries, Rumi became one of the most influential poets on both love and spirituality.
In a chorus chanted during Shams, the singers repeat, Ya Man Hova Hoo — which means, "There is no one but him." Characteristically, this can be taken as Rumi's declaration of devotion to God. Or it's a statement of passion for Shams.
"From my perspective," Aminikia said, "both are valid and are of the same spirit."
Three years ago, COVID wiped out Verdigris' concert plans, and Brukhman was at loose ends. But on the internet, he came across Aminikia. The composer was born in Iran and studied at Russia's renowned St. Petersburg Conservatory. He lives in San Francisco now, has written music for the renowned classical group, the Kronos Quartet. When I mentioned that the churning, rhythmic and slowly building chants in Shams reminded me a little of Philip Glass and Carmina Burana, he happily said he was a Glass fan — but the music was actually drawn from Iranian folk music, he said, from the very ritual that's still performed in Konya, Turkey, where Rumi is buried.
(He's also a fan of Pink Floyd.)
It was Aminikia who brought in Kevork Mourad, a Syrian-born digital artist who's worked with Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road ensemble. Mourad has developed an unusually layered and improvised technique. In advance, he creates a digital animation to accompany the music. Then, during the performance, while the animation runs, he "paints" on it — a digital camera captures what he's doing and adds it as an overlay. (In the video, you can see his hand as a blur.)
"I like to put three different layers in all of my works," Mourad said. "The past, which is our ancestors' kind of wisdom and legacy, Then, what other cultures have similar instances on the same topic? And finally, what's happening now? And where they came from is second, what other cultures kind of has similar influences on same topic and what's happening now? So in this piece I try to combine all this to make it more accessible to a Western audience and people today."
It was also Aminikia who suggested adapting Rumi's poetry. The composer wanted to convey a sense of Iran that wasn't monolithic and repressive to a North Texas audience.
"I'd been looking for projects that can be more focused on Middle America - because, normally, as a composer, we are always involved in either San Francisco, Chicago or New York," he said with a laugh.
For his part, Brukhman wanted to connect with an immigrant community in North Texas that's often overlooked: "Everybody I speak to is like, 'I had no idea that North Texas had such a large population of Middle Eastern and North African immigrants.'"
That's one reason Rumi's poetry in Shams is presented in the original Farsi as well as in a new English translation by Zara Houshmand.
To Johnny Brown, a member of the Verdigris Ensemble, Shams feels both foreign and very familiar.
"Being a Black singer," he said, "a lot of this reminds me of the gospel hymns. They all stem from a similar place."
It's a place that sings. Sings about love, God, loss -- and being reborn into the world.
Shams, presented by Verdigris Ensemble in cooperation with the Crow Museum of Asian Art, April 14-16 at Moody Performance Hall.
Got a tip? Email Jerome Weeks at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter @dazeandweex.
Art&Seek is made possible through the generosity of our members. If you find this reporting valuable, consider making a tax-deductible gift today. Thank you.