ARABESCO : suite in three movements for soprano, oboe and strings
2. La nuit
3. Le rosier
Arabesco began life as a movement in a ballet I composed in New York in the early 1970’s. Titled Commedia and based on characters of the Italian commedia dell’arte, the ballet proved too long in performance. The section titled ‘Arabesco’, set in an evening garden, was noticeably different – exotic and suggestive, while the rest of the ballet was crisp and obvious – so it was cut from the score.
In 1990, my interest was shifting to chamber ensembles, and I was also interested in exploring the dramatic potential of the voice in non-theatrical settings. The themes from the ‘Arabesco’ movement had never fully evaporated from my mind, and I thought they could be developed into a vocal concert piece. Taking my cue from the title of the movement, I began looking at classical Arabic and Persian poetry in English translations, and found themes and images that complemented, and even seemed to rise out of, the original dance music: (1) a sensual melancholy at the brevity and sorrows of life, (2) a mystical/spiritual experience that offers nourishment, if not a full explanation, for the mystery of being alive, and (3) a calmly joyful celebration of existence, complicated and strange though it may be.
I regret not knowing the poems in their original Arabic and Persian. The peculiarities of spoken/sung English made it difficult for me to evoke an Arabic spirit, and so I translated my mosaic of poetic fragments into French, a sonic field I considered vaguely equivalent to the fluid worlds of Arabic and Persian languages. I let the original dance music expand into three separate movements, reflecting the journey outlined above. When I showed my amateur translation to French friends, they were kind enough to refine my choice of words and syntax without explicitly telling me how poor my French had actually been. In 2005 I finally revised the piece’s music to accommodate the new text.
Now, although the text is in French, I have retained the Italian word Arabesco for the title, in homage to the music’s origins. With this I also wish to acknowledge that a spiritual transformation, which is the subject of the piece, need not be constrained by cultural or linguistic conditioning. The underlying truth of existence, whatever it may be, and which all humans (I believe) are capable of sensing, reveals itself differently in different contexts. Nuns may never dream of the Buddha, but “a rose is a rose is a rose” — regardless of century or country.
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English translation of ARABESCO text:
text sources: Ibn al-Rumi (836-896)
Abu’l Atahiya (748-828)
Drinkers at evening, drunkards at dawn
pass this bowl of narcissus on the stairs.
The air quivers with the marriage
of two distillations.
Pause for this flower
where drops of dew are clinging
like tears before eyes shed them,
and then pass on, kindled to drink.
Every question has its answer
every event has its hour
every ascent has its limit
every action has its account
every man has his destiny written.
Every guarantee is a symbol of death
every building is a promise of destruction
every king and his domain coming to dust.
Every day is a step toward death;
you die while playing at arts and towers.
Every door of the world that you shut for safety
opens a door on a new fang.
You felt you were an empty husk when you found that the milk of life meant endless churning.
We have grown so old, old friends,
we might never have been young.
Youth vanished in spite of everything.
With youth worn out
II. At Night
text sources: Al Buhturi (820-897)
Ibn al Khatib (1313-1374)
Al Mutanabbi (915-965)
An Niffari (? -965)
At night the stars descend in silent order
and you see the cosmos standing on its hands.
Hesitation like a beam of light
opens the lips of flowers.
Surrounded by darkness,
the garden is lit by luminous stones.
A star spills out of a black cup,
falls felicitous, sheer,
unacquainted with any immodesty but haste.
“Lord, is there nothing in the cup for me?
While you were drinking I was singing to you.”
He stopped me and said, “Who are you
and who am I?”
And I saw the sun, the moon, the stars,
and all the lights.
And he said, “There remains no light
in the currents of my ocean
which you have not seen.”
Everything came to me until there was nothing.
It kissed me between the eyes,
it hailed me and stood in the shadow.
And he said, “You know me,
but I do not know you.”
And I saw the entirety of him
clinging to my garments
but not to me.
And he said, “This is my worship.”
And my garment inclined,
but I did not.
Then he said to me, “Who am I?”
The sun and moon darkened, the stars fell,
the lights were quenched,
and shadow overwhelmed everything save himself.
And my eyes no longer saw,
my ears no longer heard,
and the power to feel abandoned me.
And everything spoke and said,
“God is the greatest.”
And everything approached me, sword in hand.
At last his voice said, “Escape.”
I asked, “Where?”
And he said, “Into the darkness.”
And I fell in the darkness and saw myself.
And he said, “Never see anyone but yourself,
and never come out of the darkness
unless I bring you out;
and if I bring you out,
I will show you Myself, and you will see Me;
and if you see Me,
you will be the furthermost of the furthest.”
III. The Rose-Tree
text source: Rumi (1207-1273)
Come, come, for the rose-tree has blossomed,
Come, come, for the beloved has arrived.
Bring together now soul and world.
The whole city was aroused
when the rumor spread
that the madman had once again escaped
from his chains.
What day is it, what day is it,
for such confusion?
Has the great book of men’s deeds already fallen back upon us?
Beat the drums and speak no more;
what hiding place is there for heart and mind?
For the soul, too, has fled.
O lovers, o lovers,
the time of meeting has come.
The proclamation from heaven has been given us:
Joyous hearts, joyous hearts,
joy has come skirt a-trailing.
We have seized its chains,
it has seized our skirts.
The fiery potion has come;
demon sorrow, disappear.
Anxious soul, depart.
Enter, immortal saki,
the seven spheres of heaven
are drunk with passion for you.
Through you, our being is comforted myriad times.
O sweet-breathed minstrel, ring the bell!
O joy, saddle your steed!
O zephyr, blow upon our souls!
O sweet reed, in your tone is the taste of sugar.
Your notes bring me night and day
the scent of fidelity.
Start again, play those airs once more!
O sun, radiant presence,
may your glory illuminate the serene ones.
text selected by the composer
French adaptations by
Jean Faure and Véronique Julien-Le-Calvez
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