Musicby Deborah Addington on 05/03/11
The Song of the Reed (part one)
Mathnawi I: 1-3
1 Listen1 to the reed (flute), how it is complaining! It is telling
2 (Saying), "Ever since I was severed from the reed field,4 men
and women have lamented in (the presence of) my shrill cries.5
3 "(But) I want a heart (which is) torn, torn from separation, so that
I may explain the pain of yearning."6
-- From "The Mathnawî-yé Ma`nawî" [Rhymed Couplets of Deep Spiritual Meaning] of Jalaluddin Rumi. Translated from the Persian by Ibrahim Gamard (with gratitude for R. A. Nicholson's 1926 British translation) © Ibrahim Gamard (translation, footnotes, & transliteration)
Humans like music. It makes us happy, sad, energized or achey. Not merely entertainment, music is a way in which humans convey meaning and information; it'’s also a handy tool for enculturation, celebration and education. Music isn't just a soundtrack to our lived stories; it's a character in the stories themselves.
That being said, I can tell you more about what I don't understand about Ottoman music than what I do. I can tell you that the first few times that I heard Turkish or Persian music I found it cacophonous. I didn't have the ears to understand it. Now that I have a slightly better understand of what's going on in the music, I can tell you that it's dynamic and active; pretty much all of it means something, signifies something. This music is art, rife with complex scalings, meters and tropes. I don't know nearly enough to trul, profoundly appreciate it, but I know enough to appreciate how little I know, and how much this music has to offer.
The influence of Mevlevi Sufism on Ottoman music wasn't immediately obvious to me. Now I don't see how I could've missed it. There are three basic types of Ottoman music: Courtly, Popular and what we'll call Sacred. The Sacred category has two main types: the kind of music played in a masjid or mosque, and the kind played in a tekke (a Sufi gathering place). You may have heard that in Islam there is no music or dancing or art. You've been misinformed. Different Islamic sects have chosen different relationships to music, dancing and art but I assure you, there's plenty of art in Islam--up to and including lush Persian depictions of Muhammad (turns out it was a political dispute that created the whole no-pictures-of-Allah-or-Muhammad deal. Figures, dunnit?).
The Sufis, particularly the Mevlevi order of Rumi, made a lot of music. Really beautiful music. They wouldn't give it up, either, even when popular convention told them they should; even when the entire Mevlevi Order was illegalized. Sufi music is an act of praise and worship to Allah; it's a form of ihsan ('doing the beautiful'). Mevlana wrote a lot of poems about the reed flute, and how, once cut form it's bed, it sings achingly of reunion. This instrument, the reed flute, is called a ney. It has a surprising range and creates a resonance that's filled with sweet, warm wind and the emptiness of separation. It can shriek and it can soothe. It's a lovely little hollow stick that's full of sonic surprises. And it's tricky to learn how to play well. The best, perhaps only, way to learn it is to study with a Master.
By the mid-1700's, all Master ney players were Mevlevis. By the turn of the 18th century, all Master Court ney players were Mevlevis. Today, Mevlevis represent a large percentage of all Master ney players; the Mevlevis have done amazing work preserving skill, transmitting knowledge through music and creating new musics as we move into the future. Since all of these fabulous ney players are Mevlevis--Sufis, of the Mevlevi (Rumi) order, their beliefs and practices have inextricably woven themselves into the music. Maybe that's why it can transport me so. And that's just the listening part; I recently had the privilege of attending a Sufi zikr with live musicians; the combination of sound, breath and movement are heady indeed. There were even women musicians, as well as women darvishi!
Islam was and primarily still is an oral tradition; music is a key component of transmission in oral/aural traditions. One of the most stunning things about Mevlevi music is that it's open to everyone. Men, women, hijra, other: anyone can enter Mevlevi music. Mevlevi music has been critically important to the preservation of archives, teachers and transmitters; its influence is audible in many other musics, too, like Armenian, Jewish and Greek. To hear some for yourself, click here; there are samples of the three main types as well as many other subtypes. Let it call you into the union of breath and sound.