By Don Heckman
Can one experience poetry without understanding the words? Can the setting, the intonation and the rhythm be enough to communicate at least some sense of the poet’s intention? Those were the questions hovering in the air Saturday night before the performance of the ensemble Saffron at the Skirball Cultural Center in a program titled “A Celebration of Rumi.”
Rumi – Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Balkhi – was the 13th century Persian poet and mystic whose transcendent works were based on his belief in the use of poetry, music and dance as pathways to reach God. Saffron, a six person ensemble, performed a collection of Rumi’s ghazals and other poems in which instrumental passages embraced recitations, in Farsi, by Katayoun Goudarzi.
The opening ghazal established the sort of pattern that would continue for the balance of the selections. Seated at the center of the group, sitarist and vocalist Shujaat Husain Khan initiated the music, sometimes on the sliding notes of his sitar, often adding his warm, engaging vocal timbres. A brief melody slowly began to form, drawing in either the flute or soprano saxophone of Tim Ries and the piano of Kevin Hays. As the textures began to fill, percussionist Satoshi Takeishi added accents from cymbals, brushes and frame drum, with tabla player Abhiman Kaushal underscoring the rhythm.
Once the setting was established, Gouradzi began her recitations, expressed with a rich array of dramatic emphases. Around her, the germinating melodic fragment grew into trance-like repetitions. Individual soloing from each of the instrumentalists added momentum as the music blossomed into passionate climaxes before ending in quiet resolve.
Was all this enough to elucidate Rumi’s intention in phrases such as “My sun and moon have come, my ears and eyes have come/That smooth and argent skin, that mine of gold has come”? Or “Heaven and earth like a mirror, reflect your fair face/That mirror has come to life, marveling at its case”?
In a specific sense, of course not. And the Skirball was wise to include English langue translations of the poems in the program. But specificity is not always the goal with poetry, or with music. And Gouradzi’s recitations captured – with her tone, her gestures, even the gaze of her dark eyes – the essence of Rumi, of the concept of tawhid (union with the beloved) that courses through his poetry.
As Gouradzi completed the final phrases of “Intoxicated,” the last poem on the program, I suspect that many in the enthusiastically appreciative audience felt, as did I, that – even without the translations – Saffron had brought the timeless poetry of Rumi vividly to life.