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Rumi and the Reed Flute

Listen to the story told by the reed,

of being separated.

"Since I was cut from the reedbed,

I have made this crying sound.”

Jalalu'ddin Muhammad Rumi, the Islamic jurist, scholar, mystic, poet and founder (through his son) of the Mevleviyya order of Dervishes, the so-called 'Whirling Dervishes', dictated these lines to his disciple in 1258 at the age of 51. Rumi was born in Afghanistan, but after the Mongol invasion he spent 13 years of his life travelling with his family through present day Iran and Iraq. The family at last settled in Konya, Turkey where, 30 years later the lines above were uttered in Persian. They were to be the first of a series of almost 24,000 verses divided into 6 books called the Masnavi, in which Rumi sought through poetry and allegory to describe the spiritual journey of man, a Persian Divine Comedy if you will.

Hazrat Inayat Khan who brought the Sufi Order to the West said: “There is a beautiful picture Rumi has made. He tells why the melody of the reed flute, or ney, makes such an appeal to your heart. First it is cut away from its original stem. Then in its heart the holes have been made; and since the holes have been made in the heart, the heart has been broken, and it begins to cry. And so it is with the spirit of the Messenger, … that by bearing and by carrying his cross, his self becomes like a reed, hollow. There is scope for the player to play his melody. When it has become nothing, the player takes it to play the melody. If there was something there, the player could not use it. ... man should remove this wall, this barrier, which (he) has made of self. Then he can become the flute upon which the Divine Player may play the music of Orpheus, which can charm even hearts of stone.”

At any gathering I am there,

mingling in the laughing and grieving,

a friend to each, but few

will hear the secrets hidden

within the notes. No ears for that.

Body flowing out of spirit,

spirit up from body: no concealing

that mixing. But it's not given us

to see the soul. The reed flute

is fire, not wind. Be that empty.

In the last few weeks, while preparing a concert to accompany the poetry of Rumi, in collaboration with David Harries poet and reader, Baha Yetkin oud player and Julia White oboist, I began to realise that we were creating our own version of a Sema, the ceremony of the Dervishes.

We would have no dancers except the internal dancing that might be ignited by Rumi's words and the music that we play. And that would honour Rumi, for he believed that the music of the Sema is not necessarily listening but rather for participation. He said that how much we hear and respond to in the music is in direct proportion to how much we are attracted to it. Rumi made a comparison to the moth who is attracted to the flame and circles it. Only when it is burned and exhausted with the desire to know, does it understand the flame. The Mevlevi dervish turns but only when he turns and is in complete exhaustion with the world (the state of non-resistance) can he experience the 'Divine player' without the boundaries of the world. In that 'Divine player', he said, we are all one.

Of course, Julia and I have had much to learn from Baha who has explained to us the Turkish system of makam or scales which, as in Plato's system of Greek modes are associated with different moods and states of mind. Unlike our major and minor scale which form the basis of Western music for over 300 year, the makam also suggest melodic shape. They sound extremely exotic, though not unfamiliar, to our ears as they employ the same interval as our own harmonic minor scale. Baha also explained how whereas Western music divides the whole tone (the step from Do to Re for instance), into 2 half tones, the Turkish system divides the whole tone into 9 tiny segments called commas, almost imperceptible to our ears. What we hear as a wavering or even a false note is an extremely precise expressive devise used by Turkish musician. In trying to make my cello sound like a ney, I have experimented not only with the breathiness and moaning sound of that instrument but with the use of commas which, I'm afraid, will never sound precise to a Turkish ear!

Similarly Baha had things to learn from us. We wanted to play some Western music and settled on Dowland and Bach. How was he to participate? We encouraged him to view his oud as a lute (both instruments in any case descend from a common ancestor) and add, in the case of Dowland, a counterpoint to the melody and in the case of Bach, a bass line. He would have to forego the makam that come so readily to his fingers and the tremolo that he is accustomed to employing.

Our concert had become a sort of illustration of the Universality of which Rumi spoke. In his travels he, himself, had encountered many cultures. Not only did the music we finally chose reflect several cultures but it spanned 1000 years. And we, as players from different traditions, had to find a common language. But Rumi's notion of the Universal transcended place and time. As the Sema was an opportunity to lose one's self in poetry, music and movement in order to arrive at a different sort of knowing, we are hoping that our concert will provide a space to forget the everyday and draw closer to the flame!


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