The seven creations 2010
7 mvt | 75 min
Avestan and Pahlavi
SSMMAATTRRBB
a cappella

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Premiered by

The Esoterics

commissoned by

National Endowment for the Arts
Artist Trust
and Seattle City Artists

About this Piece

The seven creations is a concert-length a cappella opera that recounts the creation story of the ancient Zorastrians. This composition is the result of two separate sojourns to Bombay, India (in January 2005 and January 2007), and my friendships with Nariman, Coomi, and Sorab Wadia, who were my first exposure to this fascinating culture and faith. Zoroastrianism is arguably the world’s first monotheism, and was the most populous faith on earth during the life of Christ. Even though Zoroastrianism began in what is today modern Iran, north India is home to most Zoroastrians (who are known as Parsis, to differentiate them from Zoroastrians in Iran, called Iranis). In India, Bombay is among the most densely-populated enclaves of Zoroastrianism, a faith which predates and has influenced the most populous religions on the planet: including Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam.

While I was in Bombay, Nariman Wadia was kind enough to arrange for me the opportunity to research Zoroastrian texts at the Cama Oriental Institute. While there, I was able to read from copies of the Avesta (the compiled sacred texts of the Parsis), including the Gathas and an ancient copy of the Persian cosmology, called the (Greater Iranian) Bundahišn. While the Bundahišn is a document with its recorded origins in the 6th or 7th century CE, the Gathas are hallowed as the words of Zarathuštra (known as Zoroaster in Greek). The Gathas are most likely the oldest music in recorded history, and have been handed down by the rote oral memorization of Zoroastrian priests (or dastur), from father to son, since Zoroaster first uttered them. Some think that Zoroaster lived between 1500 and 2000 years before Christ, perhaps 4000 years ago.

The language of the Gathas is so old that, when Zoroastrian priests finally decided to record them in the 6th century, they had to invent a phonetic alphabet to do so. At that time, the priestly class spoke Middle Persian (or Pahlavi), which was the language of the Bundahišn. However, the language of the Gathas, which only priests could speak or understand, had been so pristinely preserved that it contained many sounds that were foreign to the vernacular. So, the priests invented a language to record the Gathas, and since the language and its script were meant only for this sacred text, they called it Avestan. This is the beautiful font that you will find throughout the texts and translations of this entire cosmological cycle.

The relationship between the Gathas and the Bundahišn, even over such a vast stretch of time, is truly remarkable. The hymns of Zarathustra ask so many questions about the origins of the universe, and the cosmological text from two millennia later answers them in great and beautiful detail – always acknowledging the cosmic balance between good and evil, and emphasizing the human choice between the two that is so essential to the Zoroastrian faith.

A synopsis of The seven creations would go something like this. Ahuramazda and Ahriman are the universal deities of good and evil. Before the beginning of time, Ahriman climbs out of the abyss and attacks Ahuramazda on high. Ahuramazda chants the ancient melody of the Ahuna var, and stuns Ahriman into submission. While he is unconscious, Ahuramazda creates the world, which takes seven forms: the Sky, the Water, the Earth, the Plants, Gav (the first animal, an ox), Gayomart (the first human), and the Fire (that which is sacred to all Zoroastrians). After these seven, Ahuramazda creates the Sun, the Moon, the Stars (including the zodiac), and his six avatars: the Holy Immortals. Alongside Ahuramazda, the Holy Immortals become the caretakers for each of the seven creations. When he comes to, Ahriman attacks each of the seven creations, bringing death and destruction to each, but also contributing to the beautiful form of the world as we know it. Ahriman is vanquished by the Sky Warrior and the Frahvars, and thrown into Hell. The world is then repaired by Tištar, the Wind Warrior, the Tree of Life, and of course, Ahuramazda himself. Although Gav and Gayomart perish, their legacy lives on in the multiplicity of animal species and humankind, and their essence is enshrined in the Sun and the Moon, to reflect upon our world and remind us of their sacrifice at the beginning of time. Throughout the narrative of this cosmology, verses from the Gathas are interspersed, concluding with the most joyous strains that refer to Heaven with the unforgettable moniker: “the House of Song.” What choral singer or enthusiast wouldn’t love to endorse such a description of the afterlife?

I must acknowledge the writings of Mary Boyle and Raiomond Mirza, as well as the library of Mark Ketter, who helped me immensely with gaining the cultural context to undertake writing this piece. The timeless melodies of the Gathas included in this composition were given wonderful voice by Ervad Aspandiyar Dadachanji. There are so many people to thank for making this work possible: from Pervez, who fixed my dying computer in a single afternoon, to Bobbo, the British Airways agent who found my missing luggage. I also have to acknowledge the kindness of Mary Wieneke, who allowed me to work on movements IV and V at her camp at Bear Island, New Hampshire, and the patience of Jon Seydl and Daniel McLean, who provided the solace for movements VI and VII in Cleveland, Ohio. However, none of this would have been possible without generosity of the Wadia family: Sorab, Coomi, and most of all, Nariman. I will always cherish your kindness and grace.

Text Credit

from the Avesta and the Bundahi

Sample Text

Between these two spirits, there was a void,
Which some called “Air,”
And here is where these two were joined. (B 1:5)
The highest pinnacle was called “Endless Light,”
And the deepest abyss was called “Endless Darkness.” (B 1:7)
These creature remained in a spiritual state, that is:
Unthinking, unmoving, and untouchable. (B 1:14)