About this Piece
After 11 September 2001, I realized that I knew very little about Islam. In the various debates that followed that dreadful day, I felt that the fallout was becoming increasingly anti-Muslim, and that many non-Muslims were misquoting scripture from the Qur’an for political reasons. Since I had previously studied Arabic in graduate school, I wanted to find a way to use my knowledge of Arabic to create a musical composition that could bring more understanding to this misunderstood faith.
Between 2001 and 2005, I read the Qur’an at least four times, in both Arabic and English. The profound mystery of this sacred poetry inspired me to create a work that would provide a foray for Westerners to hear some of the basic tenets of Islam intoned in its original language: Arabic. I embarked on this project with one specific intention: to create a musical narrative that could be understood by an audience who has had no or very little previous knowledge of the Qur’an.
Before I started composing, I consulted with my Muslim friends across the country. Earlier, in 2005, I also had the good fortune to travel in north India and Java, where I discussed this project with several of my Muslim acquaintances. As I developed a ‘libretto’ for this piece, I strove to include each of the verses (or surat) that I felt would make an impression upon non-Muslims: whether for their poetic beauty, their universal truth, or their contrasting message from the Judeo-Christian canon. I wanted these verses to inspire and teach my audience through their own words.
Muslims believe that the Prophet Muhammad received the Qur’an through a series of divine visions. I wanted to translate aspects of this profound spiritual experience into some sort of choral effect. To achieve this, I chose to conceal the musical endpoints that would demarcate separate movements, so that the music would blur together, like a series of images in a dream. Therefore, in this work, the twelve demarcations are not called movements, but are referred to as ‘visions.’
For this work, I compiled a translation after lengthy consultation of seven different translations of the Qur’an. Six of these renderings can be found at www.submission.org, and the seventh translation I used is by Ahmed Ali. Throughout the Qur’an, the subject of God (or Allah) occurs in three forms: as “I,” as “we,” and as “he.” In this work, for the sake of coherence, I have always translated Allah into the third person: either as “God” or “he.” I have done this only to bring clarity to the overall narrative, and sincerely hope that I have not altered any theological contexts.
In this work, I did not compose a single melody. All of this piece’s melodic material, some of which has been slowed down, comes directly from the chanting of the Qur’an. When I began to work on this piece, I was very fortunate to come across streaming audio of Qur’anic chant, verse-by-verse, at the site www.islamicity.com. In this work, I based all of the choral melodies on chants by Sheikh Muhammad Sadiq Al-Minshawi, and each of the more florid, soloists melodies on chants by Sheikh Abdul Basit Abdus Samad. Of the many different performances of Qur’anic chant that I heard, I found that the singing of these two men provided me with the most suitable contrasts for this work. I am completely inspired by these men, their gifts, and their dedication, and am deeply indebted to this website for allowing me such easy access to this profound spiritual beauty.
Although I am not a Muslim myself, I have composed this work out of deep respect for Islam. I dedicate this work to all people who desire more understanding between faiths, and to all who have dared to consider ideas beyond their own systems of belief: to people of all faiths, to people of no faith, to those still in harm’s way, and to those who live in peace.