Composer and Carnegie Mellon University professor Reza Vali sits at the piano of his Squirrel Hill home.
Click photo for larger image.
Where: Heinz Hall, Downtown.
When: 8 p.m. Friday and 2:30 p.m. next Sunday.
Tickets: $19-$72; 412-392-4900.
Reza Vali, "Love Song" from "Folk Songs Set No. 12a," from the Albany Records disc "Chant and Dance" (2006). Mimi Lerner, mezzo soprano; Irene Schreier, piano; Cuarteto Latinoamericano.
Reza Vali, Molto Allegro from "Folk Songs Set No. 15," from the Albany Records disc "Chant and Dance." Seattle Chamber Players.
Hatespeak and posturing have taken center stage in the public's view of Iran, but the country was once home to one of the most inclusive and altruistic minds of all time, Jalal ad-Din Rumi. In one of his 40,000 couplets, the mystic poet wrote of being "neither Christian, nor Jew, nor Magian, nor Muslim ... not of the East, nor of the West, nor of the land, nor of the sea."
Carnegie Mellon University composer Reza Vali was born in Ghazvin, Iran, but now is a U.S. citizen devoting his compositional life to melding the two cultures in a continuing group of "folk sets." These combine Western techniques and Persian scales to express what he feels is the essence of Iranian culture, long since buried under the political strife and negative headlines.
"People [here] don't know a lot about Middle Eastern philosophy," says Vali, 53, who studied at the Tehran Conservatory of Music, the Vienna Academy of Music and the University of Pittsburgh. "We are not receiving the mainstream of philosophical thought in Persia and other countries in the Middle East. It is my job as a musician to reflect on human nature. Love is so strong. It moves across barriers and hatred."
Love was the catalyst for Vali's newest and largest folk set, "The Being of Love," a song cycle for voice and orchestra commissioned by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. On Friday, the PSO will premiere the work, sung by mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung, a frequent guest at Heinz Hall.
"It's inspired by how love is such a strong emotion," says Vali from his home in Squirrel Hill. "I took the spiritual aspect of love. Rumi was a mystic, and he believed that through true love you can have true contact with God, you don't need an intermediary. Essentially, through love you can gain enlightenment."
"The idea of the piece came to my mind when I came to hear a recital by Michelle DeYoung in the Jewish Community Center about three years ago," he added. DeYoung was singing Mahler's "Ruckert Lieder," and Vali was particularly struck by the song "If You Love for Beauty."
"It was a beautiful performance," says Vali, who had been asked to write something for the orchestra. "Then I [started] thinking about the Western concept of love as you see it in 'Tristan [and Isolde]' -- lovers finding resolution in death. In Eastern philosophy, you don't have to die to love. So I thought, Why don't I write a piece on love based on the Eastern philosophy of looking at love?"
Vali naturally turned to Rumi. "Any house you go to in Iran, they have a book of poetry of Rumi; Rumi is interwoven into Iranian thought." One poem in particular jumped out at him:
is separate from any existence.
Love is the mystery
of God's creation.
the soul of the earth
reached the depth of the universe.
moving to an ecstatic, celestial dance.
"The nucleus musically and philosophically of the piece is this poem," says Vali. "The piece was inspired by it; it is a point of arrival." Indeed, Rumi's poem ends the work, the last of five poems that Vali set in this exploration of various states of love: "Longing," "Love Drunk," "In Memory of a Lost Beloved," "The Girl from Shiraz," "The Being of Love."
"It moves from the earthly aspect of love to the heavenly aspect," says Vali. He bridges the East-West divide in the fourth song by combining a popular Iranian tune with quotes from "Silent Night," Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde" and Messiaen's "Quartet for the End of Time."
But it is the fifth song that connects love's power with a vision of unity in the world, expressed in the Rumi poem, in a motif played by the brass section and a samba rhythm in the percussion section.
"Being" alternates between orchestrated folk songs and "imaginary" folk songs written by Vali in a process he learned from studying Bela Bartok. "Many of his compositions are written in the style of Hungarian folk songs; I am borrowing his definition," he says. "They are my own compositions, but they are written in the style of a folk song."
The tradition of writing in a folk style stretches beyond Bartok in both time and musical traditions: Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" and Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land" are just a few well-known examples. But Vali has treated the concept quite systematically.
"I started collecting folk music when I was 14 years old," he says. He now has a substantial collection of tapes and CDs. "The Being of Love" is the 16th in his ongoing cycle of Persian folk songs the composer began in 1978, composed of both real and mimicked folk songs.
Vali's latest recording, "Chant and Dance," includes two folk sets, and the project continues in "Being."
"Songs one, three and five are imaginary folk songs, two and four are authentic folk songs," he says of the new composition. Some of the poetry also is Vali's. "It worked out well. I could relate all the text to each other; instead of it being five separate songs, they are all interrelated."
He hopes that his songs will show just how interrelated the world is, too, when it comes to human emotion.
Post-Gazette classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1750.