Exhibit: Of Love and Madness
Photo: Layla and Majnun, the new production by Mark Morris Dance Group and the Silk Road Ensemble. At Power Center October 13-15, 2016.
Inside the Hatcher Graduate Library’s Special Collections, a set of display cases houses several manuscripts with gilded pages and splendidly illuminated text. These brilliant pages tell an age-old story of passion and divine love.
Layla and Majnun is an Persian romance ending in tragedy, not unlike Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. In the story, the poet Qays (Majnun) falls in love with the beautiful Layla. The lovers’ parents forbid them to wed, and instead Layla is married to another. Majnun, whose name derives from an Arabian word for “mad”, goes crazy upon hearing this. He escapes to the wilderness, half-naked and starving, to write poems about his beloved.
Majnun’s father takes him on a holy pilgrimage to Mecca to cure his obsession, but Majnun prays only for his love and passion to intensify. Layla and Majnun finally meet again, but both perish before they can express their passionate love for each other.
Origins and Themes
While the legend’s exact origins are unclear, the earliest known versions of Layla and Majnun come from anecdotal sources passed down by oral and written tradition. However, the complete story exists in many poetic versions.
Authors would recreate the story to emulate their contemporaries’ versions and to emphasize different themes. Common themes include elements of mysticism the moral of a pure and idealized love based in religion. Through his madness, Majnun’s love transforms from simple affection for Layla to an unattainable love of the divine—in other words, a love of God.
Many scholars regard Nizami Ganjavi’s 12th century epic poem as most popular version of the Layla and Majnun story. Nizami’s rich narrative and psychological complexity inspired readers and poets alike. His contemporaries imitated his poetic meter, structure, and thematic emphasis for many years.
From Verse to Opera and Beyond
The 16th century poet Fuzuli composed his own version of the poem in 1536, incorporating rich allegory and mystical elements inspired by Nizami and the Persian poet Hatifi. The intensity, sincerity, and compelling narrative of Fuzuli’s work inspired the first Azerbaijani opera composed by Üzeyir Hacibäyli, which in turn inspired the production of this weekend’s performances by the Mark Morris Group and Silk Road Ensemble.
The exhibit is offered in conjunction with UMS and the Mark Morris Dance Group and Silk Road Ensemble’s production of Layla and Majnun, presented this weekend, October 13-15. Exhibit curator Evyn Kropf has taken great care to compile a collection of manuscripts and editions that show a rich literary history of a timeless story.
Be sure to visit the exhibit on the 7th floor of the Hatcher Graduate Library October 7, 2016 – February 22, 2017.
See Layla and Majnun at Power Center in Ann Arbor October 13-15, 2016.
The Story of Layla and Majnun: The Idealization of Love
Editor’s Note: This post is by Wali Ahmadi, Department of Near Eastern Studies, University of California, Berkeley. Ahmadi focuses on the musical history of Layla and Majnun, an Arabian love story which will come to life in Ann Arbor with a new production from Mark Morris Dance Group and The Silk Road Ensemble on October 13-15, 2017.
Layla and Majnun. Images from the Heritage Museum.
From my early youth I have been intrigued by the love story of Majnun and Layla, two young lovers from Bedouin Arabia. I remember very well that during long, cold winter nights in Kabul, in the 1970s, my mother would tell us the remarkable story of these two lovers, their intense, splendid romance, and their endless plights leading to their heartrending deaths.
Years later, as a student of literature, I read the Persian romance of Laili and Majnun by Nezami Ganjawi (1140-1209 CE) and then came across several reworkings of this amazing romance.
In brief, Qays ibn al-Mulawwah of the Banu ‘Amir tribe falls in love with his classmate Layla bint Sa‘d. As the two grow older, the intensity of their love increases. Although Layla, too, is truly smitten by love, it is Qays who publicly and unreservedly pronounces his obsessive passion in elegiac lyrics, thus earning the epithet Majnun (literally, “possessed” or “mad”).
Majnun’s incessant poetic expression of Layla’s beauty and his astonishingly outrageous public conduct alarm Layla’s parents. Concerned about their daughter’s reputation as well as the honor and standing of the tribe, her parents ensure that the lovers are kept apart. When Qays’s father asks for Layla’s hand in marriage to his beloved son, Layla’s family flatly refuses the proposal, a response that seems harsh but, in the light of Majnun’s scandalous conduct, not necessarily unreasonable.
As Majnun continues wandering aimlessly through the desert, bonding with wild beasts, living an ascetic life, and composing verses about his obsession with Layla, his father lures him into visiting the holiest of Muslim sites, the Ka‘ba, in the hope of curing him of his obsessive love. There, Majnun pleads to Allah to make him “a hundred-fold” more “possessed” in his love for Layla.
In the meantime, Layla’s father gives her in marriage, against her will, to an affluent, but shallow, man named Ibn Salam. The marriage never consummates as Layla insists on preserving her chastity. She remains faithful to her true love, Majnun, until Ibn Salam dies of rejection, disillusionment, and grief.
A number of times, Majnun is offered the chance to visit his beloved, to speak with her in person. Towards the end of the story, when Layla, through the inter-mediation of a young, faithful devotee of Majnun, appears to him, he still refuses to have physical (or sexual) contact with her. Majnun strives to realize “perfect love” in Layla, a love that transcends sensual contact with the beloved, a love that is free from selfish intentions, lust, and earthly desires.
An Allegory? Profanity?
Precisely for this reason, many commentators have interpreted Nezami’s Laili and Majnun as a Sufi (Islamic mystical) allegorical narrative, where the lover seeks ultimate union with, as well as annihilation in, the Beloved (i.e. the Divine or the Truth). Majnun’s harsh life in the desert, then, has been compared to the ascetic life of Muslim mystics who rejected earthly pleasures and renounced worldly affinities.
Accordingly, his excessive devotion to Layla represents his unique and steadfast devotion to Ideal Love, the Divine—which explains why, in spite of his incessant yearning for his beloved Layla, he is incapable of physical intimacy with her. It is with the idealized image of the beloved—in the person of Layla—that Majnun is infatuated. When Layla falls mortally ill and passes away, Majnun, too, loses his one and only purpose in life, his sole means towards the realization of True Love. When he learns about the death of his beloved, he at once seeks her gravesite. Weeping and moaning, he presses himself against her gravestone and breaths his final gasps, and dies. The lovers ultimately unite, but only in death.
Nezami’s romance of Laili and Majnun is a multilayered, complex text, which makes it open to contrasting, and perhaps contradictory, readings. While a Sufi (mystical) reading of it is plausible, one can justifiably read it as a conventional, yet immensely rich and enthralling, love-story. Despite the abundance of mystical motifs and metaphors, the profane dimensions of the poem cannot be overlooked.
Nezami’s unparalleled narrative proved considerably influential during the subsequent centuries. While allusions and references to Layla and Majnun can be readily found in divans (collections) of poets before Nezami’s time, his version led several noted poets, in a host of languages, to compose original texts modeled after Nezami’s work. In Persian alone, one should mention Amir Khusraw Dehlawi’s masterpiece Majnun and Laili (completed c. 1299) and ‘Abd al-Rahman Jami’s Laili and Majnun (composed c. 1485). Other notable renderings of the story are by Maktabi Shirazi, Hatefi, and, more notably, Fuzuli. The latter became considerably influential in Ottoman Turkey. The romance of Layla and Majnun has also been made into several popular films and movies in Hindi, Turkish, Arabic, and Persian.
Wali Ahmadi is an associate professor of Persian literature at the University of California, Berkeley. His publications include Modern Persian Literature in Afghanistan: Anomalous Visions of History and Form (2008) and Converging Zones: Persian Literary Tradition and the Writing of History (2012). He is currently working on the cultural politics of modern Persian poetics and aesthetics.
On the music of Layla and Majnun: Into the Divine
Editor’s Note: This post is by Aida Huseynova, Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. Huseynova focuses on the musical history of Layla and Majnun, an Arabian love story which will come to life in Ann Arbor with a new production from Mark Morris Dance Group and The Silk Road Ensemble on October 13-15, 2017.
Photo: Singers Alim Qasimov and Fergana Qasimova. Photo courtesy of the artist.
At the age of 23, the composer Uzeyir Hajibeyli (1885–1948) put Azerbaijan—and himself—on the map of music history with his Leyli and Majnun. This opera was the first piece of composed music created in Azerbaijan, premiering in 1908 in Baku (then part of the Russian Empire, now the capital of the Republic of Azerbaijan). Azerbaijanis have revered their first national composer and his work ever since. For decades, every season at the Azerbaijan State Opera and Ballet Theater has opened with Leyli and Majnun. Each Azerbaijani singer appreciates the honor and responsibility of participating in these productions, and audiences throughout the country enjoy broadcasts of the performances.
Nearly a century after the Baku premiere, Hajibeyli’s opera found a new life half a world away thanks to the Silk Road Ensemble under the artistic direction of Yo-Yo Ma. In 2007, the group created a chamber arrangement of Hajibeyli’s work that was entitled Layla and Majnun, following the pronunciation of the heroine’s name in Arabic culture, in which this ancient legend had originated. From 2007 to 2009, the arrangement was a highlight of the ensemble’s repertoire, delighting large audiences around the world.
The rich multicultural potential of Hajibeyli’s opera perfectly resonates with Silkroad, the cultural organization Yo-Yo Ma founded to house the Silk Road Ensemble. Silkroad envisions music as a global phenomenon, with musical forms, genres, and styles serving as bridges across time and between cultures. Azerbaijani opera offers many possibilities for such musical and cultural synthesis. In Leyli and Majnun, Hajibeyli combined Western opera with two artistic treasures of Central Asia and the Middle East: the story of Layla and Majnun and the genre of mugham.
Diverse genres and cultural traditions
Musical interpretations of the legend of Layla and Majnun appear in diverse genres and national traditions, attesting to the tale’s enduring popularity. Hajibeyli’s opera—the first piece of composed music to set this ancient story—was based on mugham, the quintessential genre of traditional Azerbaijani music. Mugham is a branch of the large maqam tradition cultivated in the Middle East and Central Asia, historically performed by a mugham trio that consists of a singer playing gaval (frame drum) and two instrumentalists playing tar (lute) and kamancheh (spike fiddle). Since the early 20th century, mugham has become the main source of creative inspiration and experimentation for Azerbaijani composers. In 1977, Azerbaijani mugham was one of the 27 musical selections put in Voyagers I and II. Sent beyond our solar system, these American spacecraft carried this music as a testament to the emotional life of human beings. In 2003, UNESCO recognized Azerbaijani mugham as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
In the interpretation of the Silk Road Ensemble, the story of Layla and Majnun is presented in a condensed version: the three-and-a-half-hour-long opera is compressed into an hour-long chamber piece. Hajibeyli’s five acts are rearranged into six parts. These changes have resulted in a reordering and even an omission of many operatic episodes. Ultimately, the Silk Road Ensemble’s alterations highlight the story’s time-honored messages. The legend of Layla and Majnun has a strong Sufi component, with the love between a man and a woman being seen as a reflection of love for God. The death resulting from separation from one’s beloved is a supreme fulfillment, as it takes the individual into the divine. In Hajibeyli’s opera, this idea was conveyed through the chorus “Night of Separation,” which opens and concludes the work. Reconstituting the Chorus as a cello solo, both at the beginning and at the end of the piece, is one of the new arrangement’s most insightful interpretations: the lonely melody of the cello sounds as the voice of eternity.
The new arrangement of Hajibeyli’s opera has created a different balance between Western and Eastern traits. In Hajibeyli’s opera, these two components mostly are kept separate: the symphony orchestra plays all episodes of composed music and remains silent during the mughams. Only the tar and kamancheh accompany singers during mugham episodes. In the new version, however, the role of the ensemble—with tar and kamancheh included—is crucial throughout the entire piece, and both the improvised and written parts of the composition are firmly integrated.
Layla and Majnun is a constantly changing and developing project. Every performance is unique, and it is impossible to take a snapshot of this work. Yo-Yo Ma called this a “part of the thrill” and described the project as “perhaps the finest example of group intelligence at work” (New York Times, March 1, 2009). A reviewer of a performance by the Silk Road Ensemble noted, “Layla and Majnun was the apex of the program. Classical music making rarely achieves this combination of spontaneity and superb craftsmanship” (Washington Post, March 14, 2009).
Indeed, this composition is a result of collective effort and is imbued with the spirit of improvisation. Hajibeyli was aware of the large cultural span of his project, in terms of its musical and literary contents. However, Hajibeyli limited the cultural, aesthetic, and stylistic scope of the opera to the context of his native culture. In so doing, he reflected the social and cultural expectations of early 20th-century Azerbaijan as well as his own professional experience (or rather, its absence, as Leyli and Majnun was Hajibeyli’s first work). The Silk Road Ensemble has expanded the cultural reach of Azerbaijani opera deep into the Middle East and Central Asia. No less importantly, they have increased the Western elements in Hajibeyli’s score, creating a work of global East-West significance. The new musical arrangement of Layla and Majnun is a respectful and highly artistic transformation of Hajibeyli’s “mugham” opera, now shaped by creative energies coming from diverse cultural, stylistic, and temporal sources.
Aida Huseynova has a PhD in musicology and teaches at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. Her publications include Music of Azerbaijan: From Mugham to Opera (Indiana University Press, 2016). Huseynova also serves as a research advisor for Silkroad under the artistic direction of Yo-Yo Ma. Her numerous awards include an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant (2016) and a Fulbright scholarship (2007-08).
UMS Playlist: Bluegrass by UMS Associate Programming Manager Liz Stover
This post is a part of a series of playlists curated by UMS staff, artists, and community. Check out more music here.
Having grown up in a household where jam bands were in frequent rotation on our stereo, and having developed a musical background in violin, that I eventually loved bluegrass music is no big surprise. Bluegrass is a genre of frequent collaboration — many of the artists in this playlist play in bands together or work on projects with each other while also maintaining their own solo projects or groups.
I fell in love with the music of Punch Brothers when UMS presented them in October 2009 at the Power Center, and have since followed their musical endeavors and discovered other exciting artists along the way. Here in Ann Arbor, we’re also lucky to have the Ark, a stellar local institution that is a national leader in the presentation of folk and bluegrass music.
This season, I can’t wait to welcome back Chris Thile (the mandolin player of the Punch Brothers) in October for a solo performance to follow his forthcoming record release of Bach sonatas and partitas. I am also really excited that we’re bringing banjo player Béla Fleck back with the exciting young string quartet Brooklyn Rider (who are also members of the Silk Road Ensemble) in November, mixing two of my favorite genres, bluegrass and chamber music! If this playlist and those two shows leave you wanting more, check out vocalist Sarah Jarosz or An Evening with Noam Pikelny (banjo), Bryan Sutton (guitar), Jesse Cobb (mandolin), Barry Bales (bass), and Luke Bulla (fiddle), both at the Ark in October.
What did you think about this playlist? Share your thoughts or song suggestions in the comments below.
From our Archive: Yo-Yo Ma with conductor Eugene Ormandy in 1982
From our archives, Yo-Yo Ma with conductor Eugene Ormandy backstage at Hill Auditorium at the 1982 UMS May Festival. Yo-Yo Ma returns to perform with Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile on April 22, 2017.
Last updated 5/2/2016.
Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Project: Musical Journeys
With their March 16 concert at Hill Auditorium, Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road ensemble receive the 2013 UMS Distinguished Artists Award, and Yo-Yo Ma is a name known to almost anyone even casually acquainted with classical instrumental music. Sheer longevity has helped Ma to this point—his performing career began in 1961, at the age of six, and he has an instinct for connecting with general audiences that was second nature to the great virtuosi of the past but isn’t seen so much anymore.
Yet this Parisian-born, Chinese-descended, and for all that thoroughly American cellist has reached a level beyond mere popularity. “Distinguished artist” covers it pretty well. How did he get here? Few would nominate him on purely technical grounds; he does everything well that he needs to, but it’s a keen ear that can identify his playing from its sound alone. Audiences are quick to respond to his personal warmth, and no one should discount that. But it’s a quality he shares with many other musicians.
Most artists follow trends, a few even set them. But rare indeed are the ones like Ma for whom each individual concert is part of a larger, even a lifelong utterance. Yo-Yo Ma’s music brings ideas from a hundred years ago, and it explores others that are absolutely new, and in which he is indeed a pioneer. His music-making carries with it history of ideas, and in this lies its enduring appeal.
Something entirely new in the history of concert music
The Silk Road Project, an incarnation of which appears at UMS’s March 16 special event, was founded in 1998. It’s something entirely new in the history of concert music: not really an ensemble, for as an ensemble it is always changing. Instead, it’s an organization, a framework for collaboration, an ongoing series of programs and educational enterprises—in a word, an idea.
The Silk Road, which also had an important maritime component, was a network of trade routes connecting Asia, the Mediterranean, and Africa from antiquity until the Renaissance era. It was a conduit for much more than silk and other luxury goods, bringing, for a start, Buddhism to China, ancient Greek art to Central Asia and points east, and Indian religions and finally Islam to Indonesia. Why do statues of the Buddha look Greek? The artistic ramifications of these developments, stretching over more than a millennium, are countless, and each new Silk Road Project recording or performance brings the feeling that the surface has only been scratched.
The Silk Road Project is indeed something new, yet it’s something old as well. It’s difficult for modern audiences to put themselves in the place of those in the late nineteenth century, when lines between classical and popular music were not so firmly drawn, and when a virtuoso was often a player who brought a whiff of exotic lands. With the Silk Road Project, Yo-Yo Ma is in part reflecting on his own heritage and on the many cultures in its orbit. Classical music has always relied on the physical presence of the virtuoso to keep it in touch with the music of the wider world and avoid losing itself in insular delusions of linear progress, and looked at in one way, Ma is the heir to a musician like violinist Pablo de Sarasate, whose repertory traced a semicircle from Spain to Venice Eastern Europe around classical music’s increasingly Germanic core.
Yet, for all that, Yo-Yo Ma is a product of the idealistic middle twentieth century, when classical music seemed able to spread a kind of enlightenment. He made his name not with Asian music but with Bach’s suites for solo cello, following the mold of an artist whose influence on him has been a bit obscured by the fact that their styles are different: Pablo Casals. Ma played under the 90-year-old Casals in the Marlboro Festival Orchestra in Vermont, and Casals went on, at 95, to write a Hymn to the United Nations (with text by W.H. Auden), and Yo-Yo Ma numbers among his honors that of official United Nations Messenger of Peace.
A Hymn to the United Nations:
The Silk Road Project rests on this foundation of idealism. It has been the major artistic decision of Yo-Yo Ma’s middle age, and it weaves together strands of culture from wide ranges of space and time. Each Silk Road Ensemble concert brings something of exotic cultures, of classical idealism, and of new world fusions, yet each one is different. As an explorer of world music Ma is unusual and fresh; as a visionary who sees how world music relates to the classical tradition and its capacity for historical reflection, he is a unique treasure. He has a keen eye for talent, a healthy disregard for genre, and a willingness to try new things that is nothing short of marvelous in the later stages of a classical career. Distinguished, indeed.
Q&A with Percussionist Joseph Gramley
Multi-percussionist Joseph Gramley is a professor of music at the University of Michigan and will be appearing as a guest artist with the Pavel Haas Quartet on April 18th in Rackham Auditorium. Gramley’s dynamic and exciting performances as a soloist and as a member of Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble has generated enthusiasm from emerging composers, percussion aficionados, and successful ensembles around the world.
Kari Dion is a U-M Master’s Clarinet student and UMS Digital Media Intern.
Kari Dion: When did you first start collaborating with other established ensembles?
Joseph Gramley: When I was a freshman at UM, I was selected to join the Spoleto festival orchestra in both Charleston, SC and Spoleto, Italy. There, I was asked to collaborate on the chamber music series and the Music In Time series, all with established ensembles. Then, upon my arrival to New York for study at the Juilliard School, I continued to collaborate — at the Juilliard, with NYC ensembles and as a guest artist for the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont, where in 1993, I was asked to perform the Bartok Sonata for two pianos and percussion with Andras Schiff and Bruno Canino. My schooling at UM and Juilliard with such great teachers as Michael Udow, Salvatore Rabbio, Daniel Druckman and Gordon Gottlieb taught me the importance of collaboration. All of my mentors embraced collaboration.
KD: As a percussionist, is collaboration with other artists easier or more challenging? Have you collaborated with a string quartet before? Are there other notable ensembles that you have collaborated with?
Joseph Gramley: As a founding member of the Silk Road Ensemble with Yo-Yo Ma, I’ve been lucky enough to collaborate with many string ensembles. This includes, Yo-Yo Ma and the full ensemble of artists of the Silk Road Ensemble, Brooklyn Rider, and the Knights. Since 1993 I’ve been a regular performer at the Marlboro Music Festival which is based solely around collaboration and chamber music. I’ve collaborated with Dawn Upshaw and Bright Sheng in concerts and opera performances. For many years, I’ve been associated with Carnegie Hall and have performed concerts at Zankel with David Robertson, George Benjamin, Sofia Gubiadulina, and many others. For the World Expo in Nagoya Japan in 2006, I was lucky enough to be asked to perform the Chen Yi “sound of the five” on marimba with the silk road ensemble string players Nick Cords, Colin Jacobsen, Mike Block and Johnny Gandelsman.
KD: What do you enjoy most about collaborating with other ensembles?
Joseph Gramley: Collaboration is my oxygen. I really do need it to survive. It’s what I love the most. The communication, the trust, the communal goal, the support. You can’t get much better than a highly communicative chamber music performance.
KD: What is your role when you are playing with a string quartet? How much time will you have to rehearse with the Pavel Haas Quartet prior to the performance?
Joseph Gramley: My role with a string quartet will mimic my role with any group that I collaborate with. It’s about trust and communication. We’ll find what’s important in the musical composition to each of us and, through trust and communication, we’ll hope that the audience has a transformative experience.
KD: What was your favorite musical collaboration?
Joseph Gramley: That’s hard to say; to choose one would place all of my amazing colleagues in second place…..As I’ve noted in this interview, which by the way, has GREAT questions, it’s all about the communication and message. Of course, I can’t continue without mentioned one of my most influential mentors: Yo-Yo Ma. What an angel and a saint. He embodies everything that is right about music, chamber music, and the arts.
KD: Aside from your performing career, you are also a professor of percussion at U of M. How does teaching supplement or enhance your performing experiences, or vice-versa?
Joseph Gramley: If you attend UM Football Games and stay to hear the incredible UM Marching Band, you’ve heard the phrase, “You can’t have one with out the other.” This is in reference to two great ‘hits’ for the band that are always performed back-to-back. The same goes for my teaching career vis-a-vis my performing career. They really do go hand in hand. When I tour, I come back to UM so incredibly enthusiastic about my teaching and our great students here. When I’m on tour, I’m always referencing my students. In fact, my colleagues in the Silk Road Ensemble kid me a lot for writing emails to the studio at UM talking about what I’ve been learning. It inspires me to perform as equally as it does to teach….one informs the other.
KD: Is musical collaboration something that you emphasize to your own students at U of M? Are there important collaborations your students have been a part due to your influence?
Joseph Gramley: Most definitely! I stress it everyday at UM. I tell my students, “This is what we do, we collaborate.” There are but a few ‘solo’ percussionists in the world and they too have a collaborative element to their careers.
KD: You have so many elements to your career. Which do you find most rewarding?
Joseph Gramley: Tough call! One of my goals is to give 100% to whatever musical and collaborative situation or aesthetic that I may find myself in. I stress this with my students as well. Whether it be a ‘command performance’ where I’m called upon to perform works chosen by other artists, or a musical situation fully produced by myself, I firmly believe that we have to “leave it all out there on the court.” To be honest, the most rewarding elements are the ones that combine to form the sublime, transformative experiences. Experiences of which that it is my duty to include the audience in.
KD: What music inspires and influences you? We’ve been asking our interviewees to share a few musical suggestions with our audiences. Can you share 3 to 5 pieces or songs that you connect with?
Joseph Gramley: The Chen Yi Percussion Concerto is one of my new favorite works. Evelyn Glennie has recorded it, and I’ve been lucky enough to perform it with Kenneth Kiesler and the UM USO, as well as GianCarlo Guerrero and the Nashville Symphony.
Osvaldo Golijov’s ‘Air to Air’ commissioned by my group, the Silk Road Ensemble, is one of my all-time faves. It’s on our last album: OFF THE MAP.
Anything recorded by BROOKLYN RIDER is amazing. Especially Colin Jacobsen’s works and the full groups joint commission: SEVEN STEPS.