My parents were both born in Iran. Mine is an old Persian Jewish family. Early on, I became interested in Persian poetry, later in music, but I hadn’t really done much to explore those things in my own compositions. My First Cello Concerto cracked the door open a bit by using some of the music of my own ancestry. I started noticing fascinating things that had existed in my music without my being aware of it, sort of unconscious transformations of something I had heard as a child. When I noticed glimmers of this in my First Cello Concerto, I grew more consciously interested in it.
Yo-Yo Ma was the soloist for that concerto, and in 1998, in the course of a conversation, he mentioned his Silk Road Project, a composition and performance venture based on the idea that the ancient Chinese Silk Road had served as a means of crossing cultural boundaries in the ancient world. I related my own ancestry to him, and the connection was made instantly. Ancient Persia was very much along the Silk Road. It was much larger than Iran is today; it also encompassed areas that today lie in Iraq and Pakistan and beyond.
I was so excited about exploring this through a composition that I personally went to the New York Philharmonic; this was the first time I had ever instigated a commission myself. I wanted to involve some other musicians to reflects the non-Western aspects of this piece. In my search, I found a musician who I can only describe as the Yo-Yo Ma of the kamancheh, that being a spike fiddle that is in many respects the distant ancestor of the modern cello. I had been thinking that my piece would juxtapose the old and the new, the ancient and the modern cultures. This could serve as a public version of something more private: the relationship of fathers and sons, which is ultimately what I think this piece ended up being about.
At about that time I was reading the ancient Persian myth of Sorab and Rustam, a father and son who had not seen each other through all their lives. They end up confronting each other on the field of battle, fighting on behalf of their separate clans, still unaware of their relationship. After three rounds of fighting the father slays the son, and just before the son dies, their relationship is disclosed. Now I wouldn’t say that Through the Ancient Valley pertains directly to that legend, but it was important source material that inspired my thoughts about the dynamics of this piece. In the end, this work is really about seeking some kind of reconciliation, looking for harmony between the new and the old cultures, even while knowing full well that we can never go back. In general, you could say that the kamancheh represents the ancient culture, and the cello the modern. That is why I wanted the kamancheh not to be onstage, but rather to be separated from the main orchestra; it represents something not in the here and now, but rather from another time.
Usually the kamancheh is heard in a sort of call-and-response with the cello. But in one of the kamancheh’s few solo passages, you hear a song that I remember hearing in Iran when I was a child. I lived there for ten months, when I was seven and eight years old, at just the time that President Kennedy was killed. The song lodged itself in my memory. There are also rhythms that correspond to certain standard Sufi rhythms; again, they worked their way in through a generally subliminal route. Nonetheless, even with all that taken into account, it’s important to understand that this concerto is not in any sense a piece of Persian music, or meant to parrot traditional Persian music. Instead, it is my music, though it exhibits a decidedly non-Western sensibility in certain aspects. This is analogous to how, in the past, I have sometimes incorporated elements of colloquial American music, or, for that matter, how Stravinsky appropriated Russian folk music for a piece like Petrushka. I’m not afraid of using “found objects,” providing that they become integrated with the fabric and language of my piece. In this case, their source is a generalized sort of Middle Eastern music – not strictly Persian (though including that), but also alluding to the musics of Israel, India and places in between.
The kamancheh is not the only non-Western instrument to figure in this score. I also call for a dombak in the percussion section and for a santūr (or, if available, a pair of htem), which plays in a small ensemble, towards the end, in the third of the piece’s four sections, again in an offstage chamber. I also use the alto flute, which in its timbre resembles the Persian nay. And a good deal of my writing for standard Western instruments here evokes the non-Western music, be is Sephardic Jewish, Indian, Persian, etc.
Learn about other music from the Silk Road.