Noteworthy: A Cross-Cultural Collaboration Based on a Centuries-Old Sufi Text

Jon Washburn's long-time fascination with the work of the Sufi poet Rumi led to a new collaboration inspired by the poet's 12th-century words.

"Your Fragrance"
By Edward Henderson
Recommended by Jon Washburn

From Jon Washburn:

For many years, while Fred Stoltzfus was at the University of Illinois (my alma mater), he and I would meet at conferences, and the discussion would eventually turn to the poetry of the great 12th-century Persian master Rumi. Each time, we would part with the determination to cooperate in commissioning a choral work based on this wonderful Sufi tradition. Alas, it never happened (along with a thousand other good ideas that I have hatched with my friends).

However, Rumi did eventually find me, through the intervention of another friend. Edward Henderson is a composer, arranger, guitarist and producer from Vancouver with a great interest in cross-cultural collaborations. The Vancouver Chamber Choir and I had worked together with Ed on a number of Latin-American projects, including a couple of recordings, when he decided to turn his attention to Rumi. 

His efforts resulted in two versions of an extended Rumi work called Birdsong. First came a 15-minute a cappella version in 2001, and then—five years later—a much extended 45-minute piece for choir and tar (the Iranian six-string precursor to the guitar family)—to my knowledge, the very first work ever for that combination. The texts are from Birdsong, Coleman Barks’ book of translations and adaptations of Rumi poems, supplemented with some verse in the original Farsi-language version. Although the poems may at first look secular, they are actually “full of images, life lessons and messages that beckon the listener to fully experience God in every thing and in every moment of life.” Sufi poets have many names for God, including the beloved, the great spirit, the universal soul, your lover and—this piece’s title—your fragrance.

"Your Fragrance" is the a cappella version of the final movement of Birdsong. Here is its exquisite poem, translated and poetically interpreted by Coleman Barks:

Your fragrance fills the meadow.
Your mouth appears in a red anemone,
but when those reminders leave,
my own lips open,
and in whatever I say,
I hear you.

My choir and I have now given perhaps 40-50 performances of this piece, always to the audience’s delight. It opens with a solo soprano cantillation much like an Islamic call to prayer, followed by choral development of the same theme. Halfway through, the texture changes as the men’s voices break into a percussive accompaniment that imitates the feeling of tablas and tamburas, giving a dance-like lift to the rest of the piece.  

This is a selection that is sure to elate you, your choir and your audience.

Listen to Your Fragrance

Date of premiere: November 9, 2001
Commissioner: Vancouver Chamber Choir
First performer: Vancouver Chamber Choir, Jon Washburn, conductor
Author/source of text: Persian poet Jalal al-din Rumi, translated into English by Coleman Barks
Length: 3 minutes 30 seconds
Parts: SATB
Publisher: G. Schirmer ED 4379 (HL 50486437)
Recording information: A Quiet Place Music for Healing III
Vancouver Chamber Choir, Jon Washburn, conductor
Grouse Records 203


Jon Washburn is the conductor and artistic director of Canada's Vancouver Chamber Choir and travels widely as guest conductor, lecturer, clinician, and master teacher. He earned a choral conducting degree at the University of Illinois and proceeded to pursue musicological studies at Northwestern and the University of British Columbia. Washburn quickly became involved in Baroque and Renaissance music as a busy professional viola da gamba and violone player. He was one of the founders of the Vancouver Society for Early Music (now Early Music Vancouver) and a long-time member of its management committee. He has led over 300 performances of more than 80 large works by a range of composers. 

He also served as artistic director for six years for the Phoenix Bach Choir and associated with several amateur ensembles, including Vancouver's Bach Choir and Willan Choir, Victoria's Amity Singers, and the early Jon Washburn Singers. He has commissioned and premiered nearly 200 new works by Canadian, American, and European composers during his career. Washburn has received the Friends of Canadian Music Award from the Canadian League of Composers and the Canadian Music Centre. As an active composer, arranger, and editor, he has had many compositions published, performed, and recorded around the world. 

In 2001 Washburn was named a Member of the Order of Canada (the nation's highest civilian honor) and in 2002 received Queen Elizabeth's Golden Jubilee Medal for his lifetime contribution to Canadian choral art. He received a Distinguished Service Award from the Association of Canadian Choral Conductors in 1996 and the Louis Botto Award from Chorus America in 2000. In the fall of 2009, he was named a CMC Ambassador and in 2010 received a star on the BC Entertainment Hall of Fame's Starwalk. In 2012 Washburn received the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal.

Chorus America’s Noteworthy web series highlights choral repertoire that may not be familiar to you—yet. Each month, a different conductor, music director, or other artistic professional recommends a piece of music that hasn't been widely noticed, but in his or her opinion, deserves to be heard.

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