NURUN ALA NUR: LIGHT UPON LIGHT
MOMBASA MATATU MEDITATION
2005 | Commission by The Esoterics | Eric Banks, Conductor | Premier by The Esoterics
Nur: Reflections on Light is a collection of miniatures and choral soundscapes exploring the ineffable nature of light. The collection contains newly composed music and reworked material written as site-specific compositions for the opening of the Ismaili Centre Toronto. Performed by Toronto’s Elmer Iseler Singers with special guest singers from the Ismaili community, the composition was the backdrop to His Highness the Aga Khan and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s walk-through of the Centre following the ceremony. The music interweaves melodies from Ismaili Muslim devotional literature, Quran recitation, classical Indian ragas and North American folk music into textures inspired by early and contemporary choral music. Each movements in the composition references the diverse spaces in the Centre from those for reflection to those for dialogue and communty engagement.
I drew inspiration from Ayat an-Nur (24:35) – Verse of Light from the Quran - and concepts of light that guided the architectural design. I am captivated by the nature of light and what it might sound like. Light can be a wave or a particle, or both. Light can be diffused or concentrated. Light, no matter how you slice it, is still light. White light through a prism becomes many, but it’s still all one light. In the music you will hear moments where all voices come to one note, split into many, interact with each other, then come back to one - like one soul from which the diversity of all humankind comes and returns.
The work as a whole also explores a relationship between reality and appearance. I thought about the play of shadow and light in the Aga Khan Museum and the Ismaili Centre Toronto. When you look at a shadow of the design or architecture on a wall the shadow looks real, but it was actually created by something else. It’s the same way in sound. Often what we think we hear is not always what is actually being sung, and if we listen close enough we will hear beyond what’s being sounded. It is in this liminal space where the common heart emerges in which we can connect meaningfully with each other.
The soul of inspiration for this composition is the Ismaili Centre Toronto prayer hall, housed under a great crystalline multi-dimensional dome. I visited the site while under construction and recall it was indescribable. Silence overcame me and all I felt was and a sense of suspended breath. So that became my creative challenge – to put forward a sound or combinations of sounds reflecting the Ismali plural heritage to invoke silence and breath in a Canadian space.
I was clear about creating a contemporary choral composition, universal in appeal yet culturally specific in its musical references. I grew up with a variety of musical influences that resonated deeply, from early Hindi film music, Western orchestral and choral music, country and soft rock, Ismaili devotional music, and more recently Aboriginal traditions. As an artist living in Canada I’m naturally enriched and shaped by these plural musical encounters. This diversity of musical influence beautifully parallels the plurality of cultural inputs that characterize the Canadian experience, yet results in a relatable experience. I was particularly excited about this aspect, hoping that all people, regardless of their backgrounds, would connect with the music, perhaps see themselves represented in it and through the connection feel the possibility of humanity mingling peacefully in each other’s light.
For those that heard the composition live, there is no doubt as to its evocative powers. As the conductor Lydia Adams summarizes: “That’s what music is all about: building bridges, always.”