"...deft, deliciously moody settings..."
— Joshua Kosman, San Francisco Chronicle Bruce Rockwell
Pashtun Songs for soprano and piano
The texts for the Songs of Pashtun Women were compiled from translations of an oral form of poetry known as the landay. These are two-line (“landay” is Pashto for “short”) free verse poems, not necessarily rhymed, that can be written or improvised. The poetry of Afghan women is usually anonymous, often song to the beat of a hand drum, and is usually created together with other women during their various errands and duties.
Different themes are explored in the landays – chiefly love, honor, sorrow, and loss. This poetry provides Afghan and Arab women with a means of indirect expression that allows them to maintain their honor. While admissions and invitations to love and erotic passion are common themes in this poetry, curiously the husband is never addressed directly. Here he is referred to as “the small and awful one.”
In the words of translator Simone Fattal, “Westerners expect the Muslim women to be submissive, weak, and shy, hidden behind her veil. The poetry presented here reveals a woman whose discourse is bold. The Pashtun woman offers herself to her lover with pride, scolds him when he does not give her satisfaction, and despises him and sends him away if he does not fight for his country with courage….There is not a trace of sentimentality in this poetry. It is strong, often poignant, always proud, and passionate.”
Along with my Rumi Songs of Love for mezzo soprano that were commissioned at the same time, the Pashtun Songs were a kind of artistic response to the 9/11 attacks. Given the popularity of non-Western musical explorations by composers and other musicians in this postmodern era, the listener might find it curious that in setting this poetry I made no attempt to sound remotely Islamic, Afghani, or even generically “Eastern.” What struck me upon exploring this poetry was not its Pashtun, Afghan, or Islamic flavor, but rather its universality. So rather than trod the well-worn path of stylized musical orientalism, my impulse was to appropriate them entirely into my own compositional language, which is steeped in the rich traditions of Western classical music. In this manner I aim to provide both performer and audience with a more authentic experience of the poetry, one that emphasizes familiarity over exoticism.