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October 13, 2007

Esoterics choral group will perform Islamic texts

Seattle News-Tribune (WA):

They’ve sung in Latin, Finnish, Hungarian and ancient Persian. They’ve sung secular texts, Christian ones, Buddhist, Islamic, even Zoroastrian. They’ve sung in all keys and none, music written yesterday and music from before written notation. For 15 years the music of the Esoterics, a Seattle-based a cappella choir, has seen no limits.

Yet in the next program, which opens Saturday at Tacoma’s Trinity Lutheran Church before several Seattle concerts, the choir’s inclusiveness takes an interesting turn. Four pieces inspired by Islamic texts make up the RU’IA program: one in Arabic, one in French, one in Tatar and one Arabic/English.

Since elucidation of Islamic holy texts is one of the choir’s aims with RU’IA, they’ll mount supertitles for the first time, despite their polylingual history. And for their downtown Seattle concert on Oct. 20, they’ll break their tradition of singing in acoustically gorgeous churches and perform in the Olympic Sculpture Park Pavilion – an expensive move made, they say, out of sensitivity to the spiritual subject matter.

RU’IA itself doesn’t break a whole lot of new ground. The central piece in the program is a slightly revised repeat of “Twelve Qur’anic Visions” by founding director Eric Banks, which the choir premiered in 2005. Set to some 148 verses from the Quran, Banks’ piece creates what he calls a “choral dreamscape” set, in his usual complex style, for 12-part double chorus and six soloists. Using traditional Quranic chants as the melodies, the piece selects those verses from the Quran that Banks wanted Westerners to know.

“After 9/11, I felt that a lot of people were taking out of the Quran lots of things that weren’t actually there,” says the director. Not Muslim himself, he had nevertheless studied Arabic at the University of Washington and traveled to many Muslim countries. “I wanted to use music as a vehicle to expose the text, to tell people what’s really there.”

The three other pieces in RU’IA include a merging of the Muslim call to prayer with African street sounds by Vancouver composer Hussein Janmohamed, one by Seattle’s Bern Herbolsheimer set to a story about angels by Turkestan’s national poet Gabdulla Tukai, and the Islam-inspired “Priere” by Dutch composer Ton de Leeuw.

Says Banks, “The whole point of the concert is to initiate people in the West to one of the most prevalent religions in the world.”

Yet as well as connecting Westerners with Islam, the Esoterics also wanted to connect to the Muslim community in Seattle. The choir usually performs in churches – Trinity Lutheran near Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, and Holy Rosary in West Seattle, for instance – where the acoustics are custom-made for unaccompanied voices and the audience size is intimate. Yet after performing Banks’ piece in 2005, the irony of singing Islamic texts in a Christian church “wasn’t lost on the group,” choir member Bayta Maring points out.

The choir’s board felt strongly enough about the sensitivity of the issue, not to mention the possibilities of reaching a wider audience, that they decided to move the downtown Seattle concert out of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church to the Olympic Sculpture Park. The location costs the choir almost their entire annual venue budget.

“The location change presents an opportunity for the Esoterics to connect with members of the Muslim community in Seattle who would not feel comfortable hearing sacred Muslim texts in a Christian setting,” says Maring. It’s also a chance to collaborate with Seattle organization Hate Free Zone, which aims at empowering immigrant communities and working for social justice: The entire RU’IA series has been made a benefit for the organization.

The rest of the series will be performed, as usual, at various churches around Seattle and Tacoma. Part of this, Banks says, is logistics: Church acoustics and sizes work, and the price is affordable. Yet he also sees a connection between the faiths.

“Many of these verses are very converse with Christian thought – they might be found in the Bible,” he says.

Posted by acapnews at October 13, 2007 12:44 AM

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