Sarah Irving

I do things with words, mainly English and Arabic

The Intoxicating Rose Garden

One of the joys of being a student is the discounts. Not in noisy pubs, but in Edinburgh’s wide range of music and theatrical venues. As has been observed many times elsewhere, the increasing price of theatre and music tickets means it’s difficult to experiment, take a bit of a risk and see something you wouldn’t normally go to. But Edinburgh’s publicly subsidised venues like the Usher Hall and Traverse Theatre do some extremely good offers, and as far as I’m concerned that’s an opportunity to see things I couldn’t normally afford to take a chance on.
So, on Thursday night I pushed myself well outside my comfort zone and went to The Intoxicating Rose Garden. I know very little about contemporary classical music and even less about contemporary dance, and harbour some fairly robust prejudices against both, especially the latter. For some reason, though, the title of this caught my eye – perhaps lured by the reference to the fourteenth-century Persian poet Hafez.
As it turned out, I struck lucky (perhaps an encouragement to be more adventurous in the future). The Intoxicating Rose Garden was an unexpected mix: fairly traditional Setar and voice (not Sitar, as we had emphasised!) settings of Hafez’s poetry from Anoosh Jahanshahi; calligraphic representations of the same poems by Jila Peacock; contemporary Western music by Sally Beamish, performed by Red Note, and dance from Michael Popper. (I also derived a certain grim pleasure from the idea of an evening of Iranian and Iranian-inspired art on Thanksgiving. But that’s probably because I’m a Bad Human Being).
The first half of the programme was composed of Jahanshahi’s settings of Hafez poems, with backscreen projections of Peacock’s stunning, fluid calligraphy and a few other images. As a well-respected interpreter of Hafez’ work, it was a rare privilege to see Jahanshahi in the UK, given the British authorities’ apparent antipathy to granting visas to non-Western artists, even those billed as part of major festivals. An idea of the kind of music I’m talking about can be found in this video, also based on Jila Peacock’s calligraphy and settings of Hafez’s poems:

The second half was a less traditional mix. Sally Beamish’ compositions, originally inspired by Jila Peacock’s translation and calligraphic images based on Hafez’s poems, was spare but warm, evocative of the poems themselves but not forced. Red Note’s performance was wonderful, the generous depths of the cello and harp underpinning the rising flute, recorder and trumpet. I’m not sure who designed the backscreen projections, but gorgeous use was made of Peacock’s calligraphy and of footage of – most beautifully – more calligraphy being written out on wet cloth using a brush dipped in blue ink, which then spread and fanned out. Popper’s sung versions of some of the poems in translation was a genuine addition; his dance performance I could have taken or left, but then as I noted above, dance has never been my thing.

I was worried before I went to this – especially once a friend also bought a ticket based on my mention of the event – that it was going to descend into some of the stereotypes of pretentious, self-conscious contemporary performing arts which I have in my head. Did I spend a bit too much of my late teens hanging around with kids from the Brit School? Perhaps. But in the end, it was a wonderful example of how influences from across cultures and centuries can meet in an evening of art and performance, in a very beautiful, simple and satisfying way.
Thanks are also due to my colleague from IMES, Francesco, and his lovely wife. We bumped into them before the performance and seeing a show like this in the company of someone doing their PhD on Islamic calligraphy was a wonderful privilege and enhancement to the evening. And here’s a quick plug for the department’s day-long calligraphy workshop, run by an Iraqi master of the art.

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