Saturday, September 20th, 2014
Written by Tim Hansen
Galway Kinnell’s 1973 epic poem The Book of Nightmares is, to put it mildly, bleak. For the most part, it is a horrifying critique of the events of the twentieth century, but nestled within are passages that illuminate “the mystical, otherworldly and mysterious union of man and woman in the context of a distorted love poem,” to use the words of composer Gity Razaz. Razaz felt immediately drawn to these passages, describing them as filled with “dark, beautiful, and rare imagery, which I absolutely love.” The 2013 JFund panel evidently felt the same, awarding Razaz a coveted JFund grant to create a song cycle using Kinnell’s text.
Winning the grant only tells half the story of Razaz’ piece, however. Before writing a note, Razaz engages in a thoughtful and complex composition process, researching both the musical and extra-musical influences she wishes to explore in the piece. This preliminary process can take months, during which she maps out the structure and chronology of the dramatic musical events. Only once she feels she has a clear idea of where the piece is heading will Razaz begin composing according to the plans she has made. “I tend to start with the most dramatically intense, high tension moments within a piece and move outward,” she explains. “I tend to save the very beginning for last.”
By its nature, Razaz’ process can result in a long time between a piece’s conception and its premiere, but the resultant piece The Call Across the Valley of Not-Knowing had an especially long gestation period. Although she knew immediately upon reading Kinnell’s work in 2007 that she was going to create a piece around Book of Nightmares, Razaz says “it took me almost seven years to really understand the poems, discover the storyline, and find the courage to set them to music”.
It is, of course, a challenge regularly faced by composers: that the piece they imagine in a moment of inspiration may be beyond their current abilities, instilling an anxiety that if they attempt the work prematurely the end result will be disappointing. Razaz’s patient, prolonged preparation paid off, for once she started the actual composition process, “I wrote the piece in a very short amount of time,” resulting in a beautiful and moving original work that augments the emotions expressed in Kinnell’s text.
The Call Across the Valley of Not-Knowing is, however, just one opus from a fantastically diverse body of works from the Iranian-born composer. For Razaz, “music is a way to express and experience divinity and the force of life. I believe that the role of all composers is to stay true to the nature of their task: to create music for the sake of expressing their vision and life as they see it, and in doing so, become a vessel to channel this “force of life” and connect with others in a unified experience.”