You can’t always hear Tajikistan in Farangis Nurulla-Khoja’s music, but it’s there.
Yes, the Montreal-based composer works in a thoroughly international style, often setting dense clusters of instrumental colour against the cut-glass elegance of her melodic lines. And, yes, she’s studied at some globally prestigious schools, including the University of California’s San Diego outpost and the IRCAM research centre in Paris.
But the Central Asian country where she was born continues to exert a pull on her music—sometimes sonically, and sometimes on an even deeper aesthetic level.
“Consciously, I’m not trying to make a connection to any Tajik music or melodies, but I believe there are always connections,” Nurullah-Khoja explains in mildly accented English, speaking by telephone from her Montreal home. “But I don’t usually use Tajik melodies or try to manipulate them in my music.
“Writing for vocals, though, it’s natural to have microtonal elements,” she continues, referring to the subtle variations in pitch that are featured in Middle Eastern, Central Asian, and North Indian music. “That’s probably connected to Tajik music, and in fact, I have worked with joining some oriental and occidental music. Several years ago, in France, we had a project with these musicians from Tajikistan and from Syria, as well as western musicians, and they met in this project. I enjoyed it very much to work in this direction. It was quite challenging, because most of those musicians, they don’t read western notation, but they’re very talented in the oral tradition.”
Nurulla-Khoja’s background and family history—her father, Ziyodullo Shahidi, was Tajikistan’s first composer of opera and symphonic music—suggest that she’s a perfect fit for the Turning Point Ensemble’s upcoming Imaginary Worlds.
As part of this urban and urbane concert program, Korean composer Unsuk Chin’s Gougalon takes inspiration from the sounds of Seoul’s bustling street markets, while Mark Armanini has crafted new arrangements of melodies that would have been heard in Chinatown during Vancouver’s early days. The landscapes surveyed in Nurullah-Khoja’s La jour ma nuit are interior, however, and based on the composer’s experiences after the recent birth of her daughter.
“Basically, my days became my nights,” she says of her Turning Point commission. “I was composing and writing mostly at night, when I had the chance, and during the day I was occupied playing with her. And the musical idea for this piece was that I was trying to create a labyrinth of time and memory. Again, it’s connected to the birth of my daughter, a challenging time. So it’s a kind of walking in the dark, in some ways, and it became very labyrinthic.”
The sonic image of a labyrinth or maze is expressed in the work’s second movement, which Nurullah-Khoja describes as “one continuous line”, although one that frequently doubles back on itself. “Trying to get out of this continuity, it was difficult,” she says. “You try to get out, and it draws you back.”
In contrast, the first and third movements are relatively straightforward, although the Turning Point musicians will be asked to do something that’s likely new for them: whisper a line from a Rumi poem as they play. Nurullah-Khoja is reluctant to reveal the poem’s title—“I don’t want to have a direct connection with the words,” she cautions—but says that it was one of her mother’s favourite verses, before reiterating the honoured role that poetry plays in Tajik society, as well as in her own personal cosmology.
“In general, I get my musical inspiration from poetry, from Tajik and Persian poetry,” she says. “I love Sufi poetry and also Sufi dancing—but mostly I’m just into reading the poetry, and nothing beyond that.”
The Turning Point Ensemble presents Imaginary Worlds at the Vancouver Playhouse on Friday (September 19).