Collaborating with the Afghanistan National Institute of Music by Sadie Harrison

" introduction to my own passion for the music of Afghanistan"

The first of three articles in which Sadie Harrison investigates BMC composers who have explored the music of other cultures


It is a great privilege to be on the BMC team as part of the Collection’s Steering Group, and I am so excited to start exploring the extraordinary wealth of materials that are housed in the BMC’s Huddersfield site. Over the next few weeks, I am going to throw the Spotlight on some of the Collection’s composers who have shared my interest in the music of other cultures. But first, an introduction to my own passion for the music of Afghanistan, expressed most recently in Gulistan-e Nur: The Rosegarden of Light, a two year project that culminated in 2015-16 tours in the USA, UK and Europe.

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Gulistan-e Nur represents the culmination of a thirteen year compositional journey between two manifestations of the same extraordinary garden that is Afghanistan. The first manifestation was The Light Garden (Bagh-e Nur), written in 2002 as a response to the Taliban’s invasion and attempted destruction of the country’s cultural heritage. The second manifestation was The Rosegarden of Light (Gulistan-e Nur) which was written in 2015, to celebrate the ongoing rebirth of Afghanistan’s musical life, through the work of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music. The cycles of pieces I have written for these ‘two’ gardens could not be more different. Where The Light Garden (comprising The Light Garden Quintet, The Fourteenth Terrace clarinet concerto and Bavad hair baqi! for solo violin) screams and rages against the desecration of an ancient beautiful world, with the sounds of instruments and performers pushed to their limits - The Rosegarden sings and dances in a far more accessible way. The references to Afghan scales and melodies in The Light Garden were consumed almost entirely by a modernist exploration of their raw characteristics. However, in The Rosegarden, the melodies and rhythms are sitting right on the surface - everything is derived clearly from them and delights in them. The hugely varied styles of music, separated by over a decade, say much about the context for which, and in which, they were written, and reveal a developing personal philosophy about my role as a composer. I have always been aware of the politics of music, and even more so after the premiere of The Light Garden quintet in Carnegie Hall, New York (Tate Ensemble, 2002). There, I was accused (via an anonymous letter from the USA) of having committed a terrorist act, by writing a work about Afghanistan and having it performed in a US concert hall (‘tantamount to writing a piece in support of the IRA and having it performed in the Albert Hall’). Of course, it was a ridiculous accusation, but receiving this correspondence was the first of a number of events that led me to readdress the reasons why I composed music at all. However well-intentioned it was initially, The Light Garden Trilogy came to represent, for me, how irrelevant my ‘modernistorientalist’ music was; it spoke to so few, and ultimately with little effect beyond the confines of the concert hall.

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The Fourteenth Terrace with Andrew Sparling (solo clarinet) and Lontano (cond. Odaline de la Martinez) used with kind permission of Metier Records MSV CD 92084

A partial solution to the dilemma was found during a compositional ‘sojourn’ in the Northern Caucasus. From 2004 - 2012 I became immersed in the disappearing folk traditions of Lithuania, Georgia, Tiflis, and Russian Ferghana, with several works written for the marvellous Lithuanian violinist Rusne Mataityte and the St. Christopher Chamber Orchestra. Now, instead of creating my own ‘folk’ music, I transcribed old recordings of real singers and instrumentalists, working these into the fabric of my music so that they could be heard clearly. A review of the associated CD ‘An Unexpected Light’ (NMCD125) read ‘...the composer manages to capture and re interpret the character and national identity encoded in our folk songs....We witness a spiritual connection at the highest level, transcending all geographical and cultural boundaries.’ Through these works I had found a more transparent way of integrating the old and the new, adopting not just the musical material of the folk pieces, but also something of their communal purpose.

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Excerpts from An Unexpected Light NMCD125 at:

The journey back to Afghanistan came unexpectedly in 2013, with a commission to write a work for the pianist Ian Pace (Late Music Festival, York). Ethnomusicologist, Professor John Baily, had recently returned from Kabul with his documentary about the Afghanistan National Institute of Music - The Return of the Nightingales. The film gave the piece its title and inspired me to think again about my relationship with the music of Afghanistan, but now post-Taliban. The result was a work for solo piano and nightingale song. It wove together transcriptions of a tarana - sung by Ustad Amir Mohammed at a Herati wedding on 12 September, 1974 - and rhythmic patterns played by Afghan musicians, in response to hearing Messiaen’s transcription of birdsong (both recorded by John). Though hugely virtuosic, and also referencing composers such as Messiaen and Scriabin (I had heard Ian give an exceptional performance of the latter’s Tenth Sonata at the Wigmore Hall many years previously), the piece is a wholehearted celebration of a wonderful melody sung by one acclaimed Afghan singer.

The tarana begins:

'Ajab tarana e sar karda am darin golshan, Khoda konad ke na sazad falak skhamush mara' I have started to sing a wonderful song in this flowergarden like a nightingale I hope the movement of the stars (destiny) does not make me silent again.

Ustad Amir Mohammed can be heard on several Youtube videos. This one is particularly acclaimed:

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An extract from The Return of the Nightingales where the worlds of Messiaen’s birdsong, Scriabin and the Afghan tarana collide. © University of York Music Press 2014


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Live recording of The Return of the Nightingales with Ian Pace (solo piano) 2013

As well as standing as an expression of Afghanistan’s re-emergence after the rule of the Taliban, Ustad Mohammed’s beautiful tarana also felt like an invitation for me to continue my work with the country’s music.  And just weeks later, I received a most wonderful request for a work that would take my music to Kabul itself - the penultimate step before reaching The Rosegarden of Light.

Dast be dast (Hand to hand in friendship) was commissioned by violist Kevin Bishop, for performance during his and his wife Holly’s visit to ANIM in June 2014. The piece was performed by Kevin, Samim Jafar (one of ANIM’s exceptional young rubab players) and Madhurjya Barthakur on tabla. It is based on three contrasted Afghan songs - I Anar Anar (Pomegranates), II Allah Hu (This is God) and III Watan Jan (Dear Homeland). The score was unlike anything I’d written before. Although there are aspects of controlled aleatoricism in The Light Garden Trilogy, it was an entirely different matter trying to find a flexible notation that could incorporate Samim’s improvisatory playing, alongside contemporary passagework for Kevin. It was important that the two musical cultures could express something of their own character, without being constrained by the other. But the piece was also designed to promote a dialogue - a learning experience for both players. Ultimately, the learning was primarily on my part, relinquishing control, accommodating change and then delighting in the collaborative process. Where The Light Garden was so Harrison-centric, Dast be Dast was the unique expression of several musicians.

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Premiere of Dast be Dast at the French Cultural Centre in Kabul on 23 June 2014

And so the journey reaches my second garden of Afghanistan - Gulistan-e Nur – The Rosegarden of Light. Like The Light Garden, it too was born from a violent act, but this time the event had a far greater personal impact, as I now knew individuals who had suffered. On 23 June 2014, Kevin Bishop, Samim Jafar and Madhurjya Barthakur gave the premiere of my Dast be Dast in the Istiqlal School (home to the French Cultural Centre in Kabul). On 11 December 2014, several young musicians from ANIM were performing at the same School. The venue was the target of a serious attack that left ANIM's founder Dr. Ahmad Sarmast with severe injuries.

Gulistan-e Nur was devised as a musical response to this attack, but unlike my earlier Bagh-e Nur (The Light Garden) - which was also composed as a response to violence - this work is a joyful celebration. It was obvious that more music had to be written, but not angry, extreme music. It had to be joyful, up-beat and overtly Afghan. This garden had to be filled with dancing, singing and joyful stamping of feet! And it had to collaborative, joining forces with the students and staff at ANIM, to showcase their skills as performers and their courage as human beings. Although still beset with so many difficulties, ANIM represents the best of Afghanistan: its future hopes for a more equitable society, where personal musical expression is valued, and where the rejuvenation of its fabulous musical heritage is a reflection of the country’s rebirth as a whole. Writing Gulistan-e Nur has simply been the most important creative experience of my life so far. The Rosegarden has been a wonderful place to inhabit, filled with the light of hope and enjoyed with so many extraordinary friends.

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Ensemble Zohra: the girl’s ensemble from the Afghanistan National Institute of Music. Photograph taken after recording the Interludes from Gulistan-e Nur in Kabul, August 2015. © Allegra Boggess. 

This is the programme note for the work Gulistan-e Nur:

Gulistan-e Nur is in three sections, each containing a paired interlude for youth ensemble and a movement for string sextet, which develops the interlude’s material. The first pair are based on an Afghan instrumental work known as Bahar-e nastaram-bihag or simply Radio Piece. I transcribed the melody from a private performance of the piece that John Baily (rubab) and Veronica Doubleday (daireh) gave me in February 2015. John had learnt the piece in the 1970s from the work’s likely composer, Ustad Mohammad Omar. The piece is characterised by an unusual falling chromatic passage and alternations between 6/8 and 3/4. The rag bihag tuning has similarities with certain American and Scottish folksongs - I used this commonality to incorporate a Copland-esque hoedown, and some bagpipe drones and passagework, towards the end of the movement - music from three continents working together.

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GULISTAN-E NUR (The Rosegarden of Light): Toccata Classics…

The second pair of movements takes a beautiful love song as its inspiration - Shirin dohktar-e maldar (Sweet Nomad Girl). I know this song very well, having heard my colleague and friend, Veronica Doubleday, sing it many times. The opening melody (heard again at the end) is an elaborate, decorated transcription of one of her particularly moving renditions. It is accompanied by a ‘chorale’ which provides both instability and resolution, at times working against the harmony of the rag and finally, joining with it to bring the movement to a gentle close. In contrast, the central section is more emotive, overlaying fragments of the melody in a multi-voiced dialogue between the instruments, increasingly desperate, then falling away again before the re-emergence of the opening melody.

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Ensemble Zohra conducted by Camilo Jauregi during a rehearsal of Sadie’s Interludes from Gulistan-e Nur (Afghanistan National Institute of Music, Kabul). With Kevin Bishop (viola) and Holly Fischer (bass) from Cuatro Puntos.

The final movement is a whirling attan dance entitled Watan Jan (Dear Homeland), heard first in the Interlude with its joyful 7/8 rhythm (characteristic of this national dance of Afghanistan), and then in a virtuosic development played by the sextet. I found the tune in an anthology - ‘Afghan Songs and Melodies -1965’ published by the Press and Information Ministry of Afghanistan. Although dominated by the attan material, the movement is also conceived as a collection of dances and songs, much akin to the Afghan tradition of combining several instrumental pieces in a medley. References are made to the previous movements, and a passage of faster music associated with Shirin dohktar-e maldar (here transformed into a rollicking 6/8 dance) is heard for the first time. Afghan instrumental techniques are also referenced - in particular, the rubab player’s highly virtuosic striking of a high ‘drone’, performed here by the first violin. As well as providing an appropriately celebratory ending to the work, Watan Jan also purposely recalls the circumstances which brought about Gulistan-e Nur’s composition, sharing the same melody with the final movement of Dast be Dast.A return to music and a Dear Homeland triumphant!

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The tune for Watan Jan was taken from  ‘Afghan Songs and Melodies -1965’ published by the Press and Information Ministry of Afghanistan.

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INTERLUDE 3 (Watan Jan: Dear Homeland) performed by Ensemble Zohra from The Afghanistan National Institute of Music (August 2016)

The Interludes were recorded when Kevin Bishop and Holly Fischer visited ANIM in August 2015, during one of the most violent episodes in Kabul in recent years. The recordings contain a unique and important message about the power of music and music-makers. The commission was generously supported by The Ambache Charitable Trust and an Arts Council England International Development Grant. The Rosegarden of Light European Tour 2016 was supported generously by a PRSF Women Make Music Grant, an Arts Council of England Grant for the Arts, and also by RVW Trust, Hinrichsen Foundation, New Music USA.

Sadie Harrison’s music has been released to critical acclaim on Naxos, NMC, Cadenza, Sargasso, BML, Divine Art/Metier, and Clarinet Classics. Her 2015 portrait CD (Toccata) was described as ‘a disc of glittering intensity’ (Observer),  ‘beautiful and intriguing’ (BBC Music Magazine), ‘a special, fragile space’ (Fanfare) and the 2016 release The Rosegarden of Light  (Toccata) as ‘ moving and intriguing’ on Radio 3’s Record Review.  In 2015, Sadie was made a Visiting Research Fellow at Goldsmiths in association with the University’s Afghan Music Unit. She is currently Composer-in-Residence with Cuatro Puntos (USA) and Composer-in-Association with ANIM (Kabul). Commissions for 2016 include SQUISH! for Cuatro Puntos and the American Deaf Society, Gulistan-e bolbol (The Nightingale's Garden) for the Afghanistan National Youth Orchestra and Sapida-Dam-Nau (New Dawn) to be premiered by the Afghanistan Women’s Orchestra at the World Economic Forum in Davos January 2017 (supported by a Finzi Trust Scholarship). Sadie's music is published by UYMP, ABRSM and Recital Music. 

Further information can be found at and