Two years ago, 176 passengers and crew were killed when the Iranian military shot down a Ukraine International Airlines jet. An elegy based on santur, soprano, percussion and choir commemorates the victims.
On January 8, 2020, Iranian military shot down Ukraine International Airlines flight PS752 as the plane left Iranian airspace.
In total, 176 passengers and crew were killed including 57 Canadian citizens and 29 Canadian permanent residents. The repercussions of this tragedy were felt across Canada and around the world.
A new composition, Elegy Flight 752, commemorates the victims. It was first broadcast online in December at website of the Isabel Bader Center for the Performing Arts (IBCPA). The center is located in Kingston, Ontario.
Santur with piano
The Santur player for this project, Sadaf Amini, is an Iranian-born virtuoso performer and improviser who later immigrated to Canada. As we both reside in Kingston, it was inspiring to hear Sadaf capture beautifully expressive melodies and complicated rhythmic textures on his instrument.
In the fall of 2019 we started meeting for improv sessions where I was playing the piano and Sadaf was trying out some of my suggested musical ideas on santur. The initial goal was to create a composition for santur and string quartet, a project that we hoped to achieve in the future.
In January 2020, after the tragic news of the crash, we agreed to collaborate on a work for choir and santur in memory of the victims of the theft. While I composed all the music for this project, I also provided some opportunities for improvisation passages on the santur.
Compositional structure and symbolism
The use of music to create a memorial tribute has a long tradition across cultures and the times. Through my training and creation as a composer I studied a range of classical and contemporary western music musical commemoration modes.
Some titles of commemorative compositions seek to address the public directly in a powerful way, such as naming who is being commemorated.
From classical Christian traditions come “requiem” compositions (from Latin, meaning “rest”, referring to a mass for the rest of the soul of the dead).
There is also “threnes” (from Greek, a funeral lament), like the Polish composer that of Krzysztof Penderecki Threnody for the victims of Hiroshima.
An elegy is a poem, usually a lament for the dead – but also, there are many purely instrumental compositions from classical and contemporary eras who commemorate using Elegy as a single word title.
By titling the composition of Elegy Flight 752, I have used the plural form of “elegy” to both imply that each movement would have a different meaning to lamentation, but also to suggest that more than one elegy is needed because many individuals have been killed. I decided very early on that the work would be in seven movements, lasting about 30 minutes.
Composition and presentation of ‘Flight Elegies 752’
Darrell christie, musical director and conductor of the Kingston Chamber Choir, quickly agreed to the choir contributing to a project and offered a premiere date in early 2021. However, those plans have been put on hold due to COVID-19.
While many live and in-person events and concerts have been canceled or postponed over the past few years in Kingston, the ingenuity and creativity of IBCPA and its Imagine Project have been of great use to the artists. This project offered musicians the opportunity to use the IBCPA Concert Hall for creative residencies, online arts education, and film / recording projects.
Sadaf secured funding through this project to record a first performance video of Flight Elegies 752 at IBCPA in March 2021. She was joined by soprano, Colleen Renihan, and the Kingston Chamber Choir, and I played the percussion.
Comfort, symbolize the loss
The unifying element of this composition is that the choir sings the same music without words for movements 1, 3, 5 and 7 which serves as a consoling chorale or abstain. Each of these choruses ends with a slightly different final cadence and is sung at a slower tempo with each repetition.
In these “chorus” movements, the santur plays independently of the chorus, starting with the first movement with rhythmic groups of seven notes, then five notes, then two.
Among the 176 victims of flight PS752 were Iranian students and faculty members from Canadian universities, including Amir Moradi, an undergraduate student at Queen’s.
For movement 3, the santur is reduced to groups of five and two notes. Movement 5 reduces the santur part to just two-note groups that are widely spaced. In movement 7, the santur does not play at all.
The arc of hearing the same chorus sung by the choir with decreasing contributions from the santur, can be seen in the faces of the choir and the movement of the santur player, and heard in the music, as a symbol of loss in real time .
In the same way someone in mourning can lose track of time, the contempt of santur for the tempo taken by the chorus in these refrains reflects this feeling of timelessness. The constant slowing down of the tempo for each subsequent statement of the chorus expands the sustaining of the notes to a level almost impossible to sustain. To my own ears, it expresses despair.
Even movements have more active santur and choir parts, sung over poems that refer to the day of death and the lust for the soul by 13th-century Islam. mystic poet Rumi. Multiple sources of English public domain translations were used to compile these texts.
Sadaf had long admired and studied Rumi’s poetry in the Farsi language. She said it seemed appropriate to include the poet’s verses in the composition, especially since Rumi is well known in Iran, in Sadaf’s words, for his “passion to merge and unite with l ‘original love between him and his creator’.
Rumi’s translator Ibrahim Gamard notes that Rumi âremains widely read and appreciated in Iran. âIn an interview in 2010, he also said that it was possible that the poet was more popular in the West than in Muslim countries.
Omid Safi, a specialist in Middle Eastern and Islamic studies, notes that dating back to the Victorian period, Westerners began to separate Rumi’s mystical poetry from its Islamic roots by assuming that the poet was “”mystical not because of Islam but in spite of it. “He explored Rumi as wise muslim as in his book Radical love: teachings from the Islamic mystical tradition.
In the composition, to give Rumi’s movements a more distinctive accent compared to the choruses, I added simple percussion parts.
Expression of public pain
Most of us cannot know the grief felt by families and friends of those killed on flight PS752. However, taking a moment to listen and reflect Elegy Flight 752, it is possible to collectively and compassionately convey our pain.
There is more to write about this work, as well as the process and effort to create this video. But it is best to simply express the hope that the opportunity to observe this performance offers a moment of reflection and shared condolences.