Cyminology at the Mschatta Lounge
In the impressive visual setting at Berlin’s Museum for Islamic Art, the jazz quartet Cyminology premiered their piece Mshatta Echoes, an adaptation of the 8th century Islamic Mshatta Facade. A concert between architecture, poetry, music, and the entanglements of times, places, and artistic languages.
To keep something means to change it.
At the foot of a wall that once sat in the desert of the Levant, a small-group of now-Berliners who come together under the name Cyminology translated the wall’s imposing stone intricacy into music. What can it mean to sing a wall? To lay at its feet a carpet of sound, echoing poetry in languages we do not know as meaningfully as in those we do, knotting together instruments outside of their expected patterns and instead into sounds like a tree reflected on the waves of a lake? This echo is memory, and perhaps it is as close to meaning as we can get.
The music of Cyminology gives answer to the question that tells you that you don’t quite fit in even as it asks in friendly curiosity,
“Where are you from?”
“I am here, with everything I am, and none of this contradicts in me”.
It is a wonderful thing to figure out a language capable of saying, I am. The singer, Cymin Samawatie, sings Persian-language poetry to the semi-improvised jazz of bassist Ralf Schwarz and drummer Ketan Bhatti, joined in this performance with the etherial sonic juggling of the marimbaphonist Taiko Saito (who all work with Trickster Orchestra). None of them follow the rules of their instruments, or perhaps they continually show that the old rules are but skins that ask to periodically be shed as the instruments are stroked and showered in a newly attentive love. The secret smile on Ketan’s face, like a child with building blocks. Ralf cleans the bass with a washcloth as new way of bowing; Ketan strokes the edge of a xylophone with a bow, transforming it from toy to art. Under Taiko’s hammers, the marimbaphone sings like mysterious bells, lyrically bringing us into the space and then all of a sudden rhythmically putting us all unwittingly, perhaps almost aggressively, in a trance. The instruments draw sound across time, yet their trace is like writing on water: it dissolves into air. Each note and stroke is patient. Each musician’s ear waits for the moment where their drop of sound falls into the well of music. Rhythms function like waves across still water, arbitrary yet sensible, organised but thrillingly unpredictable, each attentive to the moods of the other. Instruments don’t stay within their packages, and neither to places or languages, and neither should we.
And here they play, before another migrant. This migrant is made of stone, silent. Stumm, in German, not simply silent but thuddingly silent, devoid of the capacity of movement that enables the clash of bodies that produces sound. It once lay at the edge of the desert, this stone trace of some past. There, where the herders took their flocks; there, the place to which villagers strolled across the field in the evening, as the sun set. The desert was vast, and from a distance this was but a line in the sand. But it was large enough to mark the landscape. Its colour mimicked the soil around it: ochre, sand, stone, dust. Its designs echoed the grass around it: quail hidden in vines. It gave shade. Sheep pellets piled up in the corners, washed into earth when the rains came. Wildflowers bloomed. The wall was a sign of something. A trace of some great power that had been, at some time, and was no more. And this was enough. It was enough for it to just be, saying nothing of what it had been.
Other humans came, and wondered what this wall in the desert was. They dressed it in words it had never spoken: words of history. Words about beauty or history, or something like that, they also were not entirely sure. They neatly stitched and hemmed suit of who, when, why, and where. The clothing of the wall was no longer loose and flowing about the stones like a bedouin gown. These humans did not want a marker in the desert, where this trace would be far to them. They wanted this trace, this text of the past, to stand before them in a sentence where they would provide it with meaning. They wanted to make a monument of a ruin within the monument of the museum. The museum: a long sentence, where objects become words and, strung together like pearls, necklaces become sentences. These sentences are understood as articulating the pearls, but they speak the language of those who string pearls instead.
When these humans, who were German travellers and archaeologists, found the wall in the desert in 1865, they thought it was their discovery. They built a railroad nearby, and it came back into view. The year was 1897. They acted as though nobody had seen it before. For those who had seen it, who knew its shade and its corners, who climbed it in childhood and who strolled towards it as they aged, the bedouin who took their flocks there, these people all lived in a nowhere with no name, and it was as though they were not really fully people at all. The year was 1903. The Germans hired them to lift and carry the stones, to build levers and carts with which to carry them by rail, to a place far away. The year was 1904. The wall, rebuilt in one building and then another, which had once stretched small between the infinity of earth and sky, grew large squeezed between floor and ceiling at the Friedrich-Wilhelm Museum, Berlin.
And yet it had no name, except that which it had been given, the provisional name of an orphan whom nobody knows where it came from. In entering exile the wall was asked for its identity. It stood silent. At first, they thought it was “late antique”, the long-lost missing link between the Romans whom they honoured and the Christians, whom they believed they were (through another magic of time travel strung across words). They argued whether it was Byzantine, or Sassanian — between the Roman and the Aryan, a bit of an “us” they had made true by writing it into history. When the wall came to the museum, it had no name, but they believed it was one of “us”, a trace of the West that proved that over there was over here, and that the ones who stood there did not, actually, belong. The people beside the wall were invaders, interlopers, conquerers, whereas the wall belonged here, with us, in the West, protected in the museum as it never had been under the sun and the rain, the moon and the stars, silently doing what walls do in the desert: blocking nothing. An amuse bouche for the traveller’s eye, a wall to trot around or climb over.
The problem came when, having already installed the wall, the stories they had stitched around it began to split at the seams. In 1910, Ernst Herzfeld showed that the wall was built under Muslim rule. It was so large, it must have been built by a Caliph. A winter palace: Mschatta. If the missing link was Islamic, then the Islam there must have not been the Islam of the enemy, but the Islam of the friend: an Islam that was not really Islam at all. An Islam that allowed for rabbits and quails hiding in vines, an Islam that was really late antique, that hadn’t learned to be its (scary foreign) self yet, that was alright to take on as part of us. The Islam built into the walls of the palace was not yet that of what Max Weber, also in 1910, imagined as the “Islamic Church,” as singular of law and deed as his Roman Catholic Church.
If this wasn’t really yet quite that Islam, this wall would not be so foreign after all. It was like carpets, and after all everybody who was anybody had a carpet. Persian carpets were a cornerstone of German industry, with factories in Sultanabad since 1880 and a new one in Hamadan as of 1910. The museum brought in its collection of Oriental carpets. In the 1870s, Wilhelm von Bode had collected them from the impoverished church treasuries in Southern Europe, giving the museum a link with the Renaissance paintings in which they showed the wealth of their owners. That was one story, this was another.
The designs on the wall, the designs on the carpets, they were all traces of an Islamic world where Islam itself could be kept at bay, safely not foreign, one of us. The scrolls on that wall rolled and coiled easily onto the carpets knotted elsewhere, centuries later. They became an Islam that you could see, that you could own, that would never talk back but would wear the clothing of the museum, that would be pearls sitting properly and not moving side to side on their string. Assimilated. Objects assimilate, because our words bouncing off of them sound like speech. These words, the suit of history stitched to their stones, became their words even if they still stand silently.
What can we know from the facts of this wall, from it size, from its curve, from its date? What does it tell us to know that this wall was started but not finished in the mid-eighth century by an Abbasid Caliph, except to say that the will to build it died, and that it fell into disrepair and it disappeared from the mind of state? What does this tell us except that life is transient, that power comes and then it falls to nothing? Just a century later, in the same Baghdad of the caliphs (one of whom may have built the wall), the scholar al-Jahiz (776-868) already knew this as he explained,
The composing of books is more effective than building in recording the accomplishments of the passing ages and centuries. For there is no doubt that construction eventually perishes, and its traces disappear, while books handed from one generation to another, and from nation to nation, remain forever renewed.
To put the wall in the museum is to ensure its disappearance, for without the words that spoke it, no more than its trace remains. We do not know the wall, because we cannot read the books that were read in it. We cannot hear its poems. If its people do not speak to us, certainly the wall they built also does not.
Perhaps we know this now as we did not know this a century ago: objects sit silent in the museum, and we do not know exactly what to do with them, how to release them from their silence. The echoes of history that once fascinated as they bounced against their walls now ring hollow. No amount of history fills the void of their silence. This emptiness begs for a new form of speech, and it is wonderful that Stephan Weber, Director of the Museum of Islamic Art, Berlin, has enabled this. Echoes other than those of this mono-track of history can now bounce off of its walls.
Khatt, the word in Arabic used for the art of writing means, “trace”. It is what is left behind as the pen pulls ink across the page, but also a line that remains pulled across the sand, or an object that remains (athar), which is the word al-Jahiz used. In Sufi tradition, the letters of khatt indicate not only sounds, as in mundane alphabetic inscription, but also mystical associations with the letters that appear independently at the beginning of Qur’anic chapters. Khalid al-Saai’s monumental, “Syria in the Garden of History” builds its layers through this associative sign system. Letters become places frozen in memory, the traces of his pen become the swirls of the wall beside them. The wall becomes a crystal splitting the light of that sun into the colours of the text beside it. The Islam in each is not one that prays five times a day, it is one that touches on the associations of each moment. The calligraphy is not about the wall so much as beside it; it doesn’t clothe the wall so much as allow it to bask in its nakedness as it once basked in the sun.
Cyminology’s Mshatta Echoes enhance this nakedness. What can be sung against the silent wall that gives up so little of its meaning? The rhythms of its mighty triangles and rosettes give the power of its movements, the scrolls and vines give the delicacy of their breath, the possibility of weaving pauses and trepidations, as well as the wear of the ages. Cymin transforms three poems into jazz lyrics, all of which have everything and nothing to do with the wall. First, selections from Farid-al Din Attar’s twelfth century epic poem Concourse of the Birds, honour the birds in the wall. We know, these birds were not Attar’s birds, and yet Attar’s birds may be these birds, borrowing from the ancient fables of Kalila and Dimna which both societies avidly read. Then again, we might imagine what poetry would have been read on the long winter evenings in these walls. And so Cymin borrows from ibn Muqaffa, the great sixth century poet of the Arabian Peninsula, who wrote of an era before Islam but whose style built the lyricism of Arabic. Like the museum, these songs displace us to another time and place, filling in the rubbed stone of time with imagination. But the museum is here too, filling us with the nineteenth century that brought these things here. There is the voice of imperialism, but it is the voice of curiosity which attracts Cymin. So she adds a third poet, Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866), whose interest in other cultures laid the foundations for Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s poetic style and his West-Oestlicher Divan (1819). Their poems memorialise a time before colonialism, when the fantasy of the orient had not yet been contained by history, and when the curiosity of the unknown could serve to inspire the new. They learned from a distant world, and not about it. In doing so, they did not ask it to assimilate, but opened their own horizons.
As Cymin sings, her voice weaves the poems. Loudspeakers enable her to sing with herself, in multiple poems, multiple rhythms, multiple languages, overlapping, interacting, blending and receding. The languages the listener knows become their shapes, their sounds, as much as the languages we don’t know. We know all languages and none equally in these sounds, as meaning cannot contain sound. Instead, sound echoes between what has been sung in the past and what will be sung in the future, and places us in the now. Here we are, in the present tense of jazz, where the instruments play on stage, their calls and responses surprising with a never ending newness, one rhythm merging into another like the vines and scrolls intertwined on the wall beside them. The shadow of the drummer Ketan dances on the wall; the wall becomes the music’s spectre. In the dim hall, the traces of Khalid al-Saai’s letters pull the scrolls and vines of the wall to the new surface of the museum just as the turns of Cymin’s voice, now soft, now high, now deeply calling the bass on stage pull the circles and swirls into our ears. Her voice becomes a chorus with loudspeakers, she sings with herself and the vibraphone sings with her, building into a soundscape where time disappears. In a long poem dedicated to khatt called The Bounty of Lovers (1454), Siraj of Shiraz promises the insightful calligrapher that by writing the small loop of the f beside the full loop of the letter y, thus writing an “in” in Arabic, one can experience something akin to the translocation of the saints and experience “the folding up of the carpet of one’s existence.” Cymin’s voice folds the carpet of the wall’s existence into us by recognising the many layers of translocation embedded in its presence. Somehow, it is here. And so are we.
This is not to claim a transcendent enlightenment, so much as to recognise that between the letters and the sound and the silence of the wall, we learn that the carpet that gives order to the chaos that is the world, in its cultural multiplicity between nation and nation, language and language, and sound and object is nothing but a trace. It can be knotted, written, sung, strung otherwise with nothing to lose and everything to gain.
Here we are, in our multiplicity. Nothing is alien between us.
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Herzfeld, Ernst. “Die Genesis der islamischen Kunst und das Mshatta-Problem,” Der Islam 1:2 (1910), pp. 105-144.
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Rudner, Martin. “The Modernization of Iran and the Development of the Persian Carpet Industry: The Neo-Classical Era in the Persian Carpet Industry, 1925–45.” Iranian Studies, vol. 44, no. 1, 2011, pp. 49–76.
Shaw, Wendy. What is “Islamic” Art? Between Religion and Perception. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.
Spuhler, Friedrich and Robert Pinner, trans. Oriental Carpets in the Museum of Islamic Art, Berlin. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1987.
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Wendy M. K. Shaw is Professor of the Art History of Islamic Cultures at Freie Universität Berlin. She works on the intersection between modernity, colonialism, postcoloniality, philosophy and art in the Islamic world through museums, art historiography, archaeology, religion, film, photography and contemporary artistic production.
The Mschatta Lounge concert series seeks to establish a transcultural platform that reflects the diversity of our shifting contemporary world through musical expression. Local musicians have been invited to interpret an object of the exhibition through their own musical approach.
This review first appeared on wendymks reviews in August 2019.
Photo: Philip Geisler