Grateful Heart

Primus, the Amabile Men’s Choir as well as some of our alumni, began a journey at the beginning of Ramadan, guided by Toronto composer, Hussein Janmohamed, to create a choral piece while in isolation, with the goal to release for Eid at the end of Ramadan. Our journey with Grateful Heart drew on everyone’s individual resources and experiences as they worked with a score as a guide but we’re required to improvise throughout.

The circumstances and restrictions of Covid-19 have dramatically changed every aspect of our lives, and impacted our ability to connect in community through singing. However, musicians are versatile, creative and committed to our art and seek ways to continue our connection and nurture our community.

In this process, our goal was to bring forth the feeling of gratitude for the gift of singing in choirs, particularly the way choirs bring people together and help form bonds that last a lifetime. At this time in our lives where humanity has been called by nature to come together as one to alleviate the impacts of COVID-19, we also find ourselves in a collective pause. However, countless people, frontline workers, in a variety of fields, services and industries are working tirelessly by giving their care, love and compassionate sacrifice to help us cope, be safe, nourished and protected. They do not have time to pause. It is, thus, in the spirit of love, gratitude and generosity that we wish to dedicate this piece to all essential frontline workers who look after us and teach us.

As a result, we began (re)constructing the piece together during Ramadan with the intent to develop a virtual performance of the piece by Eid which occuring the weekend of May 23rd and 24th.

The piece itself is a palindrome in three sections. The spirit of the piece comes from a conversation with a community member about how in the busyness of our world, and in our individualist pursuits, we forget to be grateful and give sincere thanks. Our hearts know it, but our busy minds become like a veil. There are moments where we do feel such profound gratitude that we can’t find the words to describe. The depth of gratitude is such. This community member shared that it sometimes takes a concerted effort to slowly peel away the layers of the busy mind to hear and feel the voice of gratitude deeply seated in the heart. Once we find that connection we have the opportunity to contemplate on this gratitude with zikr (remembrance), the mantra-like repetition of prayers and praise. The repetition creates a pathway for the feelings of sincerity to be internalized. The feelings are amplified at each repetition and become more fervent. The sincere zikr slowly polishes the dust off our hearts enabling us to flourish. With this enlivened sense of gratitude we come back to the world with freshness.

The melodic material draws on diverse Indic and Persian expressions of love found within the Ismaili tradition globally. The tune of the prayer, Shukranlillah Al-hamdulillah (Thanks and praise be to God) comes from Iran and the melodic fragments in the voices are adaptations and new formulations of raga-based Indic Ismaili ginan, hymns of love, praise and knowledge.

The form of the piece is based on prayer beads (tasbih) used by Muslims globally. The prayer beads can consist of either 33 or 99 beads, with dividing markers that separate the beads into three sections. Horizontally, the music is divided into 3 sections of ’11’ with whole note dividers at the beginning, end and throughout the piece. In total, there are 33 repetitions of the two bar prayer. Vertically, the piece has 11 vocal parts that appear in various configurations over the three sections evoking another 33. In total, the 66 bars of prayer, plus 33 vocal makes 99 (plus the markers you would find on a set of beads.) 99 is an auspicious number that reflects the concept of the 99 beautiful names of Allah (Arabic word for God) that describe compassionate and merciful qualities of the Divine.

The piece is structurally divided into three main sections, and is structured as a palindrome. The overall structure moves from the external to the inner heart and back to the external. The first section starts with a ‘cloud’ of life, a soundscape of texts and fragments of melodies that represent the outer busy aspect of life. Melodic fragments in various configurations and voices are sung in an aleatoric style across this section. As the piece progresses, the external layers form into a three part harmony, and eventually to a unison. In the middle section we hear a repetitions of the prayer of thanks and praise in unison. As more voices enter, the tempo increases, and the volume naturally intensifies. Overtones become richer and fill the sound with a pregnant presence, and an ineffable yet audible depth. The middle section again slows down and quietens as voices fade out of the texture. Reminiscent of a Sufi gathering, a solo voice improvises and recites poetry in this middle section, further focussing the intention. This middle section represents the ‘inner’ aspect of our selves we can connect internally and with others. The third section starts in unison with the prayer of thanks, and builds to three part harmony from which melodic fragments in various configurations and voices are sung again in aleatoric style. The melodic fragments in this third section appear in retrograde from the opening.

We thank Hussein for allowing us the honour and privilege of working on this beautiful piece alongside him. Thank you for being apart of our 35th Anniversary Concert Season with this special and unique project; tt has been an incredible learning experience.