Who can’t use a dose of spirituality and mysticism these days? Composer Fahad Siadat, the founder and artistic director of the Resonance Collective, firmly believes that his oratorio The Conference of the Birds can take audiences on a spiritual journey. The work, which will be presented on Nov. 4 at the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles, is based on a parable by the 12th-century Sufi poet Attar of Nishapur and promises to deliver a much-needed respite from the woes of today’s world.
The Conference of the Birds features a libretto by Sholeh Wolpé, who translated the original poem, and is performed a capella by 18 singers, with Siadat conducting and singing the role of narrator. The work had its world premiere at BroadStage in June 2022, garnering rave reviews for a production that also featured choreography by André Megerdichian.
The Nov. 4 presentation, part of the two-week-long California Festival, will not have dancers, but the score and story remain the same. The tale follows the birds of the world, who embark on a journey to find their sovereign, Simorgh, a divine/mythical creature. Led by the wise Hoopoe, they travel through Seven Valleys, each a spiritual realm of understanding that unfolds as the birds trek toward Simorgh’s sanctuary. But once at their destination — spoiler alert — they discover that the sovereign they seek has been within themselves all along.
Siadat, who is also the artistic director and a singing member of the L.A.-based contemporary vocal ensemble HEX, said that collaborating with librettist Wolpé was fortuitous. “We workshopped the piece at Scripps College, and Anne Harley, head of their voice department, was the main soprano soloist [at BroadStage], and although she’s a visiting scholar at Harvard this year, she returns to sing in the Nov. 4 performance. She commissions composers to write works that are setting the texts of female mystics from around the world.
“She’s always wanted to do The Conference of the Birds, though it’s not by a female,” Siadat continued. “Anne is deeply herself steeped in mystical practice, so when I took it on, she took it as great synchronicity that the translation was by Sholeh, [who] had published it a few months before I started working on the project. I was looking for translations of the original piece and found out [Wolpé] was based in L.A. I called her, and she was walking distance from my house. She really nailed the translation.”
Siadat, born in Oregon to an Iranian father and a Bahraini mother, said that Wolpé understood the philosophy of the book and its spiritual center. “We met up, and she said, ‘Don’t use the book. I’m going to create something new to be adapted into a 20-page libretto.’ The original poem has something like [4,500 lines]. … It’s huge.”
A series of parables — or as Siadat likes to say, “a nest of parables” — the work features stories within stories that he and Wolpé decided to call an oratorio because “it doesn’t fit in an opera structure. … It’s not that kind of characterization or drama you would find in a play or opera, though there are regular characters.”
The work also reflects the fact that Siadat, 41, who has been involved in the choral world for about 15 years, is equally enmeshed in the new-music sphere. “They’re different worlds. They have their own communities. A lot of my work as a composer was focused on bringing these worlds closer together. But the biggest barrier in the choral world,” he pointed out, “is that the majority of performers are avocational.
“Pre-COVID, the number was that 200,000 choirs exist in America,” Siadat explained. “It’s the most popular extracurricular activity. The Chorus Impact Study [found that] 10 percent of all Americans sing in a choir on a weekly basis. But it’s been my subjective experience that no other [group] loves living composers like singers. There are 2,000 professional and community orchestras in the U.S., and there are literally 100 times more choral groups. Many are part of church institutions, but not all. L.A. alone probably has 30–40 community choirs.”
Siadat further explained that he wanted to bring the ideas, approaches, and philosophies of new music into the choral world without alienating avocational singers “because of the difficulty [of performing contemporary music].
“One of the ways I’ve come to do that as a composer is through timbre. By adjusting the tone and style and texture of the voice, it’s a way to add another expressive element to the music, but that doesn’t demand greater rhythmic or harmonic techniques. It’s partly through the advocacy of the people I work with [who] have been interested in this stuff — composers, new-music collectives — that we’re seeing more of that in the choral world.”
And what better venue to stage an oratorio than the sanctuary of First Congregational Church? Seating 800 and with pristine acoustics, it will serve not only as a sacred space to perform The Conference of the Birds but also as a kind of rehearsal for a recording that the Resonance Collective is making next month for Harley’s record label, Voices of the Pearl.
“This is such a transformative tale,” Siadat acknowledged. “It’s a story I grew up with. It’s a story my father told me as a kid,” he exclaimed, his voice cracking with emotion. “And the primary thing is a taste of the truth at the center of this spiritual parable.
“What we hope for at the end of every Resonance Collective event is that people will feel inspired toward spiritual change — not just internally but in thought, word, and deed. I think it’s the secret agenda of all art. It’s why we have art in the first place.”