Tuesday, January 22, 2013

From Umar Khayyam to Extremophiles with Umer Piracha

by Salman Hameed

It is a pleasure to see so many interesting and fascinating writers and musicians coming out of Pakistan (for writers, see this earlier post: "Granta" and a flock of new Pakistani writers). If we can rekindle a spirit of basic curiosity and the joy of discovery, then may be scientists will follow as well. In the mean time, here is a talented musician, Umer Piracha, who is also enthralled by science. He is from the Sufi city of Pakistan, Multan and is now lives in Philadelphia. Here is a bit about him from Philadelphia's Live Arts/Fringe Festival Magazine:
Umer’s music is concerned with the nature of things: “It’s about accepting the world as it is and being on a journey of exploration,” he says. Part of his exploration involves recognizing and investigating the connectedness of all things; a sense of universality and a drive to embody that feeling of connection permeate his music. Umer’s vision of art as a universalizing force will fuel his forthcoming debut album, a multilingual blend of Pakistani-folk-inspired songs alongside more traditionally Western tracks.
...
Part and parcel with the project of uniting different peoples and backgrounds is the issue of language. Umer’s native Urdu and Punjabi are central to much of his music, but when he plays to Anglophone audiences, he contextualizes his pieces to give them significance. 
“The purpose behind music is the same in any language,” Umer says, but concedes that certain ideas may be conveyed better in one language than another. When he anticipates a language barrier, he introduces a piece before he plays it—by first providing a roughly translated meaning behind the song, he allows his performance to encapsulate its sentiment. 
Maintaining the integrity of the music through translation can be a tricky business. Certain cultural nuances are wrapped up in details like language and tone. In particular, the religious bent of many traditional Eastern pieces proves difficult to explain without alienating other audiences. 
“In translating across cultures, I try to avoid the term ‘religiously affiliated’ because it comes with baggage,” he explains. “Associating music with religion of any sort creates boundaries before it can convey anything.” 
And boundaries are quite the opposite of what Umer wishes to build. 
The solution to this dilemma is often found within the music itself. In Sufism, the mystical tradition of Islam, much associated music is about the human potential for transcendence. The songs express living in a state of love, regardless of the object of love—be it God, another person, or anything in between. 
“This is the state of spirituality I am after,” Umer says, “Something that ties the whole of humanity together. We need to think outside of culture so that we can see the commonalities between all people. Once you do that, you can’t resist the arts.” 
Here is Umer Piracha's instrumental, Extremophile (I'm actually writing this post while listening to this instrumental on a loop):



This is of personal interest to me as I was co-teaching Astrobiology this past semester, where we spent considerable time on those microbes that thrive in extreme conditions - both hot and cold. These microbes may provide us with a glimpse of possible life forms on Mars or - and perhaps more likely - in the oceans of Jupiter's moon, Europa.

Umer has found his inspiration from astronomer (and a fantastic writer) Chris Impey, and he quotes him under the video:
In the dream, you are in an ice cave. It is starkly beautiful, suffused in blue light from an outside source. There's nothing to eat, no sustenance, just the angular planes of ice crystals. It is stunningly cold, well below freezing. Your breath billows in front of you; perspiration forms a frozen rind on your neck. You cant stay here long. Then you notice creatures working industriously along the far wall of the cave. Theyre obliviousto the intense cold. From the strange smell, you guess that they have antifreeze running through their veins. This place is clearly their home. 
Then you awake—not to your bed but to another strange world. You are on the shores of a river, with canyon walls that rise up and disappear in the gloom. The river is acrid and filled with the worst kind of industrial effluent. The water is so acidic that it sizzles as it passes over the rocks, which are themselves discolored by chemical residue. The smell is foul and metallic, and it almost makes you gag. As your eyes get used to the twilight, you see shadowy figures in the water. Amazingly, they are unperturbed by the toxic environment. Some of them are splashing and playing, some are drinking the water, and others are gathering lumps of metal from the sediment on the riverbank. The scene would be idyllic if it were not so bizarre. 
You wake again, with a start. But you are still not in your room. Youre encased in a metal shell, something like a submersible. A porthole in front of you is made of glass several inches thick; you sense the phenomenal pressure of water beyond. By your hand theres a switch. Flicking it illuminates a fantastic scene beyond the porthole: smoky fumaroles emerging from fissures where the magma glows dull red, as well as rocks crusted with colorful minerals and crystals. The water shimmers with intense heat, and you can feel it leaching into the submersible; this is another place you cannot stay long. Wonder and claustrophobia are warring within you. Then you notice graceful creatures gliding through the gloom. They are translucent in this place, where sunlight never reaches. They graze at the edge of the deep-sea vent, just yards from a seam that reaches down miles into the crust. You sense that they have lived here for eons. 
You wake once more. This time it is to the familiar landscape of your bedroom. You marvel at the lucidity of the dream; the real world seems a bit disappointing by comparison. Another realization hits you. In your dream you had been miraculously shrunk to microscopic size. The tableaus you explored would pass unnoticed in the everyday world. 
Then you awaken. 
(Source: The Living Cosmos by Chris Impey)
While this sinks in, check out his composition, "Seven Thousand Years", which takes its title from a quatrain by the 11th century Persian poet, Omar Khayyam:


Fantastic!

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