Free Family Concert: Parizade and the Singing Tree

The following note accompanies the Free Family Concert on August 5. 

Parizade and the Singing Tree (1999/2001; revised for full orchestra 2018)
Karim Al-Zand (1970)
Nora el Samahy, narrator
A story from the Arabian Nights

Part I. In which Parizade seeks the Singing Tree and hears the Dervish’s warning.
Part II. In which Parizade climbs the mountain and endures the travails of the ascent.
Part III. In which Parizade hears the wondrous song of the Singing Tree.
Part IV. In which the music of the Singing Tree proves to be magical.

Parizade is determined to find the Singing Tree, a magical wonder that has defied discovery. She wants to harvest a branch from its boughs and bring it back to her father, the palace gardener, so they can plant it in the Sultan’s garden. But the young adventurer faces many challenges in fulfilling her quest.

The narrated text for Parizade and the Singing Tree is based on a story from the collection of folk tales known as The Thousand Nights and A Night [Alf laylah wa-laylah]—or the so-called “Arabian Nights.” The Nights is often thought of as a collection of fairy tales. In fact, it is much more than this. Its text, which in some translations runs to over 4,000 pages, contains all manner of stories, parables, heroic epics, philosophical tracts, religious and aesthetic essays, morality fables, jokes, and hundreds of verses of poetry. The diverse literary material of the Nights makes it impossible to speak of a single author for the work. Its character owes much to the oral tradition of storytelling and its content is an assembly of various anonymous texts accumulated in the course of its long history. The earliest extant copy of the Nights dates from the mid-ninth century, though many of the stories within it are certainly far older. Its “frame” story—in which Sheherazade regales the Sultan with fantastical tales and he postpones her execution—is an ancient conceit and, as with many of the narratives in the collection, it has analogues in Indian, Greek, and Latin tales. The Nights as a whole is altogether unique however, as a vast, all-encompassing compendium of folklore, literature, cultural observation, social commentary and, of course, lively entertainment. There was a superstition in the 19th-century Middle East, which said that one could not read the complete, immense text of The Thousand and One Nights without dying.

Parizade’s tale is not one of the better-known fables in the collection unfortunately, and it is sometimes omitted in popular published versions of the work. The provenance of the story, as with many of the tales in the collection, is unclear. One of the earliest appearances of the Singing Tree is in Sir Richard Burton’s encyclopedic edition of the Nights, a translation that runs to some sixteen volumes.

As is common in the long, episodic tales of the collection, Parizade’s encounter with the Singing Tree is a story embedded within a larger narrative, one entitled variously by translators as The Sisters Who Envied their Cadette, or The Talking Bird, The Singing Tree, and The Golden Water. I have adapted the story somewhat for the present work. The language used is largely my own, though I have borrowed the archaic tone (and a charming phrase here and there) from the Burton translation and those of Edward William Lane and Jonathan Scott (1863 and 1909).

Those interested in more information on The Thousand and One Nights might consult any of several sources. The most well-known translation of the Nights is by Sir Richard Burton (1884), though its language is archaic and somewhat stilted. An excellent modern translation by Hussain Haddawy is based on the earliest extant Arabic language sources (The Arabian Nights, 2 vols.; Knopf: New York, 1995). A good reference for background and historical information is Robert Irwin’s The Arabian Nights: A Companion (Penguin: London, 1994). There are numerous adaptations of the Nights for children, many with captivating illustrations. Probably the most enchanting are American artist Maxfield Parrish’s color prints from 1909.

—Karim Al-Zand

Karim Al-Zand’s work, Parizade and the Singing Tree, was originally written for narrator and small ensemble. Cabrillo Festival commissioned Al-Zand to revise the work for narrator and full orchestra, to be premiered during the 2018 season.

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