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  • Writer's pictureCayenna Ponchione-Bailey

Heart That Burns: Passion, sweetness and sorrow

Enrobed in an elegant waltz, Zalai Pakta's Heart That Burns encapsulates a poignancy and complexity of feeling: the sweetness and joy of possessing profoundly held life passions and the deep sorrow of watching these futures be extinguished by powerful and brutal forces beyond one's control.

Ustad Zalai Pakta is a master ney (Persian flute) player and was a teacher at the Aga Khan Music School in Kabul until its closure. Prior to the Taliban takeover on 15 August 2021, Zalai's performances were broadcast regularly on national radio and television and he has performed internationally across Europe and Asia. He wrote this piece many years ago when he was still a student and had preserved it in musical notation on his computer. That computer was destroyed by the Taliban (you can read his interview in The Times).

Fortunately, the Taliban cannot so easily take away the music that is held within Zalai's mind, body and spirit. When we asked if he would like to compose a piece of music for this project he explained that he could not because he no longer had the means to write the orchestral score and parts we would need to realise his musical ideas thousands of miles away. Still in Afghanistan, it was impossible for Zalai to purchase another computer on which to do this creative work, never mind the risks involved in engaging in such activity.

The solution: Zalai recorded his melody into his phone and sent it to the Afghan composer Milad Yousufi who transcribed the piece, and with Zalai's permission, created this orchestration and arrangement.

The piece begins with a reflective and sorrowful flute cadenza (played in our performance on a European-style flute by Tony Robb) which finishes in a moment of stillness before the clarinet introduces a vibrant and rhythmically driving waltz melody in a minor mode shared throughout the winds and accompanied by pizzicato strings, tabla, rubab, dutar, and harmonium. A rich legato and espressivo melody filled with longing and passion is introduced by the flute to be taken up by the full string section in a wave of sound.

Changing texture, a short 'B' section brings an ornamented and lively passage with a tinge of nostalgia, again first presented by the flute and clarinet but followed by a rendition for the full ensemble leading into the peak expressive statement of the entire work as the winds and string sing out a melody which will not be silenced. The energetic and swirling theme from the initial clarinet entrance returns for the full orchestra and leads the piece to a passionate finish.

A casual listener might find this 3-minute piece charming, sweet and somewhat disarming, but listen closely and you will hear the depth of emotion with which this piece is imbued. This composition is a testament to the impossibility of complete censorship and control in the modern digital world. Zalai's music continues to be heard and continues to grow new wings through such collaborations.

You can read more about Zalai Pakta and the composition here. If you want more information about how to programme this composition with your own ensemble or to be in touch with Zalai Pakta to discuss possible collaborations, please be in touch!

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