Song Cycles

Seven Prophetesses

March 1st, 2017

Moshe Shulman’s Seven Prophetesses sets seven newly commissioned Hebrew poems by Juli Varshavsky, which imagine the inner landscapes of the seven prophetesses from the Jewish tradition. Scored for voice, harp, and string quartet, with a reduction for harp and voice also available, the intensely modern take in words and music opens a unique window into the worlds of these seven women: Miriam, Huldah, Esther, Avigail, Sarah, Hannah, and Deborah. Premiereing at Scripps College this March 23, 2017, and at the UNM Composers’ Symposium 2017.  Shulman’s newest composition for Voices of the Pearl marks an important  and joyful milestone in our collaborative project: his composition, Shir Ha Shirim launched the Voices of the Pearl project over 5 years ago.


March 23rd, 2014
World premiere scheduled for March 23, 2017 at the Scripps Performing Arts Centre.
Supported with an ArtWorks grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Text/libretto: early Buddhist Pali texts from female disciples of the historical Buddha collected in the Therīgāthā  (circa 500 B.C.), poetry from the 9th-century Tibetan Yeshe Tsogyel,  and contemporary Tibetan Khandro Tāre Lhamo, both in the original Tibetan; Composer: Karola Obermüller (University of New Mexico)Music for soprano, harp, voice, and live electronics.
Written for Anne Harley and Barbara Pöschl-Edrich
Poetic translation, pronunciation and word-for-word translation: Jim Anderson, Holly Gayley, Bryan Levman, and Dolma Kyab.

Snowflakes, Blossoms: Friends of the Way

March 23rd, 2014

stonesnowflakeTexts:  poems by 17th-century Buddhist Chan/Zen nuns: Two song-lyrics of Shang Jinglan, and Guxu’s “Paying a Visit to Huang Jieling and Not Finding Her In”;


Composer: Marjorie Merryman.

All three texts express the experience of distance and absence between 17th-century Buddhist Chan/Zen nuns. Displaced by war and political upheaval, they have turned to a life of material simplicity, contemplation, scholarship and poetry. Their muted expressions of longing suggest deep emotion, but ultimately they arrive at a heightened acceptance, spirituality and oneness with the natural world.

This is projected as a work for two sopranos (or soprano/mezzo soprano), flute or Chinese flute, harp and percussion (Chinese and or western), with a duration of 12-15 minutes.

(translations used with permission by Dr. Beata Grant)

Two Song-lyrics of Shang Jinglan 

1.    Vain longing,
The slender twigs of willows tussle in the wind
Tussle in the wind.
Space: the roads are distant
Night moon in the inner quarters, frozen light in the hall,
A perverse wind shreds the goose-feather snowflakes,
The goose-feather snowflakes
Swirling ceaselessly about:
When will we meet again?

2.    I stand awhile for no reason by the latticed window;
The shadows of swirling catkins join the sky,
Piled up on the meditation mat, three feet of snow —
How much Chan has she been able to penetrate?
Blossoms about to burst open,
The crows are still cold:
Who feels for them?
Songs flutter in the white snow,
Reeds turn into bamboo flowers,
Frost tinges the hair at one’s temples.


Guxu: Paying a Visit to Huang Jieling and Not Finding Her In
From afar I hear this distinguished guest has come;
Her boat’s double oars cutting through the river wind.
Friends in the Way are bound together from the start;
Hearts set on the Chan – to whom can one speak of this?
Clouds shift: shadows are cast on chilled sleeves;
Blossoms fall: the little pond is tinged with red.
When I do not see your solitary skiff returning,
Shall I entrust my melancholy to the colors of dusk?


October 6th, 2013

bluelotusComposer: Bill Alves

Text:  from the Ther?g?th? , no rx in the original Pali;

The Buddha singled out 13 female disciples for special commendation and he singles Uppalavanna out especially as a worthy vessel for mystical powers.  Uppalavanna’s words are conserved in the original Pali in the Ther?g?th?. They transmit her experience and inspire future generations of women on the spiritual path.  Uppalavanna’s symbol is  the blue lotus.

India has led the world in nurturing the evolution and preservation of esoteric traditions over thousands of years. Despite the rich tradition of mystical experience, however, in India, as in almost everywhere in the world, the tradition of educating women in the processes for attaining for enlightenment in the female body has nearly been extinguished many times.  Nevertheless, often as a form of dissenting knowledge, in every corner of the globe, remarkable women have pursued the mystical path over the centuries.

Ther?g?th?, from Uppalavanna (XIV, verse 227)

Pubbeniv?sa? j?n?mi, dibbacakkhu? visodhita?;
Cetopariccañ??añca, sotadh?tu visodhit?.

Translation (from Mrs. Rhys Davids Psalms of the Sisters):

 “How erst I lived I know, the Heavenly Eye,
Purview celestial, have I clarified;
Clear too the inward life that others lead;
Clear too I hear the sounds ineffable;”

Ann Lee Songs

October 6th, 2013

IMG_1319Composer: Christina Southworth;

Texts: anonymous Shaker;

‘Mother’ Ann Lee was the visionary founder of the Shaker Christian sect in 18th-century New England, the first Christian sect to insist on full equality of the sexes



‘Mother Ann’ left many stories and songs via eyewitness accounts that trace her progress on the mystical path. This songs cycle set early nineteenth-century reports describing the founder of the Shaker sect. I researched these texts in Massachusetts archives while on a fellowship with the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, MA..  The idea for this cycle was inspired by the last five years I have spent touring internationally with programs of Shaker music with the renowned early music ensemble The Boston Camerata and the Tero Saarinen Dance Company. Following in the spirit of the Shaker tradition of invention and innovation, Southworth has composed 15-minute cycle of new music intertwining traditional Shaker melodies with the sounds of newly made electronic instruments. A native of Harvard, MA, Southworth grew up on Ann Lee Road. Her pieces have been performed internationally by ensembles such as the Kronos Quartet and Bang-On-A-Can.

Revelations of Julian of Norwich

October 6th, 2013

IMG_1944Composer: Derek Holman

Text: Julian of Norwich;

14th-century English anchorite, discount author and visionary. Texts excerpted from her
Divine Revelation of Love



Julian of Norwich managed to successfully navigate the difficult trajectory of a female mystic remarkably well, however, her work is little known today except to medievalists, or only anonymously, as she is quoted famously by T.S. Eliot in his Four Quartets (“And all shall be well; and all manner of thing shall be well”).

In the six extracts I have chosen from Julian’s Revelation of Divine Love (ca. 1393), her commitment to the female image of God is striking. She also wrote many incitements to universal love as her direct transmission of God’s communication to her. She is  remarkably sure-footed in her own classification of various species of spiritual experiences, which she referred to as ‘the three sights.’ As such, she becomes a source of female esoteric teaching: a rarity in any culture.

Divan-i Hayati

October 6th, 2013

IMG_1567Composer: Kati Agócs;

Text: Bibi Hayati;

19th-century female Sufi poet and mystic;

Sung in the original Farsi

Please find notes, bronchi biography and bibliography below.

This cycle sets verses of a ghazal (roughly speaking, the Persian equivalent of highly structured sonnet) of Bibi Hayati, an early nineteenth-century noblewoman from Bam, in the Kerman province of Iran. Hayati was acquainted with both exoteric and esoteric sciences and adhered to the external principles of Islam, while also embracing the fundamentals of Sufi Gnosticism.  These intensely sensuous lyrical and ecstatic poems  are sung in the original Persian (Farsi).

While Hayati found a welcome for her ecstatic connection to God in Sufism, she waited until she had permission from her spiritual teacher to communicate her experience outside her immediate family in writing in these poems. She was initially reluctant because of her gender, Hayati’s spiritual master conferred on her the duty to write these ghazals that relate her mystical experience, because, according to him,  she had attained the status of manhood through her devotion to the Sufi path: “In the realm of love, sincerity and Sufism, you too are a man.  True manhood is courage.”


Original text: Ghazal No. 96 by Bibi Jan Hayati 

Hayati text















Bibi Jan Hayati: Life and works
by Eliza Tasbihi, Concordia University, Montreal, Canada (2014)

Sufism, the mystical dimension of Islam, has always provided equal opportunity for both men and women to engage in spiritual practice. Sufi orders in Iran in particular have a long history of women writing Sufi texts and participating in spiritual gatherings. One of the Sufi Orders that has long encouraged the equality of men and women’s spirituality is the Nimatullahi Sufi Order founded by Shah Nimatullah Vali (d. 1431). Being a poet himself, Shah Nimatullah encouraged the use of poetry during Sufi ceremonies as a means for transmitting spiritual principles.

Among the well-known Iranian Sufi poetesses is Bibi Jan Hayati. Born in the second half of the 18th century in the city of Bam, she was raised in a noble and a well-respected Sufi family. Soon the family moved to Tehran, where Bibi Jan’s elder brother, Rawnaq ‘Ali, was hoping to attain a high-ranking position in the military. After her father passed away, Bibi Jan was raised under the tutelage of her brother who ultimately entered the Sufi path and played a large role in shaping Bibi Jan’s spiritual life. Through her brother, Bibi Jan met and eventually married Nur ‘Ali Shah Isfahani (d. 1797), one of the masters of the Nimatullahi Order.  Her age at the time of marriage would have been between 15 and 18 years old and she bore her husband a daughter. She soon became an active member of the Order, dedicating her entire Divan (collected poems) to her husband. Indeed, the early sources speak of Bibi Hayati primarily as the sister of Rawnaq ‘Ali and the wife of Nur ‘Ali Shah, reflecting the male dominated culture of her time, where women were expected to avoid social recognition and unnecessary attention.

Upon her husband’s encouragement, Bibi Jan started composing love poetry. It is also upon his recommendation that Bibi Jan chose the nickname Hayati, derived from the Persian word “hayat” or life.

Your face is the manifestation of the divine

The sun and the moon are particles from the ray of your beauty,

To your look I gave up my life (hayat), and gained spiritual life (Hayat)

There is no supremacy and power except His! (Quatrain #22)


The term Hayat or Hayati reflects Bibi Jan’s spiritual transformation, also pointing to her appreciation for her husband with whom she walked the Sufi path of love and unity. The significant character of her Divan is the mystical aspect of her poetry. Her poetry indicates her sensibility and poetic talent, her familiarity with Persian poetic forms, literature, meters and structure as well as Sufi terminology and musical instruments. They are rich in rhetoric, images, sentiment, metaphors, symbols and also rhyming and musical elements. Her poems demonstrate an intense sense of passion and emotion towards her husband and lover, albeit framed by Sufi spirituality.

The sun of my being shines

Forth again from Nur ‘Ali,

The aurora of the soul

Cast upon Hayati’s heart (Ghazal #87)


There is debate about when Bibi Hayati died. Some sources say that she passed away in 1853, which could indicate that she remarried after her husband’s death. Other sources claim that she died in 1798, one year after her husband, leaving her collected poetry unedited. Had she lived and remarried after her first marriage, one would expect her to have left behind many additional poems, whereas her only extant poetry is her Divan, which she composed during her life with Nur ‘Ali.

Most of Bibi Hayati’s poems consist of short ghazals (love poems) ranging from 5 to 10 verses composed in the genre of Sufi poetry and in various poetic meters. It is suggested that Bibi Hayati’s poetic style was heavily influenced by Hafez’s poetry. Her Divan has been published twice in Iran, first in 1935, with no introduction or explanatory notes. The second edition was published in 1970 and supplemented with a comprehensive biography of the poetess and explanatory notes by the late master of the Nimatullahi Order, Dr. Javad Nurbakhsh (d. 2008).

The following is a list of sources in which Bibi Hayati’s life and works are discussed.

In English:

Dr. Javad Nurbakhsh, Sufi Women, NY: Khaniqah Nimatullahi’s publications, 1983.


In Persian:

Fatimah Jahangard, Pujhuhish-i dar Divan-i Hayati Kirmani, Tehran: Kirman: Markaz-i Kirman-shinasi, 2008.

‘Ali Akbar Mushir-Salimi, Zanan-i Sukhanvar, Tehran: Shirkat- sahami-i chap va IntisharatiI kitab-i Iran, 1956.

Muhammad Hassan khan ‘Itemad al-Saltanah, Tazkirah Khayrat al-Hasan, 3 volumes manuscripts, Tehran: Majlis library, 1928.

Muhammad Zihni, Tazkirat al-Khavatin, Mumbai: Mirza Muhammad Malik al-Kuttab Shirazi publisher, 1885.

Zabih al-allah Mahallati, Rayahin al-Shari’ah, 6 voles, Qom: dar-al Kutub al-Islamiya, 1996.


De virginibus

October 2nd, 2013

Hildegard+TrinityComposer: Jodi Goble;

Text: Hildegard of Bingen;

12th-century German Catholic abbess, composer, mystic


Hildegard rose to become an abbess of her own convent, and experienced mystical connection with the divine throughout her life.  She left countless chants that record her visions and were meant for the nuns under her care to sing daily in liturgical services. In October 2012, she was raised to the rank of saint and then further became one of 34 Doctors of the Catholic Church, only 3 of whom are women.


The first two poems in Hildegard von Bingen’s De Virginibus, written and dedicated to the nuns under her care — figure among her most playful and lighthearted texts.  The tone is one of wonder and affection, with no hint of admonishment; Hildegard, herself a master gardener and herbalist, likens the nuns to young plants who greet the dawn and flourish under a celestial sun.  The third poem, far longer than the first two, is also heavier in tone, and addresses the challenges of living in collective celibacy with frank, sensually evocative language. The musical setting for these poems is inspired largely by Hildegard’s own music:  highly melismatic, written to showcase both the ethereal and earthy qualities of the female voice, more modal than tonal, and sensitive in its treatment of text.  A dotted-note Leitmotif, meant to musically depict the natural delivery of the word ‘dulcissime’, appears throughout the work.

The Secret Book on the Inner Elixir as Transmitted by the Immortal Sun Bu’er

September 30th, 2013

(Sun Bu’er yuan jun chuan shu dan dao mi shu) 

IMG_0836Composer: Yii Kah Hoe (Malaysia)

Text: Sun Bu’er
12th-century Chinese Daoist practitioner and teacher; the only woman among the Eight Daoist Immortals

Performed in modern Mandarin

Please find text and translation below.


This, the longest song cycle, is scored for soprano, piano, Ebows  and percussion. It sets fourteen poems from The Secret Book on the Inner Elixir as Transmitted by the Immortal Sun Bu’er (Sun Bu’er yuanjun chuanshu dandao mishu), by the twelfth-century female Daoist practitioner Sun Bu’er.  Sun Bu’er was the only female member of the ‘Seven Immortals.’  These poems instruct the reader, in metaphorical language, in the practices of ‘nüdan,’ which specifies the method of Daoist inner cultivation especially modified for the female body.

Yii Kah Hoe has composed these songs based on the texts helpfully provided by Dr. Robin Wang (Marymount Loyola University (Philosophy)). My experience singing in Chinese (for example Evan Ziporyn’s ‘Ornate Zither and Nomad Flute’), and my frequent visits to China through Scripps’ faculty exchange initiative, teaching in both Mandarin and English, gave me confidence to propose that the composer set these poems in modern Mandarin.


Text and translation
(by Dr. Robin Wang, Marymount Loyola University)


第一收心(男女同)Step One: Collecting Heart/Mind (shouxin)


Primordial qi already existed before the time of my existence;

Like jade being ground to reveal its brightness, how could it be possible that more polishing would make it darker?

Eliminating the seas of desires for life and death to guard the ultimate gate;

At the place of half a grain of rice where the empty spirit is alert, the adjusted fire is at its perfect temperature.


第二養氣(男女同)Step Two: Cultivating Qi (yangqi)


The origin begins in non-action, but it then collapses into posterity;

Once the first sound of crying bursts forth, breathing starts to take control of life.

Earthly dusts and laboring exhaust one’s life; one’s body is tangled with weakness and illness;

Abundance of children can benefit the mother, how can we say that we are unable to return to our beginning?

第三行功(未二句女子獨用)Step Three: Moving Energy (xingqi)


At the place of concentrating breath and spirit, the generating qi comes from the east;

Myriad desires have no place to stay, so only unified breath reachesto the stage of spirit;

The image of yin is descending in the front while the light of yang is ascending at the back;

When the top of the mountain is united with the bottom of the ocean there is thunder after the passing rain.


第四斬龍(女子襡用)Step Four: Slaying the Dragon (zanlong)


Extreme stillness can generate motion, where yin and yang coalesce;

Capturing the jade tiger in the wind and grasping the golden bird in the moon;

Keep eyes alert to the moment of intercourse of heaven and earth and be aware

At the meeting places of the magpie bridges, the qi of the elixir returns to the stove.


第五養丹(首二句女子獨用Step Five: Cultivating the Elixir (yangdan)


The captured tiger returns to the authentic spot while the grasped dragon gradually shows the effective elixir;

Disposition must be as clear as water while the desires of heart/mind must be still like the mountain;

Adjusted breath collects in the golden cauldron and a peaceful spirit guards the jade gate;

One can increase the cord of rice every day and a woman’s gray hair can return to youthful radiance.


第六胎息(男女同)Step Six: Embryonic Breathing (taixi) 


In order to arrive at the perfection of the elixir quickly, one must eliminate all stressful situations in the human world;

Each movement of the heart guards the spiritual medicine and each breath returns to the beginning of heaven;

Qi returns and penetrates the three islands and the forgotten spirit unites with the ultimate void;

Whether coming or leaving, wandering just like a Buddha.


Step Seven: Symbolic Firing (fuhuo)


At the harmonious place of embryonic breath one must distinguish the timing/opportunity of motion and stillness;
The light of yang should gradually move forward and the spirit of yin should be protected to avoid its flying away;

The pearl in the pond reflects the scenery and the moon at the top of the mountain radiates brightness;

Be constant and concentrating through the six periods of the day, cultivate the abundant elixir.


Step Eight: Receiving the Elixir (jieyao)


Halfway to grasping the mysterious opportunity, the sprout of elixir appears like a dewdrop;

Though it is said that it can stabilize life, it still must be cultivated into a form.

Use the nose to smell and receive the pure yang while the divine mercury penetrates the bodily spirit.

Cultivation must be careful and it will take off as soon as it is complete.

Step Nine: Transforming the Spirit (lianshen)


Before birth there was a primordial spirit that once came into my body;

Be careful to hold on to it like holding a delicate vessel and be gentle to it as touching a soft infant;

The gate of earth must be firmly closed and the palace of heaven needs to be opened first;

Washing and reflecting the yellow sprout so that the top of mountain is shaking and booming.

Step Ten: Taking Food (fushi)


The great molding forms the mountains and ponds and within they contain the essence of transformation;

In the morning it receives the qi of the sun and in the evening it absorbs the essence of moon;

At the proper time one can pick up the elixir and return to youthfulness, and the body will become light and clean;

At the dwelling place of primordial spirit myriad apertures radiate the bright lights.


第十一辟穀(男女同)Step Eleven: Fasting (bigu)


Get vital qi from food and cleanse, purify the internal organs;

A mindless spirit has no desire to be attached and the unified ultimate contains emptiness and space;

Yearning for food one will find mountain taro and hunger will pick magic fungus;

If one is still involved with the ordinary cooking fire then one can never reach the divine pond.


第十二面壁(男女同)Step Twelve: Facing the Wall (mianbi)


Myriad things are all put to rest while one sits at a small shrine in concentration;

A light body rides the purple qi, and one’s purified nature is washed in the clear pond;

Qi of yin and yang become one and the spirit unites with heaven and earth to become three;

The completed training moves toward the jade palace, and a long breath blows out the morning haze of mountains.


第十三出神(男女同)Step Thirteen: Coming Out of the Spirit (chushen)


There is a body outside the body but it has nothing to do with the achievement of skillful magic;

Circulating this spiritual qi activates the primordial spirit;

The bright moon forms golden fluid, and green lotus transforms the genuine jade;

Receiving smoothly the essence of bird and rabbit in the moon; holding the bright pearl, one never worries about poverty.


第十四沖舉(男女同)Step Fourteen: Ascendant Breaking Through (chongju)


At a good time it will come out of the ravine and fly up to the divine cloud;

The jade girl rides the green phoenix, and the golden boy sends the silk peach;

Performing on the pipa in front of the flower and playing the jade flute under the moon;

Once immortal and mortal are separated one can calmly deal with the waves of the ocean.

Shir ha Shirim • Song of Songs

September 30th, 2013


Composer: Moshe Shulman;

Text: Anonymous female voice
excerpted from ‘The Song of Songs’ in the Bible/Tannakh;

Performed in Biblical Hebrew


Perhaps no other biblical text has inspired so widely diverging commentaries and interpretations as the Shir Ha Shirim, ed or ‘Song of Songs’, ailment found in the Ketuvim  in the Tanakh (Jewish tradition) also known as the Psalms of the Old Testament (Christian tradition).  Although commonly attributed to King Solomon, allergy it is more properly recognized as the work of an anonymous author, whose skillful erotic verses are unusually lyrical and alliterative. The Shir Ha Shirim has been interpreted as, variously, the courtship and consummation between God and the people of Israel, or the soul and God, or the Church and Christ. In Zoharic Kabbalah it is often interpreted as the mystical unification of female and male sephirot emanations. Contemporary Russian-Israeli composer Moshe Shulman selected verses and composed these new settings for premiere, including musical settings of the Hebrew numbering system.