Special to Ashkenaz 2016: All Rivers at Once, I=I

This year’s #AshkenazFest welcomes The Israeli-Iranian Musical Initiative, whose mission is to suggest a path of cultural reconciliation in place of the diplomatic hostility that persists between these two nations. A new collective of Iranian/Persian and Israeli/Jewish musicians was assembled specifically for the 2016 Festival program. Check out this Q&A with co-artistic director Noam Lemish which provides further insight into the project and its global significance. I=I performs on Sunday, September 4 at 3pm. 

Q: I=I’s Ashkenaz Festival September 4 performance is part of an ongoing relationship the project has had with the festival. Can you tell us more?

A: The Director of the Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto, Professor Anna Shternshis introduced us to Eric Stein, Ashkenaz’s Artistic Director. Soon thereafter, Eric invited I=I to participate in an interfaith panel that Ashkenaz put together in February 2015. We were delighted to share our message at the “Music and the Arts: A Bridge to Peace”, along with several other distinguished guests a month before we launched our initiative with our “Converging Paths” concert in March 2015.  It was also around this time that we started discussing the idea of putting together an all new program for the 2016 Ashkenaz Festival. We worked closely with the Festival in developing this special program and have enjoyed our collaboration greatly. We hope that this is just the beginning of our work with the festival.

Q: The title of your performance is intriguing, “All Rivers at Once”. Can you give a bit of background on the title and its significance?

A: The title for our concert comes from a poem by the famous 13th century Persian poet Jelaluddin Rumi.

Here’s a little taste from the poem as translated by Coleman Barks:

Noam-L-0964

Noam Lemish, I=I Co-founder, pianist, leader of “All Rivers at Once”. Photo by Emily Ding

What is love?

Gratitude.

What is hidden

In our chests?

Laughter.

What else?

Compassion.

And then later on in the poem:

Don’t ask what love can make or do!

Look at the colors of the world.

The river water moving in all rivers at once.

This poem is filled with so much love, compassion and openness. For us it evokes the interconnectedness and intersectionality of all peoples. Our initiative celebrates the beauty and joy that comes out of people playing music together, connecting with one another to share parts of themselves and their culture with each other and with those that come to listen.

Q: I=I has invited guest performers to collaborate on “All Rivers at Once”. Can you tell us more about your collaborative process especially when bringing in these guest performers from across the US and Canada?

A: Yes, we are thrilled to have some amazing special guests joining us for this concert including tombak virtuoso Pedram Khavarzamini, Montreal kamanche master Saeed Kamjoo and in a rare Toronto appearance, NYC based Persian-Jewish vocalist Galeet Dardashti.  We’ve asked our performers to suggest pieces that they’d like to do, and we’ve assembled repertoire that showcases pieces from the Iranian and Jewish/Israeli traditions. And to continue with the theme of interconnectedness, several pieces come from the Persian-Jewish community. We are really excited about getting together for three days of music-making once everyone arrives in Toronto ahead of the festival. We will spend many hours playing through the repertoire and working together to create unique arrangements for our 8-piece ensemble.

Q: What inspires I=I?

A: We’ve been really inspired by the outpouring of support and encouragement that we’ve received since we launched our initiative with a sold-out concert in March of 2015. The enthusiasm and excitement for our project by audience members, and folks in the community have really warmed our hearts and strengthened our resolve to keep advancing our message of dialogue and collaboration through music.

Q: What do you see for the future of I=I and the real impact it can have on peacemaking?

A: We are thrilled to have the opportunity to share our message and our music with Ashkenaz Festival attendees, and we already have plans firmly in place for a concert in February 2017 that will showcase a series of new chamber works by Israeli & Iranian composers. We’ve also recently completed an essay that analyzes our initiative’s first concert, looking at political communication through engaged musicking. The essay will soon be published in a book titled “Politics as Message; Music as Platform: A global study of musicians and political communication”.  We readily acknowledge that our initiative cannot do much to tangibly or immediately change the diplomatic status between our respective governments, but we believe that we can and should continue to present an alternative narrative. Instead of conflict we can present collaboration. Instead of war and fear, we practice dialogue and intimacy.  Instead of threats and bombastic speeches, we listen to one another. We hope that by doing so, we not only encourage people to imagine a different reality for our two nations, but to perhaps consider other areas in their life, conflicts in their own communities that need to be disarmed, and worked on through dialogue, collaboration and listening. Most of all through listening!