Blackford Songs of Nadia Anjuman Nimbus

Richard Blackford (b. 1954)
Songs of Nadia Anjuman (2023)
Elizabeth Watts (soprano)
Britten Sinfonia
rec. live, 20 October 2023, Milton Court, The Barbican, London
English texts included
Nimbus Records NI6444 [18]

This set of five songs for soprano and strings breathes additional life into the poetry of a young female Afghan poet, Nadia Anjuman (1980-2005). In his booklet note Richard Blackford summarises the tragic story of this gifted and courageous woman. In brief, when the Taliban took over her home city of Herat in 1995, women’s liberties, including the right to education, were drastically curtailed. Nadia bravely took part in an underground educational circle called the Golden Needle Sewing Circle which enabled her to continue clandestine education. The subsequent fall of the Taliban enabled her not only to study openly for a degree in literature but also to publish a volume of poetry. Sadly, though the Taliban had been removed from power, what most of us in the West would regard as medieval attitudes towards women persisted among many in Afghan society. In Blackford’s words, Nadia “married into a family who believed that, since she was a woman, writing brought shame on their reputation”. When Nadia persisted in her writing activity, her husband beat her so badly during an argument that she died; she was just 25 years old. When I did a bit of internet research, I discovered that what makes this story all the more appalling is the fact that Nadia’s husband was himself a well-educated man; like Nadia, he was a literary graduate.

No source is specified for the English translations of the poems – though I understand that some of Nadia Anjuman’s poems have been published in English translations. In the booklet Richard Blackford acknowledges the help of Bijan Djahanguiri for his “advice” on translations of the poems from Dari into English.

The poems are remarkable and they have been set to music most effectively. The accompaniment is provided by an ensemble of strings. All five poems are intense in the emotions they express. These are without doubt the writings of a young woman of great talent who is fearful that the misogynistic culture in which she lives will stifle her talents. I was very impressed with each one of the settings but three stand out.     

The first poem, ‘Turmoil’ gives little hint at first of the searing emotions to come. Indeed, the setting opens with beautiful, nocturnal music. The initial mood of the poem is one of musing and Blackford responds in like manner. Elizabeth Watts sings very expressively. This is a most auspicious opening, but there’s significantly more urgency once Blackford reaches the third of the poem’s six stanzas and the rest of the song continues in that vein. I was especially struck by the opening lines of the fifth stanza, ‘I am a wingless bird who hopes to fly. / Whose strong hand is there to help me?’ Are these lines a metaphor for Nadia’s craving for education to help her fulfil her potential and make the most of her talents?

The fourth poem is ‘Fly Freely’. Here, there’s excitement in both the vocal line and the string writing. The emotions expressed in the poem are those of someone who is looking forward eagerly to the day when they will attain their potential (‘On that day / I will write a great poem’). Sadly, this talent was to be snuffed out; no doubt that thought inspired Elizabeth Watts to put across the song with great conviction.

The set ends with ‘Useless’. Here, the poet’s mood is one of despair: will she be able to fulfil her potential? Appropriately, Blackford’s writing is initially angular and uncomfortable. The line ‘My dark oppressors close my mouth’ is set to particularly impassioned music; nothing less than that will suffice. But, as the poem unfolds, the text moves from despair to a somewhat more positive vein (‘Even though I’ve long been silent, / I recall the songs my heart and soul speak every moment’) and the change in sentiment is reflected in the music. The poem, and Blackford’s cycle, ends with a couplet that is so courageous that it is humbling to read: ‘I am no weak tree that sways with every breeze, /An Afghan daughter, it’s right that my voice cries out’.

Nadia Anjuman’s story is a tragic one but her determination to pursue her right to education and to express herself is humbling and inspiring. Her poetry clearly struck a chord with Richard Blackford who has set it to intense yet accessible music. Elizabeth Watts sings the songs with burning conviction and she is expertly supported by members of the Britten Sinfonia.

The recording preserves what I think was probably the second performance of these songs; the premiere had been given by these artists just a few days earlier, on 14 October 2023 in Saffron Hall, Cambridge. Producer Andrew Walton and engineer Deborah Spanton have recorded the music expertly.

The booklet includes the full texts – though Ms Watts’ diction is very good – and a valuable note by the composer.

The playing time may be short but that is reflected in the price: currently (May 2024) the disc is selling for around £6 in the UK. In any case, it’s hard to think what other music could have been put on the disc and, furthermore, additional music might have blunted the impact of these intense songs. I’m glad that through Richard Blackford’s music some of the moving and expressive poetry of Nadia Anjuman will reach an even wider audience than might otherwise have been the case.

John Quinn

Buying this recording via a link below generates revenue for MWI, which helps the site remain free

Presto Music
Arkiv Music