Sounding the Garden

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"The Concourse of the Birds", Folio 11r from Mantiq al-Tair (Language of the Birds). Painting by Habiballah of Sava, ca. 1600. Courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art public domain collection

Overview of the Garden, with original music from "Sounding the Garden", Valley of the Quest. [1]


The famous Persian poem of Farid al-Din ʾAttar of Nishapur (1145-1220), "Conference of the Birds" (Mantiq al-Tayr, literally "language of the birds", cf Qur'an 27:16), recounts the birds' spiritual quest through seven metaphorical valleys -- spiritual stations -- in search of the mythical Simurgh.

These valleys have been mapped onto the Aga Khan Garden at the University of Alberta's Botanic Garden, augmented with music, poetry, and birdsong, using a location-aware app, in order to deepen visitors' experiences of the Garden, to catalyze a richer, fuller, more harmonious understanding of Islamic spirituality, and to foster religious pluralism. A non-location-aware version is also available, which can be used anywhere.

See mapping of valleys to garden here. For each valley, we have recorded original music, within the Persian musical mode (dastgah) associated with the valley's spiritual ethos. Each valley is introduced by a text, including poetry (recited in Persian and English translation), followed by a brief description of the valley.

Sounding the Aga Khan Garden: overview

The Aga Khan Garden is a multisensory garden... not only of flora, fauna, and architecture, perceived visually, but also a garden of sounds - natural and human - perceived aurally. You naturally experience the intertwined lightscape and soundscape as you walk through - the flow of water, the calls of birds and insects, the creaking of trees, the conversations of others - coupled also with fragrances and textures, through olfactory and tactile senses.

In Augmented Reality (AR) mode, Sounding the Garden provides an additional aural dimension, adding layers of music, bird calls, poetry, and narration. Through your mobile computing device (phone or tablet) you can hear an augmented reality - a new soundscape, comprised of music, speech, and birdsong -- superimposed on the garden, through the frame of a famous mystical poem, Farid al-Din Attar’s “Language of the Birds” (Mantiq al-Tayr). As you stroll through the garden you will hear different sounds through your phone or tablet, varying with your current position, time of day, day of the week, and month of the year, whose sources are virtual. Such sound is known as “acousmatic” - it is not directly coupled with your physical environment, and its “sources” are hidden from view.

We suggest using earbuds or headphones for optimal effect. With reduced volume you can hear a mix of virtual and real sounds. You may wish to view your mobile computing screen, where you’ll find additional controls, as well as visual information: a map, texts, descriptions, images. Or you can put your phone or tablet away - in your pocket or bag - and simply enjoy the hidden aural world they invisibly bring you.

We have borrowed a concept from tasawwuf (Islamic Mysticism): the spiritual path (tariqa) towards self-annihilation and realization of the inner Divine (similar to the idea of enlightenment in other religious traditions), as formulated by one of Iran’s most renowned mystic poets, Farid al-Din Attar (1145 - 1220 CE), of Nishapur.

Attar was a pharmacist, mystic, and writer, whose most famous work is his extended poem entitled Mantiq al-Tayr, literally “The Speech of the Birds” (often translated as “The conference of the birds”), an allegory of the spiritual path:

The birds seek their true king, the Simurgh. They decide to follow the Hoopoe as most knowledgeable. S/he (there is no he/she-distinction in the Persian language) uses many didactic stories to guide them. Two thirds through the book, they finally decide to learn about the path, consisting of seven “valleys” (corresponding to spiritual stages, or maqamat): Quest, Love, Knowledge (Insight into Mystification), Detachment, Unity, Bewilderment, and Poverty (Annihilation). Along the way many birds perish or turn back, leaving the path, but finally there are 30 who remain. Then it is revealed that they themselves are the Simurgh (si=30, murgh=bird).

The valleys on this journey are mapped onto the Aga Khan Garden, which is consequently divided into seven sections, as shown on the map, in a circular formation, underscoring the poem’s theme: that which you sought was within you all along. You cannot see these valleys but you can hear them! As you enter a valley you will hear its name, followed by a short recitation of its poetry, in the original Persian followed by English translation, and a short explication. During this introductory section, you will hear a musical improvisation, including sung poetry, leavened with birdsong. Meanwhile, your mobile device screen will display relevant images, including a beautiful calligraphy (prepared by a University of Alberta art student), and miniature paintings from the Persian tradition of illustrated manuscripts.

Try to pause and listen to the entire introductory track before proceeding, as you reflect on this valley. Look around, and contemplate the unexpected fusion of your senses - physical sights, sounds, and fragrances, overlaid with acousmatic sounds from your mobile device. Once the introduction has concluded, you can proceed on your journey. Your mobile screen will now display a map, along with your position. Tap the button at the lower right of your screen for options (track controls and descriptions, help, feedback).

Treasures from the Aga Khan Music Initiative short, looping tracks-- are located in each valley, in positions indicated by small circles on the map. There is also an ambient track that uniformly pervades the valley. Introductory and ambient tracks were recorded in Edmonton, by local musicians and spoken word artists.

The introductory and ambient tracks are improvisations on a variety of instruments, each in a particular dastgah (Persian musical mode, and major division of the Iranian classical music canon, or Radif) corresponding to the valley, according to the theory of prominent Iranian classical music scholar and composer Majid Kiani.

Valley Dastgah
1. Quest Shour
2. Love Segah
3. Knowledge Chahargah
4. Detachment Mahour
5. Unity Homayoun
6. Bewilderment Rast-Panjgah
7. Annihilation Nava

As you stroll you will hear a mix of sounds: the ambient track, overlaid by located sounds, whose intensity varies according to your distance from the source. Using your mobile device’s screen you can peruse information about each track. You can also listen to any track in “solo” mode (meaning you will hear only the one track, in stereo), or mute (and unmute) any track.

The fully Virtual Reality (VR) mode is a composite of the real (visual) garden plus AR audio, superimposing the the two, and allowing you to freely navigate while listening, from any location on earth. (It also contains some surprises not available in the "real" garden!)

May your journey enrich you!

Experience Sounding the Garden: Augmented or Virtual Reality

Augmented Reality

Virtual reality

We have also developed a prototype fully virtual model of the visual garden plus the above augmented reality audio layer.

Try it out in your browser! The screen comes up with instructions. To get started, click "return", then click "explore." Use WASD keys to move forward/left/back/right (standard for gamers!) and use the mouse to change direction. Hit escape to pop out.

(Ignore the yellow error on startup.)

This video gives you an idea of what to expect. (Prepared and presented for Artificial Intelligence for Information Accessibility (AI4IA ) 2023 (virtual) Conference which will be held on September 28 to commemorate the International Day for Universal Access to Information (IDUAI).

Additional resources


Concept and team lead : Michael Frishkopf
Project Advisor : Scott Smallwood
Principal Research Assistant : Hossein Hosseiniparvar
Preliminary research assistant: John Montague
Web Programmer : Yourui Guo
Audio Post-Production : Greg Mulyk
Virtual Environment Design: Alex Thompson
Virtual Environment Responsive Audio: Marc-Andre Haley

Poetry : Farid al-Din al-Attar
Poetry translation : Afkham Darbandi & Dick Davis
Calligraphy : Zohreh Valiary Eskandary

Valley Narrators:
Bahman Homayun - spoken Persian and English
Hossna Gharaee - spoken Persian and English
Lebogang Disele - spoken English
Michael Samuel Kaplan - spoken English

Valley musical introductions and ambient tracks :
Hossein Hosseiniparvar - Setar, Vocals
Mehdi Rezania - Santour
Morteza Abedinifard - Setar, Kamancheh
Sean Borle - Piano, Djembe
Greg Mulyk - Piano, Upright Bass
Abtin Ghaffari - Tonbak
Michael Frishkopf - Ney
Terry Tran - Recording Engineer
(Recorded at The Audio Department, Edmonton, AB)

Virtual Reality model:
Incorporating all of the above, plus...
Virtual environment design and programming : Alex Thompson
Additional Programming, Sound Design: Scott Smallwood
Responsive audio : Marc-Andre Haley

Situated Musical recordings : AKMI series, on Smithsonian Folkways

Many thanks to :

Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada
AI for Society Signature Area, University of Alberta
Fairouz Nishanova and the Aga Khan Music Programme
Shiraz Allibhai and the Aga Khan Historic Cities Programme
Aga Khan Trust for Culture
Smithsonian Folkways Recordings
British Library and Metropolitan Museum (Persian miniatures)
Lee Foote, Director of the University of Alberta Botanic Garden
Hussein Keshani, Principal Investigator for the Garden App project.