Kingston composer John Burge first became really aware of the santur and its capabilities in 2019, when he served as a judge for a local, Kingston emerging young musicians’ competition that selected six young performer/composers to receive career support and promotion through Queen’s University’s Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts. Often described to Western European and North American audiences as a kind Persian hammered dulcimer, Sadaf Amini, impressed all the judges with her commanding skill in playing the santur as demonstrated through her own compositions and improvisations. Born in Iran and studying the santur in Tehran before immigrating with her family to Canada at the age of 22, Sadaf had been living in Kingston for a few years prior to the competition. Recognizing that the sound quality of the santur would pair wonderfully with string quartet, John Burge was thrilled when Sadaf and the Isabel Quartet agreed to premiere a new work that he felt inspired to compose for santur and string quartet for a March 2020 concert. Over the next four months, John and Sadaf got together every three weeks or so to improvise on the santur and piano and to develop this composition. A few weeks prior to the premiere performance though, Queen’s University and all of Ontario, shut down for COVID-19 isolation protocols and it was not until April 23, 2023, that the premiere performance finally took place. It is worth noting that during the COVID-19 isolation, John and Sadaf worked together with the Kington Chamber Choir to create another work titled, FLIGHT 752 ELEGIES, and the experience of polishing and recording this piece helped to make further refinements to SHIRAZ prior to its 2023 premiere.

SHIRAZ, for santur and string quartet, is a one-movement piece that takes approximately 23 minutes to perform. As many people will know, there is a Shiraz grape/wine that historically draws its inspiration from the wine produced around the city of Shiraz, a city that has a long tradition as a centre for art, poetry and architecture. Although the exporting and admiration of this Shiraz wine was well documented from the ninth century onwards, with the prohibition of alcohol in 1979 in modern-day Iran, no wineries remain in the country. Wines purchased today as “Shiraz” in reality have no real connection with the Iranian version of the grape. In writing a work for santur and string quartet, “Shiraz,” as a word with multiple meanings and references, seemed a perfect metaphor for composing a piece that combines the Western European string quartet with the Middle Eastern santur. The final composition developed organically over many months out of meetings between Sadaf and the composer in which they would improvise together on the santur and piano. It is, therefore, not surprising, that this work takes advantage of Sadaf’s great skills in improvisation by having built-in passages where Sadaf is free to follow her own musical instincts.